San Fran Best Test To Date

The matchup of receivers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens may have lost a little fizzle with Moss' injury, but besides this game being a good measuring stick for both offenses and defenses, there is sure to be plenty of talking between the receivers and defensive backs.

When the Vikings start their final Metrodome game before the bye week, they will face a San Francisco 49ers team that is still trying to find its way in the NFC West. As the defending division champions, some have questioned whether the Niners can fight off the challenge of St. Louis and Seattle. The jury is still out on that, but when they face the Vikings they will bring the best balance of offense and defense that Minnesota has seen to date in 2003.

The 49ers offense begins with QB Jeff Garcia. Listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Garcia is a thin quarterback many didn't think could handle the rigors of the violent NFL game. However, he threw more than 500 passes last year, took his share of lumps and kept coming back. Despite a well-known back injury that required epidural shots in the preseason, Garcia is playing like the same QB we've seen the last two years and will be looking to attack the Vikings secondary both short and deep.

Many observers thought when Dennis Erickson replaced Steve Mariucci as the 49ers head coach that the running game would be abandoned for a high-octane passing offense. Instead, it's been the "same old, same old" for the Niners. Defenses get a steady diet of both Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow. Barlow is the faster, stronger back of the two and eventually will become the featured back, but Hearst's ability to pick up blitzes and catch passes have made him the primary back of the present. The final ingredient in the backfield is fullback Fred Beasley. A crushing blocker and short-yardage specialist, Beasley puts the 49ers' ground game on par with the Vikes.

In the receiver corps, the 49ers have the always-dangerous Terrell Owens leading the way. Like Randy Moss, Owens caught 100 passes last year as the go-to receiver. Unlike Moss, he scored 13 touchdowns and became the dominant receiver in the NFC. He is without J.J. Stokes alongside him (a free-agent loss) but now lines up with Tai Streets and Cedrick Wilson as his running mates. While neither of them necessarily puts fear into defensive coordinators, each is good enough to draw some attention away from Owens in the passing game. The tight end position isn't used like it was in the old West Coast offense, making Jed Weaver more of a blocker than a receiving threat.

Up front, the names have changed a bit, but most are familiar to football fans in any city. At the tackles, Derrick Deese and Scott Gragg are in their 12th and 11th years, respectively, and still playing at a high level. Guard Ron Stone is also a nine-year vet, but the other two are the youngsters of the group. Center Jeremy Newberry was considered a Pro Bowl performer by a lot of coaches last year in his sixth season. The pup of the group is second-year guard Eric Heitmann, who was a fill-in last year before getting the starting assignment this season, although an ankle injury has him doubtful for Sunday. They are strong at both pass protection and run blocking and will be a stiff test for the Vikings' shifting defensive front.

On their defensive front, the Niners always seem to have at least one or two elite players, and this year is no exception. On the outside, the Niners have Andre Carter and John Engelberger, a pair of hard-charging pass rushers. On the inside, former All-Pro Bryant Young is joined by seven-year vet Travis Kirschke, who replaces Dana Stubblefield as a run-stuffer. While depth is a little thin, the 49ers made a solid late-preseason signing by picking up pass rusher Chidi Ahanotu. He will come in on third-down situations and try to create havoc for Daunte Culpepper.

A couple of years ago, linebacker was the weak link of the 49ers team. Now it's becoming something of a strength. Julian Peterson has become a premier linebacker in the NFL, capable of making big plays. He is joined in the starting lineup by Jeff Ulbrich and MLB Derek Smith to form a strong middle of the defense. Ulbrich may share time with former starter Jamie Winborn, who has missed time the last two seasons with injuries, but, when healthy, Winborn is a strong presence on the outside.

In the secondary, the Vikings will be testing a group of players that got lit up occasionally during the season and in both of the Niners' playoff games last year. At the corners, an injury to fourth-year pro Jason Webster has opened a starting job for Mike Rumph (second year) alongside Ahmed Plummer, who is also in his fourth year. At the safeties, the Niners have Tony Parrish and Zack Bronson. Both are big hitters with the range to take receivers in coverage. This will be a battle to watch all day.

With the Vikings looking to head into their bye week after the following game with Atlanta, San Francisco is a game the Vikings need badly to keep the momentum rolling. The 49ers won't be a pushover by any means, which will make this a battle of very similar teams looking for similar objectives — all the makings of an instant classic game.

Randy Moss vs. Terrell Owens —
The NFL is a sport based on comparison among fans. Who was the better running back — Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith? Who was the better QB — John Elway or Dan Marino? The same question has been asked about the two young lions of the wide receiver crop — Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. Fans will get their first answer this week in what promises to be the matchup to watch, even if Moss isn't at 100 percent.

The two have never played on the same field as opponents. The only chance was in 1999, but Owens was sidelined. Moss isn't letting that happen to him this week. Each has a similar reputation. Both have been roundly criticized for comments and actions off the field, but nobody can deny their ability to dominate on the field. But the question has remained — who is better?

The similarities between Moss and Owens are striking. Moss came to the league in the shadow of Hall of Famer Cris Carter. Owens came to the 49ers in the shadow of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Both became known for their touchdown catches. Both lost the players that were seemingly always in the forefront — used by their critics as explanations for their success. After both Hall of Famers were gone, Moss and Owens both became 100-reception receivers, becoming complete players, with each being able to make an argument for being the best in the game.

While there is the possibility that both the Vikings and 49ers will try to pound the ball with two of the NFL's best rushing attacks, the marquee matchup will be of the two big-time receivers. Each will get his chance to shine, whether on short passes over the middle or bombs down the sideline. As with all other great comparisons, this game will be the first of what could be many meetings between Owens and Moss for head-to-head supremacy. It may not materialize in a wild shootout many fans would like to see, but it will certainly be the matchup to watch.

Viking Update Top Stories