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Christian Ponder didn't flinch, even against that swarming San Francisco defense. Minnesota's quarterback has come a long way from his rough rookie season.
Ponder threw two touchdown passes to tight end Kyle Rudolph and ran for another score to help the Vikings hand the 49ers their first defeat, 24-13 on Sunday.
After a dominant start to their NFC North tour by decisively beating playoff teams Green Bay and Detroit, the 49ers (2-1) were beaten in every way by the team least likely to do so.
The Vikings (2-1) began the game boldly with a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass by Ponder to his favorite target Rudolph. They finished strong by forcing three turnovers and two punts by the 49ers in the fourth quarter.
Playing against his former team in the regular season for the first time, Randy Moss had a quiet afternoon with three catches for 27 yards. Frank Gore managed only 63 yards on 12 carries, and Alex Smith's franchise-record interception-free streak ended at 249 straight passes when Vikings rookie Josh Robinson picked him off. Toby Gerhart lost two fumbles for Minnesota in the fourth quarter, and it didn't even matter.
This bad game grew worse for the 49ers when star linebacker Patrick Willis walked gingerly off the field with assistance with an apparent injury to his right leg. Smith finished 24 for 35 for 204 yards, plus a lost fumble on a late sack.
He found tight end Vernon Davis on consecutive passes, the second one a 1-yard play-action fake, in the third quarter to pull within 17-13. The Vikings blew 17-0 and 20-0 halftime leads last September in losing consecutive home games to Tampa Bay and Detroit.
But with one third-and-goal pass by Ponder — Adrian Peterson was wide open next to Rudolph, who reached around Donte Whitner to corral it — the lead was back to 11 and the Vikings were on their way to burying that painful start to last year's 3-13 record. That drive was fueled by three 49ers penalties, including two unnecessary roughness calls, one by Dashon Goldson against Rudolph.
The 49ers have had the NFL's stingiest run defense since 2009, allowing barely 3½ yards per attempt, and Peterson received another grueling reminder of that. Even the holes that appeared at the line closed up in a hurry. He finished with 86 yards on 25 carries.
Ponder was up to the challenge, though. Entering the game with the league's best completion percentage, he kept up his efficiency and was especially smart on third downs and against the blitz. Ponder went 21 for 35 for 198 yards and, most importantly, no turnovers.
The Vikings went 82 yards in 16 plays to start the game, with Ponder using a lot of quick throws. Peterson was stonewalled for 1 yard on second-and-goal at the 2 and no gain on third down. But with inches to go, Ponder rolled left under pressure by Goldson and threw a floater off his back foot that Rudolph ran down in front of Aldon Smith in the corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead. Rudolph had four catches on that drive.
The Vikings, who played without outside linebacker Erin Henderson because of a concussion, lost another starter at the end of the first quarter when free safety Mistral Raymond tried to tackle Gore. His right ankle rolled during a wince-inducing injury that sent him off on a cart in a full-leg immobilizing brace. But the Vikings held firm and forced a short field goal by David Akers. Moss was wide open at the goal line on second down, but Smith's pass was high and Moss took an awkward attempt to stretch out for it.
Ponder went 4 for 4 for 39 yards passing and took off three times for 34 yards on the next possession, including the 23-yard sprint that made it 14-3 Minnesota. Accelerating off a cut inside the 10, perhaps reminding all the 49ers fans inside of their old favorite Steve Young, Ponder dived across the goal line for the final yard. He picked up the ball and began his celebration with an animated point at the cheering fans in the nearest seats.
Then, to finish off Minnesota's overall dominance of the first half, Letroy Guion blocked a 43-yard attempt by Akers, his first miss of the season. Ponder moved the Vikings close enough for rookie Blair Walsh to make a 52-yard field goal that stretched the lead to two touchdowns.