May 28, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS — Just more than two weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers were undefeated and the talk of the league after demolishing the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night football.

Inside the Niners’ locker room after Monday night’s sloppy 22-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, that game might as well have been two years ago. Among the 49ers’ mistakes Monday: three turnovers, Minnesota’s 60-yard touchdown just before halftime on a situationally rare all-out blitz and a missed 40-yard field goal.

The result was their second consecutive loss, something San Francisco hadn’t experienced since this day one year ago, and an overwhelming sense that it had all come crashing back to Earth after a dominant 5-0 start.

“The NFL will humble you every step of the way,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “And getting off to a 5-0 start you kind of get that confidence that we are who we need to be, but the NFL does that. Good players, good schemes and we’re going to face another good team this week, so we’ve got to be ready.”

In order to turn it around, the Niners must find a way to pull out games like Monday’s and last week’s loss to the Cleveland Browns. In both contests, the Niners struggled to play the complementary football they did in the first five weeks but still had opportunities to win in the closing minutes.

That the Niners came up short both times has left them frustrated that they seem to be fine when they control the game from the start — they won the first five games by an average of 19.8 points — but struggle when things get hairy.

As linebacker Fred Warner was quick to point out, teams that advance deep into the postseason can win any type of game they play.

“I think the thing right now is we’ve got to find ways to win the grimy games, the ones where it’s not looking great and find a way,” Warner said. “Obviously, we can win, 30-10, but who are we and what are we going to do when we’re down and we’ve got to come back and win a game?”

There were multiple opportunities Monday night for the Niners to put themselves in much better position to get their sixth win. For starters, they could have made life more difficult for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who torched them for 378 yards and two touchdowns while not being sacked and only pressured on 25% of his 45 drop backs.

When it was over, running back Christian McCaffrey lamented his first quarter fumble deep in Minnesota territory, kicker Jake Moody wished he could have back the 40-yard field goal he didn’t convert and quarterback Brock Purdy shouldered the blame for a pair of late-game interceptions when San Francisco was driving for the potential winning score.

But the oddest play of the night might have been the most backbreaking for the 49ers. Facing third-and-6 at their 40 with 16 seconds left and no timeouts, the Vikings appeared poised to take a pass underneath that might help set up a field goal.

Instead, Niners defensive coordinator Steve Wilks dialed up an all-out blitz, sending seven defenders at Cousins. According to Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, Cousins recognized the pressure and checked into a deep shot for rookie wideout Jordan Addison.

As the ball flew toward Addison, Niners cornerback Charvarius Ward stepped in front for what looked like his second interception of the night. But Addison wrestled it away from him and, with no help behind Ward, raced into the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown to give Minnesota a 16-7 lead.

“That was a game-changing play,” O’Connell said.

It was also an unusual call by Wilks. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, it was the first 7-man pass rush in the last 30 seconds of a half in opposing territory since Week 11 of 2020. Asked after the game if he was OK with the call, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said it would be a topic his staff will talk about in the coming days.

“That’s something we’ll discuss throughout this week,” Shanahan said. “Obviously, I did not like the result.”

For a Niners team that entered the season a Super Bowl favorite then played like one for the first five weeks, the challenge will only get more daunting from here. They left Minnesota late Monday night to fly home where they will begin preparing for a Cincinnati Bengals team coming off its bye and two straight wins.

From there, the Niners will have their bye then travel to play the Jacksonville Jaguars, followed by games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles and the Seahawks again. It is, at least on paper, the most difficult stretch on the Niners’ schedule and will go a long way in determining how serious they should be taken as contenders.

“We can’t sit here and worry about what’s happened before this,” Shanahan said. “We have got to make sure that we do everything from now all the way until Sunday when the game is over to find a way to beat the Bengals. And then we go into our bye week. I just looked at our guys right now and we’ve got 5½ days left and we have to focus all on that and make sure we go into that bye week 6-2 and not 5-3.”

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