How the 49ers erased a 17-point deficit to beat the Lions

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Monday, January 29, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There are the months of preparation, film study, game-planning, injuries, pain, work and sacrifice. All of it is essential if you want to get to the Super Bowl. But sometimes, even after all of that, you still need a funny-shaped ball to bounce your way.

"Obviously, nobody wins without a little luck," San Francisco 49ers left tackle Trent Williams said in the locker room, a couple of hours after his team's 34-31 comeback victory over the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game. "Tonight was just our time to get it."

The discussion was about one key third-quarter play -- a 51-yard Brandon Aiyuk catch of a Brock Purdy throw that had every right to be an interception but instead became the play that turned the 49ers' fortunes around. There was 6:29 left on the third-quarter clock, and the Lions led the 49ers 24-10. Moments earlier, San Francisco had stopped Detroit on a fourth-and-2 from the Niners' 28-yard line. That seemed like a turning point, but the Niners still needed to make a big play or two on offense to cash in.

A 17-yard pass to receiver Deebo Samuel moved the ball to the Niners' 45-yard line. Purdy lined up in shotgun and called for the snap. Down the field, he saw the play unfold the way he wanted. Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson picked up Samuel on a crossing route, leaving Aiyuk one-on-one with cornerback Kindle Vildor. That, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan would explain later, meant Purdy was supposed to launch it downfield to Aiyuk.

"We need an explosive play and BA is one-on-one? I'm going to take that [opportunity]," Purdy said. "I was giving my guy a shot."

What San Francisco didn't count on was how well Vildor would cover, as the 2020 fifth-rounder stayed between Aiyuk and the goal line, putting himself in position to make an interception. But as he reached back to catch the ball, he tumbled, and the ball hit him in the chest and popped back up in the air.

"I was surprised," Aiyuk said. "I felt the look before, pre-snap, and that I had a chance to get the ball, but he just stayed on top. I don't even know."

Being surprised didn't cost Aiyuk, though. He saw the ball bounce up in the air off the defender, and he dove and caught it himself at the 4-yard line. Most of his team was about 50 yards upfield, so it was tough to know what happened. A flag was down. Aiyuk had rolled into the end zone with the ball. Was it a penalty? Was it a touchdown? Was it actually a catch? Could he possibly have caught it?

"I saw the flag, but I couldn't see much," Purdy said. "Then I heard the stadium erupt, and it was like, 'Oh my god, he caught that?'"

"BA's had a tremendous season making crazy plays for us," defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. "But that one was really wild."

"Just the way we intended it to look!" tight end George Kittle deadpanned. "Off the guy's face mask into BA's hands, dang, Brock Purdy's good at football."

"What can you say?" Williams said with a huge smile. "There's no amount of coaching, no amount of film watching that can prepare him to make a catch like that. That's just talent and will."

The Niners scored a touchdown three plays later, Purdy to Aiyuk appropriately enough. The stadium was pulsing. A 17-point halftime deficit was down to seven. The Niners kicked off, and on the very first play of the Lions' possession, running back Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled and Armstead recovered.

"Why do people in analytics say momentum isn't real?" Kittle asked the assembled media in his postgame news conference. "That's the biggest load of horse crap I've ever heard in my life."

It was impossible to be at Levi's Stadium at that point and not feel like something had shifted. The Niners had the ball at the Detroit 24. Purdy threw one to Kittle on first down that lost a yard. Then on second down, the pocket broke down, and Purdy took off, scrambling for 21 yards to the Lions' 4-yard line. It was the first of two 21-yard scrambles for Purdy -- he had another on third-and-4 in the fourth quarter on the drive that ended up putting the 49ers up by 10 points with three minutes to go. He had not had a run of 20 yards all season prior to Sunday.

"Brock is an athlete," Williams said. "Obviously, his athleticism is underrated. People don't look at him and think he might be tucking the ball and running with it like that. But he can do it. We see it in practice. He can run. So we needed him to run, and he ran. He's been making plays for us all year, and he's the reason we're in the Super Bowl."

Sunday's third quarter might be an even bigger reason. After allowing 148 rushing yards, 18 first downs and 24 points in the first half, the 49ers hit the halftime locker room still feeling OK about their situation. Shanahan said the feeling at halftime was, "We're not going out like this," and the players believed things would turn around.

Entering the postseason, the Niners were 0-30 under Shanahan when trailing by seven or more points entering the fourth quarter, per ESPN Stats & Information. They snapped that streak last week against theGreen Bay Packers, scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter in the divisional round win. They were also 0-19 under Shanahan when trailing by 17 or more points in the second half. They snapped that one this week. Per Elias Sports Bureau, the Niners joined the 1994 Chargers as the only teams with multiple seven-point second-half comebacks in the playoffs prior to reaching the Super Bowl. (That Chargers team lost to San Francisco in the Super Bowl.)

"We were confident, actually," Williams said. "Knowing we were going to get the ball first, especially. The plays were there, we just weren't making them. We have Aiyuk, Deebo, we know they're eventually going to put their stamp on a game like this. Plus, [the Lions] threw their best punches in the first half. Trick plays, flea-flickers, all that. You knew eventually all that stuff would slow down and we'd be OK."

They were right. The Niners outscored the Lions 17-0 and outgained them 170 yards to 42 in the third quarter. But the Lions also fumbled and dropped key passes on third and fourth downs.

"Just got to wait it out," Williams said. "You play long enough, you stick to your plan, you do it the right way, things eventually turn your way."

And then, in the 21st week of the season, after everything you've done to put yourself in position to get to the Super Bowl, a ball bounces off the defender and into your receiver's hands, and that's what it took to cash in a year's worth of work. The 49ers are back in the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons, and it took a little bit of everything in an epic, unforgettable third quarter to get them there.

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