No fourth-quarter comeback this time for the Detroit Lions.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson had to stand on the sideline, watching helplessly, as the San Francisco 49ers went on a game-clinching drive in the final minutes of their 27-19 victory Sunday night at Candlestick Park.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith, not nearly as flashy as Stafford, completed three crucial third-down passes to Michael Crabtree, the last one with blood dripping down Smith’s nose, to help put the game away.
Smith’s 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis with 3:04 remaining then capped the 13-play drive to give the 49ers a two-touchdown cushion.
The Lions came back with a touchdown with 1:29 to go, but it was too little, too late. Detroit couldn’t recover a pooch kick and the 49ers ran out the clock.
It was a much-anticipated match-up between NFC rivals, largely because the coaches — Detroit’s Jim Schwartz and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh — had been involved a highly-publicized run-in following their post-game handshake last season.
Knowing that all eyes had been on them all week, Schwartz and Harbaugh met on the field before the game. They smiled, said a few words and, yes, shook hands.
They shook hands again without incident after the game. End of controversy, at least for now.
“We can play better than this,” Schwartz said in his postgame radio interview. “We need to convert better in the red zone.”
Schwartz added, “We’re certainly not going to panic.”
San Francisco (2-0) came in as the talk of the NFL after winning last week at Green Bay. An upset on the big stage could have elevated the Lions’ status, but they showed they still don’t have quite enough to take out the elite teams, especially on the road.
The Lions (1-1), who rallied in the final minute to beat St. Louis a week earlier, failed to score a touchdown for the first 58½ minutes against San Francisco’s highly-rated defense. Detroit had to settle for four field goals by Jason Hanson until tight end Brandon Pettigrew caught a 9-yard touchdown pass at the end.
The 49ers shut down the Lions’ running game (82 yards on 26 carries) and contained the normally high-powered passing attack.
“We needed to be able to run,” Schwartz said in his news conference. “They were taking the approach of playing deep safeties and take away the big play, which they were able to do.
“When people do that, you need to hurt them underneath and you need to hurt them with the run.
“We didn’t do a good enough job in any phase. We left a lot of opportunities on the field.”
As for failing to stop the 49ers on those late-game third-down conversions, when the Lions were trailing by eight points and hoping to get the ball back quickly, Schwartz said, “We’re generally a good third-down team. We didn’t do it there.”
It was the Lions’ 12th straight loss at San Francisco. The last time they beat the 49ers out there was in 1975. Only three current players on either team — Hanson and punter Ben Graham for Detroit, and San Francisco kicker David Akers — were even alive.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, trying to become the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 350 yards in five consecutive games, was held to 230. He went 19-for-32 with one touchdown and one interception.
Stafford, who has been surprisingly inaccurate at times early this season, threw an interception late in the first quarter on a wobbly overthrow. It was his fourth interception in less than five quarters at the time. He had four interceptions in the first eight games last year.
The Lions are on the road again in Week 3, traveling to Tennessee for next Sunday’s game against the 0-2 Titans.
Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson became the eighth player in NFL history to reach 6,000 career receiving yards in 80 games or less.
… Left tackle Jeff Backus played in his 178th game, surpassing Kevin Glover (1985-97) for the most career games by a Lions’ offensive lineman.
… Joique Bell (Wayne State) received significant playing time, ahead of Keiland Williams, as the back-up running back to Kevin Smith. Bell turned a short pass into a 47-yard reception late in the game. His performance could help secure a roster spot for him when the Lions have to make a move this week to activate running back Mikel Leshoure, who was suspended for the first two games.
… After the Lions went three-and-out on their first possession, the 49ers scored in a minute and 12 seconds for a 7-0 lead.
… San Francisco’s second touchdown, on the first play of the second quarter, came after the Lions were called for running into the kicker on a made field goal. The penalty was called against Drayton Florence, who was signed a week before the season opener after being cut by Denver. The 49ers took the points off the board and ended up with a 14-6 lead instead of 10-6.
… Hanson hit the upright on two field-goal attempts. One went through for a 41-yard field goal, the other bounced out for a 40-yard miss.
… The Lions forced San Francisco’s first turnover in 27 regular-season quarters. Rookie Tahir Whitehead (fifth round out of Temple) stripped the ball on a kick return while Kassim Osgood, signed as a free agent late in training camp, made the recovery.