MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Christian Ponder didn't flinch against that feisty, swarming San Francisco defense.
Minnesota's flourishing young quarterback engineered a stunning victory after two of his more-decorated division peers fell well short. 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.
"It's big, more for people outside this organization than us. We're already confident in what we can do," said Ponder, who went 21 for 35 for 198 yards and, most importantly, no turnovers or sacks.
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.
Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Matthew Stafford of the Lions each had a pass picked off in their game, and they were harassed often by a defense that's been one of the NFL's best for the last several seasons. Ponder, in his second year and in the long shadow of Rodgers, Stafford and Chicago's Jay Cutler in this pass-driven division, deftly avoided the rush and made a bunch of clutch throws on the run.
"It's huge for the rest of our season. It's a springboard," Rudolph said.
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 in a wild, drawn-out fourth quarter due in part to more replacement referee blunders. Twice in a six-play span, the 49ers were allowed to withdraw a called timeout to challenge a play instead. The first one was reversed, a fumble by Toby Gerhart given to the 49ers after video review.
But the Vikings played so well that didn't matter. Neither did Gerhart's second fumble a few minutes later.
"You can't think that the game's just going to be given to you, especially when you guys are hyping us up and saying we're that good," 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "Everyone is trying to knock us off. You just have to be prepared for it every single game."
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 passes when Vikings rookie Josh Robinson picked him off with 2:18 left.
Donte Whitner dropped a sure interception and a potential touchdown midway through the fourth quarter after Vikings receiver Michael Jenkins slipped on third down. David Akers had a 43-yard field goal blocked by Letroy Guion late in the first half. And Smith lost a fumble on a late sack by Jared Allen.
"I know the Vikings have always played teams tough, especially when they're an underdog. That's Minnesota football," Moss said.
"We'll keep going back at it."
Smith finished 24 for 35 for 204 yards. 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, and this was starting to set up the same way.