Craig: Vikings compare favorably to NFC champ 49ers

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2013 - 11:35 AM

The biggest difference is at linebacker, where San Francisco has lined up four stellar players.

Give or take a few leap-year mathematical errors, it has been 12,795 days since the Vikings played in the Super Bowl.

"Vikings fans," groaned a recent e-mailer, "just can't bear to watch the Super Bowl."

They should watch this one, though, because the current template for NFC supremacy looks exactly like the one being used at Winter Park.

The San Francisco 49ers are a balled-up fist in a spread-'em-out era. They are a riches-to-rags- to-riches-again story that's grounded in astute drafting, not the misguided belief that the Lombardi Trophy can be bought by the most fidgety billionaire during the first week of March. And their idea of a free-agency splash is creating one-line footnotes as they hang on to core youth such as NaVorro Bowman (signed through 2018), Ahmad Brooks (2017), Patrick Willis (2016) and Aldon Smith (2015).

For the Vikings, it's tough to beat a Week 17, playoff-clinching victory over the Packers as the highlight of a surprising 2012 season. But no game was more encouraging for the franchise than the 24-13 victory over the 49ers in Week 3.

After the Vikings punched out the meanest bully in the league, Frazier admitted to using a reporter's question as part of his motivational approach during the week. The question was whether the 49ers had the template to which the neophyte Vikings aspired.

"That burned me up," Frazier said. "I really felt like we already 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."

The Vikings ran for 146 yards while holding the 49ers to 89. The Vikings also won the turnover battle 3-2 and took advantage of quarterback Christian Ponder playing the best game of his NFL career to that point.

Colin Kaepernick still was San Francisco's backup in Week 3. But that doesn't mean there wasn't some impressive legwork from the quarterback position that day.

Besides throwing for two touchdowns and no interceptions, Ponder also ran 23 yards for a TD near the end of the first half. He sensed pressure, made a terrific cut to the middle of the field, ran past the linebackers, bowled through a safety and, well, did everything else but kiss his biceps.

There's no doubt Kaepernick is more physically gifted than Ponder or, for that matter, the five other quarterbacks selected ahead of Kaepernick in the 2011 draft. But Ponder's performance against the 49ers and his 4-0 stretch to end the regular season were among the signs that he, too, can become a long-term answer at quarterback, even if it comes with much less fanfare.

The Vikings, meanwhile, are better than the 49ers at running back and kicker. They are comparable at most of the other positions and are successful using two extremely different coaching styles and defensive philosophies.

Where the Vikings have the most ground to make up is at linebacker. Bowman, Brooks, Willis and Smith -- by far the NFL's best set of 3-4 linebackers -- are between the ages of 23-28 and will play a minimum of three more years together.

Willis (11th overall in 2007) and Smith (seventh overall in 2011) were first-round draft picks. Brooks was claimed off waivers from Cincinnati in 2008. And Bowman was quite the steal in the third round in 2010.

The 49ers originally had the 79th pick overall that year. But they traded down 12 spots, knowing the Chargers would use that pick to take Washington linebacker Donald Butler.

Not only did the 49ers get the better linebacker -- Bowman -- at the lower pick, they also got a sixth-round pick that they used on power back Anthony Dixon and a 2011 fourth-rounder they used on running back Kendall Hunter, who was playing well this season until tearing his Achilles' tendon.

The Vikings are set at strong-side linebacker with Chad Greenway getting better each season. But they have hard choices to make at the other two starting spots, where middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley and weak-side linebacker Erin Henderson are entering free agency.

By not offering long-term deals to Brinkley and Henderson before last season, the Vikings have the flexibility to significantly upgrade their linebacking corps without any salary cap ramifications.

It's not that Brinkley and Henderson played poorly. But the template the 49ers have adhered to includes great linebacker play across the line.

That's a priority that ranks right up there with No. 1 receiver as the Vikings try to catch up to the 49ers with hopes of ending that Super Bowl drought at 13,164 days at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2, 2014.

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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NY Mets - LP: J. Familia 6 FINAL
Miami - WP: A. Ramos 9
Philadelphia - WP: C. Hamels 7 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: J. Teheran 0
Boston - LP: B. Badenhop 3 FINAL
Tampa Bay - WP: G. Balfour 4
Minnesota - WP: P. Hughes 6 FINAL
Baltimore - LP: K. Gausman 4
Pittsburgh - LP: G. Cole 4 FINAL
St. Louis - WP: S. Maness 5
Milwaukee - LP: J. Nelson 2 FINAL
Chicago Cubs - WP: J. Turner 4
Detroit 5 Top 7th Inning
Cleveland 1
Seattle 1 Top 9th Inning
Oakland 6
San Francisco - WP: J. Affeldt 4 FINAL
Colorado - LP: C. Friedrich 2
Arizona 1 Top 7th Inning
San Diego 3
San Francisco 4 Bottom 3rd Inning
Colorado 2
Washington - G. Gonzalez 7:10 PM
Los Angeles - R. Hernandez
Texas - C. Lewis 7:10 PM
Kansas City - Y. Ventura
Green Bay 9/4/14 7:30 PM
Seattle
Buffalo 9/7/14 12:00 PM
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Florida
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