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3 keys to a 49ers victory over the Lions: Which team will be more opportunistic

The 49ers could find themselves in an offensive showdown against the Lions.


Fresh off a 24-21 victory over the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers will look to book a trip to the Super Bowl when they face off against the Detroit Lions at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, with kickoff set for 3:30 P.M.

In the win, the 49ers seemed to be outplayed by the Packers for a majority of the game, but pulled together key moments on both sides of the field to ultimately pull out the victory.

Meanwhile, the Lions are coming off a 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to reach their first NFC Championship Game since 1991.

On the injury front, the 49ers are coming in with a clean slate once again, as wideout Deebo Samuel was cleared to play after suffering a shoulder injury that took him out of last weekend’s game. linebacker Oren Burks (shoulder) and defensive tackle Kalia Davis (ankle) are the two lone players on the injury report.

As for the Lions, guard Jonah Jackson and wideout Kalif Raymond have been ruled out, while quarterback Hendon Hooker (tooth) and cornerback Chase Lucas (illness) are questionable.

Heading into the game, the 49ers are seen as seven-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, with the over/under placed at 52 points.

Here’s what you need to know about the 49ers’ opponent on Sunday.

Opponent Preview

The Detroit Lions come into this week as one of the NFL’s biggest revelations this season, as they went 12-5 during the regular season, which earned them the No. 3 seed in the NFC.

In the wildcard round, Detroit edged past the Los Angeles Rams in a 24-23 thriller, getting out to a hot start with 21 first-half points, which was enough to remain ahead of their opponent.

The Lions were balanced in that game, as David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs combined for 82 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, while Jared Goff had 277 yards and a touchdown on 22/27 passing on an explosive day for Detroit’s passing offense.

The script switched against the Buccaneers, as the Lions settled for shorter passes, leading to 43 attempts for Goff, who threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns on 30 completions.

However, they saw more explosives on the ground, as Jahmyr Gibbs rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, aiding them to top 30 points once again in their 31-23 win.

Against the 49ers, the Lions could look to operate with a similar formula to the one they deployed last weekend, looking for explosives or checkdowns in the air, while hitting the outside edge with Gibbs for bigger plays and churning between the tackles with Montgomery.

Keys to the Game

Explosives: The 49ers and Lions possess two of the best offenses in the NFL, ranking in the top five in total yards, passing yards, rushing yards, and points per game.

Both teams are among the leaders in explosive plays, as they possess strong weapons on the ground in Gibbs and Christian McCaffrey, who averaged over five yards per carry, as well as through the air.

Quarterbacks Brock Purdy and Jared Goff are first and second in 20+ yard passes at 72 and 69, respectively, which means we could see a battle of explosives on Sunday.

Additionally, the Lions rank 27th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game and allow the second-worst yards per completion in the NFL, meaning they’re prone to giving up explosive plays through the air.

Meanwhile, the 49ers are the third-best team, allowing just 8.9 yards per completion, and they’ve been a good team at avoiding explosives to opponents.

If the Lions can crack the code in the air and find some success with their weapons, they could turn this one into a shootout with the 49ers, who should see their own success in the passing game with George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Christian McCaffrey all active.

Turnovers: As always, turnovers are a major element that could shift the outlook of a game, especially in the playoffs with the intensity upped a notch.

However, they could be an even more intriguing factor in this one with the way that Detroit is looking to play defensively, potentially providing them a key advantage or disadvantage on Sunday.

When breaking down the Lions’ defensive gameplan against San Francisco, head coach Dan Campbell revealed his desire for Detroit to come out disruptive and aggressive to counter the 49ers’ physicality.

“We’re disruptive. We’re aggressive and we hit,” Campbell said, via SB Nation’s Pride of Detroit. “That, to me, has got to be what we’re about. Those are the principles,” Campbell said.

With that gameplan, the Lions could get beaten on a number of concepts, but Campbell is willing to give up plays as a means of being opportunistic with the hopes of moving on to the Super Bowl.

“Look, we may get hit on a couple of things and I know, for me, I’m willing to give up something to get something. And sometimes things may happen, but that’s okay because it’ll pay dividends by the time you hit the fourth quarter,” Campbell said.

The Lions know that they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to their personnel, especially in the secondary. That could alter them to being more aggressive, both against the pass and the run, with the hopes of generating a turnover and shifting the tides of the game.

The 49ers have been one of the more turnover-free teams this season, ranking sixth in the NFL with 1.1 giveaways per game, while the Lions sit at 19th with 1.4 a game.

Defensively, the 49ers have forced turnovers at a top-five rate in the NFL, while Detroit sits at 18th.

San Francisco has the advantage in the turnover department this season, most recently forcing two interceptions on Jordan Love last weekend, but the Lions could look to remain opportunistic, potentially creating some magic of their own.

Run Game: In the playoffs, running the football and stopping the run become bigger objectives, as they usually revolve around the battle in the trenches and therefore, control of the game.

That is no different in Sunday’s matchup, and the run game could have even higher importance, as the 49ers and Lions both ranked in the top five in rushing yards and rushing yards allowed per game this season.

The 49ers are led by running back Christian McCaffrey, who healthily paced the NFL in rushing yards this season while averaging 5.4 yards per carry and ranking third in explosive plays at his position.

The Lions, on the other hand, have a two-pronged attack with bruising back David Montgomery and elusive change-of-pace back Jahmyr Gibbs, who each have their own strengths.

Capable of taking on a large workload, Montgomery is consistently able to churn out four yards per carry between the tackles, while serving as an effective red zone option. Working well in space, Gibbs flourished as the season went along, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on the year and ranking second in explosive plays for a running back.

Both teams have showcased the ability to stop the run, as Detroit allowed just 88.8 rushing yards per game (2nd in the NFL) on 3.7 yards per attempt (3rd in the NFL), while San Francisco gave up 89.7 rushing yards a contest (3rd in NFL) and 4.1 yards per attempt (14th in the NFL).

The question comes down to how effectively each side can control the run game on Sunday, as the 49ers recently gave up 108 yards on 18 carries to Packers running back Aaron Jones in the Divisional Round. Now, 53 of those yards came on one carry, but all of Jones’s main major carries came on runs to the outside, while Detroit has executed well this season with Gibbs.

If the 49ers can show a semblance of stopping the run on Sunday, they’ll control the pace of the game. But, if the Lions can move the ball on the ground, they’ll be able to keep up and open up the play-action game, as well as other elements of coordinator Ben Johnson’s offense.