Breaking down Sunday's San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings game (1 p.m., FOX).
1. Does anyone in San Francisco have the creativity to draft an offensive game plan capable of cracking the Vikings' defensive line? Minnesota's front four is rock solid. Nearly impenetrable. We know this. They've been the toughest unit to run against in each of the past three seasons and have allowed just two 100-yard rushing games since the start of the 2007 season.
But the Lions, still plugging away at that losing streak, exposed some weaknesses through the first half of their game against the Vikings in Week 2, during which they led 10-7 at halftime.
Lions coordinator Scott Linehan dialed up some trickeration early. Two end-arounds, a receiver screen and a tight end screen resulted in 25 yards and three first downs, keeping alive the Lions' first three drives. With 5:49 left in the first half, Detroit had traversed 167 yards on three trips and come away with 10 points to the Vikings' three.
Detroit wasn't relying on desperate smoke and mirrors, like Cleveland had a week earlier when it went to the Wildcat against Minnesota with almost no success. These Lions plays, all to the outside, hit the Vikings where they're weakest (relatively, mind you), against the outside run, and opened up some larger passing gains later in the game.
Here's the question: does anyone in San Francisco -- crusty ol' Mike Singletary or 63-year-old run-first coordinator Jimmy Raye -- have the wherewithal to open the playbook a little bit in Week 3? Even if so, do they have the personnel to pull off anything unconventional? There's not a Josh Cribbs or a Calvin Johnson type to speak of in San Fran.
Therefore, look for the 49ers, who don't have the pass protection to attempt anything deep with quarterback Shaun Hill anyway, to run, run, run all day long. Frank Gore has almost as many rushes right up the gut as anyone in the league, and for more yards than anyone else, so expect the conventional 49ers to stick with what's worked.
2. The man between Adrian Peterson and pay-dirt: Patrick Willis. The 2006 Butkus Award winner at Mississippi has earned All-Pro status in each of his two NFL seasons. He's been a monster to start the '09 season, helping the 49ers limit their opponents to 106 yards on 40 carries (2.7 ypc) without any touchdowns. That's Ravens/Titans territory.
Willis has his hands full with Peterson, but he's not facing an impossible task. When Willis takes on blockers, he'll often be dealing with new starting center John Sullivan, who's still learning the ropes in Minnesota. Ultimately, he'll need a hand from his own offense, which would be doing Willis a favor by jumping out to a quick lead. When the Vikings have trailed in '09, Peterson averages just 4.5 yards per carry. But when they've led or been tied, he's gone for 9.1 yards per clip on precisely as many carries.
3. You'll be watching two of the game's preeminent game managers. Can either one shake that image?Brett Favre hates that title; Shaun Hill probably couldn't care less given his 9-3 career record as a starter. But they're both that: game managers. And that's probably what you want going into what should be a tight, hard-fought game featuring two of the league's best defenses.
Consider this: each quarterback has completed just one pass of 20 or more yards this season. Favre and Hill rank 31st and 28th, respectively, in passing yards, as well as 28th and 25th in passing first downs. And each is in the top four in sacks, suggesting they're content to take the loss over risking a turnover on a forced throw. Meanwhile, each ranks in the top 10 in completion percentage (Favre is No. 1 at .771), implying they've got the tools, but they're just not called on a ton (31st and 24th in attempts, respectively).
So what happens when the ground game just isn't getting it done, as could be the case for either of these teams this week? Forced to pick, I'd favor Favre in this case, even against the 49ers' formidable force of cornerbacks. Against San Francisco he'll likely face an eight-man front the majority of the game. That leaves a little room to work in the secondary, and if Favre can get an extra second or two, I expect he'll connect with speedster Bernard Berrian, who's just getting over a hamstring injury. One of those hook-ups could be the difference.
Here's who's I like in this Week 3 matchup:
Vernon Davis: Of course you should start A.P. or Gore this week, as always, but beyond them it's slim pickings. Davis, who's been the only viable receiving threat in the Bay area so far, could yield a healthy bounty, similar to what Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew did last week against the Vikes.
Minnesota defense: The team with the third-most sacks against the third-most oft-sacked quarterback. Easy call.
Shaun Hill: The Vikings have only seen Brady Quinn and Matthew Stafford so far, but those two QBs combined for a 66.0 passer rating while being sacked seven times. Best not to bet against Minnesota's maturing secondary or their stout pass rushers.
Percy Harvin: If you've benefited from his two-touchdown start, then gather your winnings and walk away. Harvin's the type of gimmick player whom Singletary will gameplan for (in between marathon "Stop Peterson" sessions). Don't overplay the hot hand.
This one should sort things out in the NFC, putting the Vikings atop a fierce North pack and throwing the 49ers back into the mediocre West fray -- meaning both could still make the playoffs. The defenses are a stalemate. I'll give Peterson a slight edge among the running backs because he doesn't gravitate towards the middle of the line as much as Gore. And I like Favre over Hill, more because of his weapons, which he'll finally have to use. Vikings 23, 49ers 20
Overall record: 1-1(Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result: Packers 21, Bears 15). (Week 2 prediction: Cowboys 23, Giants 10. Result: Giants 33, Cowboys 31).