It's strange when one of the most anticipated games of the year occurs so early in the schedule, but the time has come for the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions to take the field again, after their classic 2011 matchup. Most people remember it for the post-game antics, but what has been forgotten was an excellent, hard-fought game. The entire game was emotionally charged and physically brutal. The Lions were a play away from defeating the 49ers and claiming a 6-0 record, but Alex Smith led a great, dramatic comeback. (At the time, this seemed highly improbable, but now it's not so unbelievable.)
This week, the teams enter with the Niners riding high after a big win over the Green Bay Packers, while the Lions stumbled past the St. Louis Rams. Bring on the charts!
Despite not having one of his better days, Matthew Stafford actually put up the most yards in the NFL on Sunday. Still, it was disheartening to see him drive the team down the field only to commit a fatal error, ending drives abruptly and without points. The Rams were actually a pretty solid pass defense last year, so perhaps it shouldn't have come as such a surprise that the Lions were forced into turnovers on Sunday.
The 49ers did a pretty solid job against the Packers last week. Aaron Rodgers got his yards, but the Niners held him below a 100 passer rating, something that only happened twice during the entire regular season in 2011. In addition to holding the Packers to only 14 offensive points, the 49ers sacked Rodgers thrice, picked him off once and held him to just 6.9 yards per attempt (he averages 8.2 for his career).
Player to watch: NaVorro Bowman. The Niners like to send pressure up the middle, and Bowman had a field day against the Packers, tallying up 11 tackles and picking off Rodgers beautifully on a key play. People tend to forget about Bowman with Patrick Willis standing beside him, but he can be just as dangerous.
Advantage: Push. The Lions moved the ball well against a mediocre defense in the Rams, but they also fell for some traps that nearly cost them the game. The 49ers are a much better defense and a very physical one. Watching their matchup last week, I noticed they played on the borderline of illegal and legal contact with receivers. The Niners were called for two pass interference penalties last week but likely got away with a couple more. The Lions will get their yardage, but the key to this matchup will be converting in the red zone and not turning the ball over.
Lions Run Offense (19th) vs. 49ers Run Defense (6th)
The Lions used the run sparingly but effectively against the Rams last week. Kevin Smith looked solid, and there were actually some good-sized running lanes. However, the Rams were the worst run defense last year, and it's hard to know whether last week's success will continue in the future.
On the other hand, I think we can safely assume the 49ers will have one of the best run defenses in the league again this year. They dominated the Packers, whose averages were already pretty terrible. And the Niners still haven't allowed a rusher of 100+ yards in 20 home games.
Player to watch: Patrick Willis. The guy is a beast. The Niners likely have the best interior linebacker duo in the league, maybe in league history.
Advantage: 49ers +0.5. The Niners have the clear advantage here, but the score is so low because I don't see this matchup being essential for either team to ensure victory. The Lions are saying all the right things by claiming this game will be won on the ground, but I don't believe it. The only time the Lions will need the run is if they are attempting to run the clock out late. Otherwise, expect them to mostly move the ball through the air.
49ers Pass Offense (27th) vs. Lions Pass Defense (4th)
Alex Smith is looking like he'll continue his year of non-staggering numbers mixed with excellent play. Smith doesn't get the attention of all the "elite" quarterbacks because he fails to hit the 300-yard mark consistently. However, the guy is extremely efficient and careful with the ball. According to Tim Twentyman, Smith has 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions in his past 11 home games. He is a great game manager and is starting to make the big throws as well.
The Lions didn't seem to have a bad week against the Rams passing attack. But the chart doesn't agree. We won't know for sure until we see the Rams season play out, but if last year was any indication, the Rams won't likely put up a passer rating of 100+ any time in the near future. Still, the Lions' performance should be considered mostly a success, given that the secondary was ailing and the Lions didn't give up any huge plays. The Lions will likely get the services of Chris Houston back, but Bill Bentley and Louis Delmas' availability looks questionable at best.
Advantage: 49ers +1. This could be a very close matchup, but I give the edge to the Niners because I think Davis and Randy Moss allow San Francisco to stretch the field where the Rams could not last week. There was a scary moment last week when the Rams tried to go deep and a receiver had blown by both safeties. Luckily the ball was underthrown and Drayton Florence managed to catch up with it. I expect at least one big play out of Smith on Sunday night.
49ers Run Offense (2nd) vs. Lions Run Defense (10th)
The Niners ran the ball down Green Bay's throat last week. The one-two punch of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter had the Packers on the ropes all day. The Packers aren't a notoriously strong run defense, but the Niners still destroyed their averages from last year.
Here's the matchup of the game. The Lions countered with a very strong performance last week. The mighty Steven Jackson was held completely in check and the Lions put up a performance worthy of an elite defense. Time will tell if this will hold up, and no better time than this week.
Player to watch: Corey Williams. I had counted Williams out for 2012. I figured he was due for regression and Nick Fairley would take over. However, Williams started this season with a bang, tallying five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. If he and Ndamukong Suh can continue to wreak havoc while staying faithful to their assignments, the Lions could repeat their performance from last week.
Advantage: 49ers +0.5. I'm not quite a believer in the Lions run defense ... yet. Last year they did a decent job of holding Gore in check but gave up a couple huge plays that really hurt them. This year, the Niners' attack looks to be even better. And while the Lions defense looks better too, I still see them ceding a devastating play on the ground.
Primetime home game. The crowd may be a big factor come Sunday. With the bright lights (assuming there isn't another blackout) and huge stage, Candlestick Park will be electric on Sunday. The Lions will have a hard time adjusting any plays after the huddle.
The Rematch. I think the Lions will come in with bigger motivation. Having lost a heart-breaker last year to the Niners at home, the Lions will have revenge on their mind. The Niners just came off a big win last week and may be lining themselves up for a letdown against Detroit. Meanwhile, the Lions, having nearly lost a "should-win" game, may be looking to prove their legitimacy.
The 49ers end up with a +2 advantage. That is a pretty mild advantage, but they do hold the advantage in three of the four matchups. The keys for the Lions will be to eliminate turnovers on offense and slow the 49ers backfield on defense. Against a defense and running game so elite, both of those goals are not going to be easy, and I don't see it happening this week. 49ers 24, Lions 13.