The Detroit Lions led by 14 points midway through the third quarter when head coach Dan Campbell decided to go for it on fourth down instead of trying a field goal. The Lions had completely outplayed the San Francisco 49ers to that point. There shouldn't have been cause for panic when the Lions threw incomplete on fourth-and-2.
But at that moment, hearts had to drop around Michigan. This is the Lions, after all. They have never made it to the Super Bowl.
Sure enough, the NFC championship game was never the same after that. There was a miracle catch to set up one 49ers touchdown and a fumble by Detroit to set up another. The Lions, who led 24-7 at the half, saw the 49ers rally for a massive comeback, and Detroit lost its chance to go to the first Super Bowl in team history with a 34-31 loss. The 49ers will play the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas.
Campbell goes for it on fourth down more than any other coach. He went for it later in the game, too, passing on a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. That time, the 49ers' defense caused an incompletion. San Francisco scored after that to all but seal the win, though the 49ers still had to recover an onside kick in the final minute. The two field goals the Lions passed on will haunt them this offseason.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) January 29, 2024
The 17-point comeback tied for the largest ever in an NFC championship game and will go down in the 49ers' rich history. Their fans will forever watch Brandon Aiyuk's incredible catch and other highlights, including a few huge Brock Purdy scrambles.
Lions fans will watch those same highlights for years to come. Just with much different feelings about them.
Lions have a huge 1st half
If the Lions were nervous coming in, carrying the weight of a city's long Super Bowl wait on their shoulders, they calmed themselves down immediately. Receiver Jameson Williams took an end-around, ran through some tackles and scored a 42-yard touchdown. Less than two minutes into the game, the Lions were on the board.
The rest of the half was mostly all Lions. The 49ers missed a field goal, and the Lions answered with another touchdown. They led 14-0 after one quarter. Purdy threw an interception, and the Lions turned that into a touchdown. They led 21-7 and tacked on a field goal in the final seconds of the half to make it 24-7.
The Lions came in as underdogs, but they didn't play like it in the first half. Their offense was moving the ball without much problem. The 49ers couldn't get Christian McCaffrey going on the ground, and the pass game didn't make up for it.
In NFC championship game history, only one team had come back to win after trailing by 17 points. It was the 49ers, who came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit against the Atlanta Falcons after the 2012 season.
For much of the game, it seemed like the Lions were having their day at long last. Then the momentum completely turned in a way you don't see that often.
49ers record huge comeback
The 49ers got a field goal to start the second half, but their comeback really started on a fourth-down decision. Campbell likes to go for it on fourth down, and he did on fourth-and-2 instead of trying a 46-yard field goal early in the third quarter. Jared Goff's pass hit Josh Reynolds' hands, but he couldn't pull it in, and the 49ers took over.
The avalanche started then. Aiyuk made an unbelievable catch that bounced off Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor's facemask and into the hand of a diving Aiyuk for 51 yards to the Lions' 4-yard line. Aiyuk scored a touchdown three plays later. Then disaster really struck. Jahmyr Gibbs never got a handle on a handoff, and the 49ers ripped it out and recovered. Then McCaffrey scored to tie the game.
In eight minutes of game action, the 49ers went from trailing by 17 points to tying the game. All the work the Lions did before halftime was erased.
It only got worse for Detroit. Reynolds dropped another one, this one a much more egregious drop on third-and-10, and the Lions punted. The 49ers drove downfield and took their first lead of the game 27-24 on a field goal with 9:52 left.
Campbell gambled again after that. Instead of a 48-yard field goal, the Lions went for it on fourth-and-3. Goff didn't have anyone open, scrambled to his right and threw incomplete with 7:32 remaining. That made six points the Lions passed on to go for it on fourth down, and neither decision worked out.
Purdy had a huge run on third down for a first down, then McCaffrey had a long run to set up an Elijah Mitchell touchdown run with 3:02 left. That gave the 49ers a 10-point lead. The Lions moved downfield for a touchdown with 56 seconds left, but 49ers tight end George Kittle made a nice play to recover an onside kick, and that was it for Detroit.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) January 29, 2024
The 49ers needed a huge rally to beat the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, and they needed another to win the NFC title. At least if they fall behind in the Super Bowl, they won't be too nervous. They're used to digging themselves out of a hole this postseason. That's why they're going to the Super Bowl.