SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When the moment of absolute truth arrived Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers weren’t scared, they were angry. They were ashamed. They were kicking away the NFC Championship Game and they knew they would never, ever, ever forgive themselves for it.
And they had one half of football to change the course of everything. To not only meet the moment but to justify an entire era of this franchise. Good teams don’t lose like this. Teams with character don’t expire this pathetically. Teams built like this don’t crumble a step away from the Super Bowl. Look in the mirror. Figure it out.
“It was embarrassing,” Nick Bosa said of the 49ers’ 24-7 halftime deficit against the Detroit Lions. “Kinda felt helpless. We didn’t want to go down as failures.”
What happened next was about 20 things all occurring in random synchronicity, full of rampaging 49ers momentum, increasingly wobbly responses by the Lions and thunderous energy flowing through Levi’s Stadium and presumably echoing throughout the solar system. What happened next was a third quarter that started slowly and methodically then kept speeding up and speeding up, clicking frantically from unlikely to possible, feasible, probable and finally inevitable, until the 49ers had outscored Detroit 17-0, tied the score and set up one of the most compelling victories in 49ers history, 34-31.
The third quarter was like watching Mike Tyson get off the canvas and just keep punching until it was over. It was the 49ers restoring their sense of themselves in the nick of time. Because if they lost like this, if they lost their third consecutive NFC Championship Game, could they even bear trying all this again next season and the season after that with all the same players and leaders?
It was a victory that, at least for now, made the 49ers’ berth in Super Bowl 58 against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 11 seem more like an epilogue than the main story. It was a victory that left the 49ers players and coaches almost too exhausted to celebrate and too relieved to fib about how this happened.
They stunk for the first half. Then they decided to stop stinking.
“I think we were just pissed off,” Kyle Shanahan said. “I think guys were extremely pissed. That first half wasn’t (about being) down by 17, it was the way we were down. (The Lions) were kind of having their way in the run game. We weren’t getting much in our run game, either. We don’t want to go out like that. We dug ourselves in a big hole.
“Wasn’t just talking about how to win this game. I was talking about how to start playing right. We got too much respect for our team. That would have been a real rough way to end it if we couldn’t have played better with our group.”
The 49ers struck back so quickly in the third quarter — a field goal after they got the second-half kickoff, a fourth-down stop of the Lions, a touchdown drive, a fumble recovery and another TD tied the score in less than 12 minutes of game time — that they didn’t even need to fashion a fourth-quarter comeback.
That meant they didn’t alter the famous stat that they are 0-38 in the Shanahan era when they trail by 7 or more points in the fourth quarter, but after their late rally to beat the Packers a week ago and now this monumental rally, go ahead and tell the 49ers that there’s any stat that proves they’re incapable of grand comebacks.
“That’s back-to-back weeks,” said Brandon Aiyuk, whose amazing 51-yard catch (after a looping deflection) set up his ensuing TD catch, which brought the 49ers within 24-17 with 5:17 left in the third. “Wins that we weren’t supposed to have, apparently. But those are two gutty wins, wins that just show you the type of team we have. The mindset, the will and the heart that everybody has.”
Of course, the only way to make this kind of comeback is to play poorly enough in the beginning to make it necessary, which is exactly what happened Sunday for the 49ers. The Lions played faster than the 49ers in the first half, they called misdirection running plays that made the 49ers defense look slow and confused and the Lions mostly baffled the 49ers offense, too. Brock Purdy threw an interception. The 49ers running game went mostly nowhere. Jake Moody missed a field goal.
But the 49ers knew they were getting the kickoff to start the third quarter and knew if they just got one score and then stopped the Lions just once, maybe Levi’s would start to rumble and anything could happen. And the 49ers knew they were talented enough to do this. Heck, they knew they were talented enough that they probably should do this.
“I’ve never felt like we didn’t have a team who could come back or win a game like that,” Shanahan said. “Just had to do it today when it mattered the most.”
Said Bosa: “I think there was a stat of Kyle not coming back after being down. I think it’s a testament to our group that we were able to battle back. And you’ve gotta do stuff like that to have a special season.”
Also, the 49ers happily took advantage of a call by Lions coach Dan Campbell, who built this team with an ultra-aggressive mindset and then helped end their season by going for it on the Lions’ first possession of the second half, after a Moody field goal had brought the 49ers within 24-10. On fourth-and-2 from the 28-yard line, Jared Goff got pressured by Bosa, had to move to his right and threw an incompletion. A Lions’ field goal there would’ve put them back up by three scores. The turnover on downs perked up Levi’s.
“Huge,” Bosa said. “I think that was the turning point and just getting Goff off the spot, kinda making him uncomfortable back there.”
The 49ers still needed points and not just field goals. So when Purdy got the ball back and had a chance to go to Aiyuk deep against one-on-one coverage, he took it. The ball bounced off of Detroit defensive back Kindle Vildor’s hands, Aiyuk chased it down before it hit the ground and suddenly the 49ers were at the Lions’ 4-yard line. Aiyuk’s TD came three plays later.
“Once BA made that play, kind of unlocked it with such an explosive,” Shanahan said of the 51-yard catch. “Kind of unlocked the whole team. … Right after that, you could feel the whole momentum with our players, the stadium, on the sideline kind of flip. Felt it was on after that.”
Faster, faster, faster. On the next play from scrimmage, Tashaun Gipson Sr. knocked the ball from Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Arik Armstead recovered and, yes, the 49ers felt it. The tide had turned. The Lions started to feel it, too. The Lions started playing like it was all they felt.
“I have a question for you,” George Kittle said. “Why does analytics people say momentum isn’t a real thing? … That’s just the biggest load of horse crap I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”
When did Kittle feel it turn Sunday?
“We had a good opening drive in the second half and (then) that fourth-down stop,” Kittle said. “We just kind of feel an energy. We go down and score — all right, this is huge. A turnover? I was like, oh man, all bets are off now. Bang-bang.”
Two plays after the fumble recovery, Purdy dashed for 21 yards to the Lions 4-yard line. Two plays after that, a Christian McCaffrey rushing touchdown tied the score. Yeah, momentum’s real and Purdy was right there swimming in it. He was mostly ineffective and looked frustrated in the first half. In the second, Purdy completed 13 of 16 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown and had two key 21-yard runs.
“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” Shanahan said of Purdy’s five runs for 48 yards. “He made some big plays with his legs, getting out of the pocket, moving the chains on some first downs, some explosives. He competed his ass off today. Wasn’t easy for any of us. He kept grinding, was unbelievable there in the second half.”
Purdy had to be unbelievable in the second half, including the two fourth-quarter drives that gave the 49ers the winning margin. Or else the 49ers would’ve lost and there would’ve been some serious soul-searching going on in this franchise. The 49ers defense, which has so much money invested in it, had to be unbelievable. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks had to forget about the first half and be unbelievable in the second. Aiyuk had to be unbelievable. Every important 49er had to be unbelievable. One slip-up, one failed assignment, and the Lions would’ve been planning their trip to Las Vegas.
It was all unbelievable and it was all so fast. It was a defining moment for this era and it was a vindication, too.
(Top photo of Brock Purdy holding the George Halas Trophy after the NFC Championship Game on Sunday: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)