This time last year, neither team that will be taking the field at Candlestick Park today was considered a playoff contender.
But as both coaches — San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh and Detroit’s Jim Schwartz — have so adamantly stated this week, what happened last year no longer matters.
As the 49ers prepare to host the Lions in a matchup of young unbeatens this weekend, both clubs are being touted as championship hopefuls. But only one team played like it last week.
“We can’t afford three turnovers again,” Schwartz said in regard to his quarterback’s multiple interceptions last week against the St. Louis Rams. “And we’re also gonna have to find ways to get ’em.”
But forcing the ball from the opposing offense may prove difficult. Last year, the 49ers posted the best turnover ratio in the league. And though last year’s slates have been wiped clean, San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith owns a current streak of 185 passes without a pick, surpassing Joe Montana and Steve Young in that respective team category.
“Well, it’s a great streak to have. That’s one that any quarterback, any quarterback, would be proud to have,” Harbaugh said. “Like to keep that one going.”
There’s another streak, however, that San Francisco would like to continue. The 49ers have rendered the Lions winless at Candlestick Park since 1975. But those Lions are lowly no more.
Now they boast one of the best young QB-WR combos in the game in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
“He’s tough to hide … everybody knows what number he wears,” Schwartz said of his premier wide receiver Johnson. “And he still goes out and makes plays.”
And Harbaugh — last season’s jostles aside — agrees.
“I think all the superlatives that have been associated with Calvin Johnson as a football player are accurate,” he said. “And we’re going to have to do a great job defending him.”
But the man bearing the responsibility today of covering the 6-foot-5 Johnson is cornerback Tarell Brown — and all 5-11 of him.
“The biggest thing for us is to just play our style of football, and go out there and try to be physical,” Brown said.
“He’s going to make catches, but you want to limit him to the yards after the catch.”
Being physical at the line of scrimmage was something the secondary did last week in Green Bay, muffling Aaron Rodgers and the high-powered Green Bay Packers offense. But Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh knows how to be physical as well.
“Defensively, we have to contain him,” tight end Vernon Davis said, “especially when Alex [Smith] is dropping back and we have to hold that protection.”
Drop back on a fourth-and-goal is what Smith did last season late in Detroit, throwing a TD pass that beat the Lions 25-19.
“They want to get us back, and they want us bad,” Davis said. “They still probably feel like they have some things left on the table. So we have to be cautious of that and just keep it on our mind that they’re coming to play hard, physical football.”