Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: The loss to Minnesota was a come-down-to-earth shocker, no doubt about it. The 49ers had played so well as a complete team to open the season with wins over Green Bay and Detroit that nobody saw their letdown in Minnesota coming. The Vikings sort of took it to the Niners like the Niners had taken it to the Packers and Lions, and in the context of the NFL in general, it just didn't seem to make sense. I believe the loss threw up some red flags in that, just like most teams, the Niners can be beaten by anybody on any given Sunday. The Niners weren't their usual stingy selves on defense and they sort of self-destructed in the fourth quarter on offense (three turnovers) when a comeback was still possible. It was their worst performance of the Jim Harbaugh era, but it seems more like an aberration than indicative of full-scale problems. This is still a very good team that has very few holes. I would expect the 49ers to bounce back with a vengeance. That's what this team has done in the past, and to be honest, the 49ers have always played with a chip on their shoulder since they became Jim Harbaugh's team.
Rick Laughland: Despite Harbaugh favoring a more conservative, ball-control style of offense, do you expect Alex Smith to try to and open up some things in the passing game with Jets' cornerback Darrelle Revis out of the lineup? Who do you think will be the 49ers' top receiving threat to New York's secondary?
Craig Massei: No doubt the 49ers will be looking to exploit the absence of Revis, just as they look to exploit the weaknesses of every opponent. When the Lions had two regular starting defensive backs out because of injury in Week 2, San Francisco went right at their replacements on its game-opening offensive possession, and it took the Niners only four plays to find the end zone on that drive. The Niners still like to run a balanced, ball-control offense that relies on a power rushing game, but their passing attack has improved considerably since last season. Smith has show a lot of progress as a passer and director of the offense, and he is effective spreading the ball around to several different targets. Smith's arsenal has improved considerably with the offseason additions of free-agent veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, who complement holdover starter Michael Crabtree well. Crabtree has become the team's No. 1 wideout and go-to guy on third downs, but the most explosive weapon in the San Francisco passing game is tight end Vernon Davis, who is a big play waiting to happen. Davis is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses, who have to use smaller defensive backs to cover him because he is too fast for linebackers. Davis already has four touchdown receptions in San Francisco's first three games and is an outstanding red-zone target, as is Moss. So the top threats are Davis and Crabtree, but Manningham and Moss also have the ability to hurt a defense.
Rick Laughland: With San Francisco holding claim to one of the NFL's top rushing defenses, how much are Patrick Willis and the defensive unit prepping for the Jets so-called, but sparsely used, Wildcat Offense? Is Tim Tebow viewed as more of a decoy or a viable threat in the running game?
Harbaugh and company will be chomping at the bit to get back in the W column
Craig Massei: You can be sure the 49ers will be ready for the different wrinkles that the Jets can present in their offense using Tebow. Actually, they would welcome the challenge of the Jets using Tebow in a wildcat formation, because stopping the run is the strength of the defense and the 49ers wouldn't have to adjust much to a run-oriented game plan from their opponents. Since the 49ers are so difficult to run against, many opponents are now coming at them with three- and four-receiver sets, which requires San Francisco to get out of its base 3-4 defense and bring in extra defensive backs in their coverage packages. The Niners would be happy to stay in their base defense, which means nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga remains in the game to help clog up the middle and stuff the run. San Francisco's linebackers are fast, active and productive, so the Niners are strong facing most any kind of running dimension.
Rick Laughland: With the 49ers using their first three draft picks on offensive players and bringing in big names such as Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs via free agency, do you think they have enough firepower to get over the hump this year? Does the coaching staff have full trust in Alex Smith as the franchise's quarterback? Does the 49ers fan-base think Smith is the man for the job?
Craig Massei: Those are all foremost issues with this team, and the 49ers feel they filled a lot of holes and strengthened their weakest areas with their offseason additions. The offense is definitely improved, and with the defense and special teams units remaining among the NFL's best, the Niners are definitely built for a title run and that is the goal for the team and organization. The coaching staff believes in Smith and has given him its trust, and he has not disappointed. Does he have full trust? Well, although Smith had a career season last year, I think the Niners would like to get just a little bit more from their QB position. That's why they had a dalliance with Peyton Manning during the offseason. But Smith has provided more so far this season, so he could be earning a long-term spot with the team. The Niners gave him a three-year contract in the offseason – not exactly a vote of long-term confidence – but Smith seems to be coming into his own now in his eighth NFL season. He still is only 28 years old, and he has become a much more refined QB who has shown some ability to be a playmaker and not just the game manager many purport him to be. The fan base was screaming for his head not very long ago, and no doubt a number of fans gave up on him years ago. But he has truly emerged and blossomed under the direction of a new coaching staff, and I believe he is gradually winning over a lot of fans, including the ones who once booed him.
Rick Laughland: With San Francisco keeping most of its defensive unit intact, do you think they can replicate last year's outstanding showing against one of the NFL's most difficult schedules this year? While it's only Week 4, do you consider this Sunday's game a must-win for the 49ers if they hope to secure a home playoff game and a top two seed in the conference?
Craig Massei: It's too early for must-win games, though last week's unexpected upset loss in Minnesota – which dropped the Niners from their No. 1 perch in several NFL power rankings polls – leaves them a game behind surprising Arizona in the NFC West. The Niners already have beaten two of the six NFC playoff teams from last year – the Packers and Lions – and they still will face several of the other top teams in the NFC that are ahead on their schedule. They were 2-1 at this point last year and didn't lose again until they were 9-1. This defense is good enough to keep the 49ers in every game, but that wasn't the case last week, when it faltered along with the rest of the team. There was nothing special at all about the Niners in Minnesota, but this still does have the ingredients of a special team. The Jets will be a good test for the Niners to see if they can bounce back from the Minnesota debacle, and it will definitely tell them where they stand at the quarter pole of the season. The Niners are 7-3 on the road under Harbaugh and have beaten some good teams there, so this is certainly a game they can win – and a game they intend to win.
Rick Laughland covers the New York Jets for Greenandwhitereport.com