After 283 games, the only thing standing between us and the Super Bowl is the NFC championship game.
We will already know the AFC representative by the time the penultimate game of the 2023 season kicks off, leaving the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers left to battle it out for the opportunity to play for the Lombardi Trophy.
The matchup Sunday evening in Santa Clara (on FOX) is an intriguing one with one of the NFL’s most successful franchises squaring off against one that has been synonymous with heartbreak and failure.
This marks the third straight year the 49ers are playing on Championship Sunday and will be their 19th appearance in a conference title game – the most of any team since the advent of the Super Bowl. They’ve won five Super Bowls, but despite their storied history, the franchise has lost the last two NFC title games and is approaching three decades since winning its last championship back in the 1994 season.
Lions fans don’t want to hear any whining about the Niners’ recent playoff shortcomings.
Just two years removed from a three-win season, Detroit is one of four franchises that has never appeared in the Super Bowl – along with Houston, Jacksonville and Cleveland – and holds the distinction of owning the worst postseason winning percentage in the Super Bowl era with a 3-12 record.
With a 24-23 win over the Los Angeles Rams during Super Wild Card weekend and last Sunday’s 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round, the Lions now have more playoff victories in the last two weeks than their previous 65 seasons combined.
While San Francisco is playing in its fourth NFC championship game in the last five seasons, Detroit has only made it this far once before and that was back in the 1991 season, when it was routed by Washington 41-10.
Before this season began, our supercomputer gave the Lions a 14.4% chance of reaching the conference title game and a 4.3% shot of playing in the Super Bowl.
It had a bit more faith (do computers have faith?) in San Francisco, calculating a 24.3% chance of the Niners playing in the conference title game and a 11.6% probability of them winning the George Halas Trophy as NFC champion.
And now four and a half months later, the supercomputer once again sides with San Francisco, tabulating its likelihood of reaching the Super Bowl at 70.4%.
Projected Winner: 49ers
Win Probability: 70.4%
While our supercomputer gives the 49ers the overwhelming edge, this matchup pits two of the NFL’s top offenses up against one another and could develop into a shootout.
(Note on the chart above: Adjusted offensive ratings calculate how many points per 10 drives better or worse teams are compared to the league-average club during that season.)
Detroit’s offense has picked up right where it left off in the regular season, with Jared Goff playing some of his best football in the playoffs, completing 74.3% of his attempts for 564 passing yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 111.8 quarterback rating.
All-Pro receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has caught 15 passes for 187 yards with a TD through two games, while tight end Sam LaPorta had nine catches and running back Jahmyr Gibbs rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries in last week’s win.
The Lions like to play fast – and that works when they’re on the Ford Field turf. When they take their show on the road, however, they are entirely different team – especially when they’re outside. This will be their first game outside in nearly 50 days dating to Week 14, when they slogged their way to a season-low 267 yards in a 28-13 loss to Chicago.
With an average of 18.8 points in their five outdoor games, the Lions are averaging 11.8 fewer points outdoors than indoors. That’s the largest drop-off in scoring from indoors to outdoors among teams that play their home games inside.
The grass at Levi’s Stadium is known for being slow, and San Francisco has an all-time record of 5-0 there in the NFL playoffs.
But just as the Lions aren’t the same team when they go outside, the 49ers will have a much different look come Sunday with Deebo Samuel cleared to play.
In last Saturday’s 24-21 win over the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, Samuel sustained a shoulder injury to the same shoulder he broke earlier this season. It isn’t broken this time, but he could be limited in the conference championship game.
Still, Deebo’s presence alone should provide a boost. He sustained a hairline fracture in his shoulder in Week 6 and the 49ers went on to lose that game to the Cleveland Browns, ending their 5-0 start. The injury kept Samuel on the sidelines the next two weeks, and San Francisco ended up losing both of those games as well.
So, for those keeping score at home, three of the Niners’ four losses (excluding their meaningless Week 18 defeat when they rested most starters) occurred in Weeks, 6, 7, 8, coinciding with Samuel’s injury.
When Samuel returned following San Francisco’s Week 9 bye, the team returned to its winning ways, with Purdy throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-3 romp at Jacksonville.
Purdy had a rough go last week against the Packers with Samuel sidelined for all but nine offensive plays, but he was able to quiet some of his critics by engineering a game-winning drive. On that final drive capped by a Christian McCaffrey 6-yard touchdown run, Purdy completed 6-of-7 passes with the lone incompletion a flat-out drop by George Kittle on a pass that hit the Pro Bowl tight end between the numbers.
With some percentage of Samuel back in the mix, Purdy will be in the spotlight and his play will be under the microscope as the game unfolds.
Although he was selected to the Pro Bowl, there have been plenty of arguments that Purdy is a product of the system and he’s simply surrounded by a slew of talented playmakers. To quiet the rest of his critics, he’ll need to play mistake-free football and deliver a win.
For Dan Campbell’s team to pull off the upset, it will need to rattle Purdy and force turnovers.
Lions’ Key to Victory: Blitz Purdy
While Purdy has put together a stellar season, he’s been a below-average QB when being blitzed over the last month.
Obviously, a drop off in production is to be expected while being blitzed as opposed to having a clean pocket without pressure, but Purdy was able to hold his own in these situations earlier in this season. That hasn’t been the case lately.
In San Francisco’s 33-19 beatdown by Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas night, he completed 4-of-9 passes against the blitz while throwing a pair of interceptions.
The Lions have been one of the top teams at pressuring the quarterback since the start of the season – registering the fifth-highest pressure rate at 40.8% – and over the last two months they’re blitzing at a higher rate.
Since Week 12, the Lions are blitzing 40% of the time – fifth-highest rate in NFL. Through 11 weeks, they blitzed just 26.1% of the time – 19th in the league.
Homegrown star Aidan Hutchinson spearheads the pass rush and accounted for one of Detroit’s four sacks of Baker Mayfield last weekend. In his last four games, the Pro Bowler has racked up eight sacks and 18 QB hits.
Since the start of the season, Hutchinson’s pressure rate of 23.3% and his hurry rate of 15.5% both rank fourth among the 38 edge rushers with at least 300 pass rushes.
Hutchinson likes to line up all over the line of scrimmage, and he’ll have a significant advantage when he sets up across from right tackle Colton McKivitz, who has allowed nine sacks. McKivitz’s pressure-allowed rate of 12.3 is above the league average for right tackles at 10.9.
Hutchinson will have a tougher time forcing his way into the backfield when lining up on the other side of the San Francisco line, as left tackle Trent Williams has permitted just one sack all season. The All-Pro has registered an adjusted sack-allowed percentage of 0.3 – the lowest among the 33 left tackles with at least 200 plays in pass protection.
If Hutchinson and company can’t apply pressure on Purdy it could spell trouble for Detroit’s shaky secondary.
As a team, the Lions are registering a league-worst 54.5 burn-allowed percentage and yielding an average of 7.2 yards per pass play – tied with the Bengals for the most in the NFL.
Yes, Detroit has won its two playoff games, but it was no thanks to the defense, which allowed Matthew Stafford to throw for 367 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Mayfield to pass for 349 yards and three TDs, though the Lions did intercept him twice.
The secondary’s struggles stem from the play of cornerback Cameron Sutton, who has been torched in coverage all season.
Among the 40 corners that have been targeted a minimum of 70 times, Sutton’s burn-allowed percentage of 61.0 and burn yards allowed per target of 13.55 both rank 38th, while his big-play allowed percentage of 40.0 ranks dead last.
None of this bodes well if Sutton is in coverage on Brandon Aiyuk.
While Samuel is San Francisco’s do-everything offensive weapon, Aiyuk is Purdy’s No. 1 target when the Niners need to move the chains. He had a key 10-yard catch on a third-and-5 on San Francisco’s final drive last week, and on the season, all 20 of his third-down receptions have resulted in a first down.
Overall, 64 of his 78 receptions have resulted in a fresh set of downs. That rate of 82.1% is the highest in the NFL among the 45 receivers with a minimum of 90 targets.
It’s a tough matchup for the Lions, and the onus ultimately falls on Hutchinson and the defensive front to fluster Purdy so he doesn’t have time to pick apart their defense.
If they don’t control the line of scrimmage, the defense will be spending most of is Sunday chasing down Aiyuk, as well as Christian McCaffrey.
49ers’ Key to Victory: CMC All Day
While Detroit’s pass defense has been susceptible, it’s been stout against the run.
During the regular season, the Lions ranked second in opponent rushing yards per game (88.8), third in opponent rushing yards per attempt (3.70) and yielded successful running plays 32.0% of the time – the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. They also had the fourth-lowest rate of opposing rushing plays going for 10 or more yards at 8.8.
In the playoffs, however, their run defense has slipped up a bit. After allowing Kyren Williams to rush for 61 yards and an average of 4.7 yards per carry in the wild-card round, they allowed Rachaad White to go for 55 yards and a 6.1-yard average and Chase Edmonds to average 4.8 yards on his four carries.
In the two games, they gave up six running plays of 10+ yards on 32 attempts, or 18.8% of the time – more than doubling their big-play rate from the regular season.
Despite their success moving the ball on the ground, neither the Rams nor Bucs fully committed to the run, as they were also able to move the ball through the air against Detroit’s shoddy secondary.
Don’t expect the Niners to abandon the ground game.
San Francisco’s recipe for success all season is running the ball. The 49ers are achieving successful running plays at an NFL-best 44.4% clip, and during the regular season, they ranked third in rushing with an average of 140.5 yards per game. And when they reached their average, they won, going 10-0 in games when rushing for 140+ yards.
McCaffrey, obviously, is the driving force behind the ground attack.
The 49ers have leaned heavily on the MVP finalist since the start of the season, and he hasn’t shown any signs of wearing down. In fact, if anything, he’s been even harder to tackle.
Since Week 12, the two-time All-Pro is averaging league highs of 6.37 yards per carry and 3.05 yards after contact. Through the first 11 weeks, he averaged 4.74 yards per carry and 2.03 yards after contact.
His 21 touchdowns during the regular season were tied with the Dolphins’ Raheem Mostert for the NFL lead, and he scored two more TDs in the divisional round.
Including the game-winning touchdown with just over a minute remaining against the Packers, he also scored on a 39-yard run midway through the third quarter. While both of those TDs came on designed runs to the right side of the line, most of McCaffrey’s damage this season has come behind Williams and the left side.
Highest Rushing Avg. to Left Sideline by RBs (Including Playoffs)
- De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins (10.03)
- Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers (7.13)
- D’Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles (6.03)
- James Conner, Arizona Cardinals (5.93)
- Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers (5.90)
Of his 79 carries to the left sideline, 18 of them have gone for 10+ yards – nearly a quarter of all runs at 22.8%. Of the six rushing plays Detroit has surrendered for 10+ yards in the playoffs, five have come to the left sideline.
In the playoffs, the Lions are allowing an average of 5.80 yards per rush to the left sideline – exactly two yards more than they gave up to the left sideline in the regular season.
McCaffrey has been San Francisco’s workhorse – that is, except for that three-game losing streak in the middle of the season when the team inexplicably stopped feeding him the ball.
During that stretch, which again, coincided with Samuel’s injury, the 49ers ran on just 42.7% of their offensive plays compared to 49.9% in their other 14 regular-season games. McCaffrey rushed for 43, 45 and 54 yards in those games, on 11, 15 and 12 carries, well below his averages of 101.1 rushing yards and 17.9 carries from all other games.
Without Samuel for much of last Saturday’s game, the 49ers once again called fewer running plays – running on just 37.5% of their 64 offensive plays. But one thing they did differently than that October stretch without Samuel is that McCaffrey was still heavily involved in the offense – with a new twist.
While McCaffrey carried the ball 17 times – right at his season average – Purdy also targeted him a season-high 12 times – including twice on the final drive. This is far different than how McCaffrey had been utilized during their midseason swoon when he was targeted a total of 13 times in those three losses.
Although his 12 targets only amounted to seven receptions for 30 yards, his involvement in the offense opened things up for the rest of the 49ers receiving corps, as Purdy’s other 27 passes went for an average of 8.2 yards.
His inclusion in the passing game also served as a security blanket for Purdy, who was only sacked once on 40 drop backs and had a check-down rate of 16.7%. During the regular season, Purdy’s check-down rate checked in at 7.0% – below the league average of 9.2%.
Detroit’s defense does a good job of limiting the involvement of opposing running backs in the passing game, as running backs have been on the receiving end of 69 of 422 passes the Lions have permitted. That reception rate by opposing running backs of 16.4% is the third lowest in the NFL.
When opposing running backs do catch the ball against Detroit, however, they tend find plenty of room to run.
Highest Avg. Yards Per Reception by Opposing RBs (Including Playoffs)
- Chicago Bears (9.4)
- Detroit Lions (9.0)
- Miami Dolphins (8.5)
- Indianapolis Colts (8.3)
- Buffalo Bills (8.3)
In last week’s win, the Bucs’ running back duo of White and Edmonds combined for six catches for 54 yards – exactly 9.0 yards per catch. The Lions now shift their attention to trying to contain McCaffrey – one of the most talented backs in the NFL.
It seems simple, but when you have an MVP-caliber player like McCaffrey, that team’s game plan should involve trying to get the ball into his hands as much as possible.
With that in mind, it should come as no big surprise that the more touches McCaffrey has, the higher likelihood of victory for San Francisco. Kyle Shanahan’s team is 11-1 this season when he has 20 or more offensive touches, compared to going 2-3 when he has fewer than 20.
The 49ers are one win from playing in the Super Bowl, and riding with McCaffrey is their best bet to get back there for the first time in five years.
The Lions are seeking their first Super Bowl trip in forever. Though they are heavy underdogs, they are playing free and with a nothing-to-lose mentality. They also proved four and a half months ago they can go on the road into a hostile environment for a highly anticipated game and come away with a win.
Way back on Sept. 7, Detroit spoiled Kansas City’s 2022 Super Bowl celebration, rallying for a 21-20 victory at Arrowhead Stadium in the 2023 NFL opener. Now, in late January, the Lions have another opportunity to knock off a championship contender, this time with a chance to play in the season’s final game with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line.