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Why the 49ers will be in a position to win another Super Bowl after Sunday

Breaking down the NFC Championship and why the home team should have their way with the Lions

San Francisco 49ers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The team that hadn’t won a playoff game in 30 years coming into this season stands in the way of another Super Bowl berth for the San Francisco 49ers.

The last time the Detroit Lions won a road playoff game, Mickey Mantle, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown (his rookie season) won the MVPs for their respective leagues. Elvis Presley's “All Shook Up” was the year's top single.

The NFC Championship features two teams with contrasting styles. Despite his age, the Niners' head coach is conservative in his decision-making. That’s the case for his defense and their aggressiveness, too.

The Lions’ head coach is anything but. Two-point conversions. Fourth down attempts. Fake punts. And expect blitzes from every direction when they’re on defense. Dan Campbell’s aggression may be ten-fold this weekend, given the circumstances.

The perception of these teams is much different today than two weeks ago. If you knew the 49ers were only favored by a touchdown against a team that lost to Justin Fields, couldn’t stop Nick Mullens twice, and struggled against an inept Dallas Cowboys team in December, you’re stopping in the middle of traffic to bet the Niners.

A litany of errors in the Divisional playoff round by San Francisco on both sides of the ball has caused many analysts to second-guess the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Brock Purdy played well when the 49ers needed him the most. It wasn’t just on the quarterback; it was the entire offense. Purdy’s play didn’t help, nor did penalties, missed tackles, or poor special teams play — and that’s before addressing the five plays where a Niners’ defender slipped, leading to a first down or touchdown for Green Bay.

Will the 49ers play another football game at home in clean conditions where they make a comedy of errors for three-quarters against an immobile quarterback playing behind a banged-up offensive line on one side with a porous defense on the other?

We know the answer, but let’s dig deeper and reveal why.

Lucky Lion

The Packers had five red zone attempts last week and only scored two touchdowns. But when you watch each of those drives, it’s Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Javon Hargrave, Charvarius Ward, or Arik Armstead all making plays.

It didn’t seem like the 49ers were fortunate to hold Green Bay to three points on either of those drives. You cannot say the same about Detroit’s defense. They’ve been lottery-lucky. During the final two weeks of the regular season, offenses had eight red zone trips but only managed nine total points.

Averaging just over a point per possession would make the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or 1985 Chicago Bears blush.

That’s not counting a couple of drives where the opponent failed to score in Detroit’s territory — Nick Mullens thew a two-yard pass on 4th & 2 from the Lions’ 31-yard line and an interception on Detroit’s 26-yard line in Week 18, for example.

The Cowboys fumbled on the 1-yard line. Again, there are other examples outside of the red area — like Dak Prescott throwing an interception on the Lions’ 32-yard line — or the Cowboys starting a drive on Detroit’s 29-yard line and failing to reach the red zone.

Let’s move to the playoffs, where Detroit’s win probability was never higher than 60 percent until four minutes left in the game against the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round. Matthew Stafford led scoring drives on every drive in the first half. They would probably score a touchdown on the first drive if not for a....fade... to Cooper Kupp in the end zone on 3rd & goal.

Two second-half drives inside Detroit’s 15 resulted in six points. Sean McVay’s last chance came with just over four minutes remaining on 3rd & 4, but a holding call made it 3rd & 14, and the Rams were forced to punt the ball away and never got it back.

So, “Yay, the Lions won, go team,” right? Well, Stafford outgained the Lions 425-334, outgained them by 1.6 yards per play, and didn’t turn the ball over. But the Lions converted each of their three red zone trips into touchdowns, and the Rams went 0-3.

On the fifth play of the game last week, a pass hits Mike Evans in the hands and ricochets in the air and into the hands of a Lions’ defender. Tampa Bay moves the ball on the next drive, but Baker fails to recognize a slot blitz, gets sacked, and the Bucs settle for a field goal. Two drives later, they miss a field goal.

Yet, it’s still tied at ten at the half.

Sacks decided the second half, as those were the only drives Tampa Bay didn’t score on, outside of the interception on the final drive. But you can’t ignore Tampa Bay having two touchdown drives in the second half, each going 75 yards.

You'd think the Lions won convincingly if you didn’t watch the game. But once again, they were outgained. Tampa Bay averaged 1.3 more yards per play and was perfect in the red zone, but had four sacks, five penalties, and two turnovers.

No team in the NFL scored a touchdown on a higher percentage in the red zone than the 49ers at 67.6 percent. They were better at home, as that number climbed to 69.7 percent. San Francisco was also one of the league's least penalized teams, with the second-best turnover margin. They do not beat themselves, which made last week’s game so puzzling.

Not only should we see a buttoned-up version of the 49ers, but Jared Goff isn’t getting away with a dropped interception in the end zone. Detroit’s third-string running back probably isn’t scoring on 4th & 1 up the middle, where there’s now a backup lineman. And who could forget the pass interference that wasn’t called on Tampa’s two-point conversion?

Generally speaking, the zig-zag theory applies in sports. The Lions have gotten the ball to bounce their way for over a month. The 49ers had more than a scare against the Packers. One team proved that they had a Grand Canyon-sized margin for error and still prevailed, while the other has gotten away with more than anyone in the NFL and has used up all of their luck.

The matchup

Left guard Jonah Jackson had a clean sheet in 18 pass-blocking snaps before leaving the game with an injury against Tampa Bay. Detroit replaced the former third-rounder out of Ohio State with an undrafted free agent out of Buffalo in 2021.

Think about the difference in pedigree from the Buckeyes to the Bulls and the quality of the player you’re playing against weekly. Kayode Awosikia — an incredible name — allowed a team-high seven pressures on just 28 pass-blocking snaps. Center Frank Ragnow is on the injury report with an ankle and knee injury.

Ragnow is tough as nails. He played through a fractured throat injury a couple of years ago. But it’s not a leap to say Ragnow will be closer to 75 percent than 95. That’ll impact his mobility and agility and force the Lions to allocate more help to the interior.

Here are a few plays from the last game to highlight what it looks like when the left guard gets beaten cleanly or when Goff has to use his legs to avoid pressure.

Ragnow allowed a career-high pressure rate when he was healthy. I purposely put the clip where the running back allowed a sack, as that’s the norm for the Lions. Their running backs allowed the second-highest pressure rate this season, at 17.6 percent. All of the games and post-snap movement the defensive line does should confuse the Lions and eventually match up Dre Greenlaw or Fred Warner 1-on-1 with a running back.

The 49ers went into last offseason, prioritizing interior pressure. The pair of Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave were stellar during the year. Despite missing a month and a half, Armstead was second on the team in pressure to some Nick Bosa fella last week.

After the game, Kyle Shanahan said he expects Armstead to be even better this week. The expectation is that Armstead will be in better shape and have his legs under him with a game under his belt. He was a force all season on the field. Arik had the seventh-best winning percentage among all defensive tackles. Hargrave was 14th.

Next Gen Stats tracks “quick pressures” when you win in under 2.5 seconds. Hargrave tied for the fourth-most quick pressures among all defensive tackles this season. Even better, 92 percent of his snaps came against the left guard during the regular season.

When Hargrave is on the field, the 49ers generated a 44.4 percent pressure rate this season. When Armstead is on the field, the Niners get after the quarterback 48 percent of the time. Arik has had his highest pressure rate since 2019 despite facing a team-high 46.2 double-team rate.

The numbers help put Armstead’s value into perspective. The Niners' defense has a -0.14 EPA per play with Armstead on the field. That number jumps to 0.02 when No. 91 isn’t on the field. So, the difference between an elite defense and slightly above league average.

A gimpy Lions’ interior versus two of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. This is a matchup the 49ers have to dominate. This is why they pay Armstead and Hargrave. Plus, historically, Armstead is at his best in the playoffs.

The onus will be on the defense to stop Jahymr Gibbs and their wide zone plays. Shanahan spoke about the struggles the team had last week stopping the run:

“We gave up our first 100-yard rusher in a while. Way too many explosives. They got outside on us too many times. We’re going to have a huge challenge this week. The Lions, regardless of who they play, they stick with the run. They do it every game. It’s a big part of what they do. They’re very balanced. I think they’re very similar to our offense. That’ll be a huge challenge this week.”

This week, there will be an over-emphasis on keeping the Lions between the tackles.

Make Goff move. He’s accurate and decisive when there isn’t pressure. Goff drops from seventh to 20th when pressured for passer rating. And when he gets pressure right down the middle, he turns into a pumpkin.

Brock bounces back

The Lions used a first-round pick on a linebacker who cannot cover. Jack Campbell allowed the second-most yards per target in the NFL this year. Per Next Gen Stats, he was one of two players who didn’t force a tight window target.

You don’t have a prayer against the Niners when you are weak down the middle of a defense. Linebackers Roquan Smith and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah aren’t walking through that door. Their athleticism posed significant problems to the Niners. That’s not the case with Campbell.

Detroit allowed the most yards and yards per attempt on passes between the numbers this year. Their slot cornerback, Cameron Sutton, allowed the fifth-most yards as the nearest defender, a +22.1 EPA per target, and a 42.3 percent success rate in zone coverage.

Those two are under the Shanascope this week. And it’ll be on the ‘quarterbacks' shoulders to execute.

The Lions will load the box and put this game on Purdy’s shoulders. Detroit aligned with more defenders than blockers in the box during the regular season at the third-highest rate. The Lions allowed the second-lowest yards over expectation on the ground in the NFL. They stop the run on early downs, in the red zone, and third down. It’s what they do, and they do it well.

Then, you look at the schedule of offenses this defense has faced. Detroit only played two teams inside the top 10 of rushing DVOA since Week 10. They faced more offenses in the bottom five of rushing DVOA (3) than in the top 10 (2). This is another example of how numbers can be skewed. The 49ers are second in rushing DVOA.

Purdy must acknowledge where two players are before the ball is snapped every play. Aidan Hutchinson and Brian Branch.

Hutchinson is a game wrecker. He is much better at rushing against the right tackle (16.2 pressure rate compared to 11.0) and has a quick get-off. No player in the NFL had more games with 5+ pressures, notching four more than Nick Bosa.

I’d argue Branch is the bigger threat.

He allowed a league-low 4.5 yards per target in man coverage this season, which was the best number in the NFL. Last week, Branch had five run stops and an unblocked sack. Against the Rams, Branch had three run stops and batted a pass when he was blitzing.

As a team, the Lions' defense ran man coverage at the 5th-highest rate in the second half. They allowed the fourth-most yards per attempt, the most air yards per attempt (11.3), and — I’m not making this up — +37.9 EPA allowed. That’s more than two times any other defense.

Shanahan will live in 21 personnel and leave Kyle Juszczyk on the field. The Lions allowed the third-worst EPA per pass attempt in their base defense. Against defenses with four defensive backs, Brandon Aiyuk had an 83 percent success rate, averaging 16.9 yards per target, averaging 4.6 yards per route run. For reference, Tyreek Hill led the NFL at 3.72 yards per route run.

It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel for Shanahan and Purdy, provided that Brock isn’t affected by abnormal weather conditions. Even if the 49ers are without Deebo Samuel, they shouldn’t face much resistance against a Lions defense that’s been more lucky than good.