The upstart Lions took its best shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but it wasn’t enough for the playoff-tested 49ers. While Detroit was in its first NFC Championship Game in the Super Bowl era, the 49ers used their recent playoff experience to roll with the punches. San Francisco went on to outscore Detroit 27-7 in the second half, punching its ticket to its second Super Bowl appearance under Kyle Shanahan.
Here are the winners and losers from the 49ers comeback win:
Winner: Mobile QB Brock Purdy
The second-ranked Lions’ run defense’s three worst games this season were against the No. 1 (Baltimore) and No. 2 (Chicago) run offenses, allowing a combined 471 rushing yards.
The commonality between those two offenses is mobile quarterbacks, with Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson combining for 48 percent of rushing yards in those three games against Detroit. While the Lions’ faced the 49ers’ third-ranked run offense, they didn’t have to worry about Brock Purdy beating them with his legs.
That’s until Brock Purdy beat the Lions’ defense with his legs.
Purdy rushed for 48 yards on five attempts, but his big runs weren’t just about the yardage but the situation they came in. After the defense forced a fumble down seven in the third quarter, the 49ers faced a second-and-11 near the border of the red zone; Purdy stepped up in the pocket, scrambling for 21 yards on the play before Christian McCaffrey’s game-tying rushing touchdown.
On the following drive, with the game still tied, the offense was against a shorter second down, where Purdy shifted around in the backfield and cut upfield for a gain of ten and first down. Jake Moody would make a 33-yard field goal three plays later, giving San Francisco its first lead in the fourth quarter.
Purdy’s biggest scramble came on a 3rd & 4, with the 49ers holding on to the three-point lead with just under five minutes left. Aidan Hutchinson got a push on Colton McKivitz, giving Purdy just enough space to slip through. With a sudden speed burst, Purdy avoided the reach of Alex Anzalone, scurrying for 21 yards and the first down.
Elijah Mitchell would score the game-sealing touchdown two plays later.
The Lions’ defense knew they had to focus on McCaffrey - who impressed as well, with 90 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns - and Purdy’s performance pushed the 49ers’ run game over the top.
Loser: the 49ers run defense
The 49ers allowed 182 rushing yards - second-most in a game this season - at a staggering 6.3 yards per attempt.
Detroit opened the game with a few big gainers. David Montgomery took his second carry of the game for 15 yards, moving the Detroit offense to midfield.
Two plays later, Jameson Williams zoomed through the 49ers defense on an end-around, opening the scoring on Saturday with an explosive 42-yard touchdown run. Jahmyr Gibbs and Montgomery combined for 25 rushing yards on five carries on the next drive, with Montgomery making Detroit two-for-two on touchdown drives, putting Detroit up 14 in the first quarter.
Gibbs would later put Detroit up 21-7, taking a pitch left and making Tashaun Gipson miss en route to the 15-yard touchdown.
One hundred forty-eight of Detroit’s 182 rushing yards were in the first half, meaning the 49ers defense stabilized in the second half (more on that in a bit). But the San Francisco front had its fair share of struggles against the Lions’ backfield duo, a worrisome trend of allowing 100 rushing yards or more in five of its last six games.
Loser: the first half
For the second week in a row, the 49ers started flat. While the run defense should take partial blame, the offense’s slow start didn’t help the situation.
It was an ominous enough start, with Moody missing a 48-yard field goal in response to Detroit’s opening touchdown, wasting a 12-play drive opening drive. The offense didn’t need Moody on its second drive, scoring a touchdown to cut the Detroit lead in half, but that would be the last time a drive would end in points in the first half.
After the defense forced a punt early in the second quarter, Purdy and the offense had a chance to tie the game with a touchdown. The 49ers would run a few plays to get out of the shadow of the end zone before the offense would face a third down after a pair of Purdy incompletions.
Josh Paschal would get his hand on Purdy’s third-down pass attempt, altering the trajectory of the pass intended for Deebo Samuel into the arms of Malcolm Rodriguez, putting the Lions’ offense in a prime position to extend the lead to two scores.
The 49ers’ final drive of the first half would be a punt following a three-and-out before a Detroit field goal would extend the lead to 17 before the half. The start did San Francisco no favors and only turned the second half into an uphill climb.
Winner: the third quarter 49ers
San Francisco must have some good climbing equipment because the third quarter made that uphill climb look easy.
The first step in cutting into the Detroit 17-point lead was a Moody 43-yard field goal to cut the lead to two scores. While Detroit drove into San Francisco territory, the defense forced a turnover on downs, putting the ball back in the hands of the offense. Two plays later, the offense would be inside the Detroit five-yard-line after a 17-yard Samuel catch and run and a huge Brandon Aiyuk 51-yard reception. Three plays later, Aiyuk would finish the drive with a touchdown, cutting the lead to seven.
After the poor first half, the 49er’s run defense would make a big play on the first play of the ensuing Lions drive, with Gipson knocking the ball from Gibbs, recovered by Arik Armstead on the doorstep of the red zone. McCaffrey would tie the game up a few plays later with a one-yard touchdown run.
It took the Lions a half to build the three-score lead, but it only took 12:58 of game time for the 49ers to even the score. San Francisco took their excellent form into the fourth quarter, closing the game by outscoring Detroit by 20 points in the second half.
Winner: overly aggressive Dan Campbell
The Lions’ head coach has made a name for himself for being aggressive on fourth downs, and that aggressiveness played a role in why Detroit was in the NFC Championship Game.
Detroit lived by the fourth down all season but died by the fourth down on Sunday.
After Moody’s third-quarter field goal cut the deficit to two scores, the Lions had a chance to cancel it out with fourth-and-2 at the San Francisco 28-yard-line. Instead of trying to push the lead back to 17 with a 46-yard field goal attempt, Campbell kept the offense on the field, but Nick Bosa would force Jared Goff off of his spot, causing an inaccurate - but catchable - pass to Josh Reynolds to fall to the ground.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Lions facing their first deficit of the game, Campbell rolled the dice once again. This time opting against a potential game-tying 48-yard field goal attempt, the Lions put the ball in the air again with Goff missing Amon-Ra St. Brown well short, giving the 49ers the ball back with the lead. Four minutes later, the lead would be 10.
Neither of the field goals would have been give-me kicks, but the Lions could have used three points at several points. Campbell stayed true to himself to the 49ers’ advantage.
Winner: that momentum swing
There’s no way to put a momentum swing into numbers, but it’s something that can just be felt. And in some cases - like Sunday in Santa Clara - that momentum wave can be seen from miles away.
Detroit almost forfeited the momentum at the end of the first half, taking a short field goal with seven seconds left on a fourth down at the San Francisco three-yard-line to go up 17 instead of being aggressive and trying to go up 21 with a touchdown. From there, the momentum slowly flipped to San Francisco.
Kyle Shanahan called on old reliable, a short pass to Samuel turned into a 26-yard gain to open the second half, setting up Moody’s first field goal. Then, the defense kept up the energy, forcing the first of two turnovers on down.
While the momentum was slowly leaking away from Detroit, the 49ers - and good bounce - fully swung big mo in San Francisco’s favor. Purdy dialed up a deep shot to Aiyuk but slightly overshot his target. The ball ricocheted off of both the hands and helmet of Kindle Vildor, giving the diving Aiyuk just enough time to get his hands under the ball for the 51-yard gain. The defense then carried the newfound momentum, forcing the fumble, and the 49ers wouldn’t look back from there.
This winner might feel like a redub of the third-quarter winner, but the feeling was palpable. There was a massive energy shift at Levi’s Stadium that could be felt through the TV, and there’s something special about that. It was doom and gloom in the first half, but after a few big plays, it almost felt as if the energy from the faithful carried the game from there.