"San Francisco at Minnesota."
We glanced at it without really caring for about five months, sitting there inconspicuously under "Week Three" and maybe circled by Minnesota football fans as "Home Opener", but there wasn't anything truly noteworthy about it.
With the Minnesota Vikings fresh from a 2008 playoff appearance, opening the 2009 schedule with the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers seemed almost like an extended preseason leading up to their Week Four NFC North clash with the Green Bay Packers, a rivalry game made even more significant with the late-preseason addition of Packer legend Brett Favre following his annual aborted retirement.
Given the implications of Packers-Vikings and the combined 11-37 record of the Lions, Browns and 49ers in 2008, it's fairly easy to understand why the football world looked at the Minnesota schedule and skipped to October.
What a difference two weeks makes.
This innocuous Week Three game has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning for both teams as the resurgent 2-0 49ers travel to the Metrodome alone atop the NFC West standings, having knocked off the preseason comeback favorite Seattle Seahawks and defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals.
Even with Green Bay looming for the 2-0 Vikings, this weekend's sole showdown of the unbeatens is full of its own subplots and intriguing matchups.
Born To Run
The teams are almost mirror images of each other, and the matchups reflect their common strengths. Even with Favre, the king of the gunslingers, under center, the Vikings remain committed to running the football, and they'll face the first major test of their running game, sending all-world running back Adrian Peterson up against the No. 3 rushing defense in the NFL.
Peterson leads the NFL with 272 yards rushing, but has faced the No. 22 and No. 31 defenses against the run. The 49ers, on the other hand, have given up only 106 yards rushing, but have yet to face a true home-run hitter in the backfield.
They've been stout so far, but an alarming trend of missed tackles against Seattle could be disastrous against a quick and powerful back like Peterson.
San Francisco, meanwhile, is hoping their offensive line continues to work out the kinks, as workhorse running back Frank Gore—the NFC's second-leading runner behind only Peterson—was held to only 30 rushing yards against a run-aggressive Cardinals defense before rebounding with authority to put up 207 yards on the ground last week, including career-long touchdown runs of 79 and 80 yards.
They'll find out how far they've come against Minnesota's front seven, featuring emerging linebacker Chad Greenway and the vaunted "Williams Wall" of defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams.
The Vikings' run defense, however, appears to be struggling early on, giving up 129 yards on the ground to the lowly Lions last week and falling out of the top 10 to 15th in yards allowed per game.
The 49ers are adopting head coach Mike Singletary's hard-nosed physical style, and the Vikings will need to be able to hold the point of attack and not get blown off the ball. Gore's two long touchdown runs came against eight- and nine-man fronts, largely because the 49ers were decisively winning the physical matchups in the trenches.
Good News/Bad News
Good News: Quarterback Shaun Hill—who held a clipboard for the Vikings for the first four years of his career—is 9-3 as a starter, including a perfect 6-0 record at Candlestick Park.
Bad News: The game is in Minneapolis. Hill is an efficient game manager who has shown he can take control of a long scoring drive with his arm if he has to, but if it comes down to the passing game, San Francisco's pass protection has been porous at best and horribly susceptible to speed rushers.
They've already surrendered eight sacks, and if I'm Jared Allen, I'm looking at game film of the 49ers' platoon at right tackle of Adam Snyder and Tony Pashos and begging defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to put me at left defensive end for the week.
Good News: The only time Adrian Peterson has faced San Francisco, All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis and the 49er defense held him to only three yards on 14 carries. Three. That's 100 yards less than his average from all of the other games that year.
Bad News: The Niners gave up 101 yards to Chester Taylor instead, and lost the game by 20 points. They cannot afford to sell out to stop Peterson and risk putting the game in the hands of an old nemesis, which brings us to...
Good News: As a Packer, Favre never lost a single regular season game to the 49ers, holding a perfect 8-0 record. Should the Vikings be forced to abandon the running game at any point, Favre and the West Coast Offense are like historical Kryptonite to anyone wearing 49er red and gold.
Bad News: He's 0-1 against San Francisco since leaving Green Bay. The 49ers harassed Favre constantly last year when he brought the Jets into Candlestick Park, sacking him three times, recording an interception, and making him look every bit like a 39-year-old quarterback who should have retired for good.
Favre hasn't had to carry Minnesota to a win yet, so we really don't know how much magic is left in that cannon of a right arm—or how prepared the Vikings receivers are to shoulder their part of the load.
49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat coined the term "GPS game" as a game that shows a team exactly where they stand. Can the Minnesota run defense return to form against a power run game that's starting to assert itself?
If the running game falters, can the 49ers put the game in Hill's hands against a solid secondary? Does Favre still have it in him to beat a suddenly aggressive San Francisco defense?
Questions abound, and it's safe to say that the matchup that was supposed to be the end of the Vikings' "easy opening" to their schedule has suddenly become a GPS game for both teams.