(Sports Network) - Based on the early returns of this 2011 campaign, the rejuvenated San Francisco 49ers appear poised to end a string of eight consecutive seasons of not making the playoffs. It's been almost a lifetime, however, since the Detroit Lions got this deep into a year with an undefeated record.
In one of the unexpected marquee matchups of the Week 6 schedule, the two teams will attempt to continue their restoration to relevance when they lock horns Sunday at Ford Field as current division leaders.
Neither Detroit nor San Francisco has enjoyed much success over the majority of this past decade, with the long-suffering Lions having endured 10 straight losing seasons and last reaching the playoffs in 1999 and the once-glorious 49ers on an eight-year streak of finishing .500 or worse since capturing their most recent NFC West title in 2002.
The results have been markedly different for each so far in 2011, however. Detroit is off to its first 5-0 start since opening up with six victories in a row all the way back in 1956 and has won nine straight contests dating back to the final month of last season. San Francisco has delivered a sudden resurgence under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, prevailing in four of its first five tests under the fiery former NFL quarterback's direction.
The 49ers last began 4-1 during that 2002 playoff run led by Steve Mariucci, who left the team following that season to begin in ill-fated three-year stint as the Lions' head coach, and heads into Sunday's clash off their most convincing win in nearly 24 years. San Francisco pummeled the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a 48-3 count this past weekend, the franchise's largest margin of victory since a 48-0 rout of the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 27, 1987.
San Francisco's resurgence has been keyed by both Harbaugh, who spent a good portion of his childhood in the Detroit region and was the starting quarterback for the University of Michigan from 1984-86, and a career breakthrough from Alex Smith. After disappointing in his first five professional seasons, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick has been one of the league's most efficient passers over the initial five weeks, having produced a 104.1 quarterback rating and throwing just one interception during that excellent stretch.
Smith tossed three touchdown passes in last Sunday's dismantling of the Buccaneers, helping back a combined 180 rushing yards from backfield mates Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter and a defense that induced three turnovers.
The Lions have built their glossy mark on the strength of the outstanding quarterback/wide receiver tandem of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and a remarkable ability to come from behind. Detroit has trailed at the half in each of its last three wins, and overcame deficits of 20 and 24 points in rallies past Minnesota and Dallas in Weeks 3 and 4.
Detroit continued the trend in its latest triumph, outscoring NFC North rival Chicago 17-3 in the second half to come away with a 24-13 decision in its first appearance on Monday Night Football since 2001.
Stafford threw a pair of touchdown strikes, including a 73-yarder to Johnson in the second quarter, to bring his season total to 13, which trails only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady for tops in the league this season. Johnson has been on the other end of nine of those scores, making the superstar wideout the first player in NFL history to record that many over the first five games of a season.
The 49ers lead the all-time regular season series with the Lions, which dates back to 1950, by a 34-26-1 margin, and has come out on top in each of the past seven meetings between the teams. The most recent one took place in California in 2009, a 20-6 San Francisco victory, and the Niners posted a 19-13 verdict over Detroit in their only previous stop to Ford Field back in 2006. The Lions are 1-12 in their last 13 games against San Francisco, with the lone positive outcome during that span a 27-24 win at the Silverdome on Sept. 25, 1995.
These clubs have only faced off once before in postseason play, with the 49ers escaping with a 24-23 decision at Candlestick Park in a 1983 NFC Divisional Playoff when a 43-yard field goal attempt by Lions kicker Eddie Murray with five seconds left sailed wide right.
Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz is 0-1 against San Francisco during his tenure, while Harbaugh will be opposing both the Lions and Schwartz for the first time in his present occupation. Schwartz was on the Baltimore Ravens staff during the 1998 season, a year in which Harbaugh was that team's quarterback.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Though Smith (965 passing yards, 7 TD, 1 INT) has been terrific in his game- manager's role, expect the 49ers to lean heavily on the powerful legs of Gore (400 rushing yards, 3 TD, 10 receptions), who's put up at least 125 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks, on Sunday while sprinkling in the promising rookie Hunter (133 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) on occasion. Not only does Harbaugh want to keep Detroit's quick-strike offense off the field as much as possible, but San Francisco is dealing with two key injuries at the wide receiver position, with veteran Braylon Edwards set to miss a fourth straight week with a knee sprain and usual contributor Josh Morgan sustaining a season- ending leg fracture in last week's victory. When Smith does drop back to pass, he'll be fixed mostly in the direction of athletic tight end Vernon Davis (22 receptions, 3 TD), who's fresh off a two-touchdown performance against the Bucs, and inconsistent 2009 first-round pick Michael Crabtree (11 receptions). Also look for the Niners to employ plenty of two-tight end sets involving the versatile Delanie Walker (9 receptions, 2 TD), a strong in-line blocker for the running backs who can be utilized as a third receiver. Airing it out isn't usually San Francisco's method of operation, as the team ranks last in the NFL in pass attempts and 29th in passing yards (183.0 ypg).
The Lions will be aware that the 49ers want to establish the run, but preventing their foe from doing so could be a bit tricky. Detroit is allowing a mediocre average of 4.8 yards per rush thus far, which Chicago's Matt Forte compiling 116 yards on 22 carries against the group on Monday, and linebackers Stephen Tulloch (32 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and DeAndre Levy (36 tackles) figure to be busy one week after teaming up for 19 tackles against the Bears. The Lions can be tough to throw on, however, with playmaking cornerback Chris Houston (26 tackles, 3 INT, 7 PD) and free safety Louis Delmas (25 tackles) heading up a solid secondary that's backed by a strong pass rush that was in Jay Cutler's face all throughout Monday's game. A defensive line anchored by 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh (16 tackles, 2 sacks) is one of the best in the business, with ends Kyle Vanden Bosch (13 tackles, 3 sacks) and Cliff Avril (11 tackles, 2 sack) both accomplished sack artists in their own right. On the injury front, strongside linebacker Justin Durant (21 tackles) may be held out a third straight week due to concussion symptoms, though journeyman Bobby Carpenter (11 tackles, 1 INT) has been filling in ably.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Detroit will take a much different offensive approach than the 49ers into this contest, allowing the strong-armed Stafford (1436 passing yards, 13 TD, 4 INT) to vertically stretch the field with a vast array of quality targets that have accumulated an average of 283.8 passing yards per game (7th overall). None has been more dangerous than Johnson (29 receptions, 451 yards, 9 TD), one of the league's premier deep threats who scorched the Bears for 130 yards on just five catches in Week 5 and has yet to be kept out of the end zone this season. His ability to command double-teams also helps open up underneath routes for reliable tight end Brandon Pettigrew (26 receptions, 1 TD) and speedy running back Jahvid Best (353 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 3 total TD), while veteran Nate Burleson (17 receptions) and rookie Titus Young (14 receptions) are outside options that must be accounted for as well. Best is an explosive dual threat out of the backfield who's averaging 4.8 yards per rush attempt at home over his career and broke out for a career-high 163 yards on only 12 carries against the Bears, most of which came on a game-changing 88-yard touchdown burst in the third quarter. Still, Detroit hasn't been overly effective running the football, ranking a mere 24th overall (95.8 ypg) in that category.
Another reason Stafford's expected to be throwing early and often come Sunday is that the 49ers boast one of the better run defenses in the game. Opponents have managed a scant 76.4 yards per game on the ground (4th overall) against a San Francisco stop unit that fields three outstanding stuffers in four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis (40 tackles, 4 PD), inside counterpart NaVorro Bowman (42 tackles) and rugged lineman Justin Smith (15 tackles, 3 sacks). The Niners enter this week's play not having allowed an enemy running back to surpass the 100-yard plateau in 27 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL. San Francisco has also been very good at forcing turnovers, having recorded three takeaways in each of its four wins and 14 on the season. Cornerback Carlos Rogers (13 tackles, 3 INT, 7 PD), a free-agent acquisition during the offseason, has proven to be an astute pickup, with the ex-Redskins having notched an interception in three straight weeks and taking his last pick 31 yards for a touchdown in the Tampa Bay game. Rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith (7 tackles), the club's first-round selection in last April's draft, has also provided a boost as a pass-rusher by registering 3 1/2 sacks over the past two games.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Detroit's primary objective has to be to keep Gore in check. The 49ers aren't built to win with Alex Smith slinging it around 35 or more times in a game, especially with the depleted receiving corps the reborn quarterback will be saddled with on Sunday, and a San Francisco offensive line that's allowed 14 sacks this year will likely encounter trouble dealing with the Lions' stout pass rush if the team is placed into obvious throwing situations.
For San Francisco, it's about continuing to create the turnovers. The Niners own an NFC-best plus-10 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio on the season and have forced 12 mistakes out of the opposition in their four wins. That may be a task easier said than done this week, though, as the Lions have turned it over only four times in five games and have a plus-seven margin.
Start fast. Establishing an early lead will allow San Francisco to stick to its game plan of running the football and controlling the clock, which should enhance its chances of coming out with a victory. While the Lions have unequivocally shown they can come from behind, jumping out in front would take the 49ers out of their comfort zone and play to their own strengths.
The records of these two participants indicate this game should be one of the most entertaining and competitive on this week's docket, and that may very well be the case if both continue to perform at their recent levels. Though the Lions haven't lost since early December of last year, they've been on the ropes quite a few times during their amazing streak and may not have the luxury of getting away with mistakes against a well-coached San Francisco crew that's fundamentally sound in most areas. The 49ers don't possess the firepower on offense as Detroit does, however, and playing in front of a re-energized home crowd should work to the Lions' benefit as well. Detroit rarely makes it easy, but its confidence and talent may be just enough to keep its unblemished record intact for yet another week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 26, 49ers 23