Toss your history lessons and memories of a woebegone franchise, and Lions coach Dan Campbell knows what you can do with your opinions about underdog Detroit in the NFC Championship Game Sunday.
“This is going to be an outstanding test for us. It’s one we’re ready for,” Campbell said. “We’re built to handle this. … Our guys will be ready to roll.” The 49ers are in the conference championship game for the third consecutive year. Kyle Shanahan is still seeking his first trip to the Super Bowl since he became San Francisco’s head coach.
“They’re a team that is really very aggressive in what they do,” said Shanahan, who has a 7-3 playoff record in seven seasons with the 49ers. “Their whole defense.
“See their numbers, 31st (against) the pass, but then when you watch the tape you realize they’re aggressive, mix everything up, which is going to make you susceptible to big plays but they’re fourth (in the NFL) in causing negative plays.”
Mainstream media began taking the Lions seriously with a Week 1 win at defending champion Kansas City, the first of six regular-season road wins.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff said he first realized this Detroit team was ready for spotlight games such as this week’s when they won at Green Bay to end the 2022 regular season.
Neither team is short on star power.
Goff, who grew up in the Bay Area, knows his way around Levi’s Stadium, too, from his time with the Rams. Goff is 3-6 in his career against the 49ers, but he hasn’t thrown an interception in four consecutive playoff starts and had multiple TD passes in each of his past four games in San Francisco.
“There’s four teams left. These are the times you dream of as a kid; we’re one win away from the Super Bowl,” said Goff, who is 4-3 in the playoffs as a starting quarterback and 2-0 with the Lions, who are in the conference championship game for the first time since 1991.
Shanahan said wide receiver Deebo Samuel didn’t practice Wednesday but his shoulder feels better. He’ll need no introduction to the Lions. Samuel caught nine passes for 189 yards and a touchdown in Campbell’s first game with the Lions, a 41-33 win for the 49ers at Detroit in 2021.
Lions center Frank Ragnow, fighting ankle and knee injuries, plans to play but was “definitely stiff” at the outset of practice this week. Ragnow said Goff and Detroit’s veterans are “hardened” by the low points with the franchise.
Ragnow repeated a framework shared by Campbell with context of the rise to within a game of the Super Bowl.
“I’ve been at the lowest, I’ve been at the highest. It helps,” Campbell said. “You learn a lot. I’m glad I’m not there anymore.”
Campbell doesn’t deny he’s a risk-taker. He said he’s willing to “give up something to get something” as a general approach that specifically applies to his “salty” defense. He reminded his defense if it will hit and disrupt, dividends are realized in the fourth quarter.
“You see our confidence going up,” Campbell said.
Selective risk-taking applies to the quarterbacks in this game. But the more apt description of the overall offensive approach might be bully-ball.
The Lions average 135.9 rushing yards per game, and San Francisco held opponents to an average of 89.7 rushing yards before allowing an individual 100-yard rusher last week (Packers RB Aaron Jones, 108). The 49ers rushed for 140 yards per game in the regular season.
Disrupting quarterback Brock Purdy is one of Detroit’s top priorities this week. The Lions are allowing 338 passing yards per game in the playoffs but kept the Rams and Buccaneers to 33 percent third-down conversions.
“Every week it’s been sort of been a little bit different based on who they’re playing — how they play guys and certain receivers — it’s always a little bit different with them,” Purdy said. “As a quarterback you’ve got to know that they’re going to be aggressive and they can make a play. It’s a fine line.”
One of Purdy’s four career losses in 21 starts was in the 2023 NFC Championship Game to the Eagles. He left the field with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm, which led to offseason surgery. Purdy said he’s “hungry to get to the next game,” casting his focus forward rather than rewinding to last year.
Shanahan, 2-0 in his career against the Lions, expects balance from the Lions. He also stressed the offense is willing to give opponents “opportunities” by trying to steal possessions in going for it on fourth down.
“You understand it, you prepare for it,” Shanahan said. “Those guys are trying to steal possessions as much as they can. I’ll tell you after the game whether that’s a good or a bad thing for us.
“Any time you try to steal possessions, you’re offering an opportunity to lose possessions. … Those are big opportunities for us, too.”
When it comes to potential Super Bowl LVIII matchups, the Baltimore Ravens battered the Lions, 38-6, and won at San Francisco, 33-19, in the regular season.
The Lions beat the Chiefs, 21-20, in Week 1. Kansas City did not play the 49ers in 2023.
–Field Level Media