NFC West: John Wendling
SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 27-19 victory over the Detroit Lions at Candlestick Park on Sunday night:
What it means: The 49ers are 2-0 and own victories over potential rivals in the NFC playoff seeding race. They are the only NFC playoff team from last season with a 2-0 record to open 2012 (Atlanta has a chance to join the 49ers with a victory over Denver on Monday night). The 49ers again proved their ability to beat a playoff team without functioning well consistently. They did it at Detroit last season and at home against the Lions in this game. Strength on defense (for most of the game) and in the running game provided the 49ers with a capable insurance policy. Alex Smith and the offense showed up in the clutch, continuing a trend from last season.
What I liked: The fast start on offense. The 49ers caught the Lions off guard, it appeared, on their second offensive play when they flipped the ball to Mario Manningham for a 29-yard gain on an end-around. That sparked the 49ers' offense and led to a 21-yard scoring pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis. San Francisco couldn't have started any better offensively. Last year, the 49ers opened their game at Detroit in an empty set, inviting pressure and conceding a sack/fumble. They opened in an empty set this time, as well, but the Lions didn't get any pressure.
San Francisco went after safety John Wendling, who was subbing for the injured Louis Delmas, on the touchdown to Davis. That was smart and it worked beautifully. Davis was wide open and running toward the end zone uncontested.
Frank Gore's fresh legs stood out. His quickness and power gave the Lions problems. The way San Francisco blocks down the field, including at the receiver position, makes Gore even more dangerous. Gore returned the favor with an effective block to help spring Michael Crabtree for a first down on a third-and-long when the 49ers were trying to run time off the clock with a 20-12 lead. Crabtree converted a third-and-9 later in the drive.
The 49ers put together a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive -- Smith to Davis, again -- to put away the game in the fourth quarter. That drive atoned for some of the sloppiness that crept into the 49ers' game for stretches. The 49ers are a good team in the clutch. They showed it again.
What I didn’t like: Hunter lost a fumble during a first-quarter kickoff return, setting up the Lions for a 33-yard field goal. The 49ers had gone nine full regular-season games without losing a fumble. They had gone 26 regular-season quarters without suffering a turnover of any kind. Their last one had been against Baltimore on Thanksgiving.
The 49ers suffered a couple of third-down miscues. That included an aborted play after a snap from center Jonathan Goodwin flew past Smith. Another time, Crabtree could not handle a hard, low pass -- not a blatant drop, but a play unbecoming of the player with the best hands Jim Harbaugh has seen. That type of play has been the exception for Crabtree, who continues to play well overall.
The replacement officials struggled. They initially missed Aldon Smith's sack on Matthew Stafford, allowing Ahmad Brooks to get a second shot at the Lions' quarterback. Lions coach Jim Schwartz issued a replay challenge to save his team yardage, setting up a field goal try. No coach should have to challenge a sack against his own quarterback at a time when the NFL is emphasizing player safety. That was one of at least two plays when officials appeared out of position and unable to maintain vision of a play. Another time, officials missed potential pass interference.
Bruce Miller, Delanie Walker and Manningham dropped passes during an ugly drive early in the fourth quarter. Manningham's wasn't a drop in the purest sense. He appeared to short-arm a ball over the middle.
The 49ers' defense, so strong most of the time, seemed to relent late in the game. The Lions drove for a touchdown with 1:29 remaining to pull within 27-19. The Lions gained big chunks of yardage during the drive.
West milestone: All four NFC West teams won Sunday. That's the second time Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis and Arizona have won in the same week since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. All four won in Week 10 last season.
Northern dominance: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh now has a 3-0 record against NFC North teams. He can make it 4-0 with a victory over Minnesota next week.
QB streak: Smith extended his franchise-record streak of pass attempts without an interception. He also entered Week 2 with the NFL's highest completion percentage. Smith played well enough to complete a high percentage in this game, but he needed more help from his receivers in this game. In addition to the drops listed above, Hunter also let one go through his grasp.
Limited role for Moss: Randy Moss drew an interference penalty in the end zone to set up one 49ers touchdown. He played sparingly, however. The 49ers didn't really need him. Perhaps they're saving him. Age is a factor for Moss. The 49ers want to keep him fresh.
What's next: The 49ers visit Minnesota in Week 3.
As Jim Schwartz pointed out Monday, the 49ers never should have taken over possession in Lions territory after Ted Ginn Jr.'s 40-yard return in the final six minutes of a game Detroit was leading, 19-15. That is because 49ers safety Reggie Smith committed a blatant block in the back during the return, first pulling and then shoving the Lions' Maurice Stovall with enough force to expose the receiver's right shoulder pad.
Stovall was within three yards of Ginn and directly in front of him as Ginn gathered himself at the San Francisco 35-yard line, but Smith shoved him out of the play.
Update: One of my officiating contacts watched this play and said Smith was not guilty of a foul in part because one hand was on Stovall's side, Smith merely drove Stovall through the play and Smith was not in a chase position. Tavares Gooden also might have blocked John Wendling in the back.
Questionable penalties happen, of course, and the 49ers had legitimate beefs in this game as well, but nothing quite so ill-timed as this one. NFL.com shows the block at the 2:47 mark of its 49ers-Lions highlight package.
A penalty against the 49ers during the return would have changed game dynamics considerably.
"It was a little disappointing on that when there was a pretty significant block in the back," Schwartz told reporters Monday. "Geez, you talk about one play in the game; that might have been the one right there. It was a significant flip in field position because it's penalties from that point rather than from the end of that [return]."
Had officials administered a 10-yard penalty from the San Francisco 37, the 49ers would have taken over at their own 27. Win probability statistics say the 49ers would have had only a 29.5 percent chance of prevailing in the game had their drive begun that deep in their own territory, according to Alok Pattani of the ESPN analytics team.
Ginn ran out of bounds at the Detroit 40 on the play, but officials moved the ball to the 35 for the start of the drive. I reached out to the NFL for an explanation and will update with a response should I receive one. There was no penalty on the play. This appeared to reflect an error of basic administration.
"You expect officials to get balls spotted in the right spot and have the right down marker up and correct timing, things like that," Schwartz told 97.1-FM in Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. "Those really aren’t subjective things like the spot of a ball when a runner’s down by contact or something like that. And that was obviously an unfortunate thing that went on in the game. It still doesn’t change the fact that we have fourth-and-goal from the (6) and weren’t able to get them stopped, because we make that play, then things are obviously a lot different."
Win probability stats gave the 49ers a 39.8 percent chance from the Detroit 40 and a 41.6 percent chance from the 35. The 1.8 percent difference is slim, but so was the margin by which officials declared Delanie Walker had moved the ball across the goal line with the winning 6-yard scoring reception before his right knee touched the ground.
Looks like this game will be memorable on many fronts: the 49ers getting to 5-1 for the first time since 2002; Alex Smith delivering the team's first winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes of a game since Jeff Garcia, also in 2002; the 49ers playing what coordinator Vic Fangio called the finest defensive performance he had been associated with; Frank Gore matching his career best with a third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance; and, of course, Harbaugh and Schwartz overshadowing it all with their postgame confrontation.
Also: The NFL acknowledged the error in spotting the ball at the 35 instead of the 40. "The officiating crew incorrectly spotted the ball at the Detroit 35 instead of the 40 where Ted Ginn went out of bounds," a league spokesman said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike SandoThe 49ers hold the 10th, 43rd, 74th, 111th, 146th, 171st, 184th, 219th and 244th choices in the 2009 draft. For perspective, I've singled out the last four players chosen in those spots.
The Lions' selection of USC receiver Mike Williams with the 10th overall choice is enough to raise those familiar red flags for receivers drafted in that range. The last 10 receivers drafted between seventh and 10th overall were Ted Ginn Jr., Troy Williamson, the aforementioned Mike Williams, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Plaxico Burress, Travis Taylor and David Boston.
How many of those once-highly regarded wideouts would you want on your team right now? Not many. Only four have NFL jobs. For those hoping the 49ers might draft a USC quarterback [Mark Sanchez] in the first round instead, it's been done at No. 10 recently and with unconvincing results.
Justin Tuck at No. 74 in 2005 stands out as a terrific value, but I also credit the Giants for developing him.
The 49ers could use a young prospect at safety. They could do worse than the Ravens did when they made Dawan Landry the 146th player chosen in 2006. Landry became a starter as a rookie.