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NFL Preview - Detroit (2-12) at San Francisco (6-8)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Both the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, who will meet on Sunday at Candlestick Park, have resigned themselves to waiting until next year to restore their once-proud winning traditions.
That said, positive moments have been in such short supply for both franchises during the current decade, that neither the Niners or Lions will turn their nose up at a winning opportunity in this Week 16 showdown.
The inconsistent 49ers saw their playoff hopes go up in smoke last week, dropping a frustrating 27-13 decision at the Philadelphia Eagles just six days after playing their best game of the year in a rout of the division-leading Arizona Cardinals.
The effects of a coast-to-coast trip on a short week for Mike Singletary's team showed in the first half, when Alex Smith and the offense committed four turnovers to help stake the Eagles to a 20-3 lead. The 49ers battled their way back to within 20-13, and even had one crack with the football after cutting the lead to that score, but a drive sputtered just inside of midfield and the Niners never seriously threatened thereafter.
Smith was 20-of-37 passing for 177 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions in the defeat, marking the first time in five weeks the former No. 1 overall pick had failed to throw multiple touchdown passes.
With their playoff hopes having collapsed, the 49ers will now have to play for the much-less-enticing notion of avoiding a seventh consecutive losing season, with the team needing wins over the Lions and Rams over their final two games to accomplish an 8-8 finish.
The Lions (2-12), meanwhile, won't be showing much of an improvement in the won-loss column this season, as they long ago clinched their eighth season with double-digit losses in the past nine years. But Jim Schwartz and his rebuilding crew will generate some buzz if they can continue to play as well as they did in last week's 31-24 loss to the NFC West champion Cardinals, a game in which the battered Lions battled back from a 17-0 halftime deficit to tie the contest at 17-17, and later tied the game at 24-24 before Arizona flexed its muscles in the win.
The game saw third-string quarterback Drew Stanton see extensive action in a meaningful situation for the first time in his career, completing 10-of-19 passes for 72 yards with an interception and a rushing touchdown to keep the Lions in the game. With top pick Matthew Stafford (shoulder) likely to sit for another week and with veteran Daunte Culpepper having been largely ineffective in relief of Stafford this season, Stanton - the team's second-round pick out of Michigan State in 2007 - is slated to make his first career NFL start on Sunday.
The 49ers lead the all-time regular season series with the Lions, which dates back to 1950, by a 33-26-1 margin. San Francisco has a six-game winning streak in the series, including a 31-13 home win when the clubs last met, in Week 3 of last season. The Lions are 0-9 in regular season games played in San Francisco since last winning there in 1975.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, a 24-23 Niners victory in a 1983 NFC Divisional Playoff from Candlestick Park. A 43-yard field goal attempt by Detroit kicker Eddie Murray that likely would have sealed the game for the Lions drifted wide right.
The Lions' Schwartz and 49ers' Singletary will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
In his first career start, Stanton (129 passing yards, 3 INT) will be trying to breathe some life into an offense that ranks 22nd in the league (196 yards per game), and will need to protect the ball for a unit that has amassed a league-high-tying 33 turnovers. The former Spartan will want to get the ball into the hands of top receiver Calvin Johnson (54 receptions, 4 TD), who was limited to just three catches for 35 yards last week and will need a strong finish to reach 1,000, along with fellow targets Dennis Northcutt (34 receptions, 1 TD) and Bryant Johnson (29 receptions, 2 TD). Perhaps the most encouraging element of the Lions' near-miss against the Cardinals was the work of running back Maurice Morris (282 rushing yards, 2 TD, 17 receptions), who took over in the backfield for the injured Kevin Smith (knee) and ended up with 126 yards on 17 carries, including a 64-yard touchdown run, also pacing the team's pass-catchers with 35 yards out of the backfield. The Detroit offensive line has been largely awful this season, but allowed just two sacks last week to run the team's 2009 total to 39.
The 49ers have been an inconsistent group against the pass this season, ranking 28th in passing yards allowed (248.1 yards per game) but also putting up a decent 34 sacks and allowing only 14 touchdown passes, tied for the fourth-fewest in the league. The job of slowing Calvin Johnson will likely fall to either Shawntae Spencer (48 tackles, 2 INT) or fellow cornerback Tarell Brown (36 tackles, 2 INT), with safeties Dashon Goldson (86 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) and Michael Lewis (72 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) helping out over the top. Spencer had an interception of the Eagles' Donovan McNabb last week, but was also part of a group that allowed the QB to throw for 306 yards. The Niners did not have a sack last week, something outside linebackers Manny Lawson (60 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Parys Haralson (37 tackles, 4.5 sacks) will try to avoid repeating. San Francisco is a healthy fifth in the league against the run (96.5 yards per game), allowing just 3.7 yards per rush thanks in large part to inside linebacker Patrick Willis (138 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) and a front line led by Aubrayo Franklin (30 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Isaac Sopoaga (25 tackles, 1 sack). Willis had six tackles in last week's loss to Philadelphia.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
With the playoffs now out of the question, the 49ers need to use their final two games of the regular season to tinker with what has been an inconsistent spread offense. The quarterback Smith (1898 passing yards, 16 TD, 12 INT) has often been prolific, thanks in large part to the exploits of wideouts Michael Crabtree (41 receptions, 2 TD) and Josh Morgan (46 receptions, 3 TD) as well as tight end Vernon Davis (69 receptions, 11 TD), but a once-strong running game led by Frank Gore (942 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 10 TD) has fallen to a disappointing 26th in the league (99.4 yards per game). Gore has posted 100- yard games in each of his past two outings, but has hit triple-digits just four times on the season. Morgan was high-man with seven catches for 61 yards and a touchdown in Philadelphia, in a game that saw Davis fail to score a TD for the first time in five weeks. Smith was sacked three times last Sunday, and the Niners have allowed 36 sacks through their first 14 contests.
San Francisco should have the ability to attack a Lions team that enters Week 16 ranked last in the league in total defense (396 yards per game), passing defense (268.6 yards per game), scoring defense (31.2 points per game), touchdowns allowed (51), touchdown passes allowed (31), and opponents' completion percentage (68.9). Despite allowing 31 points to the Cardinals last week, Detroit did have some defensive positives in the form of three turnovers forced, including a game-changing 100-yard interception return for blossoming rookie safety Louis Delmas (82 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack). Ends Jason Hunter (32 tackles, 3 sacks) and Cliff Avril (31 tackles, 4.5 sacks) both had sacks of Kurt Warner in the loss, while linebackers Ernie Sims (37 tackles) and Larry Foote (99 tackles, 2 sacks) combined for 15 tackles. Run-stopping remains the relative strength of the Detroit defense, though even there, the Lions rank 24th in the league (127.6 yards per game) and allowed the Cardinals' Beanie Wells to produce his first career 1,000-yard game last week.
Given the presence of an inexperienced quarterback under center, it's a tough week to consider rolling with the only two Lions of any value - Calvin Johnson and Maurice Morris. Johnson will probably see constant double-coverage by a good 49ers secondary throughout the day, while Morris seems likely to struggle while going up against Patrick Willis and a quality San Francisco front seven.
On the 49ers side, players like Smith, Davis, Crabtree, and Gore are all in line for big days against a terrible Lions defense, and Davis and Gore seem like especially safe choices if you're deciding whether or not to use them in the fantasy championship round. Smith, Crabtree, kicker Joe Nedney and the 49ers defense are all riskier, but all will probably contribute something to the proceedings.
Give credit to the Lions for rebounding from a dispiriting blowout in Baltimore and hanging in with a far superior Arizona team last week, but remember when handicapping this game that Detroit has infrequently stacked strong performances this year. The presence of Stanton at quarterback should pique some interest among Lions fans, but if he was really the team's answer, he would have seen the field long before now. On the other side, if there's a team in the league that could be expected to play hard in what amounts to a meaningless situation, it's a group of guys coached by Mike Singletary. Look for the Niners to keep the Lions at arm's length and move the 49ers a game within .500.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 24, Lions 10
12/23 22:53:59 ET