SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Patrick Willis' determination to be polite is just as intense as his determination to tackle everything he sees. The 49ers' rookie linebacker always smiles, answers every demand patiently and calls just about everybody ``Sir'' - even some women.
San Francisco hopes its leading tackler will be a whole lot less gracious Sunday to Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson when two of the league's finest rookies meet repeatedly and violently at Candlestick Park.
Willis and Peterson have been the brightest spots on their teams during their first year in the NFL. Their first meeting is key for the Vikings' (6-6) playoff hopes, while the 49ers (3-9) will attempt to salvage a bit of respect from a hugely disappointing season.
Yet even the coaches will be gawking when the league's leading tackler goes after its leading rusher. Willis and Peterson have the talent to be stars for years to come, and their first head-to-head matchup could cement both players' front-runner status in the rookie-of-the-year races on both sides of the ball.
``That'll be a fun one to watch,'' 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. ``I think it'll have something to do with the voting when the season's all over. I think people will watch and see what happens. When they're that close to one another, who won what battle?''
Their battle could be the most interesting part of the sequel to one of the NFL's worst games in 2006. San Francisco beat Minnesota 9-3 despite managing just 133 total yards while the Vikings committed three turnovers and dropped several big passes in a thoroughly dull afternoon.
But Peterson and Willis were both finishing up stellar college careers at the time, and Nolan figures their pairing alone should be more exciting than that snoozer.
``I do think that is one of the more interesting challenges in this football game, because they will meet,'' Nolan said. ``It's not like a defensive back and a running back, where they may not meet very often. You're talking about two players, the linebacker and the running back - they should meet quite a few times, whether it's in coverage or in the running game.''
There's a movement afoot in San Francisco to come up with a nickname for Willis, who already has made 128 tackles in San Francisco's 3-4 defense, even while playing with a broken hand in recent games.
Minnesota coach Brad Childress applied his own catchy moniker while watching film during the week.
``I'll tell you what, he is a rolling ball of butcher knives,'' Childress said. ``He is everywhere. He's a million-mile-an-hour guy. He was playing with a club on his hand for a while. He broke his hand, and he still was everywhere.''
The same could be said of Peterson, who has rushed for 1,197 yards despite missing two games with a knee injury. He returned with 116 yards in a win over Detroit last week, Minnesota's third straight while jumping back into the playoff race.
San Francisco has lost nine of 10 despite Willis' impressive play, falling out of the playoff picture for the fifth straight season.
Willis and Peterson have a passing acquaintance after spending two months working out at the same Arizona complex during the offseason.
``I trained with him, and I've seen what he's done this far,'' Willis said. ``I don't go into it thinking, 'Oh man, I hope he doesn't make me miss,' or nothing like that. (I'll) just go out there and just play the very best I can play and not worry about if he's going to make me miss, or if he's going to make me look bad on TV.''
Peterson also is aware of Willis' growing reputation, particularly after studying him for the game. He sees Willis quickly joining Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis and the rest of the NFL's elite linebackers.
``I haven't played against him, but watching film and watching him play, he is playing up to some of those guys' standards, just by his play and his stats,'' Peterson said.
And what about when they meet?
``It could be a collision, or I might have to put a move on him to get to the end zone,'' Peterson said. ``So I don't know, I guess you've just got to wait and see.''
Even if Willis and Peterson weren't having breakout seasons, the rookies would be hits with their respective teachers. In addition to being humble and remarkably good-natured, both players have a reputation for outstanding work ethics, making their coaches' jobs remarkably easy in their first season.
``I think it's fun for the NFL and the fans to see where the league is going and what type of players are out there,'' Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. ``There are always people leaving, there are always people coming in, and the new crop is on display this Sunday. I think it's fun to watch.''

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