NFC Championship Preview: Lions at 49ers

After defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional round last week, the Detroit Lions find themselves in the NFC Championship game for the first time since 1992. Detroit is one win away from the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance, but the team will have to pass its toughest test yet to get to Las Vegas: taking down the San Francisco 49ers from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Below are some notes ahead of the biggest game in the organization’s history.

NFC Championship Preview: Lions at 49ers

Limiting Christian McCaffrey

Easier said than done, of course, but Christian McCaffrey is the engine that makes the 49ers offense go.

Yes, San Francisco has other weapons on offense, but McCaffrey is the head of the snake. The first-team All-Pro rushed for a league-best 1,459 yards in 2023, scoring 14 touchdowns on the ground while averaging just over five yards per carry. He also does damage in the passing game; McCaffrey caught 67 balls for over 500 yards and a career-high seven touchdowns through the air this season.

As Lions head coach Dan Campbell said earlier in the week, the first order of business for the Detroit defense this weekend will be limiting McCaffrey. The Lions have had success in shutting down the opponent’s ground game this season and boast one of the top run defenses in the league, holding opponents to just 87.7 rushing yards per game. This will undoubtedly be Detroit’s toughest challenge of the season, but making life difficult for McCaffrey boosts the Lions’ chances of winning exponentially.

Deebo Samuel Questionable

Arguably the second most valuable player on the 49ers offense, wide receiver Deebo Samuel is questionable for Sunday’s contest after suffering a shoulder injury in San Francisco’s Divisional win over the Green Bay Packers. Along with McCaffrey, Samuel is used as a Swiss Army knife in the 49ers offense, producing through the air and on the ground.

Samuel’s chances of playing on Sunday were considered “50-50” earlier in the week after missing multiple practices, but he participated in a limited fashion on Thursday. Even if Samuel does suit up, it sounds like he won’t be 100% which benefits Detroit tremendously.

Detroit’s Run Game

One area the Lions could have success against a stifling San Francisco defense is on the ground, more specifically outside the tackles. Enter Jahmyr Gibbs.

The 49ers have one of the best-run defenses in the NFL but have struggled in recent weeks, allowing over 100 yards on the ground per contest over the last three games. As we saw last week, the Packers got whatever they wanted through the run game as Aaron Jones raced for 108 yards and broke off multiple big runs. As ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky diagrammed, the key for Detroit will be running concepts similar to what Green Bay did, getting their receivers in motion and their linemen pulling to open holes for Gibbs and his counterpart David Montgomery to run through.

Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams are both high-level blocking receivers and offensive tackle Penei Sewell is athletic enough for Detroit to have success on the ground against San Francisco. Yes, left guard Jonah Jackson is doubtful and center Frank Ragnow is banged up (that’s putting it lightly), but the Lions will want to establish the run to open up other aspects of their offense.

Major History At Stake

It’s been well-documented that the Detroit Lions have never won a Super Bowl or even played in the big game, but they could re-write history with a victory on Sunday.

The Lions are currently one of four teams to never reach the biggest stage in football, joining the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, and Jacksonville Jaguars. They’re the only team to exist during the entire Super Bowl era, dating back to 1967, to never play for the Lombardi Trophy. They’ve struggled in the postseason until this year, doubling their playoff win total from the last 67 years in seven days.

They’re finding ways to win, week after week, and breaking every drought in the process. On Sunday, they have a chance to end the biggest, and most important, one yet.

Main Image: Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

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