The 49ers looked like they were going to coast to a big win in their home opener.
They had a 17-point lead over the Detroit Lions early in the fourth quarter in front of a satisfied crowd at Levi’s Stadium still buzzing after Matt Breida’s explosive 66-yard touchdown run.
But then Matthew Stafford turned the table, picking on San Francisco’s young secondary leading back-to-back touchdown drives while converting two long and crucial third downs. It was a three-point game with just over three minutes remaining despite San Francisco being on the verge of a blowout just seven minutes earlier.
“A win’s a win. But it feels like a loss, to me,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “We played like crap down the stretch.”
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The 49ers escaped with a 30-27 victory. But, as Sherman noted, it was hardly convincing.
Stafford threw for 347 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions after being picked four times in a loss to the New York Jets in Week 1.
Jimmy Garoppolo countered with two touchdown passes, but also took six sacks, many of which were the result of holding on to the ball for too long, including two on one drive in a first-half red-zone opportunity. Breida sparked the running game, logging 138 yards and his explosive touchdown with 0:52 remaining in the third quarter.
The 49ers averaged 6.8 yards per carry, but coach Kyle Shanahan decided against running the ball late in the game, nearly leading to a disastrous finish.
On third-and-2 just outside of the two-minute warning, the 49ers needed a first down to help salt it away. But instead of dialing up another run to Breida, who had just 11 carries, Shanahan called a passing play to Breida in the left flat.
His route was jumped by defensive back Tracy Walker, who picked off Garoppolo and returned it to San Francisco’s 7-yard line. A field goal would have sent it to overtime, but Stafford had just orchestrated two touchdown drives.
Levi’s Stadium gasped. It appeared Garoppolo had just given the game away in his first home outing since signing a $137.5 million contract.
But there was a flag.
Lions safety Quandre Diggs was called for holding on tight end George Kittle. It was Detroit’s 10th penalty of another mistake-riddled performance in their fall to 0-2.
“I didn’t see it at all,” Kittle said of the flag. “Then I saw it late and I was like, ‘I know that’s on my guy because I got crushed that play.’”
Said Shanahan: “It was huge. It’s real big.”
Kittle, the second-year tight end, said the Lions focused their defense on him after he led the team with five catches for 90 yards last week at Minnesota. The Lions limited Kittle to two catches on four targets for 22 yards. Garrett Celek and Kendrick Bourne each caught touchdown passes. Pierre Garçon paced the air attack with 57 yards on four receptions.
Garoppolo said the team has elevated its expectations from last season, when he was inserted into the starting lineup well after the 49ers were eliminated from playoff contention. There’s far more on the line now that Garoppolo is the entering his first season as a full-time starter with San Francisco considered a playoff contender.
“Last year if we got a win, we were happy about it,” Garoppolo said. “Now, you kind of progress as a team. I think our guys are growing and learning like that. When you have a chance like we had to blow them out and take advantage of that stuff, we didn’t. It’s just little things like that we need to clean up.”
Stafford made it a one-score game with a touchdown to tight end Michael Roberts on third-and-goal from the 15. On the previous series, the 49ers allowed the Lions convert on third-and-17, when receiver Golden Tate streaked past the secondary for a 67-yard gain that included 37 after the catch.
“Our offense gave us 30 points,” Sherman said. “... We’ve got to execute down the stretch. Stafford’s a good quarterback, they’re a good team, but we’ve got to execute down the stretch. We’ve got to play better. I think it’s a good lesson for a young team that we needed. It’s a humbling lesson. Thank goodness we got a win out of it.”
Breida’s long scoring run gave the 49ers some breathing room. He slithered through the left side of the Lions’ defensive line, made a cut and two defenders ran into each other. From there, Breida had one man to beat and had Garçon running with him the whole way.
Garçon blocked defensive back Nevin Lawson for the better part of the last 40 yards of Breida’s scamper, including when Breida slowed near the goal line, allowing Garçon to work like a fullback to finish off the play. Breida then jogged into the end zone.
The 11-year veteran was asked where that blocked ranked in his career.
“It’s up there. I’m happy we scored,” he said. “I think it gave the momentum that the team, stadium, everyone needed. I’m just happy I could be a part of it. Breida scored, I’m very happy for Breida because he was running hard and he’s always close to breaking one.”
Said Garoppolo, who celebrated with Garçon first before congratulating Breida: “It was incredible. I was behind him the whole way just trying to catch up to him ... because those are the little things that go unnoticed. I don’t even know. He might have had one catch before that point and he’s blocking his (butt) off like that.”
The 49ers will have to clean things up next week when they travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs, who are one of the stories of the NFL following their 42-37 road victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday to improve to 2-0.
“Yeah, we should have done a lot better,” Garçon said. “We have a lot of work to do, a lot of things to learn. But we’ll take the victory, especially the first win of the year.”