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NFL playoffs: Four things to watch for in Lions-49ers in NFC Championship Game

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Detroit Lions
2023 · 14-5-0
San Francisco 49ers
2023 · 13-5-0

Sunday’s NFC Championship Game pits the haves vs. the have-nots, at least as far as modern NFL history goes.

The San Francisco 49ers host the game as five-time Super Bowl champions, coming up just short last season of reaching the club’s eighth Super Bowl following a NFC title-game loss to the Eagles.

The Detroit Lions are on the opposite end of the spectrum, approaching unseen heights for the franchise since the NFL merger. They’ve only been on this stage once before, losing to Washington in the 1991 NFC Championship Game. The Lions have never reached the Super Bowl before and last won a league championship in 1957.

Each team -- along with each quarterback and head coach -- knows how big the opportunity is in this matchup.

Niners quarterback Brock Purdy suffered a major elbow injury early during last year's loss to the Eagles, but he has built on a strong rookie season, even if doubters still exist, especially after Purdy struggled last week against Green Bay. San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has led the 49ers to the postseason in four of the past five years but was unable to finish off Super LIV, despite leading the Chiefs by 10 midway through the fourth quarter.

The Rams traded Jared Goff to Detroit three years ago in what was termed a salary-dump deal, but he’s established himself as the Lions’ unquestioned leader, with 22 wins in their past 29 games, playoffs included. Detroit Head coach Dan Campbell obviously has been a huge part of the Lions’ success over that period, maintaining his aggressive approach and belief in his players throughout, even after he was mocked early in his tenure.

Now these teams will square off in a terrific matchup, as this is more than just a redemption game. It’s also a battle of two of the best teams in the league this season. One of them will play for a Super Bowl title two weeks from Sunday.

Here are four things to watch for when the Lions visit the 49ers on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game:

1) Deebo is set to play after Divisional Round injury. Deebo Samuel (shoulder) left last week's Divisional Round win over the Packers after only 10 snaps, unable to continue after briefly reentering last week's game. His status was up in the air for much of this week, but on Friday he was able to fully participate in practice and removed the injury report heading into the weekend. He's one-quarter of the 49ers' four horsemen with Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. With the four of them on the field, the offense has averaged 7.3 yards per play with a 52.6% success rate, per Next Gen Stats. Without Samuel, they're at 6.9 and 45.4%, respectively. To put it another way, after Samuel got hurt nine plays into the Browns game in Week 6 and missed the next two, the Niners lost all three games. It wasn't until Samuel returned that the Niners ripped off six wins in a row. The Lions have had some issues tackling in space this season, so Samuel's availability is a particularly huge boon from a YAC standpoint. On the flip side, the Lions have defended the run and screen passes -- that's McCaffrey's music -- very well this season. Detroit's secondary showed its vulnerability against the Rams and Buccaneers, and it might have been more trouble against the Bucs had Mike Evans not dropped at least two big passes last week. The 49ers now know they'll have all the weaponry possible at their disposal for this game, which should make them more comfortable against Aaron Glenn's defense. This unit has had some struggles against higher-powered offenses but might be more confident stacking the box against CMC on early downs and playing more two-deep-safety looks in passing situations to guard against Aiyuk, Kittle and Samuel.

2) Goff returning home with redemption in mind. Goff grew up and played his college ball just across the Bay from San Francisco before spending his first five seasons down the coast with the Los Angeles Rams. He returns to the area to face a team he struggled to beat at times with the Rams, and it provides the perfect statement opportunity as Goff continues to fight for respect. Although he's been the driver of one of the best offenses in the NFL this season, Goff might not be viewed as a top-tier QB, and as of now he's entering a contract season in 2024. The Lions, however, wouldn't be here without him. With rookie tight end Sam LaPorta able to play through pain, they have a sophisticated passing game that can attack all three levels of the defense, and the play-action from under center makes Detroit's offense particularly difficult to slow down. The offensive line is a strong group, although the loss of guard Jonah Jackson can't be overlooked against a Niners rush unit led by Nick Bosa. Goff is completing 74% of his passes and hasn't turned the ball over in the playoffs. He's shown increasing confidence in secondary targets such as Jameson Williams and Josh Reynolds and still has his go-to targets in Amon-Ra St. Brown and LaPorta. But Goff also loves to attack the middle of the field, which is an area that the 49ers defend extremely well, thanks to players like Fred Warner. They also have a true No. 1 cornerback in Charvarius Ward, so if Goff is going to prove his doubters wrong, it will be a tall challenge against this defense.

3) Pressure on Purdy to perform. Last season, Purdy was one of the league's great stories, as he went from Mr. Irrelevant to NFC Championship Game quarterback. After suffering a major elbow injury in that game, he worked his way back from offseason surgery and elevated his level of play in Year 2. But the critics remain, as Purdy has struggled in the 49ers' losses this season -- and in last week’s skin-of-their-teeth win over the Packers, when he had at least one would-be interception dropped and had issues with accuracy in the rainy conditions. Nine of Purdy's 11 picks this year came in their four losses. But for most of this season, he's been a highly effective signal-caller in one of the league's most dangerous offenses, with elite targets at receiver, tight end and running back, generating a stunningly good 9.6 yards per attempt. When he's on, Purdy's superpower has been (like Goff's) attacking the middle of the field, even in tight windows, and giving his pass catchers terrific YAC possibilities. The Lions have had some coverage problems at times, as top cornerback Cam Sutton was chewed up by Evans last week, and new starter Kindle Vildor is likely to be targeted by the Niners. The Lions' secondary has playmakers in Brian Branch, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Kerby Joseph, but it also gives up its share of yards. The weather conditions look extremely favorable for Purdy, so the pressure will be on as he seeks to prove he's the 49ers' future at QB by landing his team in Super Bowl LVIII.

4) Lions' run game could give the 49ers problems. Fire and ice. Thunder and lightning. Come up with whatever descriptors you want for Lions running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. They've been that good this season, totaling 1,960 rush yards and 23 rushing TDs, along with 68 combined receptions. When teams have ganged up on Montgomery, Gibbs has provided a spark, as he did last week, flipping the script after the Bucs slowed the run game early. Even Craig Reynolds chipped in with a clutch fourth-and-goal TD run. One of the great battles within the battle in this game is Lions offensive tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell versus the 49ers edges Chase Young and Bosa. The Packers had success running right at Young last week, and you can be sure the Lions will try to do the same. The 49ers had defended the run very well most of the season but have struggled in that department since Week 15. Last week, the Packers ran for 136 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per handoff. Because the 49ers have defended slot receivers (where St. Brown does most of his damage) and have great coverage linebackers in Warner and Dre Greenlaw (to deal with LaPorta), the Lions know how important their RB duo will be in this game. If Detroit's offensive line can replace Jackson, it could have success attacking the Niners on the ground and setting up the play-action pass game.

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