Immediately, something was wrong.

At last, we'd made it. For the first instant since, well, Super Bowl XXIX, the Niners were known throughout the land as the greatest team in the NFL. It was early, of course; no one wins the title in September. But my word, did it feel good. After nearly two decades of mostly disaster, the Niners had finally reclaimed the throne.

The best. Unofficially, but still the best.

Yet warning signs were up ahead. The Packers and Patriots, the "best" of both weeks one and two, had promptly crashed back down to earth. Plus, after two wins that seemed like Armageddon, we were going on the road for a 10 a.m. start against a clearly inferior Vikings team. No doubt: the warnings were there, and they were screaming trap.

But no. No, dammit. We'd reached this pinnacle, and I wasn't ready to give it up, not after one insignificant week. And if we saw the signs, certainly Jim Harbaugh saw them too. He wouldn't let us lay an egg. Of course he'd inject the required intensity; of course we'd get the required fuel. We weren't the Packers or Patriots. We were for real, and we knew it. And when you're for real, no trap can hold you. You smirk at the trap, and you simply crush it under your heel.

Yet immediately, something was wrong.

After four straight games against the big-play Os of the Saints, Giants, Packers, and Lions, our D was totally unprepared for Christian Ponder's nickels and dimes. On play after play, he nimbly evaded our modest pressure, staying alive just long enough to complete a 5- to 10-yard pass. The result was something akin to a Chinese water torture: the Vikes just dripped their way down the field, driving us completely insane. Nevertheless, it seemed we'd escape; after 15 plays and nearly 8 minutes, we'd forced a fourth-and-goal at the one. But the Vikings went for it, and Ponder evaded one more rush, finding an open man for the score.

It was then that we knew: this wouldn't be easy.

Now trailing for the first time all year, it was up to the O to pick up the D. We'd discussed this very prospect, and right away, here it was. Unfortunately, the O was dealing with issues of its own. After an exchange of punts, Alex Smith fired up his own short-passing game, moving steadily into the red zone. On second-and-eight, Randy Moss got open for an easy score, the kind that might've shaken us up. But Smith saw the pressure coming, and he bailed out half-a-second too soon, putting the pass out of Moss's reach. After an all-too-predictable seven-yard gain on third-and-eight, Harbaugh elected to play it safe and kick a highly deflating field-goal.

Ponder answered with another torturous 80-yard slog, and as it turned out, the Vikings had won.

As disappointing as our showing was, naturally there's no need to panic. Good teams, and even great teams, are gonna lay an egg or two; you can even lose a game 40-to-8 and go on to bigger and better things. But that doesn't mean that there's nothing to learn. And in this case, what there is to learn is pretty disturbing.

Our D's initial surprise—at the Vikings' game-plan in general, and at Ponder's athletic skill in particular—was understandable. What was less understandable was our lack of adjustment. In the third quarter, after our offense briefly awoke and cut the Vikings' lead to four, a defensive stop might've propelled us to victory. Instead, Ponder just went back to work, leading a 90-yard drive that consumed 12 plays, 7 minutes, and most of the Niners' remaining fight.

During the NFC title game, Vic Fangio wisely decided that the best way to suppress the Giants was to beat Eli Manning to a bloody pulp. On Sunday, though, he couldn't summon a way to get there; Ponder threw the ball 35 times yet amazingly was hit only twice. Ponder, of course, had a lot to do with that. Nevertheless, three games in, neither of our defensive Smiths is wreaking anything close to last year's havoc. It's way too soon to worry here, but if time is catching up with Justin—and if Aldon's linebacking duties are distracting him from terrorizing quarterbacks—this D just might, dare I say, regress.

As we've also discussed, that would be fine, as long as the O could make up the difference. But on Sunday, the O's performance was flatly disgusting.

You know my views on this subject. Until it's time to run out the clock—and sometimes even after that—an O should keep the pedal down. I'll admit it, though; when you've got a great D, you can make a strong case: your opponent's best chance is to exploit your mistakes, and if you play it safe, you won't make any.

But all of this presumes you're ahead. If you're behind—which, to be fair, we rarely are—your first priority must be to fix that, and to fix it fast. If you mess around on O, and especially if your D is struggling, it won't be too long before it's too late.

In this game, aside from that isolated third-quarter burst, we never played like we were behind. Oh, sure, we were pass-first, but we didn't have any rhythm shallow or any aggression in going deep. We settled for field goals on fourth-and-one and fourth-and-two, most notably after a dreadful series that started out at the Vikes' 14. Play after play was scuttled by pressure; unlike Ponder, who used his feet and made us pay, Alex Smith seemed to mostly give up. We sleepwalked through much of the fourth quarter, without any evident sense of urgency. And when the urgency finally hit, with only a few minutes left in the game, Smith completely came apart.

A passive, stagnant O, to go with a passive, stagnant D. A virtually total, team-wide malaise. If it weren't for Harbaugh's ubiquitous sweatshirt, you'd have sworn the year was 2009.

And that's the most disturbing thing. It's not that we lost; it's not even that we lost to an inferior opponent. It's that we lost looking like that again, a team we thought was gone for good. A team we thought Harbaugh would never allow.

Unprepared. Unadjusted. Uninspired.

And now, no longer undefeated.