2023-24 NFL Playoffs: NFC Championship Game Preview

By Scott Kacsmar

Championship Sunday in the NFL playoffs usually has a rematch (or two) from the regular season, but both games are fresh this weekend, the first time that’s happened since 2017. The San Francisco 49ers are not new to this round as it is their third-straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game (seventh since 2011), though the first time they are home for it since the 2019 season when they beat Green Bay 37-20 and advanced to Super Bowl 54.

The Detroit Lions are the only NFC team that has never been to the Super Bowl, so this is a massive opportunity for them. The Lions’ only appearance in the NFC Championship Game was in the 1991 season and they lost 41-10 to a Washington juggernaut that year.

After being a home favourite in the wild card and divisional rounds, the Lions are a 7-point underdog this week. It used to be that a spread that big was a bad sign for the underdog keeping the game competitive in this round:

  • From 1970-1998, underdogs of at least 7 points in the Conference Championship Game were 5-17 ATS (22.7%) and 2-20 SU (9.1%).
  • The only wins involved Roger Craig (49ers) fumbling against the 1990 Giants and Gary Anderson (Vikings) missing a game-clinching field goal against the 1998 Falcons.
  • Since 1999, underdogs of at least 7 points in the Conference Championship Game are 11-5 ATS (68.8%) and 5-11 SU (31.3%).
  • The last winner was the 2021 Bengals (+7) in Kansas City in overtime, and the only winner who did not prevail in what was a rematch was the 2001 Patriots (+10) in Pittsburgh, a game decided largely by two special teams touchdowns by New England.

But crazier things have happened in NFL history. When he was with the Rams, Jared Goff won a road NFC Championship Game against Drew Brees and a very good Saints team in 2018 after one of the most egregious no-call penalties for pass interference.

There is no guarantee something crazy will have to happen for the Lions to win this game, but it is going to be hard to make up the difference on defense where Detroit sticks out like a sore thumb this weekend. The Ravens, Chiefs, and 49ers rank as the top three teams in points allowed this year while the Lions are No. 23.

But an aggressive team that can score like the Lions will always have a chance in a game like this.

Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers (-7, O/U 51)

The No. 3 Detroit Lions (14-5) will take on the No. 1 San Francisco 49ers (13-5) this Sunday evening in San Francisco. The 49ers are the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl this year, but the Lions are a resilient team.

The Last Matchup

Week 1, 2021: 49ers 41, Lions 33

Oddly enough, the biggest game of the Dan Campbell era is a rematch from the very first game of the Campbell era in the 2021 opener. That was also Jared Goff’s debut with the Lions and the first game of Amon-Ra St. Brown’s NFL career.

It was definitely a long time ago in NFL terms, and the Lions have grown a lot since then. But the game was a good example of the way the team would fight under Campbell, who notoriously talked about “eating kneecaps” at his press conference when he was hired that year.

The Lions trailed 41-17 with 5:45 left to play, but they embarked on what was one of the best comeback attempts in NFL history. They scored a pair of touchdowns and 2-point conversions, recovered an onside kick, and forced Deebo Samuel to fumble with 52 seconds left. Goff had the offense 24 yards and another 2-point conversion away from the most improbable 24-point comeback you’ll ever see, but the Lions turned it over on downs with 12 seconds left. But they did cover the 9-point spread with the 41-33 final.

We’ll see how much the Lions have closed the gap since the start of the Campbell era.

Injury Watch

The 49ers have the weekend’s big injury story with the health of wide receiver Deebo Samuel after a shoulder injury knocked him out early in the first quarter last week. The 49ers had to scramble to fill his unique abilities, but they still have a very talented group without him, and injuries like this are easier to compensate for with a week to prepare than they are during the game. But we’ll see if he can play as he is questionable for now. It will probably be a game-time decision, a true 50/50 proposition.

As for the Lions, they lost guard Jonah Jackson after 27 snaps on Sunday and he will be out. He’s missed 5 full games this season for the Lions, and results without him were mixed, but he’s not the engine of the line, so they should be okay. It’s not an ideal injury against this defensive front though. Center Frank Ragnow is also banged up but is expected to play through it this Sunday.

Stats to Know

Here are some relevant and informative statistics for these teams heading into this matchup (stats are for the 2023 season unless noted otherwise):

  • The 2023 49ers won 11 games by at least 12 points, tied for the second-most games in a season in NFL history (1999 Rams had 13).
  • Last week’s 24-21 win by San Francisco over the Packers was the team’s first win by fewer than 7 points, the first win where they never led by double digits, the first win where they didn’t score 27 points, and it was the first game-winning drive of the season for Brock Purdy.
  • Purdy threw a season-high 39 passes against the Packers, and his 6.5 yards per attempt was only the second time all season he was under 7.0.
  • The 2023 49ers averaged 8.35 yards per pass play (sacks included), the highest of any offense since the 2004 Colts (8.54).
  • Despite allowing the fewest points in the NFC, the 49ers are No. 24 on third down (40.9%) and No. 16 in the red zone at allowing touchdowns (54.5%).
  • Detroit’s offense is No. 11 on third down (41.5%) and No. 3 in the red zone (64.1%).
  • The 49ers are the No. 1 offense in the red zone (67.2% touchdown rate).
  • The Vikings (65 yards) are the only defense to hold the 49ers under 100 rushing yards this season, but Green Bay only allowed 111 yards last week, San Francisco’s third-lowest output this year.
  • Detroit is No. 2 against the run and has held 14-of-19 opponents under 100 rushing yards this year (12-2 in those games).
  • The only teams to run for more than 113 yards against Detroit are Baltimore (Lamar Jackson had 36 yards) and Chicago twice (Justin Fields had 104 and 58 yards).
  • The Lions have had at least 18 first downs on offense in every game but one this year (13 first downs in Chicago).
  • The 49ers are 6-5 when allowing at least 18 first downs in a game.
  • The 49ers are 4-5 when allowing at least 19 points.
  • The Lions have scored at least 19 points in 17-of-19 games.
  • The Lions are 12-1 when allowing fewer than 28 points (2-4 when allowing 28-plus points).
  • The 49ers are 0-5 when scoring fewer than 24 points.
  • Watch the turnovers: San Francisco is 1-8 and Detroit is 2-8 when turning the ball over at least twice since 2022.
  • When they don’t turn it over multiple times, the Lions are 12-1 and the 49ers are 12-2 this year.
  • The 49ers are 1-7 ATS as a favorite of 4-to-10 points this season.
  • The over is 9-3-1 in San Francisco games since Brock Purdy took over in 2022 where the 49ers are favored by 4-to-10 points.
  • Under Dan Campbell, the Lions have the best spread record in the NFL since 2021 at 36-17 (67.9%), and the best spread record this year at 13-6 (68.4%).
  • Since 2022, the Lions are 7-3 ATS as a road underdog.
  • Since 2002, in games where a playoff team is an underdog of 6-to-8 points with a total of 50-to-52 points, the underdog is 18-9-1 ATS, 11-17 SU, and the over is 15-12-1. They are 9-1 ATS in the last 10 games dating back to 2018.

Fixing the Narratives

With the Super Bowl a win away, we are moving on from the fatal flaws for both teams and focusing on the narratives that could show up Sunday and play a role in determining who wins this game.

Can Detroit’s Defense Hold Up Against These Receivers?

The Samuel injury comes at a bad time, because this Detroit secondary is ripe for the picking for Purdy and the 49ers in this matchup. In fact, Detroit has been getting shredded for over a month now. Fortunately, the offense scores enough (usually) to offset it, but you cannot keep winning playoff games when you allow 23 points and a quarterback to throw for well over 300 yards.

In fact, the Lions are the fourth team in NFL history to win 3 straight games when allowing at least 20 points and 315 net passing yards. No one has done that in four straight games.

The Lions have tied the 2018 Buccaneers for the longest streak in history of 5 straight games allowing at least 315 net passing yards.

There are big opportunities against this defense, and having a YAC monster like Deebo in this game would be huge for San Francisco. But if he is out, Brandon Aiyuk must step up. He only had 32 yards last week, his lowest total in any game with Purdy this season. Jajuan Jennings was more in focus with 5 catches for 61 yards.

It will have to be Aiyuk, Jennings, and George Kittle (tight end) getting the job done if Samuel is out. That’s still plenty enough playmakers, but Samuel’s loss would be a big missed opportunity against a reeling pass defense.

Dropped Interceptions

Not just in games involving the Lions and 49ers, but hasn’t it felt like there have been way more dropped interceptions than actual interceptions this postseason? We see it every game, and Goff and Purdy both got away with early picks that were dropped in the divisional round.

Both quarterbacks have a playing style where they seemingly go colorblind at times or just miss a defender, so the game could very well come down to which defense hangs onto the picks and which doesn’t.

Running the Ball

Another factor this postseason has been the running game, another area we often overlook, but it can be very important. Most of the losing teams this postseason have not been able to run well, but the Packers were an outlier after getting a big 100-yard game out of Aaron Jones in San Francisco last week.

Of course, Jones’ 53-yard run that should have set up a dagger drive actually led to no points after the kicker missed a crucial 41-yard field goal that would have given Green Bay the cushion of a 24-17 lead. But Jones had a big night and outrushed Christian McCaffrey.

You know CMC will bring it for the 49ers, but this is a tough run defense that usually does not get gashed on the ground. But that is also why the Lions have to stick with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs to give Goff a break against this talented defense and move the chains with effective run calls behind a very good offensive line. Lately, Gibbs has been looking like the better back for the Lions. We’ll see if they can equal or surpass the output from McCaffrey.

This is not a game where the Lions want Goff throwing 50 passes. Using the backs in the passing game as extended handoffs could be effective too.

How Aggressive Will Dan Campbell Be?

He was a home favorite these first two playoff games, but maybe the x-factor this week is just how aggressive will Dan Campbell be as a big road underdog with a chance to go to the Super Bowl?

The Lions went for it 40 times on 4th down in the regular season. Only Carolina (48) had more attempts and that’s largely because that team was awful and always trailed. Meanwhile, the 49ers were last with just 13 attempts on 4th down. Part of that is because they usually are leading and don’t need to go for it, but there is no denying that Campbell is the more aggressive coach in this matchup.

Nothing may be off the table with the Lions this week, including unorthodox 2-point conversion attempts, a fake punt, and maybe even a surprise onside kick. Remember, Campbell coached under Sean Payton in New Orleans and his big call was a surprise onside kick in Super Bowl 44 against the Colts to start the third quarter. We’ll see what Campbell has under his sleeve this week.

In the 20-19 loss against Dallas in Week 17, some thought Campbell was a little too aggressive and should have taken more field goals in a game where his defense held the Cowboys to 20 points. There’s always that balance of how the game is going with what’s the right call to make, but we’ll see if Campbell makes the aggressive call this week that could send the Lions to the Super Bowl for the first time ever.

Best Bets and Prediction

I think the 49ers should win this game after last week’s wake-up call and scare against the Packers. But that was a good game to shake off the rush from the Week 18 rest and bye week, and they showed they could overcome adversity with the Deebo injury and win a close game against a Green Bay team that was playing very good football down the stretch. The 49ers should be a little sharper this week as Purdy was definitely off on a lot of throws, but he at least looked perfect on the game-winning drive.

The Lions have a big gap to make up for in defense in this game. Even if Samuel is out, the 49ers have so many weapons to beat them with, and the Lions are doing a poor job of covering receivers right now. This could be a huge game for Kittle and Aiyuk.

My favorite bet is the over, because I think the 49ers should get back on track with 30 points, and the Lions are going to fight until the bitter end and have the playmakers at every level to put up some points on this defense. We saw how the Packers should have scored more than 21 points last week, but the rain didn’t help, the kicker didn’t help, and they were terrible in the red zone. The Lions are very good in the red zone and have four different players with double-digit touchdowns to go to. I’m also not that worried about the non-dome game for the Lions, because the weather sounds like it should be very good. This isn’t Chicago in December weather, and Goff has plenty of experience playing in this stadium from his days with the Rams.

It has a chance to be a very compelling game if Purdy gets into trouble with those risky throws, but Goff is the same way on the other end, and he is facing a significantly better defense.

Last year’s NFC title game was such a frustrating dud in Philadelphia after Purdy’s elbow was injured on the opening drive. Let’s hope for a night free of rain and big injuries, and for these offenses to put on a show in a game that could see the Lions backdoor into a cover, or possibly shock the world with their first Super Bowl berth should something crazy happen for them.

If I said Ray-Ray McCloud is going to fumble a pair of punt returns and that’s how the Lions are going to win in overtime, you’d call me crazy. But that’s exactly what happened to the 49ers in the 2011 NFC Championship Game against the Giants when Kyle Williams fumbled two punts. 

If you know your NFL history, then you know crazy things are usually how underdogs win games like this. To get the Detroit Lions in a Super Bowl, we might be talking about all-time crazy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *