Instant analysis of 49ers’ NFC Championship comeback win over Lions

Instant analysis of 49ers’ NFC Championship comeback win over Lions

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers parlayed one of the most dramatic comebacks in NFL history into an NFC Championship crown Sunday, thus sending them on a road trip to Las Vegas, site of Super Bowl LVIII.

Their 34-31 triumph over the Detroit Lions required a comeback from, of all scores, a 24-7 halftime deficit.

It was the 1957 Lions who trailed 24-7 at halftime to the 49ers in the NFC title game, before Detroit rallied for a 31-27 win at Kezar Stadium, and advanced to claim the NFL’s championship at home.

Sunday’s comeback matched the biggest in NFC Championship Game history, which also came from the 49ers, when their 2012 team rallied from 17 points down in Atlanta and advanced to Super Bowl XLVII.

Waiting for the 49ers on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas will be the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs, who advanced to their fourth Super Bowl in five years via a 17-10 upset at Baltimore. It’s the Chiefs who ruined the 49ers’ last Super Bowl appearance four years ago, when a 10-point fourth-quarter lead wasn’t enough to secure the 49ers’ sixth Lombardi Trophy.

“There’s been unfinished business for a while. Our team was set up for this for a while,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. ” … I can’t wait to get to Vegas.”

The 49ers set up a rematch by emerging from halftime and going on a 27-point scoring spree with three touchdowns and two field goals. Meanwhile, the Lions recoiled, by twice failing to convert on fourth down, fumbling, and punting on a three-and-out series.  Detroit finally answered with a touchdown, but that came with just 56 seconds remaining on Jared Goff’s scoring strike to Jameson Williams.

George Kittle recovered the ensuing onside kick, and the air at Levi’s Stadium soon filled with championship fireworks.

The 49ers had themselves their second comeback in as many games of these playoffs, having opened up with a 24-21 divisional-round win over the Green Bay Packers, who led 21-14 entering the fourth quarter.

What made this comeback so astonishing were a barrage of unlikely plays.

Brock Purdy, a year removed from his infamous elbow injury in a NFC title game defeat at Philadelphia, mixed 267 passing yards with 51 yards worth of eye-opening scrambles into the open field.

Actually, the more outlandish 51 yards came on Purdy’s completion to Brandon Aiyuk which sent the comeback into overdrive. Aiyuk caught the ball once it bounced off the facemask of a Lions cornerback, then Purdy delivered a third-and-goal touchdown pass to Aiyuk for a 24-17 deficit.

The 49ers’ defense immediately forced a turnover on the Lions’ ensuing series: Tashaun Gipson stripped Jahmyr Gibbs of the ball and Arik Armstead pounced on it at Detroit’s 24-yard line.

Christian McCaffrey converted that turnover into the second of his two touchdown runs (1 yard). Leading up to that was a 21-yard scramble by Purdy to the 4-yard line. Not to be overlooked was Jake Moody making the game-tying, point-after kick; Moody missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt on the 49ers’ opening possession.

McCaffrey ran for 90 yards 20 carries and added 42 yards on four receptions. Deebo Samuel had a team-high 89 receiving yards (eight catches), Aiyuk had 68 yards, Kyle Juszczyk had 33 yards on two key catches, and Kittle snuck in 27 yards amid his blocking duties.

The 49ers’ lead swelled to 34-24 via a 70-yard touchdown drive three minutes before the George Halas Trophy was secured. Elijah Mitchell vultured the score on a 3-yard run after McCaffrey had a 25-yard run and Purdy made a 21-yard scramble.

Goff, the Marin County native, was 25-of-41 for 273 yards. He got sacked twice by Nick Boa in the first half.

So what happened in a horrendous half to open the 49ers’ NFC title hunt? A lot of bad defense, especially against the run, typically in a four-man front with little resistance and too many missed tackles. The Lions ran for 182 yards, but 148 of that came in the first half.

“We played as bad as a first half as we could but we were still within 17,” Shanahan said.

The 49ers quickly scored on their first possession after halftime, but Moody’s 43-yard field goal only pulled them within 24-10, after some quality receptions by Samuel and Jauan Jennings.

More momentum ensued once the 49ers defense forced a Goff incompletion on fourth-and-2, with 6:58 left in the third quarter and the Lions sill comfortably ahead 24-10.

That defense was in stark contrast to deficiencies on third-and-long plays just before halftime. On third-and-12, they allowed a 13-yard run. On third-and-18, Goff threaded a 23-yard completion to Amon-Ra St. Brown. On third-and-7, Goff hit Brown for a 9-yard strike past Deommodore Lenoir, setting up first-and-goal and, eventually, a merciful field goal for the 24-7 halftime lead. Prior to that, the Lions intercepted Purdy and converted that into their third touchdown, which came on Jahmyr Gibbs’ 15-yard run past Tashaun Gipson, Javon Kinlaw and Fred Warner, for a 21-7 lead 5:54 before halftime.

McCaffrey seemed to wake the 49ers and the home crowd from a first-quarter funk. He opened the second quarter with a 28-yard, catch-and-run to the 5-yard line, enhanced by a fierce stiff-arm into C.J. Garner Johnson and a tackle-breaking grit. Two snaps later, McCaffrey scored on a 2-yard run, then Jake Moody made the point-after attempt, and the 49ers were within 14-7.

The 49ers found themselves in a 14-0, first-quarter hole after yielding touchdowns on the Lions’ first two drives: a 42-yard, end-around run by speedster Jameson Williams and a 1-yard plunge by David Montgomery.

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How dire was that deficit? The 49ers were 2-29 previously under  Shanahan when down at least 14 points, including home losses this season to the Bengals and the Ravens, as well as last year’s NFC finale at Philly. Their only such comebacks, according to the Associated Press’ Josh Dubow, were a 2019 win over the Cardinals and a 2021 victory over the Rams, both at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers fell behind 7-0 only four defensive snaps into the game – a dark reminder of first-series woes a year ago, when they allowed an opening-drive touchdown at Philadelphia before even more first-series trouble in terms of Purdy’s elbow getting injured.

This startling starter came when Williams took an end-around run 42 yards up the middle for a touchdown. Nick Bosa and Ambry Thomas over-ran their angles and allowed Williams to zip past safety Ji’Ayir Brown and then break away from Dre Greenlaw’s last-gasp grab of Williams’ jersey. Only 2:42 into the action, the 49ers were down 7-0, on a four-play, 75-yard drive.

The 49ers’ response from that immediate 7-0 deficit saw Purdy complete some daring passes to Aiyuk (11 yards) and Samuel (15 yards) to breach midfield. McCaffrey delivered a 7-yard run on third-and-3 to the Lions’ 34. Aidan Hutchinson’s second pass breakup of the drive – against Trent Williams’ blocking – helped stall things and force the 49ers to settle for a 48-yard field-goal attempt, which Moody missed wide right.

“We’ve got one more,” McCaffrey said of the 49ers’ goal.