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Updated: September 23rd, 2012 9:12pm
Pelissero: Preaching physicality paid off for Vikings after letdown

Pelissero: Preaching physicality paid off for Vikings after letdown

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- From Antoine Winfield's rare speech in one team meeting to Leslie Frazier's repetition of a reporter's question in another, the doubts were repeated everywhere around Minnesota Vikings headquarters this past week.

Nobody thinks you're physical enough to topple the mighty San Francisco 49ers. Nobody thinks you're anything more than the group that wasn't ready to play last week in Indianapolis. And until you show otherwise, nobody's wrong.

"One of the things we did a really good job of was mentally preparing for it to be physical out there," center John Sullivan said on Sunday afternoon, after the Vikings outmuscled and outclassed the 49ers in a 24-13 upset at the Metrodome.

"We were saying it was a cold-tub game. Old NFC North, black-and-blue division, and we knew they hadn't played a team like us in that way."

On Monday, Winfield stood before teammates and questioned whether they were willing to put their bodies on the line to beat one of the NFC's front-runners -- a team built in the same run-and-stop-the-run mold Vikings coach Leslie Frazier espouses.

On Wednesday, Frazier took offense during his media conference at the suggestion the 49ers, coming off an NFC title game appearance last season and triumphs over Green Bay and Detroit to open 2012, are the template for what the Vikings hope to become.

"I didn't share with you, but I shared with our team -- that burned me up," Frazier said, "because I really feel like here, we have set the template on how to run the ball, how to defend the run. I wanted our team to know there are doubts about the physicality of our football team, and our guys responded."

This wasn't merely a decisive victory for a 7½-point underdog that now finds itself at 2-1 and tied atop a division that is supposed to leave it in the dust.

It was a heartening reminder the Vikings, like every other NFL team, have enough talent to beat even the best -- particularly if they dictate the tempo against a group that came out as lethargic as several 49ers players suggested they did on Sunday.

"You don't want to give any away in the NFL, obviously," Sullivan said. "If you would have asked anybody coming into the season and said, 'The Vikings are going to be 2-1 after the first three weeks. Which game are they going to lose?' Nobody would have said Indy. They would have thought we were going to lose this one."

But it was a different Vikings team that had the crowd of 57,288 roaring from the time their 16-play, 82-yard opening drive ended with a fourth-and-goal connection from Christian Ponder to Kyle Rudolph on a naked bootleg from the 1.

Frazier had admonished them for a poor week of practice leading up to the Colts game and stressed they were going to be aggressive on Sunday, from the top down.

"It would not have been good for us to back away from that challenge at that moment," Frazier said.

Ponder finished 21-of-35 passing (60%) for 198 yards, two touchdown throws to Rudolph and a 94.7 rating, plus another score on a 23-yard scramble that extended the Vikings' lead to 14-3 with 5 minutes, 29 seconds left in the second quarter.

The 49ers' ensuing drive reached the Vikings' 25-yard line before Chad Greenway dropped tight end Delanie Walker short of the sticks on third down and Letroy Guion batted down David Akers' 43-yard field goal attempt.

"Greenway pulled the offense to the side a couple times and let us know they were feeding off of us," said receiver Percy Harvin, who led the Vikings again with nine catches for 89 yards.

"We were feeding off them, and the special teams was feeding off the defense, as well. I think when you get a game like that, everybody's just having fun."

Blair Walsh's 52-yard field goal as the first half expired pushed the lead to 14. The 49ers made it a game with an Akers field goal and a 1-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis that cut the deficit 17-13 with 6:17 left in the third quarter.

The Vikings responded with another marathon drive -- 12 plays and 86 yards, aided by three 49ers penalties on a day they had only one. Rudolph swatted aside safety Donte Whitner on a stick-nod route and one-handed Ponder's lob for a 1-yard score.

On the 49ers' next play, Jamarca Sanford stripped Frank Gore at the 50, and they didn't sniff midfield again until there were less than 3 minutes remaining and Smith gift-wrapped an interception for rookie Josh Robinson that all but sealed the decision.

"Words can't describe how big that is for us," said Sanford, who was on in relief of injured Mistral Raymond. "But one thing we didn't do is think this is the Super Bowl and relax next week and go out and get embarrassed by the Detroit Lions, because they've got a good football team."

Relaxed would have been a kind term on Sunday for the 49ers' effort, which prompted star end Justin Smith to say even they "can't just walk out there and expect to win."

They took six penalties and were outdistanced in virtually every category -- including net yards (344-280), first downs (25-19) and time of possession (33:28-26:32) -- by a Vikings team that had shown nothing the first two weeks to indicate they were ready for this kind of test.

"The Indianapolis game turned out to be more physical than we thought it was going to be and I think that was part of the issue, at least from my standpoint," Sullivan said. "I wasn't as mentally prepared for a tough football game -- which sounds crazy, because it's the NFL. I promise I won't make that mistake again. I think the focus was much better this week. ...

"I'll be honest -- I was nervous going into (Sunday). But you always feel nervous going into a game like that, especially when you know it's going to be very physical. We just committed to it, we rallied around each other and it was full team win."

The offense neutralized Justin Smith's rush with line slides and had a crafty game plan that put the ball in the hands of Peterson, Harvin and Rudolph a combined 42 times in 76 plays (55.3%), including 14 times on the opening drive.

The defense closed out it out with five consecutive stops, including Jared Allen's strip-sack of Alex Smith after Toby Gerhart's third fumble in four touches gave the 49ers a last gasp with 1:46 to play.

"We won in a dominant fashion from start to finish," Allen said. "A lot of guys were challenged this week from top to bottom. Coaching staff, players and everyone answered the bell. I think our biggest thing was that we needed to play with more grit."

In the end, the numbers say the Vikings didn't run the ball particularly effectively -- Adrian Peterson had 25 carries for 86 yards (3.4 average), Gerhart eight for 18 (2.3 average) -- or stop the run, with Gore averaging 5.3 yards on his 12 carries. They didn't have the explosive plays on offense they're still trying to unlock either.

But they also didn't allow the 49ers a play longer than 22 yards and won the takeaway battle against a team that led the NFL at plus-28 last season, setting an NFL record with only 10 turnovers.

"It's big for us," Sanford said. "A young guy, that can get your confidence up, and once you get your confidence and swag up, sky's the limit as far as you can go."

Now these young Vikings could have a chance to take sole possession of first place in the North next week against Detroit, which lost quarterback Matthew Stafford to a leg injury in Sunday's overtime loss to Tennessee.

They're still relatively healthy, save for losing Raymond to an apparently significant ankle injury, and they'll have split end Jerome Simpson back from his suspension.

Perhaps most important, they proved something to themselves and everyone else on Sunday -- even if there's no way to be certain what they did here will carry over next weekend at Ford Field.

"That's the $64,000 question right there," Frazier said. "We have to find a way to bottle this and improve."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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