Detroit Lions (1-0) at San Francisco 49ers (1-0)
1. These teams have risen from the ashes
The Lions and 49ers have made themselves relevant again. Once formidable powers -- San Francisco won four Super Bowls in the 1980s and Detroit captured NFL championships three times in the '50s -- both teams had plodded through some difficult stretches until last year, when they qualified for the playoffs.
These former pushovers look like they will be playoff contenders again in 2012, based on their opening-week performances. The 49ers knocked off the vaunted Packers, 30-22, in Green Bay, becoming the first road team to win a regular season game at Lambeau Field since the Dolphins achieved that feat on Oct. 17, 2010.
"Obviously, you don't go into Lambeau against the Green Bay Packers and win a cheap one," Schwartz said to Detroit reporters. "They earned their way."
The Lions made a somewhat lesser statement, but won nonetheless, when they overcame three Stafford interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown, and came from behind in the final minute to beat St. Louis, 27-23, at home.
Sunday night's game at Candlestick Park will give us more insight into what each team's identity will be this season.
2. The Lions have a run-of-the-mill running game
Detroit's issues at running back have been well-documented, but in case you were dozing, here's the situation. After ranking 29th in the league in rushing last year, averaging only 95.2 yards per game, the Lions entered this season without their top two running backs. Jahvid Best still was suffering from post-concussion problems from 2011 and is on the physically unable to perform list. Mikel Leshoure, who missed his entire rookie season because of an Achilles tendon injury, was suspended for the first two games because of two offseason marijuana arrests. He should return next week, when the Lions travel to Tennessee.
In the meantime, Kevin Smith is the man. Originally a 2008 third-round draft pick out of Central Florida, Smith preceded both Best and Leshoure on the Lions. He was pushed out of the No. 1 spot, however, after Best, a first-round pick, arrived in 2010, with Smith later tearing his ACL. Detroit declined to tender Smith a contract in March 2011 -- he became a free agent but no team signed him -- then brought him back halfway through the season after Best had his concussion problems.
Smith carried 13 times for 62 yards against St. Louis -- he outrushed the Rams' Steven Jackson, a perennial 1,000-yard back -- and scored two touchdowns, one on a five-yard run and the other on a five-yard pass. It will be interesting to see how Smith's role changes once Leshoure and Best return to the lineup.
3. The 49ers treat the football like it was a brick of gold
On the second-to-last play of San Francisco's Thanksgiving night game in Baltimore last Nov. 24, quarterback Alex Smith launched a deep pass for Braylon Edwards that Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb intercepted in the end zone for a touchback. That's the last time the 49ers turned the ball over in a regular season game.
It's been 26 consecutive quarters, or 390 minutes and counting, without a lost fumble or an interception for the 49ers, who led the league last season in fewest turnovers (10), matching the 2010 Patriots for the least in NFL history. Their turnover differential (plus-28) equaled the second-best mark (the Redskins were plus-43 in 1983) since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
So what's the explanation for this streak of ball security?
"Commitment to taking care of the ball," Harbaugh told reporters. "[Running backs coach] Tom Rathman does talk about it daily, and coaches it daily. And does a fabulous job, or as good as job as any of us have ever seen done in that regard. And I think that the men that are handling the ball, and Tom Rathman, all deserve a lot of credit there."
A big part of it goes back to better decision-making by Smith, the league's No. 1 draft pick in 2005, who threw a league-fewest five interceptions last season and hasn't been picked off since that Ravens game. He has a streak of 185 consecutive passes without being intercepted; neither Steve Young nor Joe Montana can claim that. Smith, who had double-digit interceptions in four of his first five seasons, has made a conscious effort to not force passes, even if it means having to take a sack. And even though he was sacked a league-high 44 times in 2011, he never lost a fumble.
How gratifying was it for you to score two touchdowns, including the game-winner, in the opening game?
It was fun just going out there and being able to put up that win. Being out there on the last drive with my teammates was just one of those moments you cherish.
What were you doing at this time last year?
Just training in Miami.
After the Lions didn't offer you a contract, did any other team call with a job offer or give you a tryout?
Yeah, I worked out for a few teams before the season and on Tuesdays during the season. A little bit of both.
Did you come close to signing with another team?
I don't know what close to signing is. You either sign or don't sign. If I had been offered a job, I would have taken it, so I guess that's a no.
What do you hope to show the Lions while Mikel Leshoure misses one more game and Jahvid Best is on the PUP list?
I'm just playing football, man. Those things have nothing to do with me. I'm just enjoying my time playing.
You've had an up-and-down career in the NFL. How have you managed to stay positive and upbeat?
Life is good. I can't complain. There's nothing to complain about. I always stay upbeat. As long as I'm breathing.
How would you describe yourself as a running back as far as what you bring to the Lions' offense?
I'm just an all-around back. I can do it all (run, block, catch). Basically, that's the only way to describe it.
A thousand yards is a magic plateau for a running back. Is it frustrating that you have never reached that?
No, not at all. I was close to it, and then I tore my ACL in my second year. I'm just really getting back from that injury. Timing is everything.
The 49ers had the No. 1 defense against the rush last year. What makes them so good?
They tackle well, they're good athletes and they play well within the system.
How did sitting out of football for half a year last season change your perspective on the game?
I always say you don't want to take football for granted. That was an experience that just makes you appreciate every opportunity that you have.
Jim Schwartz seems to be turning things around in Detroit. What makes him a good coach?
He's just a leader and a great coach. It speaks for itself.
Lions quarterback Matt Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson have become the most dominant passer-receiver duo in the NFL. Although they have played together in only 29 games (less than two full seasons), they have collaborated for 169 receptions, 2,807 yards and 25 touchdowns. Stafford is only 24 and Johnson will turn 27 on Sept. 29. If they can stay healthy and keep up their pace for another eight years, they could become the NFL's all-time touchdowns duo. Here are the top six (courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau).
These teams met on Oct. 16 last year -- the 49ers came into Ford Field and handed the Lions their first loss of the season -- in a game that had one of the most bizarre endings you've ever seen. An overly exuberant Harbaugh gave Schwartz a slap on the back after the traditional handshake exchange, and Schwartz didn't care for it. He chased Harbaugh down the field and confronted him, but 49ers P.R. director Bob Lange and several players separated the two coaches before it became physical.
The Handshake will be much more on the minds of the fans than the coaches Sunday night in San Francisco.
"That's long in the past. It just seems so long ago that that occurred," said Schwartz, who told Detroit reporters earlier this week that he and Harbaugh have run into each other (no pun intended) several times since the incident. "When the teams take the field, that's not going to be on one player's mind, and that's the only thing that's important."
The 49ers will have their hands full trying to cover Johnson, and if they devote too much focus on him Stafford will go to Nate Burleson and Titus Young, Detroit's No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. But in addition to Smith and Gore, San Francisco has some big-play receivers of its own, such as tight end Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and the always enigmatic Randy Moss. Plus the quartet of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks may be the best set of linebackers in the league. The 49ers should have enough weapons to fend off the feisty Lions in what could be a playoff preview.
49ers 27, Lions 21Last week: 1-0Season: 1-0