The 2023 Detroit Lions had been defined by their ability to overcome adversity. During any game—or even any individual series—it would seem they would never get derailed by a bump in the road. They’d make a mistake or be on the wrong side of a bad call, then just dust off their pants, and keep moving forward. They never lost two games in a row, and rarely made the same mistake twice.
It came in the second half and it was relentless. After the 49ers took the opening drive of the third quarter for a field goal—cutting Detroit’s lead to 14—whirlpool of mistakes doomed Detroit’s chances at an upset road win.
First, the Lions attempted—and failed—a fourth down conversion. Seconds later, Detroit got ridiculously unlucky when a ball bounced off a Lions defender’s helmet, only to land in the waiting arms of 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk for a 51-yard catch. Three plays later, it was a seven-point game. One play later, Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled, and four plays after that, the 49ers had tied it up.
In a span of four minutes of game time, the Lions spiraled in a way we’ve never seen—at least not under this regime—and it erased an entire half of some of their best football of the entire season.
But it wasn’t that the Lions were unprepared. They knew at halftime that the 49ers would come out of the second half swinging.
“We knew they would make a run in the second half,” coach Dan Campbell said. “We talked about it. We knew we would have to weather the storm in the second half.”
Detroit had gotten good at weathering storms in the past. They survived a furious comeback attempt from the Saints after jumping out to an identical 24-7 lead. They held off the Buccaneers and Rams earlier this postseason, as they threatened comebacks. While third quarters have consistently been a problem for this team, they’ve almost always made the necessary plasy in the fourth quarter.
But not this time. Detroit wouldn’t get back in the scoring column until the final minute of the game, while the 49ers tallied 10 in the final frame. The mistakes—fumbles, drops, missed tackles—just kept snowballing, and after the game Campbell couldn’t make sense of it.
“Very uncharacteristic of us,” Campbell said. “We’ve always been able to get our momentum back, and it’s hard to say (why we didn’t). I, honestly, right now I can’t put my finger on that. That’s not like us. We had plays to be made that we just didn’t make; we normally do.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Detroit’s Super Bowl debut was just 30 minutes away, and Ford Field was ready to explode. Alas, the 49ers proved to be wrong opponent to let back into the game, and the Lions will spend the next several months trying to figure out how they let this one slip away.