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49ers, Lions Set Up for Surprisingly Epic Matchup

It’s not surprising that Lions QB Matthew Stafford (left) is ranked sixth in the league in QB rating. The big surprise? 49ers QB Alex Smith (right) is ranked THIRD.

Two teams will battle for respect and bragging rights in the upper echelon of the NFL in Week 6.

A headline like this isn’t a big surprise – after all, even so early in the season, teams are trying to position themselves to take command of their respective divisions. But which two teams would you assume, say, six months ago, I would be talking about? Jacksonville vs. Pittsburgh? Houston vs. Baltimore? Dallas vs. New England?

How about Detroit vs. San Francisco?

C’mon. Stop playing.

No, seriously.

The San Francisco 49ers avenged their 2010 shutout loss to an on-the-rise team in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by trouncing them at Candlestick Park, 48-3. It was an all-around dominant performance by the offense, defense and special teams, as oft-criticized QB Alex Smith threw for 170 yards and 3 touchdowns. He currently ranks third in total QB rating. The Niners defense – currently ranked third overall in points allowed, and tied for sixth in rush yards allowed – intercepted Bucs QB Josh Freeman twice, returning one for a TD.

It was a much-needed performance, showing they could keep the momentum going after a gutsy 20-point comeback win in Philadelphia. It also rewarded head coach Jim Harbaugh’s faith in Smith, after an offseason of criticism from pundits and fans alike. The 49ers now find themselves 4-1 – their best start since 2002 – and leading the NFC West by two games over the Seattle Seahawks. I think Harbaugh said it best:

The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, have shocked the NFL with an out-of-nowhere 5-0 start, after beating the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, 24-13. They, too, were coming off of an amazing comeback of their own, against the Dallas Cowboys. QB Matthew Stafford has blossomed into one of the best young signal-callers in the league, with 1,324 yards in the air, 13 touchdowns, and a 101.4 QB rating through five games. WR Calvin Johnson has a league-leading 9 receiving touchdowns. The aptly-nicknamed “Megatron” has become one of the most feared deep threats in the league.

The defense, led by defensive lineman – and all-around beast – Ndamukong Suh, is currently ranked fourth, just behind San Francisco, in points allowed. They can also stifle the passing game, allowing only 283.8 yards per game through the year – good enough for seventh overall in pass defense. With the combination of an offense coming to their own and a defensive front that is feared among the rest of the league, the Lions have jumped out to their best start since 1956 – the year before their last NFL championship.

Absolutely no one was talking about this matchup when the season started – after all, who would? In 2010, both teams were 6-10, and were suffering playoff droughts of more than six years (Detroit, 11 years; San Francisco, 7 years). While the 49ers claimed a new head coach in Harbaugh, they changed little else. With the moves arch-rival Arizona made in getting sought-after QB Kevin Kolb and snatching Patrick Peterson – considered the best talent in the NFL Draft – they were considered the front-runner to win the divisison.

Meanwhile, Detroit added Auburn DT Nick Fairley, but he was injured to start the season. Especially playing in a division as stacked as the NFC North – including the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers – the Lions were projected to have a season somewhere between six and eight wins, at best.

Now, they own a combined record of 9-1. If not for a couple of clutch plays by Tony Romo and the Cowboys in Week 2, this could have been a battle of unbeaten squads.

Head coaches Jim Schwartz (left) and Jim Harbaugh can be considered Coach of the Year candidates after only five weeks.

With both teams on a collision course set for Sunday at Ford Field, these two upstarts will see how good they are. Each have big stakes in the game – for the Lions, they must keep up with the Packers, who are also 5-0, for the division lead. For the 49ers, it will be another huge test for their defense, as well as a measuring stick for their amazing progress so far. Above all, it may provide a postseason preview, and a statement putting the rest of the league on notice.

One thing is for sure, especially for fans in Detroit and San Francisco: It’s gonna be epic.

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