Originally written on Just Cover Blog  |  Last updated 9/16/12

Note: While these pieces are typically reserved for Thursday Night Football and Monday Night Football games, the passing of my Yia Yia (Grandma in Greek) this week had me swap Thursday’s Bears-Packers game with tonight’s Lions-49ers clash. Thanks for your understanding and prayers.

If the NFL’s been really good at one thing the past few years it’s been giving us a variety of “gates” to discuss. First, there was Spy-gate. Then there was Bounty-gate. Finally, Handshake-gate.

While “Handshake-gate” didn’t generate as much hoopla as the first two – rightfully so – it still drew plenty of attention. Helping matters was that the coaches of both teams, the Lions and 49ers, were on track to take their teams to the 2011 playoffs after what seemed like year after year of disappointment. Last season the Lions made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. It was the first postseason since 2002 that the 49ers were involved. Thanks to Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh and their respective coaching staffs these two fiery teams might be relevant for years to come.

Last year’s game, a 25-19 defensive struggle won by the 49ers with a go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:51 to play, was really a great game overshadowed by heightened emotions. The Lions entered the contest 5-0 off of the team’s first Monday Night Football appearance (and victory) in ages. The 49ers were a somewhat under-the-radar 4-1 team who had yet to notch that signature win. Well, Harbaugh was ecstatic with his team’s victory while Schwartz, while he’ll never admit it, was pissed that his team lost.

Tonight’s Important Numbers (5Dimes)

LINE: San Francisco -6.5 (-110), Detroit +6.5 (-110)
OVER/UNDER: 46 (O: -105, Under: -115)

The Breakdown

Here are some crazy facts the last time the Lions beat the 49ers: The quarterbacks were Scott Mitchell and Steve Young. Barry Sanders and William Floyd were the running backs while Chris Spielman and Dana Stubblefield were wrecking havoc for the defenses. It was a Monday nighter in 1995. San Francisco has won the eight meeting since with every game going under the total.

Both teams come into this game with serious momentum, both from 2011 but, more recently, from their respective Week 1 games. San Francisco is coming off a 30-22 win at Green Bay, a game it entered as a 6-point ‘dog and won pretty easily with a vintage defensive performance. Detroit, on the other hand, dominated every statistical category against St. Louis but, thanks to Matthew Stafford’s three first-half interceptions, needed a game-winning touchdown with 10 seconds to play to escape with a 27-23 victory. The only numbers that matters, however, to both teams are the “1” in the W column and the “0” in the L column.

Alex Smith continues to look comfortable in his game-manager position. That’s no knock on Smith, rather it’s the kind of player he is. He can win you a game with plays, but he can’t make plays for 60 minutes to win you a game. All the 49ers are asking him to do now is make a few plays here and there as the running game or short passing game eat up clock, score a few points and let the defense do the rest.
For the Lions, Matthew Stafford continues to excel as a passer. He quietly led the league with 355 passing yards in Week 1. His biggest problem last week was mental; he began assuming he could make every throw possible regardless of the coverage (Brett Favre anyone?). The results were two costly picks and another that was returned for a touchdown. Luckily for Stafford the Lions defense, while still more of a bend-but-don’t-break model, is good enough to force opposing quarterbacks into plenty of mistakes or, in worst-case scenarios, either long field goal attempts or punts.

Analysis

A game with two defensive-minded teams usually plays out that way. There are exceptions, however. While some might point to last week’s 49ers/Packers game as an example I’ll quickly show you how Green Bay was one of the league’s worst defenses in 2011 and how that example is a poor choice. I would look more at last week’s Cleveland-Philly game. Both teams struggle enough offensively to make the defenses look good, but the defenses for both teams are in the league’s upper echelon in terms of talent, yards allowed and points allowed.

While Detroit hasn’t found its running back of the future to eat up the clock the Lions utilize the short passing game as well as any team in the league. That has become Detroit’s de facto run game, making Stafford’s numbers as a passer appear that much better. If Detroit can keep San Francisco’s eat-up-the-clock offense off the field the Lions will have not only a better chance of winning but a greater chance to make this a higher-scoring game.

San Francisco’s defense hasn’t been as great as advertised since late last season. The 49ers have surrendered at least 20 points in their last four games. Not that giving up 20 points in an NFL game is anything to scoff at, but let’s not make the 2011 and 2012 49ers to be in the same zip code, let alone the same league, as the 2000 Ravens.

The pick

The NFL is and will always be a show-me league. Until Detroit can show me (and you) that it can not only beat the 49ers but lose close enough to cover the spread why should you expect it to happen? This is an interesting game because all the evidence tells you to take San Francisco to cover. It starts with last week’s 8-point win on the road at Green Bay (beating the NFC North’s best team on the road by more than a touchdown should, using the transitive property, mean beating Detroit by at least a touchdown at home is a piece of cake). Looking at the matchup history is the second piece of glaring evidence that should make Detroit backers run for the hills.

Of course, these streaks come to an end when you least expect them to, right? This just feels like one of those times. In no way would I take Detroit on the money line (+250) to win straight up – although you’re getting decent odds – but I do believe the Lions will have enough in the tank to lose by six points or less.

In terms of the over/under, I see the under as a big play. Both defenses aren’t known necessarily for registering touchdowns. While they do score occasionally their bread and butter is forcing punts and controlling field position. I would expect the same type of game plan tonight, with field position and some special teams plays (read: big returns) providing the difference.

This looks, smells, and feels like a 24-20 game. Because it’s Sunday and I’m feeling generous, here’s a double Book It! Take Detroit +6.5 and under 46 points.

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