San Francisco 49ers Hoping for Big Win at Scene of Best Loss
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We tend to think of each NFL Sunday in absolutes, black or whites. Each win is epic, heroic, franchise-altering. Each loss is tragic, ominous, a death blow.
Football isn't like the other leagues we follow, with their scores of meaningless regular season games. There are only 16 games promised on an NFL schedule and each one oh so precious, oh so important.
Every grand, three-hour operatic outcome, win or loss, feels like a momentum-shifting, season-swinging, all-encompassing event because mathematically, it is, at least far more so relative than the other sports.
The outcome of a game on Sunday can alter the moods of fans from euphoric to downtrodden for several days after since there is no "get 'em next day" in football. We have to wait a whole week for a chance at redemption.
Given all that, it sounds so counterintuitive to think that a loss could be the best thing that ever happened to a football team.
But that's precisely the case for your 49ers, who return to the scene of one of their most bitter defeats in franchise history this Sunday, where they'll take on the 1-1 Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field.
Almost three years ago to the day, on Sept. 27, 2009, the upstart 2-0 49ers, with Mike Singletary in his first full season as head coach and Shaun Hill at quarterback, took a 24-20 lead over the Vikings on a 20-yard scoring pass from Hill to Vernon Davis.
The Niners held the Brett Favre-led Vikings on Minnesota's next drive, got the ball back, were predictably conservative with the ball, running all three times and punting it, and needed to make one last defensive stand to get on the plane home at 3-0.
Instead they got Favred, with the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback connecting with Greg Lewis on a quasi-Hail Mary, 32-yard heave into the end zone with just two seconds to go, giving the Vikings a miraculous 27-24 win.
So many "what-ifs" in that loss.
Corner Dre' Bly dropped a Favre pass in the fourth quarter that would've been a pick-six, icing the game for the 49ers.
The special teams units allowed a rare, 101-yard kickoff return score to Percy Harvin.
One linemen out of seven didn't execute his block correctly on the 49ers' third-down play of their final drive that would've sprung Frank Gore for a first down and a lot more.
Justin Smith just missed sacking Favre on the final play while safety Mark Roman was so close to deflecting the pass.
At the time it seemed like a setback, but hardly a mortal blow for a Niners team that had already won two division games in what was setting out to be a weak NFC West.
Little did we know that it would be the beginning of the end for Singletary and Hill.
The 49ers trounced the woebegone St. Louis Rams 35-0 at home a week later to run their record to 3-1, but only two of their five touchdowns were scored by the offense.
Worse, NFL Films (R.I.P. Steve Sabol) captured receiver Josh Morgan bemoaning Hill's weak arm, with Morgan telling Singletary he couldn't catch Hill's wounded duck of a bomb because "it came down like a punt."
The next week the Atlanta Falcons crowded the line of scrimmage, pressed the 49ers' receivers and dared Hill to beat them over the top. He couldn't, and they got thrashed at home, 45-10, with Bly in particular looking bad for "stylin' and profilin" during an interception return when his team was down big at the time.
The Houston Texans emulated the Falcons defensive game plan the game after that and Hill was so ineffective that he was benched at half time in favor of one Alex Douglas Smith, the forgotten No. 1 overall pick from 2005 who had lost nearly two full seasons of his fledgling career due to shoulder surgeries in 2007 and 2008.
How different would the current incarnation of the 49ers look had not fate intervened against them in the dying moments of that Vikings game?
Maybe a 4-0 start would've gotten Hill a lot more leeway from Singletary and Smith would've never gotten off the bench.
Maybe the Niners would've continued to capitalize on their soft schedule that year and squeaked into a division title.
Maybe a playoff berth would've earned Singletary one more year in 2011 instead of being fired with a game to go in 2010.
Think of the bigger implications those events would have.
No Jim Harbaugh available to hire, since Jed York might have been looking for stability at coach in the face of an upcoming lockout.
No Alex Smith at quarterback, meaning a higher likelihood of the team shepherding a rookie along.
Different positions in the standings, which would've influenced the drafting of guys like NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Kendall Hunter, et al.
The 49ers, as you know them, would've been drastically different, top to bottom, and odds are it would've been for the worse since they have nowhere to go but down in their current state.
So consider all that going into Sunday's game, where the Niners will take on what looks to be the worst team in the conference.
The Vikings don't have much to offer offensively besides Adrian Peterson—who's clearly not back to his old self only eight months removed from ACL surgery—and Percy Harvin.
Peterson, never one to be humble about his own abilities, boasted in interviews that the 49ers haven't faced a team that can run the ball like Minnesota yet.
He also said that he couldn't understand why he and Patrick Willis weren't drafted 1-2 back in 2007.
First, the Indianapolis Colts, precisely nobody's idea of a good run defense, faced the Vikings last week and held them to a perfectly ordinary 95 yards a week after Matt Forte and the Chicago Bears got 114 against them.
Second, even in retrospect Peterson and Willis aren't the best two players to come out of that draft but merely third and fourth, behind Jets corner Darrelle Revis (picked 14th that year) and Lions wideout Calvin Johnson, who was indeed picked second overall.
Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has played well for the Vikings through two weeks, though his opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Colts, haven't exactly been formidable.
It's not too homer-ish to suggest the 49ers' defense, led by Willis, Bowman, Smiths Justin and Aldon, will be a step up in class for Ponder.
Also, it has to be mentioned that the Vikings aren't at all well coached. They allowed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Luck last week right before halftime because they didn't play a prevent defense.
They allowed Luck to complete three passes for 48 yards in all of 13 seconds to set up Adam Vinatieiri for the game-winning field goal.
Finally, their coaching staff couldn't impress upon receiver Michael Jenkins the importance of keeping the play alive at the end of the game, as Jenkins elected to simply be tackled with no time on the clock rather than attempt a lateral to a teammate.
To no one's surprise, Singletary is prominently involved in the team's coaching staff, as a linebacker coach and special assistant to head coach Leslie Frazier.
The Vikings will also be without one of their few credible defenders, linebacker Erin Henderson, who will miss the game with a concussion.
The 49ers, by contrast, enter the game in pretty good shape. Their defense is intact and return man/receiver Ted Ginn looks to be back after missing the first two games with an ankle injury.
All they're missing is Brandon Jacobs, who'll be out a third straight week with a bum knee. He has yet to make his regular-season debut for the club.
What they're not missing is a deep threat. Wouldn't it be perfectly fitting to see the Vikings coaches design a game plan around triple-covering Randy Moss, playing his first game at Minnesota as a visitor, while somebody like Kyle Williams or Bruce Miller is left completely alone 40 yards down the field?
The 49ers figure to win this one comfortably.
Just remember, whatever happens, win or lose, will have a butterfly effect, impacting both teams in ways we can't possibly fathom.
Week 3 Picks:
What will happen in 49ers-Vikings game?
San Francisco 30 (-8), Minnesota 13
Indianapolis 24 (-3), Jacksonville 17
Tennessee 20 (+4), Detroit 19
Chicago 19, St. Louis (+7) 13
San Diego 27 (-3), Atlanta 23
Denver 23 (+3), Houston 20
Week 3 W-L Record: 0-1 (0-1 Vs. Spread)
2012 Season W-L Record: 19-14 (11-5 last week)
2012 Record Vs. Spread: 17-14-2 (11-3-2 last week)
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