DETROIT (AP) – The Detroit Lions are determined to let the good times roll in the Motor City.
The Lions (5-0) are off to their best start since 1956, the year before they won the NFL title, and they’re coming off quite a coming-out party.
Detroit beat the Chicago Bears in its first Monday night game since 2001 and fired-up fans at Ford Field were so loud the visitors had nine false starts, ratcheting up the buzz from coast to coast about the league’s former laughingstock. Today, the Lions and NFC North rival Green Bay stand alone as the NFL’s only unbeaten teams.
“We’re kind of the darlings a little bit, we’re that good story,” Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. “But we haven’t accomplished anything. We have to continue to prove to people we’re a good team.
“Everyone is going to have their opinion about who we’ve beat, so this is a great opportunity to play a club people respect.”
Detroit hosts San Francisco (4-1) on Sunday.
The NFC West-leading 49ers have perhaps been more surprising than the no-longer-lowly Lions this season and are coming off a 45-point win over Tampa Bay. It’s their most-lopsided victory since routing Denver by the same margin in the 1990 Super Bowl.
First-year coach Jim Harbaugh has quickly changed the culture within a once-proud franchise, hoping to have its first winning season and playoff appearance since 2002.
The former Michigan quarterback, who was mentioned as a candidate when Rich Rodriguez was fired and Brady Hoke was hired in January, is winning with a lot of the same players who opened last year with five losses and finished with a 6-10 record. Harbaugh motivates and relates and his obsession with the game is rubbing off on his players.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith said Harbaugh has “everything” to do with the team’s turnaround.
“The great thing around here is that it seems like it is all football, all the time,” Smith said. “I mean that in the greatest way.”
No one has described the Lions or 49ers as great in a long time.
Detroit hasn’t been an NFL powerhouse since the pre-Super Bowl era of the 1950s when it won three titles in a six-season span.
The Lions have one playoff victory since their last championship and had the NFL’s first 0-16 season three years ago, sinking to rock bottom in what was the worst string of futility in the league since World War II.
San Francisco has a richer and more recent history of success, winning five Super Bowls from the 1981 to 1994 seasons and missing the playoffs only four times over a two-plus decade reign. Since 2002, though, the 49ers are 29 games under .500 with four double-digit losing seasons.
But as a handful of teams do each year in the NFL, Detroit and San Francisco are enjoying quick turnarounds.
The Lions and 49ers are a combined 9-1 a year after they were 1-9 at the same time.
“That is the great thing about the NFL,” Smith said. “One year to the next anything is possible.”
Detroit’s opponents this season have found receiver Calvin Johnson nearly impossible to stop.
Johnson is the first NFL player to catch nine touchdown passes in his first five games and he’s coming off the first game in which he was held to one score. Burleson said teams are trying to slow him down with “The Randy Moss Defense,” with a cornerback trying to press him at the line with a safety providing deep help – even if there’s not a tight end or slot receiver on the same side of the field.
“It’s like a box and one,” Burleson said. “You kind of have to pick your poison.”
With so many eyes on Johnson, running back Jahvid Best took advantage of some holes to run for 163 yards – more than doubling his previous career high – and his 88-yard sprint against Chicago was the second-longest run in Lions history. Best, a former California Bear and native of Vallejo, Calif., is extra motivated to put together another strong performance.
“I grew up a Raider fan,” Best said. “So, definitely my eyes are set on San Francisco this week because it’s a team I grew up hating.”
49ers linebacker Patrick Willis may make Best hate that he said that. Willis had 18 tackles, his most since 2008, against the Buccaneers and was named the NFC’s defensive player of the week. Harbaugh compared the do-it-all Willis to Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis.
“He’s got a chance, yes, like Ray, to be one of the all-time greats,” Harbaugh said.
On Detroit’s defense, Ndamukong Suh is developing into one of the best in the game. The reigning defensive player of the year and All-Pro defensive tackle leads a deep and talented front four that is consistently harassing quarterbacks and allowing an improving linebacking corps to make plays.
Suh and Co. are about to be put to a test.
Frank Gore ranks second in the league since 2006 with 8,424 yards from scrimmage and he’s had at least 125 yards rushing the past two games.
“He’s not the fastest running back, but he consistently gains yards because he’s powerful and agile,” Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril said.
The 49ers have leaned on Gore a lot, asking Smith to manage the offense and avoid mistakes in a formula that has worked.
Detroit is doing it a different way on offense, letting Matthew Stafford throw early and often, and history would suggest the franchise is headed to the playoffs for the first time this century.
Since the NFL began using a 16-game schedule in 1978, more than 90 percent of teams that started 5-0 finished the season in the playoffs. The leery Lions, though, know that the Denver Broncos and New York Giants got off to the same start two years ago and flopped to 8-8 records and failed to make it to the postseason.
“We know the only thing we’re guaranteed of is five wins,” defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. “That’s why we want to ride this high as long as we can.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)