The San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings will combine for the second of two Monday Night Football matchups and this one is set to provide plenty of intrigue. Both teams have had up and down offseasons and both are considered underdogs within their respective divisions.
For San Francisco, they're coming off a nightmare offseason that saw multiple players retire, a winning head coach ousted and a whole lot more. For Minnesota, they're eager to see how Teddy Bridgewater looks in his second season but more importantly, they want to see what running back Adrian Peterson can do after missing most of last season due to off-field issues.
Jim Harbaugh is out as the 49ers head coach, and with him coordinators Vic Fangio and Greg Roman. This is a coaching staff that led the 49ers to one Super Bowl and three consecutive NFC Championship games, but the 49ers ownership made the change for a variety of reasons and now Jim Tomsula, the team's defensive line coach these past several years, is in charge. If there's one thing Tomsula is good at, it's being a player's coach and being able to unite a locker room.
Still, he definitely had his work cut out for him this offseason. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis all elected to retire, with Smith being the only one the team could have reasonably expected to call it quits given his lengthy NFL career. The team also lost starting cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver in free agency, along with wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati. They lost a lot more than they gained.
That said, the 49ers hope Colin Kaepernick can have a productive season running with and throwing the football, and they're hoping new receiver Torrey Smith can provide him a decent weapon. Running back Carlos Hyde is taking over for Frank Gore, but those guys will be playing behind an offensive line that features newcomers Jordan Devey and Erik Pears, two very bad players last season. It could be a bumpy ride on that side of the ball.
Minnesota saw some encouraging things out of Bridgewater as a rookie and they're hoping he can build on that this season. Unlike last year, he'll have what will hopefully be a productive running game behind him, led by Peterson. Minnesota ranked 14th in the NFL with 112.8 rushing yards per game last season, and Peterson will be looking to eclipse those numbers by himself on a weekly basis.
But Bridgewater and the Vikings might be best-served coming out and throwing the ball in this game. Starting 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock isn't at 100 percent due to a hamstring injury, and the team hasn't even announced its other starting cornerbacks yet. Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson and Shareece Wright are all in play, and all of those guys are players Bridgewater should look to exploit on Monday.
Peterson is just a season removed from carrying the ball 279 times for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns. The year before that, he had over 2,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. Last year, the Vikings' leading rusher was Matt Asiata, with 570 yards and a per-carry average of just 3.5 yards. Behind him was Jerick McKinnon, who had 538 yards with no touchdowns. Asiata, to his credit, had nine touchdowns and was a capable short-yardage back.
Teddy Bridgewater threw for just under 3,000 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a rookie, but with Peterson available it's likely he'll focus more on protecting the football. The Vikings certainly plan to win games on the ground, and figure to be better than the 7-9 record they posted last year.
There were 12 Pro Bowls between Willis and Smith alone, and now they're gone. Smith was a three-time All-Pro player, and Willis made it six times. At this point, the 49ers are going with an inexperienced line to replace Smith, but NaVorro Bowman is the guy they have stepping up to replace Willis. Bowman is one of the best linebackers in the league, with two Pro Bowls and three All-Pro nominations himself, but he's coming off a major injury that forced him out of all of last season.
Harbaugh finished his 49ers career with a 44-19-1 record in the regular season. They won 13, 11 and 12 games in his first three seasons, and went to Super Bowl XLVII. But the 49ers still parted ways with him, and went with Tomsula, who had never been even a coordinator at the NFL level.
Who to watch
Jarryd Hayne: It's unclear how much playing time Hayne will see, as the 49ers are adamant that there is still ongoing competition on special teams, but if Hayne starts (as he should), then he'll be worth watching every time Minnesota goes to punt the football. Hayne is a natural returning punts, and it was the perfect place for him to be tried out after coming over from Australia's Rugby League this offseason. If the 49ers let him, Hayne can become a big-play returner, so keep an eye out for No. 38 on Monday.
Adrian Peterson: Alright, so maybe this was the easy pick but seriously, every single person watching this game has to be interested in whatever it is Peterson does on Monday. As noted above, he'll have his hands full with a 49ers defensive front well-equipped to handle him, and San Francisco has performed well against him in the past, but Peterson is still Peterson. Finding the balance between being rusty and being fresh after the huge workload of the preceding seasons, Peterson going either way on Monday wouldn't be surprising.
How to watch:
When: 10:15 p.m. ET
Where: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Commentators: Chris Berman, Trent Dilfer
Five of SB Nation's experts think the Vikings have this one, with Danny Kelly and David Fucillo being the primary dissenters.
The 49ers opened as 4.5-point favorites, but the line quickly shifted in the other direction when money came in on Minnesota, and you can find them favored by as much as a field goal, according to OddsShark. Over at CBS Sports, only one of the eight feels like the 49ers can win this game, while ESPN's 13 experts weren't exactly split themselves -- 11 of the 13 picked Minnesota to win it.