MINNEAPOLIS -- The curtain separating reporters from the San Francisco 49ers' locker room Sunday was no match for coach Mike Singletary's impassioned rants.
"Stop looking at the floor!" he ordered players in an otherwise silent locker room. "We didn't steal anything, we didn't do anything wrong, OK? We're going to get better. We are going to get there."
The momentum was building.
"We will see them again -- in the playoffs!" Singletary continued. "All right?"
Singletary remained out of view, but he commanded the room on both sides of the curtain. Reporters were rapt, players silent.
"You hold your head up!" he screamed. "You do not need to put your head down for nobody! You hold your head up! You understand? You hold your head up, your shoulders back and let's rock! OK? Let's go!"
The 49ers couldn't have dreamed a harder way to lose a game. Brett Favre's 32-yard strike to Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone with two seconds remaining turned a defining 49ers performance into heartbreak. But this defeat was not a total loss.
"You look at a game like today and it's a tough loss, but the team that lost this game, particularly like that, is going to be better for it," Singletary said during his postgame news conference. "It stings and it hurts like heck, but going forward, this will serve us well. We have to learn how to finish."
The 49ers have branded Singletary's five-point "formula for success" onto walls at their facility in Santa Clara, Calif. A quick look at each one shows the 49ers, despite nearly winning this game, have much work to do:
2. Execute. The 49ers fell short, failing to convert any of their 11 third-down opportunities before allowing Lewis to get free on the final play. Allowing a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown also hurt.
3. Dominate the trenches. Holding Adrian Peterson to 85 yards despite a 35-yard carry qualifies as a success. The 49ers averaged only 2.2 yards per carry, a number that doesn't seem so bad given that the Vikings knew what was coming. Coffee did have 12- and 13-yard runs in the third quarter when the 49ers needed to control the ball. The 49ers sacked Favre twice and roughed him up a few times. They did not dominate the trenches, but they weren't dominated either.
4. Create great field position. The 49ers were hit-and-miss on this front. They began drives at their own 14- and 8-yard lines early in the game. Their first second-half drive began at their own 16. The Vikings began one drive at the San Francisco 34.
5. Finish. Blaming the 49ers for failing to finish is seeing only part of the story. Favre made a Hall of Fame play when nothing less would suffice.
Give Favre credit, but not entirely at the 49ers' expense. They showed more in this game than anyone reasonably could have expected even three weeks ago:
Shaun Hill can win a game. Only a few days ago, Singletary sidestepped a question about whether the 49ers' quarterback could win games instead of simply managing them. The 49ers found their answer in the Metrodome. For the second time in as many road games, Hill led the go-ahead 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. His 20-yard scoring pass to tight end Vernon Davis on second-and-goal from the 20 should have stood as the defining play for San Francisco.
Hill is the 49ers' most important player. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye gave that distinction to Frank Gore before the season, but he might need to reconsider. The 49ers lost Gore to injury during their second possession. They lost left tackle Joe Staley for part of their go-ahead scoring drive in the fourth quarter (Staley said he was the victim of a leg-whipping by an unseen defender). Hill was the constant. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns despite brutally difficult conditions for a quarterback. The team's failures on third down at least partially reflect conservative play calling on early downs. The 49ers were going to run the ball, period, even when the Vikings knew it was coming. Hill was good in the clutch.
The 49ers are physically tough. This game felt more like an NFC North or AFC North slugfest than anything associated with the NFC West in recent seasons. "They were going to run the ball and stop the run and try to hit you in the mouth, and they did a pretty good job of it," Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson said.
The 49ers are mentally tough. Gore's injury gave the 49ers and easy out. They would not take it. They weathered a rough start to take control of the game. Their 80-yard touchdown drive came after the 49ers allowed Percy Harvin's return touchdown. Few teams could overcome losing their workhorse running back and allowing a special-teams touchdown to win on the road. The 49ers nearly did.
Recent draft choices are looking good. Staley, a first-round choice in 2007, battled Vikings defensive end Jared Allen pretty evenly after allowing a sack on the first play. Coffee, a third-rounder this year, ran tough even when there wasn't much room. Davis, the sixth player chosen in the 2006 draft, caught seven passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns. He's functioning much better than previously now that the 49ers are leaving him on the field for entire games. He fits this offense. If only the team could have gotten Michael Crabtree signed in time to contribute this season.
The 49ers are not pretty. They are not going to suddenly become pretty. Their approach might not be good enough to win playoff games. But for all their obvious warts -- and none stands taller than that 0-for-11 mark on third down -- they were leading the Vikings in the Metrodome with three seconds remaining.
On that front, Singletary was right. The 49ers need not hang their heads for anybody. They're 2-1 heading into a home game against the 0-3 Rams.
"It's not the end of us," cornerback Dre Bly said. "We're going to fight back. We're a good football team."