After looking so good in their first two games, the 49ers hit a purple wall in Minneapolis Sunday.
The previously efficient and 2-0 Niners were beaten by the Vikings 24-13 by committing a slew of mistakes while failing to stop an offense led by second-year quarterback Christian Ponder and running back Adrian Peterson.
San Francisco was bidding to start a season 3-0 for the first time since 1998.
Minnesota set the tone for the game by taking the opening kickoff and executing an 82-yard drive that ate more than seven minutes off the clock (aided by two 49ers penalties) and ended with Ponder’s 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph on a fourth-and-goal play fake to give the Vikings a 7-0 lead, a lead they would never relinquish.
It was the first time San Francisco had allowed an opponent to score on its first possession in 2012, and the touchdown put the 49ers in a trailing position for the first time this season; in previous wins over the Packers and Lions, the 49ers had jumped on top first.
The 49ers answered with a David Akers field goal early in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 7-3, but the 49ers should have had a touchdown rather than three points, as quarterback Alex Smith overthrew a wide-open Randy Moss near the end zone two plays previous.
The Vikings continued to control the first half, going into halftime up 17-3 after Ponder scrambled up the gut of the 49ers defense for a 23-yard TD run and Brian Walsh tacked on a 52-yard field goal.
It was San Francisco’s largest halftime deficit since almost a year ago, Oct. 2 in Philadelphia, when they trailed 20-3 at the half before coming back to beat the Eagles.
In the third quarter, the 49ers climbed back into the game with a short Akers field goal and Smith’s 1-yard TD pass to Vernon Davis – his fourth scoring catch in three games – but Ponder’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Rudolph early in the fourth period put Minnesota up 24-13.
Despite, several opportunities late in the game, the 49ers couldn’t capitalize while also committing some crucial mistakes.
Late in the game, running back Frank Gore lost a fumble for the first time in a year (255 carries), Smith threw his first interception after a team-record 249 passes without one and safety Donte Whitner dropped a sure interception in Vikings territory that he likely could have returned for a touchdown to put the Niners within four points.
In addition, Smith was sacked and fumbled for the first time this season, allowing the Vikings to run out the clock and preserve the victory.
After being impressive on offense and defense in their first two wins, the Niners had a big drop-off in Minnesota. The Niners’ usually solid defense allowed 146 yards rushing (86 by Peterson), and allowed the Vikings to convert 8-of-15 third- or fourth-down plays.
Offensively, Smith was much more erratic, with several passes to open receivers overthrown. He completed 24-of-35 for 204 yards, one TD and one pick. The running game, which had been impressive in the first two games, could manage just 89 yards (63 by Gore), as Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway (13 tackles) repeatedly made timely stops.
The 49ers will try to regroup this week by practicing in Youngstown, Ohio, in preparation for their game against the New York Jets next Sunday in New Jersey.