MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings are in the early stage of their plan to return to perennial playoff contention with a team supporting a power running game with smart, productive passes and backs that up with a stingy, turnover-forcing defense.
The template is coming to town this weekend. The blueprint is labeled "San Francisco 49ers."
"That's something that we can relate to here, just seeing what they're doing on offense and defense and even their special teams," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "They play well. They're a very physical group."
The 49ers, kept from reaching the last Super Bowl by a few fluke mistakes in the NFC championship game, have stayed on last year's 13-3 pace with commanding victories over Green Bay and Detroit to start this season. The eight-point winning margins in each matchup against those 2011 playoff qualifiers were closer than the games really were. Now the 49ers continue their September tour around the NFC North with a trip to Minnesota, where the postseason is both a painful, distant memory and a future goal.
The Vikings, who beat Jacksonville in their opener to get within one-third of last year's victory total, are well aware of what the 49ers have to offer Sunday. This is a significant challenge, for one, a chance to gauge just how far their offseason improvements have gone. Then there's the example and the hope the 49ers embody, a confident, homegrown team winning without the type of high-scoring, throw-it-40-times-per-game offense so much of the NFL has taken to.
Of the 22 starters comprising their standard lineups on each side of the ball, the 49ers drafted 15 of them. That includes inside linebacker Patrick Willis, the heart of the hard-hitting group that has given up the fewest yards per carry in the league (3.52) since 2009.
"Anytime we're playing a top-rated defense or a stop-the-run defense, I'm even more stoked," said Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, whose longest gain over two games in his return from reconstructive left knee surgery is 19 yards. "We're looking forward to the challenge, man. I don't think they've faced a run-type offense like we have, so I think that can switch things up."
The 49ers play next at the New York Jets, so to avoid two long pregame flights they'll spend the upcoming week in Youngstown, Ohio, rather than returning to Northern California. So coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team is 7-2 on the road since he took over last year, is obviously wary of taking the rebuilding Vikings lightly.
"Can't have a letdown or let up," Harbaugh said. "Got a good team. If you aspire to be a good team in this league then you've got to come back every single week and prove it again. You're not better than anybody else unless you prove it."
At least one of his players is bound to be plenty motivated to "prove it" to the Vikings. Thirty-five-year-old Randy Moss, back from a one-year hiatus from the NFL in a complementary role to emerging wide receiver Michael Crabtree and star tight end Vernon Davis, will play his first regular-season game against the team that drafted him in 1998 and watched him become one of the league's most enigmatic but entertaining players.
Moss was traded by the Vikings in 2005 and abruptly released in 2010 after his second, tumultuous stint lasted all of one month. He's never been one to forget perceived slights, so Moss -- still beloved by many in Minnesota -- is surely eager to show the Vikings what he's still got. Even if he shrugged off the significance of his return this week.
"I think my Minnesota Viking days are over. Just going in as a 49er, just have some success and have a good game. That's all I plan to do," Moss said.
He's not the same electric threat to catch a long pass at any time that he was with the Vikings as a young guy, but that's not what the 49ers do much. Frank Gore is where the offense starts, on the ground, and Alex Smith is the patient, accurate passer who balances the attack by throwing the ball to Davis, Crabtree, Moss or Mario Manningham. For Gore, in his eighth year after a bunch of rough ones earlier in this career, the depth of talent and the winning attitude surrounding this team has been a fun transition.
"It does feel a lot different, even just coming to the game knowing that we've got a good team," Gore said. "We're not cocky because we work hard all during the week. Our swagger is totally different."
The Vikings had that kind of moxie a few years ago, though the 2009 team that came within a field goal of the Super Bowl seems much further removed from the present than a mere three seasons. The feeling began growing rapidly one late September Sunday afternoon, the third game on the schedule like this one, when Brett Favre found Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone from 32 yards out with two seconds left to beat the 49ers 27-24.
The roles are reversed this time, but the Vikings who remain from that year can at least lean on the memory of victory for more motivation against this formidable foe.
"They're a good football team and everyone has them penned to win the Super Bowl. We're going out there to try and prove to everybody, 'Listen, it's football. On any given day, anybody can win,'" defensive end Jared Allen said. "We're going to go to work and we're going to bring our hard hats and we're coming out to play football too."