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NFC Championship Preview: Keys to a Lions Victory

Dan gives you the five things Detroit must do to win the NFC Championship
Publish Date: 01/26/2024
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

Wow. I still can’t believe the Detroit Lions have made it this far. I have seen Detroit make the playoffs in years past, but never expected anything because “same old Lions”. Finally getting a playoff dub and being a win away from a Super Bowl appearance is a new, awesome, unexpected joy ride. Detroit beat the Rams to win its first playoff game since 1991, and now the Lions will try to get their first road playoff win since 1957 – when they beat the 49ers and went on to win the NFL title. I have long considered this 49ers team to be the best in the NFC, but these teams match up well. Good quarterback play is always needed to win in the NFL, so we aren’t going to focus on Jared Goff’s road woes; let’s see what else Detroit has to do to secure a Super Bowl appearance with the NFC Championship Preview: Keys to a Lions Victory.

  • Contain Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey was by far the best runningback in the NFL this season; he led the league in rushing yards, total scrimmage yards, total (rushing+receiving) touchdowns scored, missed tackles forced, and yards after contact. He is the engine that drives this offense. During the 49ers’ three game losing streak back in October, however, McCaffrey was largely inefficient on the ground – he had 38 carries for 142 yards (3.73 yard average per carry) over those three games. Detroit allowed the secondย fewest rush yards per game and only 3.7 yards per carry average (3rd fewest in NFL) this season. They also have allowed only 78.5 yards on the ground per game in the first two playoff games, and will look to continue that success against the Niners. Make Brock Purdy beat you through the air; make them one dimensional.

  • Ignore the outside noise.

Winning two playoff games at home after three decades of futility can be an emotionally draining experience. Everyone is talking about how great Dan Campbell is and he is on everyone’s short list for Coach of the Year. Now both the offensive and defensive coordinators are being interviewed for every available head coaching job in the NFL, and there’s a possibility that one or both could accept jobs running the show elsewhere.

Oh, and the Lions are the lovable underdog that most everyone outside of California is rooting for. That’s a lot of pressure and noise around a core group of young players that have mostly never been under these bright lights. The Lions need to block it all out, keep their heads down, and focus on San Francisco.

  • Play better against the pass.

Detroit has an elite rush defense, but the pass defense is one of the worst in the NFL. There are some solid individual pieces in the secondary, but the overall talent (particularly at corner) is seriously lacking. Kindle Vildor shouldn’t be a starting outside corner on a potential Super Bowl team, and the team has been giving up big stats against every top wide receiver they have played recently. Over the past five games, Detroit has allowed the top receiver on the opposite team to average 9+ receptions, 177+ yards, and 1 touchdown per game.

Last time Deebo Samuel played against the Lions (in 2021), he put up 9 receptions for 189 yards and 1 touchdown. Samuel is questionable for the game with a shoulder injury, but Brandon Aiyuk went off for over 1,300 yards and 7 touchdowns this season and is a big play waiting to happen. When Samuel has missed time, the 49ers offense has struggled (see: 3 game losing streak), but Aiyuk, McCaff, and tight end George Kittle are more than able to carry the 49ers offense.

  • Cash in on opportunities.

The Green Bay Packers had a chance to beat the 49ers, but they just couldn’t get it done. There were plenty of opportunities for the Packers to take the lead and/or build on a lead, and they settled for field goal attempts instead of touchdowns. Brock Purdy should have committed a couple of turnovers, but the Green Bay defense couldn’t take advantage. Aaron Jones became the first runningback to go over 100 yards against the 49ers in the last 50 games, and it meant nothing in the end. If Detroit gets these kinds of bounces, they have to make the most of them. Convert turnovers into touchdowns, don’t beat yourself, and close it out in the 4th.

  • Control the line of scrimmage.

San Francisco has a deep and talented defensive front led by star edge rusher Nick Bosa and All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner, but they can be had on the ground. If Detroit can run the ball efficiently, it will make things easier for Jared Goff, who struggles against pressure (2nd in the NFL in QB Rating with a clean pocket, 29th when under pressure). Detroit’s elite offensive line allowed only 31 sacks during the regular season (tied for 4th fewest in the NFL) and allowed zero sacks against the blitz happy Bucs, but Lions Pro Bowl left guard Jonah Jackson is expected to miss time with a meniscus tear. A solid interior defensive line rotation for the 49ers led by Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead could give backup left guard Kayode Awosika fits with Jackson sidelined and All-Pro center Frank Ragnow playing through a sprained knee and a sprained ankle.

On the flip side, San Francisco has arguably the top offensive tackle in the NFL in left tackle Trent Williams, but the rest of the offensive line isn’t quite right. 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz is going to have a helluva day going against the studly Aidan Hutchinson – who happens to lineup on the right tackle’s side over 76% of the time and has three sacks to go with 13 pressures in two games this postseason. McKivitz is the weakest link on the 49ers offensive line, having allowed the 3rd most sacks (9) and the 5th most pressures (52) of any qualifying offensive lineman in the NFL. The Lions had the most pressures (188) and the highest pressure percentage (28.2) in the NFL, and San Francisco has one of the worst pass blocking offensive lines in the league.

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