The San Francisco 49ers saw their season flash before their eyes, down 24-7 at halftime against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game, with their best shot at a Super Bowl unraveling beneath them.
Despite being the odds-on favorite to win a ring, and facing home-field advantage for the first time since 2019, when they last made the Super Bowl, the 49ers found themselves facing a significant deficit against the Lions in a game that seemed improbable to come back from.
And yet, they found a way for the second consecutive week, breaking the narrative about struggling to come from behind and punching their ticket to the Super Bowl for a rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs.
How were the 49ers able to pull themselves together after such a lopsided first half to end up as the victors?
“You had no other choice,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It was nice we were starting out with the ball in the third, so it gave us some hope in that way. Also, it being a 17-point game was encouraging. It looked like it should have been worse. Definitely how it felt. That is how the numbers looked. But, we were only down 17, which that’s not too much.”
“But you got to start playing a lot better in order for that not to be too much. Came out in the third quarter, we finished with a field goal. I definitely thought that wasn’t enough, but then I think our D stopped them on a fourth down the next time, we got a touchdown. The next drive I want to say was the turnover. Just like that, it was three drives. I think by the end of the third it was a tied game. All right, first quarter again, but it’s the fourth, let’s start.”
After an abysmal first half defensively, it felt just like every factor was going the 49ers' way in the third quarter, stemming from an amazing Brandon Aiyuk reception on a ball that bounced off a defender’s helmet to a key fourth down stop and so forth.
But, it all started with the 49ers' mindset coming out of the half, which Shanahan described as “pissed off.”
“I think we were just pissed off. I think guys were extremely pissed,” Shanahan said about the halftime demeanor. “That first half wasn’t we were down by 17, it was the way we were down. They were kind of having their way in the run game. We weren’t getting much in our game run either. We don’t want to go out like that. We dug ourselves in a big hole. Wasn’t just talking about how to win this game. I was talking about how to start playing right.”
“We got too much respect for our team. That would have been a real rough way to end it if we couldn’t have played better with our group. I was so proud of the guys. They didn’t really care about anything but finding a way to win. You could see it on their faces, you could see it at halftime, you could see it in the third quarter, you could see it all the way to the end of the game.”
But, in the midst of being “pissed off”, the 49ers also found a way to remain composed, according to quarterback Brock Purdy, which he attributed to the team’s overall experience.
“No one was rah-rah. No one was freaking out. It’s football,” Purdy said about the dire situation that San Francisco faced at halftime. “There’s a lot of experienced guys on this team, veterans that have been in crazy situations. Everyone was, ‘all right, we’ve just got to do our job straight up.’ Offense has to move the ball. We’ve got to put up points, convert on third downs. Defense get some stops for us. That was really about it. There wasn’t much said.”
“[Head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] said a couple things. Fred said a couple things. We kept it simple. Went out. We all knew what we had to do. Season is on the line, down 17. I think everybody stepped up. We played good, complementary team football from there.”
Warner, known for his hype pre-game pep talks that usually go viral on the 49ers’ social media accounts, acknowledged the situation at halftime, pointing out that it was time for business, rather than talk, down 17 points.
“I told the team that there was no more time for pep talks. Offense had the ball up first. They had to go score. Defensively, we had to get a stop and if we didn’t, we’re not going to Vegas,” Warner said, acknowledging the significance of the situation.
Even defensive end Nick Bosa, who is known for his mild-mannered demeanor, spoke at halftime, expressing his disappointment at the defensive performance in the first half, while stressing the need to, frankly, get off the field.
“Whew. I was just trying to galvanize the group and there was so much football left. We could score really quick on offense. We just needed to get off the field so we could get our offense rolling,” Bosa said after the game. “Just try and tell everybody, ‘Do your job.’ That’s all we need to do. You’re one of 11, and in that first half, there were breakdowns, one guy each time. Obviously, it’s hard for me to know exactly what’s going on, but you’ve just got to do your job and this defense is as talented as it gets. So, that was it.”
But, as Purdy said, the key to the situation for the 49ers was their experience. While the game got out of hand for two quarters, the team understood that there was still another whole half of football to go, which is why the focus level never wavered and the concerns were minimal down 17.
“I think everybody was pretty focused,” running back Christian McCaffrey said about the team’s halftime composure. “We knew we didn’t start the way we wanted to, but that’s why football is four quarters. We knew we had the guys that if we were gonna do it, we got the guys that can make it happen. I’m just so proud to be a part of this group. We showed a lot of resilience this week and last week. I’m just pumped up.”
Wideout Deebo Samuel reiterated those sentiments, speaking to the fact that it was just like any other ballgame with the message being a simple one: go make plays.
“I don’t think there was any concern. We just knew what we had to go out and do in the second half and that was to score points,” Samuel said. “The defense had to get off the field. Starting the third quarter off with three points, Gip (Tashaun Gipson) made a big play with a fumble, then we go down to score and then it was just a chain of events.”
Now, looking back full circle, the 49ers have a team that’s been through adversity in different situations over these playoffs, preparing them well with much more experience as they look to avenge their Super Bowl loss against the Kansas City Chiefs in two weeks.
While San Francisco has been labeled an “explosive” offense or an “elite” defense, those labels go out the window come playoff time, as the team understands that there’s only one goal at hand: getting the job done.
They did exactly that against the Lions and will now have a similar chance against the Kansas City Chiefs in Las Vegas.