The San Francisco 49ers go into Sunday's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings as 6.5-point favorites against a weaker opponent on the road. Most Vegas odds-makers give the home team three points off the bat, which indicates they believe the 49ers are about 10 points better than Minnesota.
I would take that bet, if I actually wagered on sports, every single day of the week.
As we saw with the Arizona Cardinals victory over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium last week, nothing is a given in the National Football League. San Francisco needs to go into Sunday's game with this in the forefront of their mind in order to avoid a major letdown that would send shock waves through the league.
Here are some keys to the game that I have come up with.
Stop Adrian Peterson, Make the Vikings' Offense One-Dimensional
There is no way in the world that Christian Ponder and the Vikings passing game will beat San Francisco's defense on Sunday. If Aaron Rodgers and company couldn't do it, why would we expect a lesser Vikings offense to?
This means that the 49ers must continue their assault on the run game at the line of scrimmage. Aldon Smith, in his first year as a true starter in the NFL, seems to have gotten a lot better against the run. Keep him in on third downs and don't worry about any sophomore mistakes.
Accordingly, just continue what they did against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. No, I don't mean play zone/nickel more than 75 percent of the time. Instead, I am talking about letting Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner roam free in the back end of the defense, instead of forcing them up against the box at the line.
I am pretty damn confident the 49ers front seven can handle Peterson and Minnesota's running game without having to change too much schematically, especially placing an eighth man in the box.
Ground and Pound with Frank Gore
Not only is Gore averaging more than six yards per rush this season, he has been reborn in Jim Harbaugh's offense over the last few games. He has gained nearly 500 yards in the 49ers' last four games, postseason included.
No matter how improved the 49ers' passing game is, they are still a run-first offense. Besides, if they can get that running game going, it will only open up throwing lanes for Alex Smith and the 49ers' strong passing game. Yes, I said "strong passing game"; you are not losing it.
Minnesota will not be able to handle the 49ers' vast array of weapons in single coverage. If they have to bring an extra man into the box to stop Gore, things could get ugly relatively quickly.
Let Alex Smith Continue to Run Things His Way
No San Francisco quarterback has been this comfortable managing an offense since Steve Young was flinging balls around Candlestick. Sorry, Jeff Garcia, but that includes you as well. Smith seems to be a step ahead of opposing defenses, fully understands where to go on a consistent basis and has been as accurate as I have ever seen.
Continue it. Don't take Smith out of his comfort zone and allow him to get off to a hot start. I wouldn't be adverse to seeing Smith put the ball up 20-plus times in the first half. After all, he seems to get into a zone as the pass attempts start to add up. A perfect example of this is the 116.2 quarterback rating that Smith possesses in the fourth quarter over the course of his last four starts. In short, get him into that zone relatively early, and we will see that success continued.
Attack the Middle of the Minnesota Vikings Defense
As I mentioned before, Minnesota will not be able to go one-on-one against San Francisco in the passing game. This puts Leslie Frazier and company in an unenviable position. They are going to use a combination of Josh Robinson, Jasper Brinkley and Harrison Smith to stop Vernon Davis between the hashes. None of those three defensive players will be able to take Davis out of the game by themselves. This seems to indicate that Minnesota will either have to open up in zone or double Davis down the seam.
Forcing the nickel back and safety into coverage against Davis will leave Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in one-on-one situations. With Smith's improved accuracy, this could be a huge mismatch as the game progresses.
Don't Get Tricked into Paying Too Much Attention to Percy Harvin
Not to say the 49ers have trouble with speedy receivers, but they aren't nearly as dominating against those type of players as they are against prototypical receivers. We saw that firsthand when Randall Cobb put up nine catches against San Francisco in the season opener.
With that in mind, it is important that the 49ers don't get tricked into rotating coverage towards Harvin too much on Sunday. Instead, they should continue playing the type of defense that has worked against both the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, minus the extra attention paid to Calvin Johnson last week.
Christian Ponder will not find many seams in the 49ers secondary if they play a mix of straight man and zone coverage. San Francisco has to feel confident in the ability of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown or Chris Culliver being able to take Harvin out of his route early. Get in the small receivers' faces and throw him off his game before he hits that second stride.
While Harvin might possess the physical ability to be a deep threat, this hasn't translated to the football field in the NFL. The former first-round pick is averaging less than 11 yards per reception since the start of the 2011 season. San Francisco really doesn't have the need to have to go over the top in coverage with an extra cornerback or Dashon Goldson here.
Instead, it makes more sense for them to continue taking the middle of the field away. As a young quarterback, Ponder loves to utilize his tight ends. Take Kyle Rudolph out of the game, and there goes a good 25 percent of the field for the Vikings' signal-caller.
Complacent is a term that I have used religiously over the course of the last week, but it makes more sense here than ever before. The 49ers simply cannot take this game for granted. They must come out there as jacked up as we saw in the first two games of the season. In reality, it appears that San Francisco has picked up where they left off last January in terms of passion. This must continue against Minnesota on Sunday.
If they are able to come out there and throw that first punch, it will go a long way in determining whether this game will be close or not. An early score against Minnesota could take the Vikings out of their proverbial comfort zone at home and ignite a blowout. This is something that I am going to be looking at early come Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers: 34
Minnesota Vikings: 10
I honestly don't see a way Minnesota can hang in this game too long if the 49ers come to play. The difference in talent between these two teams is so vast that it has to be considered a mismatch in the truest sense of the word.
Expect Alex Smith to continue his stellar play, probably going for something like 300 yards and multiple scores.
San Francisco's defense shouldn't have a major issue holding Minnesota in check Sunday. They were able to keep Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford off their games. What makes you think that they will have a bigger problem against Ponder? Seriously, that idea doesn't seem to hold much ground.
In the end, San Francisco will start 3-0 for the first time since the 1995 season before moving on to New York to take on an average Jets team.