Budding rivalry now a battle of top NFC teams

There are plenty of subplots to consider when the 49ers meet the Detroit Lions on Sunday night at Candlestick Park, a place the Lions haven't won since 1975. But the main story will take place on the field, where these two unbeaten teams will battle for early NFC supremacy.

While some of the focus remains on last year's postgame handshake gone wrong, the 49ers and Lions insist that's all but forgotten.

During the rematch, the emerging franchises will instead look forward to another chance to build on their breakthrough campaigns from a year ago.

The Lions will try to end a lengthy skid in San Francisco on Sunday night, while the 49ers will seek to continue their dominance in the series.

After his team ended Detroit's unbeaten start in Week 6, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh gave an overenthusiastic handshake and pat on the back to Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

Schwartz took issue and the two had to be separated following the 49ers' 25-19 victory at Ford Field on Oct. 16. Harbaugh labeled the incident as a "mini controversy'' and "completely irrelevant," and Schwartz's comments this week backed that up.

"That's long in the past," he said. "That just seems so long ago that that occurred. When two teams take the field, that's not going to be on one player's mind.''

With both unbeaten teams coming off long-awaited trips to the playoffs, the winner of Sunday's game could stake an early claim to be the top team in the NFC.

The 49ers finished 13-3 – their first winning campaign since 2002 – and reached the conference title game in Harbaugh's first season. They started this year successfully with a 30-22 win at Green Bay, which finished 15-1 in 2011.

Alex Smith was an efficient 20 of 26 for 211 yards and two touchdowns, including one to veteran Randy Moss, and broke Steve Young's franchise mark with his 185th consecutive pass without an interception. David Akers also had an NFL record-tying 63-yard field goal in the victory.

"It's a big win," running back Frank Gore said Monday after rushing for 112 yards and a key fourth-quarter touchdown. "We've got to keep going, keep working ... try to get better and try to get a victory this week."

Lions last victory in San Francisco came 37 years ago

San Francisco (1-0) will seek to prevail for the 14th time in 15 matchups with Detroit (1-0), which earned a last-minute win over St. Louis during its opener.

The Lions will seek to snap an 11-game losing streak in San Francisco that started in 1977 and includes a playoff loss in 1983.

"If there are games you circle, this should definitely be one of the games," Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson said.

Detroit hasn't won at Candlestick Park since Nov. 2, 1975, and could use a better start from Matthew Stafford as it tries to end that drought.

Stafford was intercepted three times in the first half of last week's game but completed seven of nine passes on his team's final possession, including a 5-yard touchdown to running back Kevin Smith with 10 seconds to go.

The fourth-year quarterback, who had 5,038 yards and 41 TDs in 2011, finished 32 of 48 for 355 yards.

Stafford gave his team a 19-15 lead early in the fourth quarter of last year's matchup with the second of his two touchdowns passes, a 5-yarder to Nate Burleson, but the 49ers went ahead for good on Smith's only scoring toss – a 6-yarder to Delanie Walker on a fourth-and-goal play in the final minutes. Akers added a late field goal, one of his NFL-record 44 that season.

"We want to go in there and try to pay them back," cornerback Chris Houston said. ''Definitely, Week Two is a statement game. They're going to come pumped up. ... We're not going to do too much talking. We're just going to go to work, and may the best man win."

Houston might return to the Lions' secondary after missing the opener with a sprained left ankle. He was back at practice in a limited fashion earlier this week. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) and rookie cornerback Bill Bentley (concussion) were still out and their statuses are unknown.

Johnson missed practice because of a foot injury, but he's expected to play Sunday. The All-Pro wide receiver was reportedly given a day off.

Niners' turnover-free streak reaching record proportions

The 49ers have improved in just about every facet of their offense this year. But there is one area where they didn't really need to get much better.

The Niners are protecting the football better than anybody else in the NFL, and their turnover-free play is reaching historic proportions.

San Francisco hasn't committed a turnover in six consecutive regular-season games dating back to last season, the second-longest streak in NFL history. The 49ers can match the league record set by the 2010 New England Patriots when they face the Lions in their home opener.

Leading the way is quarterback Alex Smith, who hasn't thrown an interception in a franchise-record 185 consecutive regular-season passes. Smith threw just five picks last season – the fewest in the league for a regular starter – as San Francisco committed a NFL-low 10 turnovers.

The 49ers have not committed a regular-season turnover since Smith's second-quarter interception against the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving night last year.

They have not lost a fumble since tight end Vernon Davis fumbled after catching a pass from Smith in the fourth quarter of a Nov. 6 victory at Washington. The 49ers have a streak of 36 consecutive quarters without losing a fumble.

Smith doesn't downplay the significance of turnover-free play in San Francisco's rise back to NFL prominence.

"In the history of the NFL, the strongest correlation to winning and losing is the turnover ratio," Smith said. "The turnover battle is the No. 1."

The 49ers know all about it. They finished 13-3 last season and made their first trip to the playoffs since 2002 after leading the NFL with a plus-28 turnover differential, one of the league's best since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.

The previous seven seasons, all of which finished without a winning record, San Francisco committed 221 turnovers and had a cumulative turnover differential of minus-57.

Harbaugh and Co. preach ball security

The 49ers changed that dramatically once Jim Harbaugh and a new coaching staff took over control of the team last year. San Francisco matched the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season, also held by the 2010 Patriots.

"Ball security relates to your team being successful, and we're very serious about that," Harbaugh said.

The 49ers make a "commitment to taking care of the ball," Harbaugh said, and Smith was transformed by that approach last season.

In his first six NFL seasons, Smith threw 53 interceptions and lost 16 fumbles while throwing 51 touchdown passes. He threw 17 touchdown passes last season, when Smith set a team record for fewest picks in a season, and he lost just two fumbles.

Smith has been most impressive keeping the ball out of the hands of opposing defenders when he goes to the air. He completed 20 of 26 passes without an interception during last week's victory at Green Bay, breaking Hall of Famer Steve Young's previous team record of 184 consecutive passes without a pick.

Including San Francisco's two playoff games last season, Smith has now thrown 253 consecutive passes without an interception.

"That's huge, and it's a credit to Alex," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "He's got an innate feel for risk management on the fly. A lot of that goes unseen, but it's all calculated by him. He's done an incredible job."

Smith isn't the only one. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, who had two lost fumbles among his 299 touches last season, enters Sunday's game with a career-best string of 226 touches (220 rushes, six receptions) without a lost fumble.

Gore's frequently-used backup, Kendall Hunter, has never fumbled in his 17 career games. Gore and Hunter combined for 153 yards rushing on 25 carries last week against the Packers.

Scrappy defense helps offense hold onto the ball

Harbaugh credits running backs coach Tom Rathman, who played fullback for the 49ers from 1986-1993, with "doing as good a job as any of us have ever seen done," in preparing his unit to protect the football.

"There's no secret to it. We preach it, but we don't preach it to the point of suffocating people," Roman said. "But everybody understands what we're trying to get done.

"We emphasize ball security, how the defense tries to strip the ball, and do all the different things to educate the players on what's coming at them. Anybody that handles the football understands that they've got the collective fate of the team in their hands. If you have the ball, it's your job to protect it. It's that simple."

The 49ers also are getting some help in that regard from their own aggressive defense that tied for the NFL lead last year with 38 takeaways.

Coaches have instituted "Takeaway Thursdays" each week in practice, where San Francisco's defense stresses stripping the ball and picking off passes from the team's first-string offense.

"It's something that starts on the practice field, and that's where we get it," Smith said. "It starts there, and then carry it over to the field."

The 49ers have done just that dating back to last November.

"That's a heck of a streak we'd like to keep going," Harbaugh said.

Gore always gets it going against Lions

There's something about having the Lions next on the schedule that brings out the best in Gore.

Hunter is having the same kind of effect on the three-time Pro Bowl running back.

The Niners are benefiting from the play of both. The 49ers lead the NFC in rushing and rank second in the NFL after the Gore-Hunter tandem combined for 153 yards on the ground during last week's victory at Green Bay.

The Niners look to keep it rolling Sunday night in their home opener against the Lions, who have struggled to contain Gore and San Francisco's rushing game. Gore is averaging 125.3 yards rushing in four career games against the Lions, the most of any NFL back since Gore entered the league in 2005.

The 49ers won each of those four games and have an eight-game winning streak against the Lions dating back to 1996.

"They've got great guys over there and their front seven plays well together, but our (offensive) line does a great job making the holes, and I just run the ball," Gore said.

Gore broke away for runs of 55 and 47 yards on his way to a season-high 141 yards rushing when the 49ers snapped Detroit's unbeaten start last year in Week 6 with a 25-19 victory at Ford Field. San Francisco rushed for 203 yards in that game, with Hunter contributing 33.

Hunter's workload will increase this year as the 49ers look to keep Gore, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, fresh deep into the season. After compiling a franchise-best string of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games last year, Gore wore down during the second half of the season, when he failed to break the 100-yard barrier in any of San Francisco's final eight games.

The duo complemented each other well in the season opener at Green Bay, when Gore rushed for 112 yards and Hunter had 41. The two backs combined to average 6.1 yards per carry as San Francisco's offense moved the ball effectively throughout the 30-22 win.

"I think they're great for each other," Harbaugh said. "Both are tremendous backs, and Kendall has really raised his game. Frank is one of the best there is and he's made Kendall better. Kendall brings to the table that kind of spirit, youth and desire to get better all the time. I don't think I'm exaggerating by saying that Frank has benefited from that as well."

Brotherly bond developing between top backs

The 49ers finished eighth in the NFL in rushing offense last year, but the team still looked to upgrade when it signed free-agent running back Brandon Jacobs during the offseason and used its second-round draft pick to select speedster LaMichael James.

Gore and Hunter, however, were the only San Francisco running backs to carry the football against the Packers. That followed the script of last season, when Gore and Hunter combined for 394 carries and 1,684 rushing yards.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to win, whether it's me or Kendall," Gore said. "We're pretty far ahead of where we were last year, and he helps me a lot. He has a different style, a change of pace, and it's been great for us. We're always ready to go out there."

Jacobs, expected to be in the mix this season for regular carries as a short-yardage back, injured his left knee in San Francisco's Aug. 18 exhibition at Houston and hasn't practiced since. Jacobs is listed as questionable to play against the Lions, and Harbaugh said Friday the veteran's return to action is getting closer.

With Jacobs out this summer, Hunter solidified his status as Gore's primary backup with an excellent training camp and preseason, when Hunter averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

Hunter has been an ideal complement for Gore both on and off the field, where a bond has developed between the two.

"Frank's like a big brother to me," Hunter said. "Just being able to work with someone like that, a future Hall of Famer, has been great for me to learn things. We push each other and help each other out with different things we see to make the team better. He just keeps pushing me to get better, and I try to do the same for him."

The Lions are likely to see a heavy dose of that push provided by Gore and Hunter on Sunday.

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