SANTA CLARA, California — When the moment of absolute truth arrived on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers weren’t scared, they were angry. They were embarrassed. They were wasting the NFC Championship Game and they knew they would never, ever, ever forgive yourself for it.
And they had half of the football to change the course of everything. Not only to meet the moment but to justify an entire era of this franchise. Good teams don’t lose like that. Teams with character don’t expire so pathetically. Teams formed like this do not fall apart one step away from the Super Bowl. Look in the mirror. Find out.
“It was embarrassing,” Nick Bosa said of the 49ers’ 24-7 halftime deficit against the Detroit Lions. “I felt a little helpless. “We didn’t want to fall into the category of failures.”
What happened next was about 20 things that occurred in random synchronicity, filled with unbridled momentum from the 49ers, increasingly shaky responses from the Lions, and thunderous energy that flowed through Levi’s Stadium and presumably echoed throughout the entire stadium. Solar system. What happened next was a third quarter that started slowly and methodically and then kept accelerating and accelerating, clicking frantically from the improbable to the possible, feasible, probable and finally inevitable, until the 49ers outscored Detroit 17-0, tied the score and prepared the game. one of the most convincing victories in 49ers history, 34-31.
The third quarter was like watching Mike Tyson get up off the mat and keep punching until it was over. It was the 49ers who restored their sense of self in the nick of time. Because if they lost like that, if they lost their third consecutive NFC Championship Game, could they even try all this again next season and the season after that with the same players and leaders?
It was a victory that, at least for now, made the 49ers’ berth in Super Bowl 58 against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 11 seem more like an epilogue than the main story. It was a victory that left 49ers players and coaches almost too exhausted to celebrate and too relieved to lie about how this happened.
They stunk during the first half. So they decided to stop stinking.
“I think we were just mad,” Kyle Shanahan said. “I think the guys were extremely angry. That first half wasn’t about being down by 17, it was about the way we were down. (The Lions) had their way in the running game. We didn’t get much in our running game either. We don’t want to go out like that. We dug ourselves into a big hole.
“I wasn’t just talking about how to win this game. She was talking about how to start playing well. We have too much respect for our team. “It would have been a really tough way to finish if we couldn’t have played better with our group.”
The 49ers struck back very quickly in the third quarter: a field goal after the second half kickoff, a Lions stop on fourth down, a touchdown drive, a fumble recovery and another touchdown tied the score at less than 12 minutes. of playing time, they didn’t even need to make a comeback in the fourth quarter.
That means they didn’t alter the famous statistic that they are 0-38 in the Shanahan era when trailing by 7 or more points in the fourth quarter, but after their late comeback to beat the Packers a week ago and now this monumental comeback. , go ahead and tell the 49ers that there is some statistic that shows they are incapable of major comebacks.
“It’s back-to-back weeks,” said Brandon Aiyuk, whose stunning 51-yard catch (after a looping deflection) set up his next touchdown catch, bringing the 49ers within 24-17 with 5:17 left in the third. “Victories that apparently we should not have. But those are two gutsy wins, wins that just show the kind of team we have. The mentality, the will and the heart that everyone has.”
Of course, the only way to pull off this kind of comeback is to play poorly enough early to make it necessary, which is exactly what happened on Sunday for the 49ers. The Lions played faster than the 49ers in the first half, called misdirected running plays that made the 49ers defense look slow and confused, and the Lions also largely unsettled the 49ers offense. Brock Purdy threw an interception. The 49ers’ running game went virtually nowhere. Jake Moody missed a field goal.
But the 49ers knew they were going to get the kickoff to start the third quarter and they knew that if they only managed one touchdown and then stopped the Lions just once, maybe Levi’s would start to rumble and anything could happen. And the 49ers knew they had enough talent to do this. Hell, they knew they had enough talent to probably ought do this.
“I never felt like we didn’t have a team that could come back or win a game like that,” Shanahan said. “I just had to do it today, when it mattered most.”
Said Bosa: “I think there was a statistic that Kyle didn’t come back from being down. I think it’s a testament to our group that we were able to fight back. And you have to do things like that to have a special season.”
Additionally, the 49ers happily took advantage of a call from Lions coach Dan Campbell, who built this team with an ultra-aggressive mentality and then helped end their season by going for it on the Lions’ first possession of the second half, after a Moody. The field goal had brought the 49ers within 24-10. On fourth-and-2 from the 28-yard line, Jared Goff was pressured by Bosa, had to move to his right and threw an incomplete pass. A Lions field goal would have put them back up by three points. The turnover encouraged Levi’s.
“Huge,” Bosa said. “I think that was the turning point and just taking Goff out of the room, making him uncomfortable back there.”
The 49ers still needed points and not just field goals. So when Purdy got the ball back and had the opportunity to attack Aiyuk deep against one-on-one coverage, he took advantage. The ball bounced into the hands of Detroit defensive back Kindle Vildor, Aiyuk chased after it before he fell to the ground and suddenly the 49ers were at the Lions’ 4-yard line. Aiyuk’s touchdown came three plays later.
“Once BA made that play, he unlocked it with such explosiveness,” Shanahan said of the 51-yard reception. “He kind of unlocked the whole team. … Right after that, you could feel all the momentum with our players, the stadium, on the bench. I felt like everything was on after that.”
Faster, faster, faster. On the next play from scrimmage, Tashaun Gipson Sr. stripped the ball from Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Arik Armstead recovered, and, yes, the 49ers felt it. The tide had turned. The Lions began to feel it too. The Lions began to play as if that were the only thing they felt.
“I have a question for you,” said George Kittle. “Why do analytics people say momentum isn’t a real thing? … That’s the most nonsense I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”
When did Kittle feel it was Sunday?
“We had a good early drive in the second half and (then) that fourth-down stop,” Kittle said. “We just felt a kind of energy. We went down and scored; okay, this is huge. A turnover? I thought, oh man, all bets are off now. Bang-bang.”
Two plays after the fumble recovery, Purdy ran 21 yards to the Lions’ 4-yard line. Two plays after that, a Christian McCaffrey rushing touchdown tied the score. Yes, the momentum is real and Purdy was there swimming in it. He was mostly ineffective and seemed frustrated in the first half. In the second, Purdy completed 13 of 16 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown and had two key runs of 21 yards.
“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” Shanahan said of Purdy’s five rushes for 48 yards. “He made some big plays with his legs, coming out of the pocket, moving the chains on some first downs, some explosive ones. He competed big time today. It wasn’t easy for any of us. He kept working, he was incredible in the second half.”
Purdy had to be incredible in the second half, including the two fourth-quarter drives that gave the 49ers the margin of victory. Otherwise, the 49ers would have lost and there would have been some serious soul searching for this franchise. The 49ers defense, which so much money has been invested in, had to be incredible. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks had to forget about the first half and be incredible in the second. Aiyuk had to be amazing. Every major 49er had to be amazing. One slip, one botched assignment, and the Lions would have been planning their trip to Las Vegas.
Everything was amazing and everything went very fast. It was a decisive moment for this era and it was also a vindication.
(Top photo of Brock Purdy holding the George Halas Trophy after the NFC Championship Game on Sunday: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)