The Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers were both pleasant surprises last season, with the Lions advancing to the postseason for the first time in over a decade and the 49ers shocking everyone by going 13-3 and coming within overtime of a trip to the Super Bowl.
The two teams meet Sunday night in San Francisco for a rematch of a tightly played 49ers win in Motown last year, and if the Lions are to get a measure of revenge, here are three things they must accomplish.
1) Better play from Matthew Stafford
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford played well in last year's matchup with the 49ers, throwing for nearly 300 yards with a pair of touchdown passes. However, the fourth-year pro was shaky in last week's victory over St. Louis, tossing three interceptions against the Rams.
Given that the Lions will almost certainly be forced to the air by a San Francisco defense that's nearly impossible to run on, Detroit is going to need a big game from Stafford if they're going to emerge with a win. Stafford is going to need to cut down on the mistakes and most likely needs a 300-yard night to pull off the victory.
2) Pressure Alex Smith
Stafford's counterpart with the 49ers is finally living up to his status as a former first overall pick. Quarterback Alex Smith has flourished under head coach Jim Harbaugh, who doesn't ask Smith to do too much.
Granted, Smith's statistics are far from eye-popping, but the eighth-year veteran has been effective and has taken care of the football without an interception in his last 185 pass attempts.
However, the 49ers' offensive line has struggled a bit in pass protection, allowing 44 sacks in 2011 and four in the game against the Green Bay Packers a week ago. Defensive end Cliff Avril, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the Lions front seven need to pin their ears back and try to force Alex Smith to make a rare mistake with the football on Sunday night.
3) Eliminate Mental Mistakes
Since head coach Jim Schwartz took over as head coach of the Detroit Lions, the team has played with a great deal of passion and fire. Unfortunately that intensity can lead to stupid penalties and mental mistakes, shown by the fact that Detroit was the third most penalized team in the NFL last year.
The San Francisco 49ers aren't the kind of team that hands out many second chances, so it's important the Lions don't shoot themselves in the foot with penalties or turnovers if they want to come out of Sunday night's game all alone in first place in the NFC North.