DETROIT - OCTOBER 16: Brian Jennings #86 and Alex Boone #75 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrate David Akers #2 58 yard field goal to end the first half of the NFL game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on October 16, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. The 49ers defeated the Lions 25-19. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Last year’s matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions was remembered more for a handshake and a slap on the back – and the storm that ensued – than for the actual game on the field.
This Sunday, both teams say all their focus is on the field.
The 49ers, who opened this 2012 season with a bang by beating the Packers in Green Bay last Sunday, can keep their momentum rolling with a win over Detroit Sunday night at Candlestick Park.
The 1-0 Lions, meanwhile, say this meeting against one of the NFC’s best teams is a “measuring stick” for a team that won 10 games last season – but not a single one of them against a team with a winning record.
“We definitely want to see where we stack up,” Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson told reporters this week in Detroit. “We feel like we have a good shot going in. We’re a formidable opponent on the road.”
As formidable as they might be, however, oddsmakers have made the 49ers about a seven-point favorite Sunday to beat the Lions, just as they did last season when Alex Smith led a late touchdown drive for a 25-19 decision that set off head coach Jim Harbaugh on an enthusiastic, back-slapping binge that offended Lions coach Jim Schwartz when the two met for a postgame handshake.
The following confrontation between the two was dubbed “Handshakegate” and immediately was the topic of questions and conversation this week after the two coaches turned their attention from openng-game victories to their matchup in Game No. 2.
Harbaugh quickly dismissed the questions, and so did Schwartz.
“That’s long in the past,” Schwartz told the media this week. “That just seems so long ago that that occurred. When two teams take the field, that’s not going to be on one player’s mind.”
The Lions – who haven’t won a game in San Francisco since 1975 – will bring in a strong passing game centered around young quarterback Matthew Stafford and Johnson, the big, go-to, 6-foot-5 receiver they call “Megatron.” In the Lions’ Game 1 win over St. Louis, Stafford completed 32-of-48 passes for 355 yards, including a late TD pass that locked up the game. Detroit’s running game isn’t so dangerous, however, especially when matched against San Francisco’s formidable front seven. If the Lions are to win, they’ll likely have to connect often on big passing plays while relying on their defense – which had four sacks against the Rams – to stop the 49ers.
Defensive end Cliff Avril and tackle Ndamukong Suh can be hard to handle, and the job of going one-on-one with Suh on many plays will be new starting right guard Alex Boone, who graded well last week vs. the Packers.
“Nobody’s giving us a chance (against the Niners), but those of us within this locker room feel like we can play with them and pull out a win,” Avril told CBSSports.com. “They have all the hype behind them, which is fine. … If we get the win, people will kind of give us a little more respect, but respect has to be earned.”
The Niners, meanwhile, opened eyes with their win in Green Bay. In one week, the 49ers went from being thought of by some as a team that couldn’t possibly repeat its 2011 performance – when it went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game – to being talked about as one of the best teams in the NFL.
In the season-opening win, Smith was highly efficient in the passing game, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter led a terrific running game and the 49ers defense came up with big, late stops to hold off a Packers surge.
Plus, the 49ers are on an amazing roll of protecting the football. They just don’t commit turnovers. The streak has now reached six regular-season games and the Niners can tie the NFL record with no fumbles or interceptions Sunday against the Lions.
“Ball security relates to your team being successful, and we’re very serious about that,” Harbaugh said this week.