Turnaround continues as 49ers whip Lions

It's a whole new season for the 49ers, and maybe even the start of a whole new era. If San Francisco's suddenly resurgent defense can keep playing like this, on the road against one of the NFL's best passing attacks, who knows what can happen next? The Niners moved into second place in the NFC West with Sunday's 19-13 shutdown of the Detroit Lions, and now they can jump back to .500 by next week.

Yes, San Francisco's season has taken that dramatic of a turn.

Just two weeks ago, the 49ers were 2-5 and reeling after two blowout losses. Now they're 4-5 and building momentum, climbing into a second-place tie in the division with St. Louis, a team they've already beaten, with an opportunity to get within a game of first-place Seattle when San Francisco hosts the defending division champions next Sunday.

The 49ers put themselves in that position by dominating the action on both sides of the ball in the first half, then - after a lull that allowed the Lions to get back in the game - watched their defense come up with more clutch big plays at the end to give San Francisco a two-game winning streak and its first road victory of 2006 before a stunned sellout crowd at Ford Field.

Stunned? The 49ers hit the Lions from the start with Frank Gore's 61-yard touchdown bolt to culminate the game's opening possession, and they never stopped punching until Alex Smith was taking three kneel-downs to burn the final two minutes off the clock as Detroit watched helplessly with no timeouts to do anything about it.

"I think we're at the start of something," Smith said.

That certainly is the case for the previously-beleaguered San Francisco defense, which assembled its second consecutive mighty performance when it seemed just a few weeks ago that unit was primed to sink to the bottom of the NFL rankings, where it finished last season.

But the Niners, who were 31st in the NFL in total defense entering last week's game against Minnesota and on a pace to allow the most points in a season in NFL history, limited the Lions to 251 yards and 13 points a week after limiting Minnesota to 238 and 3.

"Everybody was going out on the field talking about how we were 20-point underdogs," said 49ers safety Keith Lewis, whose team actually entered the game as a six-point underdog. "The defense really took that to heart. (The Lions) couldn't even get 20 points on the scoreboard. That shows you what this defense can do."

Lewis, in the starting lineup for the second week in a row at free safety, showed what he can do with several heavy hits throughout the afternoon. But he also forced two turnovers, the second of which was the biggest.

Because the 49ers could manage only four Joe Nedney field goals after Gore's game-opening touchdown run, the Lions were able to hang around until the end. And there they were, driving to a first down at the San Francisco 16-yard line with under four minutes to play.

But a defense that had done some bending in the second half got tough and rigid again. Brandon Moore - the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week - burst in for a 10-yard sack of quarterback Jon Kitna on first down. That was the second sack of the day for Moore, who had another huge game to spark the San Francisco defense, leading that unit again with nine tackles and adding two more quarterback hits to his defensive bounty.

It came down to third-and-13 from the 19, with Kitna unloading a pass to Mike Furrey near the goal line. But Lewis swooped in front of Kurrey for the interception, returning it out to the 26, and the 49ers got the first down they needed on offense at the two-minute warning to seal the deal after Minnesota had burned all its timeouts trying to stop them.

"We gave them the game ball - the entire defense," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "They did an outstanding job two weeks in a row now. I think it's the coming together of a group that's been working hard all along, and they'll stay on track."

Lewis' interception was the fourth takeaway produced by a San Francisco defense that allowed Detroit just three third-down conversions the entire game and limited the Lions to just 29 net yards on their first four offensive possessions to set the tone.

The Lions had rolled up a season-high 435 yards just the week before during a 30-14 upset of the Atlanta Falcons - including 321 yards passing by Kitna - and entered the game averaging a healthy 341 yards a game, including 255 through the air.

That offense had just 102 yards at halftime, and Kitna got a lot of catch-up passing yards in the second half while being sacked three times. The 49ers also kept star receiver Roy Williams - the NFC leader in receiving yards - and halfback Kevin Jones in check. Williams had bragged to television cameras before the game that he would score at least two touchdowns and Jones would finish the game with three touchdowns.

Neither Williams or Jones scored a single point.

"I want to make sure I congratulate San Francisco," Detroit coach Rod Marinelli said. "They came across the country and played a heck of a football game - very physical - and they came out wired in and ran the ball very tough. I take my hat off to them."

The 49ers rumbled for a season-high 198 yards on the ground, with Gore getting 148 of them by halftime - the most rushing yards gained by a San Francisco running back in one half in the team's 61-year history. But Gore added only 11 yards to that total in the second half as he left the game late in the third quarter after getting rocked on a pass reception.

Gore suffered a mild concussion, and the 49ers opted to keep him on the sidelines the rest of the game. Predictably, the offense went conservative without him, just like it did last week in the fourth quarter against Minnesota as San Francisco nursed another six-point lead. But the 49ers converted three third downs in the quarter to keep the clock running, adding to San Francisco's huge 38:49 to 21:11 advantage in time of possession.

"This is huge for the momentum of our team, for the confidence of this young team," said Smith, who danced away from pressure well while completing 14 of 20 passes for 136 yards. The last of those passes was a crucial seven-yard completion to Arnaz Battle (game-high six receptions for 55 yards) on third-and-four that sealed the victory with two minutes to play.

"To get two in a row and get our first road victory, I think it gets the steps going," Smith continued. "This game is a lot about confidence and momentum, and when you get on a roll, who knows what can happen?"

With seven games remaining, the 49ers just gave everybody a lot of reasons to keep watching to find out.

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