They're not being called the best team in the NFL by everybody. Not just yet, at least. But the…
49ers vs. Lions: Thumbs up and thumbs down
Thumbs up: The thumbs were both up on the right hands of Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz when those hands clutched each other briefly for the post-game handshake, a much-hyped event that lasted seconds and went off without incident.
Thumbs up: Alex Smith, blood dripping from the bridge of his nose, leading the Niners down the field on a 13-play, 79-yard drive to the clinching touchdown, a drive that ate up more than six minutes of the back half of the fourth quarter, with Smith converting on two third-and-longs to keep it moving. Now that's a quarterback you can win with.
Thumbs up: And once again, Smith outplayed a quarterback with a bigger reputation who is known for much bigger passing numbers. Smith completed 20 of 31 passes for 226 yards and two TDs and finished with a 107.7 passer rating, superior in every way to Matthew Stafford's final 78.9 rating that was boosted by a late TD pass on Detroit's final possession, when the Lions were trailing by 15 points. "I thought that was one of Alex's best performances," coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Thumbs up: Michael Crabtree, go-to receiver once again. This time, Crabtree was coming through in the clutch when the 49ers needed another touchdown to salt the game away, catching two third-down passes and then ploughing into defenders at the end of plays to get the necessary yards after the catch to turn third-and-14 and third-and-9 snaps into San Francisco first downs on the game-clinching TD drive. Crabtree led the 49ers in receptions for the second consecutive game and is on an early pace for more than 100 receptions this season. And those were two of his biggest yet.
Thumbs down: Smith getting popped in the face after sliding feet first at the end of a 20-yard run, Vernon Davis getting poked in the eye, Delanie Walker kicked on the ground in the helmet near his previously-broken jaw, several other 49ers taking shoves and pushes from the Lions at the finish of plays… None of the Niners would say the Lions were a dirty team afterwards, but it sure seemed like Detroit won the battle of cheap shots – and possibly by shutout.
Thumbs up: Keeping an explosive, big-play offense like Detroit's out of the end zone for 58 minutes – or, in other words, until after the outcome had virtually been decided – is another job extremely well done for San Francisco's NFL-best defense. The Lions were limited to 296 total yards, with 80 of them coming on their last-gasp touchdown drive in the final minutes. San Francisco's dominant defense dominated another top offense again.
Thumbs up: Talk about going right at an opponent's weakness with strength. On San Francisco's fourth offensive play, the Niners sent fullback Bruce Miller in motion to the left, taking a defender with him and leaving tight end Vernon Davis isolated in single coverage with free safety John Wendling, who was starting in place of the injured Louis Delmas. It was no contest. Davis put an out-an-up move on Wendling off the line and blew past the safety to reel in a 21-yard touchdown reception that Smith put right on his fingertips for the game's first score.
Thumbs up: And instead of going for a post-TD dunk – Davis was uncharacteristically rejected by the crossbar last week after his touchdown catch in Green Bay – Davis pulled up for a smooth-release jump shot over the goal post that looked as though it would have hit all net in the imaginary rim Davis was shooting at. Davis' jump shot through the uprights wasn't nearly as textbook after his second TD reception, when Davis beat Detroit defenders down the right sideline, then cut back on two others near the 10-yard line to stroll into the end zone on a nifty 23-yard scoring play that made it 27-12 with 3:04 remaining.
Thumbs down: The 49ers had gone six consecutive regular-season games without a turnover and 36 consecutive quarters without losing a fumble, but with an opportunity to make NFL history – a turnover-free game would have tied the NFL record of seven consecutive games without a turnover – the Niners fumbled it away when Kendall Hunter was stripped of the football on a kickoff return in the first quarter, handing the Lions a second gift field goal within a two-minute span. It was Hunter's first lost fumble after he started his NFL career with 17 turnover-free games.
Thumbs up: After an incomplete pass, San Francisco's second offensive play of the game was a well-conceived and well-executed reverse pitch to Mario Manningham, who weaved his way around the right side for a 29-yard gain to spark the Niners' quick-hitting opening touchdown drive. That's a new wrinkle to the offense that the shifty newcomer wideout can provide. Manningham also contributed three receptions to the attack, and he's a tough matchup in man coverage.
Thumbs up: Dashon Goldson has some of the best mitts of any center fielder in the NFL. His sticky hands were on display when Goldson swooped in from free safety with an athletic, diving interception of Stafford's badly overthrown third-down pass late in the first quarter, catching the ball with his hands while extended almost horizontally in the air. Goldson returned his first pick of the season 20 yards to set up the Niners' second touchdown.
Thumbs up: It's always great to see the American flag stretched all the way across an entire football field. Several dozen representatives of the armed forces, decked out in camouflage fatigues, rolled out the biggest stars and stripes you will ever see before the game, then waved it on cue during singer Lorena Peril's rendition of the national anthem. God bless America.
Thumbs down: Chris Culliver, quickly developing into a fine coverage cornerback, runs stride for stride with Titus Young down the right sideline, then knocks away a deep pass as it arrives … and then gets called for interference? Where, exactly, was the interference on that one, replacement officials? It was a horrible call, and it allowed the Lions – who could gain just two more yards on three plays after that 33-yard penalty gave them the ball at the San Francisco 26-yard line – to get on the scoreboard for the first time with a 38-yard Jason Hanson field goal.
Thumbs up: This is why they're considered good blocking tight ends: Davis and Walker, combining on a double-team of Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril, drove Avril all the way from the middle of the field to the right sideline on an off-tackle running play. What gets a thumb down is Avril pulling Davis down with him at the end of the play, poking Davis in the eye, then kicking Walker in the helmet as both players were getting up from the ground, hitting Walker in the same area where he fractured his left jaw late last season.
Thumbs down: It's bound to happen every once in a while, but Jonathan Goodwin picked a bad time to sail a shotgun snap over Alex Smith's head, just as the 49ers had driven into the red zone late in the first quarter. Smith showed great poise and awareness while making an athletic play to avoid catastrophe, running backward to corral the bouncing ball in stride, then managing to escape defenders long enough to throw the ball away on a third-down play that could have gone for a huge loss and pushed the 49ers out or scoring range.
Thumbs up: You usually see Patrick Willis making textbook tackles all over the field, but you occasionally see him get in some big pops along with his perfect form. Willis had some notable shots Sunday on Detroit starting wideouts Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson among his game-high nine tackles.
Thumbs up: The usual upward thumb for running back Frank Gore, who owned the Lions once again before losing five yards on two carries on San Francisco's final offensive drive. Gore still finished with 89 yards rushing and a TD on 17 carries, a 5.2 average, running his career totals against the Lions to 590 yards and five TDs on the ground in five games. This is one guy the Lions just can't stop.
Thumbs down: While Smith's passing numbers were superb, they would have been considerably better if not for at least four dropped balls on passes that should have been caught by his teammates. Gore, Walker and Miller each dropped passes right in their hands, and that latter two's drops came on the same series that Manningham had a third-down pass go off his hands, forcing the Niners to settle for the second off David Akers' two field goals.
Thumbs up: For those counting, that's nine consecutive victories over the Lions overall and 12 straight over Detroit at Candlestick Park, where the Lions haven't won since 1975 – and at this rate, never will win there again since the Niners are moving to a new stadium in Santa Clara in 2014.
Thumbs up: Back-to-back impressive victories over 2011 playoff teams that are led by an offense that's among the most prolific the NFL has to offer? A 2-0 start couldn't look much better for a unit that has established itself as the team to beat in the NFC – and, for that matter, the entire NFL after New England lost at home Sunday – just two weeks into the season.