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SAN FRANCISCO — If Jim Harbaugh likes blue-collar football as much as he lets on, he must have loved the 49ers drive that started with 9:10 left in Sunday night's game at Candlestick Park.

Nothing came easy on the possession — except maybe for the final play. The offense survived three third-and-long plays, and Alex Smith survived a cut to the bridge of his nose. By the time he hit Vernon Davis for a 23-yard catch-and-run touchdown, blood was trickling down the quarterback's face and the 49ers were cementing their place as one of the NFL's elite teams.

Davis' second score put the home team up by 15 points over the Detroit Lions, and San Francisco held on for a 27-19 victory in the hard-hitting, occasionally nasty game that everyone expected of these two teams.

"We knew it would be a tough, close, aggressive, bell-ringing game, and it was," Harbaugh said afterward.

Harbaugh and Lions coach Jim Schwartz, forever remembered for their post-game handshake skirmish last year in Detroit, were on better behavior Sunday night. They shook hands and chatted before the game, and their midfield meeting afterward was cordial.

Their players weren't always so pleasant. Lions defensive end Cliff Avril appeared to catch tight end Delanie Walker's helmet as he knocked him down at the sideline after one play. Avril and tackle Anthony Davis went at it after a running play. Even when Smith took a knee to run out the final clock, there was pushing and shouting.

But Smith's facial wound was the ultimate symbol of this rugged game. Lions safety John Wendling got a forearm through the QB's facemask and cut his nose as he went into a slide on the crucial drive, but Smith calmly got back to business and finished the march.

"He's as tough as a two-dollar steak," Harbaugh said of his passer. "Grew up eating a lot of them. I know what I'm talking about."

The 49ers (2-0) didn't run Detroit (1-1) off the field, but they seemed like the superior team from the outset. They ran effectively, did a great job of limiting all-world wide receiver Calvin Johnson to modest yardage and would have kept the Lions out of the end zone were it not for the visitors' final 80-yard drive. Matthew Stafford hit tight end Brandon Pettigrew for a 9-yard touchdown on third-and-goal to complete the scoring.

Donte Whitner, the 49ers' punishing safety, wasn't thrilled with giving up the late touchdown.

"We gave up a big play at the end of the football game," Whitner said. "We have to go back and correct that, where they even got down there. ... If they do get down there, we have to hold them to another field goal, so we have some things to improve on."

After Pettigrew's touchdown, the Lions attempted a looping onside kick, but Kyle Williams corralled the ball to secure the victory.

The 49ers dropped a half-dozen passes during the game, and three in succession to thwart one drive. But two of the San Francisco pass catchers came up big.

Vernon Davis opened the scoring by running a fly route that he said reminded him of his touchdown against the Giants in the NFL championship game last year. Smith, who audibled to the play at the line of scrimmage, laid the ball into the wide-open target's hands for a 21-yard score. Later, Davis caught a short pass, ran downfield, stopped to let a pair of Detroit defenders drift by, then completed the key scoring play.

But Davis wouldn't have had the chance for that second one were it not for Michael Crabtree, who completed three third-and-long plays (including a third-and-14) to keep the drive alive.

The Lions had a tough time in the red zone all night, but their ageless kicker, Jason Hanson, is nearly as reliable as David Akers, and his fourth field goal of the night — from 48 yards — drew the Lions to within 20-12 with 9:16 to play.

Hanson got two field goals in the first half, but the Lions were gifted on both of them — by a highly dubious pass-interference call on nickel back Chris Culliver and then Kendall Hunter's fumble on a kickoff return, which was recovered by Detroit's Kassim Osgood.

Hanson's second field goal, a 41-yarder, hit the right upright and ricocheted through. His next attempt, from 40 yards, hit the right upright more solidly and bounced back for a miss.

After two weeks of the 2012 season, the 49ers have already beaten two playoff teams from the previous season, and they have done it with the physical play Harbaugh preaches.

"I thought it was a well-played game," the coach said. "And pretty clean for the most part. And a good, competitive match. And our guys sucked it up and finished it, and that's what we're most pleased about."

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.