MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers have become one of the NFL's most feared and revered teams under coach Jim Harbaugh, using a punishing, disciplined defense and a mistake-free, balanced offense to brand themselves as arguably this season's Super Bowl favorite.
Wherever these 49ers finish, this game at Minnesota against the Vikings won't make the highlight video.
Christian Ponder threw two touchdown passes to tight end Kyle Rudolph and ran for another score to help the Vikings beat the 49ers 24-13 on Sunday. It was the first defeat of the year for the 49ers and just their fifth loss in 21 games under Harbaugh including the NFC championship game last season.
"Bad day. We can't sulk about it. Can't complain, point fingers. Got to suck it up, and I know we'll do that," Harbaugh said.
Ponder went 21 for 35 for 198 yards and, most importantly, no turnovers or sacks. After a dominant start to their NFC North tour by decisively beating playoff teams Green Bay and Detroit, the 49ers (2-1) were beaten in every way by the team least likely to do so.
The Vikings (2-1) began the game boldly with a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass by Ponder to his favorite target Rudolph. They finished strong by forcing three turnovers and two punts by the 49ers in a wild, drawn-out fourth quarter due in part to more replacement referee blunders. Twice in a six-play span, the 49ers were allowed to withdraw a called timeout to challenge a play instead. The first one was reversed, a fumble by Toby Gerhart given to the 49ers after video review.
But the Vikings played so well that didn't matter. Neither did Gerhart's second fumble a few minutes later.
"We just left too much out there and didn't get into a rhythm at all. Continually put ourselves in third-down situations. That makes for a long day," said Alex Smith, whose franchise-record interception-less streak ended at 249 straight passes when Vikings rookie Josh Robinson picked him off with 2:18 left.
Playing against his former team in the regular season for the first time, Randy Moss had a quiet afternoon with three catches for 27 yards. He was wide open at the goal line on second down during a second-quarter possession that ended in a field goal, but Smith's pass was high and Moss made an awkward attempt to reach for it. He was on the sideline for a few important drives and plays, but he declined to discuss his usage.
"I want to thank the Vikings fans for the love," said Moss, who was cheered loudly during the pregame introduction. "I really appreciate the love that they give, and we just didn't pull it through today."
Smith overthrew an open Moss in the first quarter, too.
"I've got to connect," Smith said. "I've got to get better balls there, on both those occasions, because those were key plays."
But there's a lot more on the list of what went wrong.
Frank Gore managed only 63 yards on 12 carries and lost a fourth-quarter fumble at midfield. Donte Whitner dropped a sure interception and a potential touchdown a few minutes later after Vikings wide receiver Michael Jenkins slipped on third down. David Akers had a 43-yard field goal blocked by Letroy Guion late in the first half. And Smith lost a fumble on a late sack by Jared Allen.
Smith finished 24 for 35 for 204 yards. He found tight end Vernon Davis on consecutive passes, the second one a 1-yard play-action fake, in the third quarter to pull within 17-13. But with one third-and-goal pass by Ponder to Rudolph, who reached around Whitner for it, the lead was back to 11. That drive was fueled by three 49ers penalties, including two unnecessary roughness calls, one by Dashon Goldson against Rudolph that was vehemently argued by the 49ers.
Peterson finished with 86 yards on 25 grueling carries, helping give Ponder some room to throw. The Vikings went 82 yards in 16 plays to start the game, but Peterson was stonewalled for 1 yard on second-and-goal at the 2 and no gain on third down. With inches to go, Ponder rolled left under pressure by Goldson and threw a floater off his back foot that Rudolph ran down in the corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead. Rudolph had four catches on that drive.
Then Ponder used his feet, taking off three times for 34 yards on a second-quarter possession, including the 23-yard sprint that made it 14-3 Minnesota. Accelerating off a cut inside the 10, perhaps reminding all the 49ers fans inside of their old favorite Steve Young, Ponder dived across the goal line for the final yard.
"We didn't come out to a good start. Looking in the mirror, I came out to a slow start," Goldson said. "They really picked it up coming out for the second half. We lost. Give credit to those guys. They did a good job preparing."
NOTES: Moss was targeted six times. He moved past Tim Brown into fourth place on the NFL's all-time receiving list with 14,946 yards. ... LB Patrick Willis walked gingerly off the field with an injury to his lower right leg and DT Isaac Sopoaga hurt his lower left leg in the fourth quarter. Harbaugh said both players would be X-rayed and re-evaluated. ... The 49ers play the Bears at home on Nov. 19. ... Gore passed Roger Craig for the most career rushing attempts in 49ers history.