Sunday night in Santa Clara marked the end of an era-defining season for the Detroit Lions, falling to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Trailing by 17 points, the 49ers rallied to a 34-31 victory, booking their ticket to the Super Bowl and sending the Lions back to Detroit for an offseason that arrived two weeks premature.
The Lions’ first half performance was a masterclass in offensive efficiency, demonstrating dominance in the running game, precision passing, and control over the clock. Yet, the second half unfolded as a stark contrast, marred by execution errors, particularly in the third quarter which has been Detroit’s nemesis throughout the season. Despite a spirited late surge in the fourth quarter, the Lions fell just short.
Here’s how the game unfolded:
The opening quarter in Santa Clara was a statement of intent from the Detroit Lions, dispelling any doubts about their readiness in a mere two minutes. Quarterback Jared Goff and his offense took to the field with a purpose, cutting through the 49ers’ defense in just four plays to score. The drive showcased their offensive versatility: powerful runs by David Montgomery, a clever play-action pass to tight end Sam LaPorta, and then the showstopper – a dazzling end-around to wide receiver Jameson Williams. Williams, displaying his elite speed and agility, turned a seemingly simple run play into a 42-yard dash to the end zone, breaking a tackle from Dre Greenlaw to complete the electrifying play. It was a dream start for the Lions, instantly setting the tone for the game.
San Francisco’s response was methodical and measured. Taking possession, they embarked on a balanced offensive march, blending runs from Christian McCaffrey with precise passing to Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Methodically eating up 5 minutes and 24 seconds of play, the 49ers looked poised to answer back. However, as they approached red zone, Detroit’s defense stiffened, halting their progress at the 30-yard line and forcing a field goal attempt. Jake Moody, the former Michigan standout, missed a 48-yard attempt wide right, squandering the chance to put the 49ers on the board.
Undeterred, the Lions’ offense returned to the field with continued dominance.
Their next drive was executed to perfection, once again blending power and finesse. The drive also featured strategically timed screen passes to Amon-Ra St. Brown, picking apart the 49ers’ defense for crucial first downs. Lineman Penei Sewell was a force to be reckoned with, overpowering San Francisco’s defenders and carving open lanes for his teammates. The culmination was a one-yard touchdown plunge by Montgomery, marking his 15th touchdown of the season – a record for any player in their first year with the Lions. By the end of the quarter, Detroit had firmly established a 14-0 lead, showcasing their offense and setting a high bar for the game.
As the second quarter unfolded, the San Francisco 49ers began to find their rhythm, clawing back into the game on their second offensive drive. A pivotal 23-yard completion to All-Pro fullback Kyle Juszczyk ignited their momentum. Brock Purdy then connected with Christian McCaffrey for a 28-yard catch along the sidelines. This set the stage for McCaffrey to punch in a 2-yard touchdown, narrowing the Lions’ lead to 14-7. The 49ers’ resilience was on full display, signaling a shift in the game’s dynamic.
Detroit’s offense, undeterred, returned to the field with their characteristic vigor. David Montgomery bulldozed through for a 14-yard run, setting an aggressive tone. The Lions then attempted an audacious trick play, with Montgomery flipping the ball back to Jared Goff. However, under intense pressure from Nick Bosa, Goff’s pass to Josh Reynolds fell short. A critical first-down catch by Amon-Ra St. Brown kept the drive alive momentarily, but the 49ers’ defense held strong, forcing the Lions to punt.
The tide turned once more as Lions linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, stepping in for the injured Derrick Barnes, snatched an interception. This key defensive play shifted the momentum back to Detroit, paving the way for another scoring drive. Despite a first-down stop by Fred Warner, Detroit advanced upfield in determined fashion. Sam LaPorta and St. Brown made catches, setting the stage for Jahmyr Gibbs’ sensational 15-yard touchdown run. With this score, Gibbs etched his name in the NFL record books as the first rookie running back to achieve a postseason trifecta: over 125 rushing yards, 75 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. Detroit’s lead expanded to 21-7 with less than six minutes remaining in the half.
Detroit’s defense, buoyed by their offensive success, then forced a rapid three-and-out by the 49ers.
A standout moment came from rookie linebacker Jack Campbell, who stopped McCaffrey in his tracks on second and ten. Campbell’s play was a nod to the Lions’ astute drafting under Brad Holmes.
Back in possession, the Lions’ offense meticulously drained the clock. Goff, orchestrating a balanced attack, led a drive that lasted nearly five minutes. Despite a sack by Bosa, Detroit marched downfield, highlighted by a crucial 23-yard catch by St. Brown. Goff narrowly missed connecting with Gibbs for another score, leading to a decision by head coach Dan Campbell to secure points with a 21-yard field goal from Michael Badgley.
As the half drew to a close, the Lions held a commanding 24-7 lead. Dominating in time of possession, they accumulated 280 total net yards and 18 first downs, converting on 5 of 7 third-down attempts. Detroit’s offense maintained discipline, committing no turnovers. Montgomery, Gibbs, and Williams each contributed a rushing touchdown, showcasing the team’s offensive depth. Defensively, Alex Anzalone led with five tackles, closely followed by Rodriguez, who added four tackles and a vital interception. Edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, though without a tackle, made his presence felt by deflecting two passes at the line, both times disrupting the 49ers’ offensive flow.
The third quarter saw a resurgent San Francisco 49ers team looking to shift the game’s momentum. They steadily moved the ball with key plays from Deebo Samuel and an impressive one-handed catch by Juwan Jennings. This effort led to a 43-yard field goal by Jake Moody, reducing the Detroit Lions’ lead to 24-10.
Detroit’s offense started hot with a 16-yard pass to Sam LaPorta and a strong run from David Montgomery. However, the drive stalled, and a failed fourth-down attempt resulted in a turnover on downs. Jared Goff’s pass to Josh Reynolds fell incomplete, handing the ball back to San Francisco.
The 49ers quickly capitalized.
Brock Purdy completed a pass to Samuel and then connected with Brandon Aiyuk for a 51-yard gain after a near-interception. This set up Aiyuk’s six-yard touchdown catch, closing the gap to 24-17.
Detroit’s next possession ended abruptly when Jahmyr Gibbs fumble on first down. The unfortunate turnover gave the 49ers excellent field position. San Francisco took full advantage, with Purdy scrambling to set up Christian McCaffrey’s 1-yard touchdown run, tying the game at 24.
The Lions’ following drive was another quick three-and-out, highlighted by a dropped pass from usually reliable receiver Josh Reynolds. Despite a 74-yard punt from Jack Fox, the 49ers regained possession and prepared to take their first lead of the game as the quarter ended.
The final quarter began with the 49ers in control. They ate up over five minutes in a drive that culminated in a 33-yard field goal by Jake Moody. This score not only gave the 49ers a 27-24 lead but also marked their first time ahead in the game, a significant shift in momentum.
Detroit’s response was immediate. Jared Goff unleashed a deep 22-yard pass to Jameson Williams. The throw, slightly behind Williams, created a tense moment as it bobbled precariously, nearly intercepted by cornerback Ambry Thomas. However, Williams managed to secure the ball, ensuring the completion. This was followed by two runs from David Montgomery, setting up an ambitious flea-flicker play to Williams. Despite the attempt, the pass sailed slightly over the hands of Williams. Facing a fourth-and-three situation at the 31-yard line, the Lions, trailing by three, opted against a field goal attempt. Instead, they went for the first down, but Goff’s deep pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown was incomplete, resulting in another turnover on downs.
With a narrow lead, the 49ers focused on running down the clock. Their strategy included a mix of McCaffrey’s powerful runs, short passes, and critical scrambles by Brock Purdy. In a crucial third-down situation, Purdy’s 21-yard scramble around midfield was pivotal, extending the drive. McCaffrey followed with a 25-yard run, setting up a three-yard touchdown rush by Elijah Mitchell, stretching San Francisco’s lead to 34-24.
Faced with a 10-point deficit and just over three minutes on the clock, Detroit embarked on a desperate comeback attempt.
Goff moved the offense quickly, connecting with LaPorta for consecutive catches and then finding Josh Reynolds for a 25-yard gain. A quick out route to LaPorta stopped the clock, keeping the Lions’ hopes alive. St. Brown added a 7-yard reception before, on the next play, Montgomery was tackled for a loss, forcing the Lions to use their first timeout. Goff then found Williams in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 34-31.
With 56 seconds remaining and only two timeouts left, Detroit’s only option was an onside kick, but their attempt was unsuccessful. The 49ers regained possession and effectively ran out the clock, sealing their victory and a Super Bowl berth against the AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Lions fell just short, ending their remarkable season in a heart-wrenching defeat.
Crushing Defeat Mixed With Overwhelming Optimism
The Detroit Lions’ season came to a heartrending conclusion in Santa Clara. The loss, particularly stinging given their commanding 24-7 halftime lead, leaves a lingering sense of what could have been for both the team and its devoted fans. Yet, in the face of this disappointment, there is a silver lining of immense pride and burgeoning hope.
This season, the Lions not only defied expectations but also rekindled a sense of belief among their supporters. Finishing with a commendable 14-6 record, including both regular season and postseason games, Detroit demonstrated resilience all season. For the first time in three decades, they clinched the NFC North title, a milestone that marks a significant turnaround in the franchise’s fortunes.
This team, brimming with talent and youthful energy, has laid a solid foundation for success.
As the curtain falls on this season, there is an unmistakable air of optimism surrounding the Detroit Lions. The experiences gained is invaluable. They are not just the NFC North Champions; they are a team on the cusp of greatness. The message to the rest of the league is clear: the Detroit Lions will be back. The journey to the Super Bowl is not a distant dream but an achievable goal for this ascending team.
For more from our Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21
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Original Photo Credit: © Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK