The greatest strength the Lions’ possessed was how they mirror coach Dan Campbell on the field. Aggressive, no nonsense, singularly focused and unbelievably united.
In the second half of the NFC Championship game that all fell apart.
How the Lions gave up 27 unanswered points, and the nature of their collapse will be a point of study this whole week — and in Detroit the subject of conversation for years. We watched in real time as football proved how fickle it can be, where one play can turn momentum on its head and propel a team to victory where it seemed previously impossible. Brandon Aiyuk’s 51-yard catch, careening off Kindle Vildor was the spark that got the Niners going, but for my money the real defining play came two plays earlier.
With 7:03 left in the third quarter, and the Lions up by 14, Josh Reynolds dropped a 4th down pass short left that he really, really should have grabbed. Jared Goff was under pressure and put the ball where it needed to be, and the completion would have likely led to a Lions’ touchdown the way the offense was moving the ball as a whole.
Players drop passes. It happens. However it was Reynolds’ reaction after the drop that gave me pause. There was no fist pounding, no frustration, no anger or fire — instead the camera cut to the sideline where Reynolds was seen laughing about his hand position being wrong with the rest of the receiving group.
There’s some logic in just moving on from a bad play, to “be a goldfish,” as Ted Lasso taught us — but there’s also value in having that fire and frustration, especially when you’re trying to put away a team in the second half, and especially when that team is the 49ers and it means going to the Super Bowl.
This was a Lions team that just stopped taking the game as seriously as it needed to be, and this happened in the first half as well.
The 49ers went on to score thanks to Aiyuk’s heroics. The Lions then fumbled, and San Francisco scored again. Another drive, another short pass to Reynolds — another drop. This time the score was 24-24. It’s impossible to know if the outcome would have been any different had Reynolds taken the first drop more seriously, but he didn’t have the gravitas needed after that moment. By the time the panic button was being smashed it was too late. The defense was gassed, the offense was out of rhythm, the outcome felt inevitable.
The fourth down call …
We can’t discuss the collapse without the decision by Dan Campbell to go for it on fourth down for the second key time in the close of the game. The first we’ve discussed, when Reynolds dropped the pass while Detroit was up by 14 — the second with 7:32 left in the game.
At that moment the choice was either between a 48-yard field goal with a kicker the team only had on the roster since December, and didn’t have a lot of trust in — or go with the date they brought, leaning on their best players. For what it’s worth, analytics show that this was a coin toss decision, with the narrowest edge towards going for it.
Here’s why I hate that decision, regardless of what the numbers say: If we were to look at this moment in isolation then absolutely, you go for it. The issue is that the receiving corps at the time were not delivering. There were multiple dropped passes from a variety of receivers, the ball had been coughed up by Gibbs to where a run a 4th and 3 was out of the question, and the 49ers were bracketing Amon-Ra St. Brown, knowing he was the only reliable target the Lions had at the moment.
At that moment a team need a way to step back, take a deep breath, and reset. The only way to achieve this is with some points, and when the dust settled three points was all that was needed to send the game to overtime.
We’re left with a multitude of issues that all come back to the same key issue: The Lions lost themselves and stopped playing their brand of serious, big boy football that dominated the first half of the game. They played at key positions like they felt the NFC Championship was in the bag, and the 49ers made them pay for it.
Winner: Brock Purdy
There’s going to be so much Brock Purdy discourse over the next two weeks that it’s going to be sickening — but brass tacks, he deserves his flowers.
We have this tendency to operate in extremes. When it comes to the Niners quarterback he either needs to be labeled as utter trash or the greatest quarterback in the NFL. The truth, as in most things, is that he’s somewhere in the middle. Purdy can both exist as the best quarterback the 49ers have had since Colin Kaepernick, and also not be in the same stratosphere are Patrick Mahomes — and that’s okay.
What we saw in the NFC Championship is an extension of everything he’s done this season. Purdy executes the Kyle Shanahan game plan, and when the chips are down he’s able to find ways to make big plays. That manifested itself in the close of the game by Purdy realizing the Lions were underwater trying to overload him with pressure, but there were gaps in the center of the field for him to step up and run.
It takes tremendous guts to improvise that way when it hasn’t been in the cards for much of the season — and when it mattered most he took over the game.
Brock Purdy is absolutely deserving of being a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl.
Winner: The Chiefs proving us all wrong
I was highly critical when Travis Kelce and co. trotted out the “everyone doubted us” line after winning Super Bowl LVII. It was extremely overwrought, and came after the majority of the media expected the Chiefs to be a great team, but acknowledged they took a small step back offensively.
This year they’ve more than earned the right to preen.
Kansas City general manager Brett Veach and the entire Chiefs’ front office deserves a level of praise beyond anything they’ve accomplished in the past. This team realized it wasn’t in a place to stay the course with its overwhelming offensive approach, instead morphing into a defensive team — inherently understanding that Patrick Mahomes and Kelce were good enough to put points on the board.
There were plenty of times this season that it didn’t always work, but the Chiefs played the best football when it mattered the most. This team inherently understands what it takes to win in the playoffs, and Andy Reid is a master at keeping his team focused on the task at hand. At no point this playoffs did the Chiefs feel like they had any goal other than making it back to the Super Bowl. It’s a trait rarely seen, and often only achieved by the likes of Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
The win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship typified how far the Chiefs have come in a year. In the past if we said: “The Chiefs will score 17 points, and get out-gained on offense” the logical thought is that they lost the game. At no point have we been conditioned to believe this team can win under these conditions, but the Chiefs were masterful and bending, but never breaking — and of course it helps when L’Jarius Snead makes the play of his career to punch the ball away from Zay Flowers at the goal line.
If Baltimore stood a chance they needed Lamar Jackson’s supporting cast, who finally supported him this year, to make an impact. The Chiefs erased that possibility. They deserve all this.
Loser: Lamar Jackson
Another year, more missed opportunities. To be clear: Lamar Jackson is not a loser in the traditional sense, but he’s the unfortunate bearer of this crown because of what the Ravens did against the Chiefs.
Jackson yet again struggled to make it to the Super Bowl because the team around him regressed at the worst possible time. Zay Flowers was the only player who stepped up to perform in his supporting cast, which forced Jackson to go back to playing hero ball.
Let’s be real, he was the best player on the Ravens offense. He always is. Jackson was far from perfect, but this team will never, ever get over the hump until they find more reliable players who can make plays when the team needs them to.
It’s another offseason of questions and missed opportunities in Baltimore, and that’s a shame.