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NFL playoffs: What We Learned from 49ers' win over Lions in NFC Championship Game

1) Niners finally clear hurdle with legendary comeback. After falling in each of the last two NFC Championship Games, San Francisco carried a weight on its shoulders entering Sunday. This wasn't just about defeating Detroit to reach the Super Bowl, it was about exorcising past demons. And when the Lions took a 24-7 lead in emphatic fashion, things weren't looking great. Many were ready to happily bury Kyle Shanahan's team for a third straight January. But San Francisco persevered, wiping out the 17-point deficit with incredible swiftness, seizing the opportunities afforded it by a turnover on downs and a takeaway in opposing territory, and in the blink of an eye, the 49ers were tied at 24 with all the world's confidence on their side. That confidence morphed into an avalanche of good fortune, and the 49ers rode it to a scoring drive ending in a go-ahead Jake Moody (who overcame an earlier miss) field goal, a fourth-down stop and a dagger of a seven-play, 70-yard drive capped by a violent 25-yard Christian McCaffrey run to set up a 3-yard Elijah Mitchell touchdown run. Once the wheels started rolling on the 49ers' momentum train, there was no stopping it. They're now riding that train to Las Vegas and a return to the Super Bowl, where they'll meet a familiar foe in the Kansas City Chiefs, their Super Bowl LIV foil.

2) Prepare yourself for the Dan Campbell discourse. Folks on television and the internet will undoubtedly spend the next 24-48 hours rehashing each fourth-down decision made by the Lions coach on Sunday. It's fair to discuss, but they'll be willingly overlooking a fact regarding the Lions: They reached the NFC Championship Game by being stubbornly aggressive throughout the 2023 season. Campbell's team prided itself on winning with toughness and determination, and until Sunday, it largely worked in the Lions' favor. They iced their wild-card win over the Rams with aggressive calls, and never let off the gas in their Divisional Round triumph over Tampa Bay, either. On Sunday, Josh Reynolds dropped a catchable pass on fourth down, and Jared Goff failed to get the ball to Amon-Ra St. Brown in a situation in which a field goal would've tied the game. It's fair to wonder why Campbell didn't attempt a field goal, but a kick -- especially one attempted by Mike Badgley -- is far from guaranteed. And if either had worked in Detroit's favor, we'd all be praising Campbell for his courage. As is the case with every analysis of a fourth-down decision, the outcome ends up outweighing the logic by a significant margin. This will again be true when Campbell is criticized for his calls, but we must note that this criticism comes from a place where hindsight is the ultimate privilege. A sudden shift from aggression to conservatism is usually the result of an individual coaching with fear as the main driver, and that's not Campbell. That's not the 2023 Detroit Lions. Unfortunately for them, it didn't work out in their favor. But don't expect Campbell to change, because he won't. He already has too many reasons not to.

3) Brock Purdy delivers a perfectly Purdy performance. Sunday's game was about as close as we'll ever get to accurately defining Purdy as an NFL quarterback. Some of his risks -- e.g., throwing a pass into a closing rusher's hand, resulting in an interception -- hurt him, but others paid off in fashions that seem exclusive to him. Purdy's long completion to Brandon Aiyuk probably should have been intercepted, but it instead deflected off Kindle Vildor's facemask and into the outstretched hands of Aiyuk for a massively important gain. Purdy should've been sacked early in the fourth quarter, too, but inexplicably broke out of it and found Kyle Juszczyk for a toe-tapping completion. There are more examples of such instances, but in the interest of space, we'll save them, because it wasn't solely about luck for Purdy. He ripped off a few crucial gains with his legs, just barely evading tacklers in the process, threw a beautiful touchdown pass to Aiyuk on the run, and handled the pressure of a high-stakes playoff game with incredible poise, even after entering halftime facing a 17-point deficit. Those who have watched the 49ers all season know Purdy has guts. Sunday wasn't merely proof of this, it was vindication, even if it certainly wasn't perfect.

4) Detroit's collapse will sting for a long time. While many online will point to Campbell's fourth-down decisions as the reason for the Lions' defeat, they should instead look toward Detroit's inability to tackle. The number of missed tackles in this game was astronomical and contributed directly to the 49ers' ability to climb back into the game, then salt it away. After Purdy scrambled a handful of times for back-breaking gains, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn could've dedicated a spy to contain him on crucial downs. All he gave his defense was linebacker Alex Anzalone, whose poor pursuit angle resulted in Purdy picking up 21 yards on third-and-4 on the game's most important possession. And when McCaffrey received handoffs, Detroit rarely took him down on first contact, allowing plenty of additional yards after contact to keep San Francisco's offense moving. If you weren't shocked by the difference in offensive production from the first half to the second while watching in real-time, a review of this game might leave your jaw on the floor. That blame falls squarely on Detroit's defense, which repeatedly lost the game on the margins. Aiyuk's 51-yard catch was an example of this, as was Jack Fox's 74-yard punt, which bounced perfectly for the coverage team to down it inside the 5, and instead got caught with a foot in the end zone for a touchback. The Lions didn't do the little things right throughout this game, and it cost them much more than a couple of fourth-down decisions.

5) Give Christian McCaffrey his flowers. Lamar Jackson will likely win NFL MVP next month, but it will be interesting to see how closely McCaffrey finishes behind him because he's been the most consistently productive player in the NFL this season, and undoubtedly the MVP on San Francisco's roster. Sunday served as a perfect example of his value, with McCaffrey running around and often bulldozing through Lions defenders for hard-earned yards that helped swing the game in San Francisco's favor. It was fitting that his last notable run was a 25-yard rumble in which he broke a tackle at the edge and barreled down the sideline, a runaway freight train stopped only by landing on his own head mere feet from the end zone. He finished with 132 scrimmage yards and two rushing touchdowns, powering a 49ers offense that piled up 282 yards of offense amid its frantic comeback. And he'll rightfully be an X-factor atop Kansas City's priority list when it faces San Francisco in Las Vegas in two weeks in Super Bowl LVIII.

Next Gen stat of the game: Brock Purdy generated a career-high plus-10.6 expected points added on scrambles, picking up a total of six first downs (three rushing, three on scramble passes).

NFL Research: San Francisco's comeback from a 17-point deficit tied for the third-largest comeback in a conference championship game in NFL history, and tied with the 2012 49ers for the largest comeback in NFC Championship Game history.

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