Not only did the Detroit Lions win a playoff game this season, but now they are playing in their first NFC Championship game since 1991. Last week, they defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, and now they travel to take on the San Francisco 49ers. In what has been an excellent season for the Lions, it can get even better by upsetting the top NFC team, and appearing in their first-ever Super Bowl.
The 49ers will not be easy to defeat, as they are the top seed for a reason. They have a team built and coached very well, and for the first time this postseason, the Lions will have to go on the road. The good thing about that is the Lions fans have traveled well this season, invading stadiums across the country, and with this team hungry for a Super Bowl, it will be hard to keep them out of Levi’s Stadium on Sunday night.
2023 San Francisco 49ers
2023 season (12-5)
Week 1: Win against Pittsburgh Steelers 30-7
Week 2: Win against Los Angeles Rams 30-23
Week 3: Win against New York Giants 30-12
Week 4: Win against Arizona Cardinals 35-16
Week 5: Win against Dallas Cowboys 42-10
Week 6: Loss against Cleveland Browns 19-17
Week 7: Loss against Minnesota Vikings 22-17
Week 8: Loss against Cincinnati Bengals 31-17
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Win against Jacksonville Jaguars 34-3
Week 11: Win against Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-14
Week 12: Win against Seattle Seahawks 31-13
Week 13: Win against Philadelphia Eagles 42-19
Week 14: Win against Seattle Seahawks 28-16
Week 15: Win against Arizona Cardinals 45-29
Week 16: Loss against Baltimore Ravens 33-19
Week 17: Win against Washington Commanders 27-10
Week 18: Loss against Los Angeles Rams 21-20
NFC Wild Card: BYE
NFC Divisional: Win against Green Bay Packers 24-21
- 3rd in points scored, 3rd in points allowed
- 2nd in DVOA
- 1st in offensive DVOA (1st in pass DVOA, 2nd in run DVOA)
- 4th in defensive DVOA (4th pass DVOA, 15th in run DVOA)
- 25th in special teams
The 49ers have had a great season, and it’s clear why they are the top seed in the NFC this year. Second-year quarterback Brock Purdy didn’t have a sophomore slump, finishing fifth in the NFL in yards by the end of the season with 4,280, third in the NFL in touchdowns with 31, and had the best QBR rating of 72.8. Purdy was an MVP favorite near the end of the season before the loss to the Ravens removed him from the conversation.
He had some great help in the receiving department, as wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk led the team in yards and catches with 75 catches for 1,342 yards and seven touchdowns. He wasn’t the only wide receiver to help Purdy out, as Deebo Samuel finished the year with 60 catches for 892 yards and seven touchdowns. Tight end George Kittle had a strong and healthy season, finishing with 65 catches for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns. Then there is the best running back in the league to help out the offense overall, Christian McCaffrey. He had the most yards in the NFL on the ground with 1,459 and 14 touchdowns, but he was also deadly in the air with 67 catches for 564 yards and seven touchdowns.
Brandon Aiyuk— PFN Fantasy (@PFNFantasy) January 19, 2024
Would you be comfortable with him as your WR1 in a dynasty league? pic.twitter.com/3An0g25Q1z
What also helped this team out was having one of the best defenses in the NFL. The defensive line kept getting more robust, with more names joining the fray throughout the season. The linebackers led by Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are nothing to slouch on, as Warner led the team in tackles with 132, 11 pass deflections, six tackles for loss, four interceptions, four forced fumbles, and two and a half sacks. Greenlaw is behind him with 120 tackles, five tackles for loss, four pass deflections, and one and a half sacks.
The defense also has a tough secondary to go up against. Cornerback Charvarius Ward is the 49ers’ top cornerback, leading the team in interceptions with five and passing deflections with 23. Next to him is Deommodore Lenoir, who has three interceptions and 10 pass deflections.
This 49ers team is only 12-5 due to injuries as they were 5-0 until injuries struck them heading into Week 6. San Francisco then hit a three-game losing streak, dealing with injuries to Greenlaw, Samuel, McCaffrey, and left tackle Trent Williams. After the bye week and everyone returned healthy, the team was unstoppable again until they had a horrible performance against the top team in the NFL, the Ravens. Week 18 was a backup-filled game for the 49ers, ending their regular season 12-5.
Key players ruled out: DL Clelin Ferrell (IR), S Talanoa Hufanga (IR), DL Drake Jackson (IR)
Key players to monitor: WR Deebo Samuel (shoulder)
Right now, the 49ers are mostly healthy heading into the NFC title game. While their injury report last week was packed with players, most were full participants, and I expect that to be the same this week. The team did move defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell to IR after trying to get him back for the playoffs, so the depth on the line takes a hit. Hufanga and Jackson won’t return this season as well.
Samuel is the leading player to watch here after he left the game against the Packers early with a shoulder injury and didn’t return. On Monday, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said, “It wasn’t broken. So that was a real good sign. Still hurting too much for us to have an idea for how it’s going to heal up this week.” Samuel could miss this game or be very limited in action and possibly used as a decoy. With it being the playoffs though, all bets are off.
Biggest strength: Defensive Line
Talk about depth. The 49ers have a plethora of riches on the defensive line, and it’s unfair compared to the rest of the league. The 49ers have seven players who could be considered starters on other teams around the NFL. The first and most apparent player to talk about is defensive end Nick Bosa. He leads the team in sacks with 10.5, along with 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, four pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
Nick Bosa with a beautiful chop/spin. Speed upfield gets the blocker to turn his shoulders. @nbsmallerbear chops the hands down, spins & puts pressure on the QB. Have a pass rush plan! #PassRush #49ers #FTTB pic.twitter.com/pwlH9Mdgy5— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) January 21, 2024
While Bosa is the main target, he isn’t the only complex problem on this defensive line. You then have the interior led by defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead. Hargrave has seven sacks to go with his 44 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and two pass deflections. Armstead has five sacks, 27 tackles, and four tackles for loss.
As the other edge, it was Ferrell before the injury, and with him out for the rest of the season, the depth starts to show for this 49ers team. Defensive end Chase Young is the new starter for them, and while he hasn’t been as explosive for the 49ers since the trade with the Commanders, he is still an issue for the Lions. This season, Young has 25 tackles, seven and a half sacks, seven tackles for loss, and two pass deflections.
There’s even more. The 49ers also have defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who had 25 tackles, four tackles for loss, three and a half sacks, and three pass deflections. The 49ers also picked up defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day from the Los Angeles Chargers via waivers, and he has 36 tackles, three and a half sacks, and three tackles for loss. This defense is as good as it is because the line can rotate guys in, and multiple players can step in and contribute to the team.
Biggest weakness: Offensive Line
When it comes to the 49ers’ offense, their most significant issue is the offensive line. Trent Williams is the best left tackle in the NFL, and he shores up and protects Purdy like no other. It’s the surrounding talent next to him that isn’t as impressive. This offense does well because of how quickly Purdy can get the ball out and how great of a running back McCaffrey is.
The two players that hurt this offensive line are left guard Aaron Banks and right tackle Colton McKivitz. According to PFF, Banks is the worst starting lineman on the team, but I can’t entirely agree with that. Banks has six penalties and has allowed 23 pressures and six quarterback hits, but he has yet to allow a sack.
According to PFF, McKivitz has a 65.1 grade and allowed a whopping 47 pressures, nine sacks, and four quarterback hits while only getting two penalties. The Lions mostly line up Aidan Hutchinson against the right tackle, and he might have his way with McKivitz. The other two starting offensive linemen, right guard Jon Feliciano and center Jake Brendel, were fairly graded, with Feliciano an 81.2 and Brendel a 63.9 from PFF.
The unit has allowed 34 sacks, only three more than the Lions. Still, going up against Detroit, a team with the most pressures in the NFL (188) and the highest pressure percentage (28.2), Detroit will test the 49ers’ offensive line for all 60 minutes.
Key matchup: Lions offensive line vs 49ers defensive line
Once again, the battle in the trenches will be the deciding factor in the game this week. Last week, it was the main difference, as the Lions could run on the Bucs, a team with a well-respected run defense. The challenge is more complicated this week as the Lions take on the number three rush defense in the NFL in the 49ers. What makes this even more difficult for Detroit is that left guard Jonah Jackson is expected to miss the game with a minor meniscus tear.
The Lions will have to depend on offensive lineman Kayode Awosika at left guard to fill the void. Detroit won’t sign any free agents for the week if Jackson can return for the Super Bowl, so don’t expect any outside help to enter. Also, the Lions could call up an offensive lineman from the practice squad, but I would expect them to play in an emergency instead of starting.
If the Lions can protect Jared Goff and give him time to throw, that will significantly help this team. It’s more than just the passing game that needs good blocking too, as the 49ers have the third-fewest rushing yards allowed this season, so the offensive line will be required to do an outstanding job to try and open lanes for running backs Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery. If the Lions offensive line struggles against the rugged 49ers defensive line, this game could get ugly and quick.
Vegas line for Sunday: 49ers by 7