Two of the NFC's premier teams from last season will be on display in front of a national audience when the NFL's Sunday Night Football series converges on San Francisco's Candlestick Park during Week 2 of the 2012 campaign, though hardly any of the discussion surrounding the home-standing 49ers' impending clash with the Detroit Lions pertains to any of the long list of talented players on both sides that will be taking part in this matchup.
Instead, the spotlight will be fixated solely on the head coaches that will be leading their teams into battle when fiery 49ers sideline boss Jim Harbaugh goes face-to-face with equally intense Lions commander Jim Schwartz for the first time since the two engaged in a heated postgame dustup after the teams' meeting from this past October.
The infamous incident took place following San Francisco's 25-19 victory over then-unbeaten Lions at Ford Field during Week 6 of last season, with Schwartz taking exception to Harbaugh's demonstrative exuberance when the two shook hands at midfield.
As expected, both parties attempted to play down the matter during the week, instead preferring to shift the focus onto the importance of this mid- September showdown for each team.
"I really think it's just a mini-controversy that's completely irrelevant," said Harbaugh. "To put it next to the game itself is missing the point, in my opinion. I don't know that I really have any more that I could possibly add to it."
Harbaugh does have a good argument, as Sunday's tilt features a pair of 2011 playoff participants that each orchestrated dramatic turnarounds from the previous year and began their current postseason quests with a victory.
The 49ers delivered the bolder and more impressive of the two Week 1 wins, vanquishing last season's top playoff seed Green Bay by a 30-22 count on the Packers' home turf of Lambeau Field.
San Francisco used largely the same formula that produced a glossy 13-3 record and a run to the NFC Championship Game during Harbaugh's first year at the helm. The 49ers ran the ball with authority, piling up 186 yards on the ground against the Packers, and received heady and efficient play under center from quarterback Alex Smith as well as a yeoman-like effort from a dependable defense that frustrated Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's powerful passing attack all afternoon long.
The Lions had to scratch and claw to enter the contest with a 1-0 mark, rallying from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to register a tougher-than- expected 27-23 home triumph over a game St. Louis squad. The deciding margin came on a five-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford to running back Kevin Smith with a mere 10 seconds left on the clock.
Stafford helped put Detroit in a hole by tossing three first-half interceptions, two of which occurred in the red zone. The prolific young passer redeemed himself later on, however, by engineering a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives in the final 10 minutes in which he completed 11-of-12 attempts for 142 yards.
"The good news is that the last two times we had the ball, I don't know if anyone has ever played better," said Schwartz of Stafford's heroics.
A defense that limited the Rams to 77 rushing yards and 250 total also had a big hand in the comeback, but the group figures to face a sterner challenge from San Francisco's physical ground attack this week. The Niners churned out 203 rushing yards, including 141 from lead back Frank Gore, in last year's encounter with Detroit.
The Lions will also be attempting to buck history, as Detroit has lost eight straight games to the 49ers and is 1-12 all-time at Candlestick Park, with the lone positive result coming all the way back in 1975. The Lions last topped San Francisco in 1995.
49ers lead 25-26-1
Streak: 49ers have won last eight meetings Last Meeting: 49ers 25, Lions 19 (Oct. 16, 2011 at Detroit) Last Meeting at Site: 49ers 20, Lions 6 (Dec. 27, 2009)
Lions HC Jim Schwartz vs. 49ers: 0-2 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh vs. Lions: 1-0 Schwartz vs. Harbaugh Head-to-Head: Harbaugh leads, 1-0
Notes: Lions last bested the 49ers on Sept. 25, 1995, a 27-24 decision at the Silverdome, and have lost 11 consecutive times in San Francisco. That includes a 24-23 setback to the Niners in a 1983 NFC Divisional Playoff, one of two all-time postseason meetings between the clubs. Detroit dealt San Francisco a 31-27 loss in the Motor City in a 1957 playoff clash. Lions are also 1-12 lifetime at Candlestick Park, with their lone win a 28-17 result on Nov. 2, 1975. Harbaugh was the Baltimore Ravens' starting quarterback in 1998, when Schwartz was on that team's staff as a defensive assistant.
BY THE NUMBERS
Offensive Team Rankings
Detroit: 5th overall (429.0 ypg), tied 19th rushing (83.0 ypg), 1st passing (346.0 ypg), 12th scoring (27.0 ppg)
San Francisco: 12th overall (377.0 ypg), 2nd rushing (186.0 ypg), 27th passing (193.0 ypg), tied 9th scoring (30.0 ppg)
Defensive Team Rankings
Detroit: 2nd overall (250.0 ypg), 10th rushing (77.0 ypg), 4th passing (173.0 ypg), tied 16th scoring (23.0 ppg)
San Francisco: 14th overall (324.0 ypg), tied 6th rushing (45.0 ypg), 22nd passing (279.0 ypg), tied 14th scoring (22.0 ppg)
Detroit: -3 (0 takeaways, 3 giveaways) San Francisco: +1 (1 takeaway, 0 giveaways)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Detroit: 60.0 percent (5 possessions, 3 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 10th overall San Francisco: 100.0 percent (2 possessions, 2 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 1st overall
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Detroit: 0.0 percent (1 possession, 0 TD, 1 FG) -- tied 1st overall San Francisco: 100.0 percent (2 possessions, 2 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 26th overall
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Detroit lived and died on the strong right arm of Stafford (355 passing yards, 1 TD, 3 INT last week) all throughout last season's breakthrough, and that's shaping up to be the case once more this week with San Francisco boasting one of the league's stingiest defenses against the run. The 2009 No. 1 overall pick's primary aim will be to get the ball downfield to All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions' best playmaker who toasted the Niners for 113 yards on seven catches in last year's bout and compiled 111 yards on six grabs this past Sunday. San Francisco did an excellent job of neutralizing Green Bay's vertical game a week ago, however, meaning Stafford may have to settle for shorter gains from the intermediate targets of veteran slot receiver Nate Burleson (6 receptions, 69 yards) and the tight-end combo of Brandon Pettigrew (5 receptions, 77 yards) and Tony Schaeffer (5 receptions). Making judicious decisions will be a must as well for the standout quarterback, as the 49ers usually haven't beaten themselves with turnovers during the Harbaugh era. Detroit did get solid run production out of Kevin Smith (62 rushing yards, 4 receptions, 2 total TD) against St. Louis, and he'll carry the backfield load again on Sunday with speedster Jahvid Best sidelined indefinitely with concussion symptoms and second-year talent Mikel Leshoure still serving a two- game suspension. Still, coordinator Scott Linehan probably plans to take to the ground only enough to prevent the offense from becoming entirely predictable.
The 49ers were well-prepared for Green Bay's aerial show in the opener, with the secondary effectively taking away the deep ball and the formidable outside linebacker duo of Aldon Smith (3 tackles, 1 sack) and Ahmad Brooks (1 sack, 3 hurries) generating consistent pressure that often took Rodgers out of rhythm. Defensive architect Vic Fangio also brought a lot of blitzes from the slot defenders while deploying plenty of nickel and dime looks and could do so once again, though that runs the risk of outside cornerbacks Tarell Brown (6 tackles, 1 PD) and Chris Culliver (4 tackles, 1 PD) having to be matched up one-on-one with Johnson, a battle that the Detroit receiver is going to win more times than not. San Francisco also limited the Packers to a scant 3.2 yards per rush despite difference-making inside linebacker Patrick Willis (6 tackles) seeing reduced snaps with all the extra defensive backs used, though strong showings from counterpart NaVorro Bowman (11 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PD) and end Ray McDonald (4 tackles) were more than enough to compensate for his absence.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Expect San Francisco to take a similar approach as it did in keeping Green Bay's array of weapons off the field last week, with Gore (112 rushing yards, 1 TD) and backfield mate Kendall Hunter (41 rushing yards) grinding out hard yards to control the clock and Alex Smith (211 passing yards, 2 TD) taking what the defense will give him when mixing in the pass. The cerebral quarterback may be labeled a game manager, but he was incredibly efficient in completing 20-of-26 throws while routinely finding the open man. Veteran wide receiver Randy Moss also made an impact in the first game of his comeback from a one-year absence, with the seven-time Pro Bowler making four catches totaling 47 yards and snaring a 14-yard touchdown strike from Smith despite being out for only 21 plays. The go-to-guy still remains wideout Michael Crabtree, however, with the 2009 first-round selection amassing a nine-catch, 77-yard effort against the Lions a year ago and posting team bests of seven grabs and 76 receiving yards last week. The Niners also have a quality weapon down the seam in athletic tight end Vernon Davis (3 receptions), but will need to show better in protection after Smith was taken down four times by the Packers, with usually reliable left tackle Joe Staley allowing two of those sacks while struggling against Green Bay premier pass-rusher Clay Matthews.
The Lions were suspect against the run last season and especially so in their matchup with San Francisco, in which Gore shredded the defense for 141 yards on only 15 attempts. The defense fared far better in that area against the Rams, however, limiting the dangerous Steven Jackson to a non-threatening 53 yards on 21 totes. Linebackers Justin Durant (12 tackles) and Stephen Tulloch (9 tackles) keyed that effort with excellent reads and continuously flying to the football, and the pair will be counted on for a repeat performance to prohibit a reoccurrence of last year's problems. If Detroit is able to keep Gore and Hunter under wraps, they'll be better equipped to unleash a furious pass rush upon Alex Smith led by two proven disrupters in end Cliff Avril and tackle Ndamukong Suh, both of whom have produced double-digit sack seasons during their careers and combined for two of Detroit's four takedowns of St. Louis' Sam Bradford last Sunday. Their contributions will be needed with the secondary in a state of flux due to injuries, although starting cornerback Chris Houston is expected to play after sitting out the opener with an ankle sprain. Free safety Louis Delmas (knee) is likely to miss a second straight game, though, while rookie corner Bill Bentley is doubtful after sustaining a concussion last week.
Based on the first week's results, in which the 49ers outplayed a top-level opponent on the road and the Lions encountered difficulty putting away a two- win team from last year in their own venue, the advantage would seem to swing well in the favor of San Francisco in its 2012 home opener. Don't completely dismiss Detroit's chances here, however. The run defense appears to be improved and shouldn't allow Gore to go ballistic like he did in the 2011 meeting, and the Lions shouldn't have much of a problem forcing Alex Smith into some hasty decisions. And as great as the Packers' passing game can be, even they don't have anyone on the roster capable of taking over a contest like Johnson can. The key here is how Stafford plays. If the sometimes-erratic quarterback is locked in like he was at the end of the St. Louis game, Detroit has a real shot of ending its long winless streak in this series. If he's giving the ball away in bunches, however, the Lions' chances will go up in smoke. Chances are he'll be somewhere in between, which may not be quite good enough to overtake a 49ers team that's better balanced and is rarely prone to making foolish mistakes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 26, Lions 24