MINNEAPOLIS - A 49ers team that had Hollywood A-listers Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson cheering for them last week had the D-list Vikings gunning for them on Sunday.
Minnesota turned in one of its best efforts in years as second-year quarterback Christian Ponder threw two touchdowns and ran for another in their 24-13 win. The 49ers, meanwhile, appeared to be suffering a hangover after high-profile wins against the Packers and Lions.
Jim Harbaugh and his players insisted they didn't overlook the Vikings, who won only three games a year ago. But players admitted their energy output did not match that of the Vikings and their raucous crowd.
"We just came out a little flat and weren't able to get a stop," defensive end Justin Smith said. "Hats off to them. They came out with a good game plan and moved the ball on us. We just need to tighten up."
Said safety Donte Whitner, who dropped an interception that would have given the 49ers life in the fourth quarter: "I don't think our energy level is where it normally is, but I wouldn't say that we weren't ready. We were prepared. Prepared like crazy all week, and we're going to continue to prepare like that."
One of Harbaugh's most impressive feats last season was going 5-0 in games that started at 10 a.m. (PST), typically a rough scenario for west-coast teams. In their first early start this season, the 49ers allowed the Vikings to rack up 344 yards, more than the Packers' and Lions' notable offense were able to gain in Weeks 1 and 2.
Ponder and speedy wideout Percy Harvin proved particularly slippery. Harvin led all receivers with nine catches for 89 yards and routinely was able to turn short swing passes into first downs.
Ponder, meanwhile, always seemed to be a few steps ahead of the 49ers defense, either by scrambling out of the pocket and then finding a receiver down field or by picking up yards with his feet.
In the second quarter, he accomplished something only one player did in 2011 - score a rushing touchdown against the 49ers. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch did that in Week 16 last year on a four-yard run in a game the 49ers played without inside linebacker Patrick Willis.
Ponder did it by attacking the gut of the 49ers defense and breaking a tackle by safety Dashon Goldson. Overall the Vikings had 146 yards on the ground, including 86 yards on 25 attempts by running back Adrian Peterson. Minnesota had drives of 16, 11, 9 and 12 plays, and they won the time-of-possession battle 33:28 to 26:32.
They also went into halftime with a 17-3 lead, which allowed the Vikings defense to drop their safeties, take away any deep passes and force the 49ers to move piecemeal down field. Alex Smith and the 49ers had several methodical drives of their own. But they mostly ended in David Akers field-goal attempts - one of which was blocked - or with uncharacteristic turnovers.
One play after Kyle Williams returned a kickoff 50 yards in the fourth quarter, Frank Gore fumbled and the Vikings took over at the 50-yard line. It was the first time a 49ers offensive player had lost a fumble in the regular season since Vernon Davis did it Nov. 6 in Washington.
The 49ers defense was able to force two fumbles by backup running back Toby Gerhart in the final three and a half minutes, a scenario that last season usually led to points by the San Francisco offense. This time it just led to more San Francisco turnovers - an interception by Smith and fumble by Smith after he was hit from behind by defensive end Jared Allen. The interception was Smith's first in 250 attempts.
"There's going to be good, there's going to be bad," Harbaugh said. "Today was a bad day. We can't sulk about it, can't complain, point fingers. You just have to suck it up. And I know we'll do that."
-- Matt Barrows