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Recap: Detroit Lions’ second-half meltdown costs chance at 1st Super Bowl

The Detroit Lions were in control of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, but a complete meltdown in the second half cost them a Super Bowl opportunity.

NFC Championship - Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions had it. They were in absolute control of the game against the San Francisco 49ers up 24-7 at halftime.

But a combination of questionable coaching decisions and huge mistakes doomed the Lions in the second half, and they would end up dropping the game and ending their Super Bowl bid with a 34-31 loss to the 49ers.

Detroit’s offense was on fire in the first half, racking up 24 points by halftime. But they were shut out in the second half until the very end.

Coach Dan Campbell will likely see a lot of scrutiny for some fourth down decisions he made in this game. Here were the two critical moments:

  • Up 14 points in the third quarter, the Lions opted to go for a fourth-and-2 instead of attempting a 46-yard field goal
  • Down 3 points in the fourth quarter, the Lions went for it on fourth-and-3 instead of attempting a 48-yard field goal

Both attempts failed, and the 49ers scored touchdowns immediately after each failed conversion.

It’s a hugely disappointing way for the Lions’ season to end, when the game started out so promisingly. But it doesn’t erase the incredible progress this team has made, and the bright future ahead.

Here’s how the game unfolded:

First quarter

The 49ers won the toss and deferred, giving the Lions the ball first. Detroit pounded the rock with David Montgomery for 19 yards on the first two plays. Then on the fourth play of the drive, the Lions ran a nifty reverse for a 42-yard touchdown and a quick 7-0 Lions lead.

The 49ers retaliated first by picking up a third-and-9 with an 11-yard pass to Brandon Aiyuk. Two plays later, Brock Purdy hit Deebo Samuel for 15 yards to midfield. After a pass batted down by Aidan Hutchinson—his second of the drive—the 49ers faced a third-and-11. Purdy checked down to Christian McCaffrey, who was stopped well short of the first down. Jake Moody lined up for a 48-yard field goal, but pushed it wide right.

On the opening defensive drive, linebacker Derrick Barnes suffered a knee injury and was initially listed as questionable to return.

With the solid field position, Jared Goff and offense went back to a work. A 7-yard run from Jahmyr Gibbs and a 14-yard catch from Montgomery pushed them to the edge of field goal position. On third-and-9, a screen pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown went for 13 down to the 49ers’ 17-yard line. A draw to Gibbs went for 10, setting Detroit up first-and-goal from the 7. Two plays later, Montgomery punched it in from 2 yards for a 14-0 Lions lead with 2:34 left in the first quarter.

Purdy got San Francisco’s offense moving again with a 23-yard pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk. McCaffrey picked up a third down conversion down to the Lions’ 32-yard line as the game moved into the second quarter.

Second quarter

A swing pass to McCaffrey kicked off the second quarter and the 49ers running back broke several tackled to gain 28 yards down to the 5-yard line.

Two plays later, McCaffrey punched it in from 2 yard to make it 14-7 Lions.

The Lions went right back to work on offense with a 14-yard run by Montgomery, followed up by a third-and-10 conversion by St. Brown down to midfield. But after taking a sack on second-and-10, Goff checked down to LaPorta, who was stopped well short of the first down. Detroit punted and pinned the 49ers at their own 12-yard line.

The 49ers were driving, but on a third-and-10, Purdy floated a ball over the middle and Malcolm Rodriguez picked it off.

A penalty on the return of the interception negated the good return, but the Lions took over at midfield. After Goff threaded a needle to St. Brown to put Detroit into the red zone, a toss to Jahmyr Gibbs went for a nifty 15-yard touchdown run. 21-7 Lions.

The 49ers proceeded to go three-and-out after Purdy missed Aiyuk on third-and-10.

With about five minutes left, the Lions went heavy offensive line personnel. Detroit ran five straight plays with six offensive linemen, and proceeded to run the ball down the 49ers’ throat. Detroit successfully moved to midfield and bled clock, ensuring the 49ers wouldn’t get the ball back.

On third-and-12, the Lions ran a draw play and it somehow worked, keeping the drive alive. But Nick Bosa beat Dan Skipper on the next play for an 8-yard loss. But the Lions counterpunched with a 23-yard pass to St. Brown on third-and-18.

Goff converted a third-and-7 to St. Brown for 9 yards down to the 7-yard line. But Detroit would stall there, and the offense would settle for a field goal and a 24-7 Lions lead at halftime.

Third quarter

The 49ers came out of the half firing, and picked up the tempo. Purdy hit Deebo Samuel for 26 yards, then he broke a tackle on the next play for another 9 yards. Jauan Jennings then made an insane 1-handed grab to move the chains.

But Detroit’s defense would hold them from there, and Moody was good from 43-yard to make it a 24-10 Lions game four minutes into the second half.

The Lions kicked off the drive with an effective play-action pass to LaPorta for 16 yards. Then Detroit hit them with a healthy dose of the running game down into 49ers territory. But Detroit faced a fourth-and-2 from the 49ers 28-yard line, and instead of attempting a 46-yard field goal the Lions went for it. Goff stepped away from pressure and tried to hit Josh Reynolds, but the veteran receiver couldn’t hold on.

Immediately, the 49ers hit Samuel for a 17-yard play down to the 45-yard line. Then one of the most ridiculous plays happened. Purdy targeted Aiyuk deep, and Kindle Vildor was in tight coverage. The ball ended up hitting Vildor in the face, deflecting up in the air Aiyuk caught it for a 51-yard play.

Three plays later, Purdy hit Aiyuk for a 6-yard touchdown. 24-17 Lions.

Kerby Joseph was injured on the drive and suffered an arm injury. His return was announced as questionable. He would return shortly after.

On the very first play of the Lions’ next drive, Gibbs fumbled and the 49ers recovered at Detroit’s 24-yard line.

A Purdy scramble put the 49ers down to the 4-yard line, and a few plays later McCaffrey punched it in and it was tied up just like that. 24-24 with 3:02 left in the third quarter.

The Lions quickly went three-and-out after Goff hit Reynolds in the hands and he dropped it for what would’ve been a big gain.

On the ensuing drive, the 49esr drove down to the 44-yard line before the quarter came to an end.

Fourth quarter

Purdy hit George Kittle for a 28-yard gain down to the Lions’ 27-yard line, as the 49ers prepared to take their first lead of the game. Another Purdy scramble moved them down into the red zone. Back-to-back sacks by the Lions defense set up a third-and-19 for the 49ers, which they could not convert. San Francisco settled for a field goal, and Moody was good from 33 yards out to make it 27-24 49ers with 9:52 left.

The Lions started the next drive with a 22-yard strike to Jameson Williams, and Montgomery followed it up with a 16-yard run into 49ers territory. Detroit found themselves in another fourth-and-3 from the 49ers 30-yard line. Instead of kicking a 48-yarder, the Lions went for it, and Goff couldn’t find anybody, as Detroit turned it over on downs again.

The Lions, desperately needing a stop, couldn’t get one. Purdy hit the Lions with another scramble—this one on third-and-4—to put the 49ers into field goal range. Then after a huge run by McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell punched it in for a game-sealing 34-24 49ers lead with 3:02 left.

The Lions would add a touchdown with under one minute left, but after failing the convert the onside kick, the game was essentially over.

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