6:30 PM EST, FOX – Line: 49ers -7.5, Over/Under: 51.5
With one ticket for Super Bowl LVIII booked, it is time for the other to be formally punched, as the mighty San Francisco 49ers look to finally kick in the door after reaching this stage in each of the previous two seasons, while the revitalized Detroit Lions are simply looking to make it to the NFL’s final stage for the first time in franchise history. Has there been a better story in the NFL this season than that of the Lions (12-5, 1st in NFC North), who claimed their first division crown since 1991? Simply put, the resurrection of this long-starved franchise should serve as the blueprint for any team looking to pull themselves out of the doldrums, for their progress through these three years under the direction of (Head Coach) Dan Campbell and (General Manager) Brad Holmes has been undeniable. In their first campaign together, they went winless in their first eleven attempts en route to a fourth consecutive last-place finish. Year number two also started slowly, with five losses in their first six contests, though they would flip the proverbial script the rest of the way, with EIGHT victories in their final ten tilts, narrowly missing the playoffs as a result. The fact that Campbell had his charges playing so hard in a meaningless season finale at Lambeau Field which saw them eliminate Green Bay from playoff qualification was very telling, leaving many pundits proclaiming that this Pride was indeed ready for the big time in 2023. And it is with that said, that all of their hard work has paid off this season, as the Lions have won twelve games for the first time since 1991, which is coincidentally the last time that they won the NFC North and hosted a postseason affair. So, what is there to like about Detroit, you ask? As it turns out, A LOT. First and foremost, Campbell has found himself on the shortlist for Coach of the Year honors, even drawing interest from (his alma mater) Texas A&M in their search for a Head Coach. Furthermore, his two chief lieutenants, (Offensive Coordinator) Ben Johnson and (Defensive Coordinator) Aaron Glenn are two of the hottest names in the NFL’s current hiring cycle, with the former cultivating an attack that is arguably the most balanced in the league, ranking fifth in points scored (27.1), third in total offense (406.8), second in passing yards (270.9) and fifth in rushing yards (135.9). Campbell and Holmes have also done a tremendous job of drafting and developing talent, with a plethora of young players showing up in a big way this year, some even turning into stars. (Former Bears Tailback) David Montgomery and (Rookie RB) Jahmyr Gibbs came just fifty-five yards short of fielding TWO 1,000-yard rushers, with the latter emerging as a factor in the passing game too, with fifty-two receptions for 311 yards and a score, while (Rookie Tight End) Sam LaPorta set an NFL record with TEN receiving touchdowns in his first season as a professional. Furthermore, Sophomore Defensive End) Aidan Hutchinson is headed to the Pro-Bowl with 11.5 sacks, thirty-three QB hits, sixty-two pressures, while (young Safeties) Kerby Joseph and Brian Branch logged a combined seven interceptions, twenty-four defended passes, and a touchdown. Oh, and (third-year Receiver) Amon-Ra St. Brown posted career-highs in catches (119), receiving yards (1,515), and touchdowns (10). And then there is (veteran Quarterback) Jared Goff, who has served as the poster boy for this rebuild. Two years ago, Goff (pictured below) was run out of Los Angeles in spectacular fashion, with the club that traded up to select him number one overall in 2015, packaging him along with TWO first-round picks in a deal with Detroit. If that wasn’t bad enough, while he struggled in his new surroundings, he had to watch his former employers go on to win the Super Bowl that same year. Fastforward to the present and the 29-year-old has successfully rebuilt his once-promising career, completing 67.3% of his throws for an average of 269.1 yards on 6.89 net yards per attempt, with thirty touchdowns in comparison to twelve interceptions, equating to a QBR of 59.8. He has continued this stellar play into the playoffs, with the most recent example being last weekend’s 31-23 victory over the Buccaneers, in which the hosts managed to eventually pull away in the fourth quarter. With the score tied at 17-17, the Lions struck quickly in traveling seventy-five yards in just five plays, a drive punctuated by a 31-yard touchdown run from Gibbs. Then, after forcing a three-and-out, they opted for a different approach in engineering a 10-play, 89-yard drive that bled nearly six minutes off the clock, culminating with a short touchdown pass from Goff to St. Brown. Tampa would strike back with a touchdown to make the crowd at Ford Field sweat, but an interception of Baker Mayfield courtesy of (young Linebacker) Derrick Barnes ended any threat of overtime. When it was all said and done, Campbell’s troops were outgained 391-408, though managed to overcome that by forcing a pair of turnovers, both of which were interceptions of Mayfield, while remaining balanced against one of the better run defenses in the league, churning out 114 yards and a pair of scores on twenty-six carries. Goff completed 30-of-43 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns, while Gibbs amassed 114 yards from scrimmage on thirteen touches. St. Brown was targeted fourteen times for eight catches, seventy-seven yards and that score, while LaPorta added sixty-five yards on nine receptions. Glenn’s unit got after Mayfield, logging four sacks, eight hits, and thirteen pressures, with Barnes and (veteran Safety) C.J. Garnder-Johnson accounting for the two interceptions.
From a betting perspective, the Lions have been one of the most profitable teams in the NFL this season, owning a 14-5 record straight-up and a 13-6 mark against the spread, meaning that there has been a plethora of happy bettors in the city of Detroit and beyond for quite some time now. To give you an idea as to how much the tide has turned in favor of Campbell & Co, this is a team that has been favored in FIFTEEN games this season (11-4 ATS), which is the most respect that the oddsmakers have shown them in, well, it really has been quite a while. With that being said, they are NOT favorites this evening, far from it to be exact, which shouldn’t dissuade the public by any means, for this is a team that have covered FIVE consecutive games as an underdog of 3.5-10.0 points, which is the case in this matchup. Looking at this particular affair, the Lions have won just once in the last ten meetings between these two franchises dating back to the turn of the century, with that lone victory coming back in 2015, which was a lifetime ago in a sporting sense. In their most recent encounter, a 33-44 defeat in the 2021 season opener, the Campbell era started slowly as his troops found themselves trailing 10-38 midway through the third quarter after shipping twenty-seven unanswered points between the first and second halves. In his first start for the Lions, Goff would eventually settle down, hitting (former Tailback) D’Andre Swift for a 43-yard touchdown, while a pair of consolation scores from (former Tailback) Jamaal Williams and (former Wideout) Quintez Cephus made the final score look a bit more respectable than it really was. In the end, both sides rung up over 400 yards of total offense, with the hosts posting 430 yards on thirty-one first downs, including 338 on the right arm of Goff, who completed 38-of-57 passes, with three touchdowns and an interception that was returned for a score. Of the playmakers that are still plying their trade in Detroit, St. Brown logged two receptions for twenty-three yards, while (fellow Receiver) Kalif Raymond added three catches for fifty yards. That defeat served as a fascinating starting point for what has become one of the greatest resurrections in NFL history, not just for the Lions, who would go on to lose their first eleven games under Campbell, but for Goff, who was at the lowest point of his career after being traded to the Motor City. Speaking of the QB, he is continuing to build his postseason CV, owning a 4-3 record with a completion percentage of 61.8%, 233.0 yards per game on 6.08 net yards per attempt, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Having played the first five years of his career within the NFC West, he is rather familiar with the Niners, who he is 3-6 against in nine meetings, completing 61.0% of his throws for 213.1 yards on 6.13 net yards per attempt, with seventeen touchdowns, his most against any single opponent, in comparison to seven interceptions. On the injury front, the Lions did not emerge from last weekend’s triumph over the Bucs unscathed, with (Left Guard) Jonah Jackson and the aforementioned Raymond both out of action this evening with respective knee maladies. (Three-time Pro-Bowl Center) Frank Ragnow suffered knee and foot injuries in that same tilt, though is expected to start in this trip to Santa Clara. Looking ahead, a win this evening would propel Detroit to uncharted territory, for they are one of only FOUR franchises in the NFL that have never participated in a Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the 49ers (12-5, 1st in NFC West) may be the overwhelming favorite to advance to Super Bowl LVIII, but they dodged a MAJOR bullet in last weekend’s narrow escape of the Packers in their 24-21 Divisional Round affair. In a rainy night at Levi’s Stadium, San Francisco struggled mightily to find their rhythm against an upstart side that opened the eyes of many with their demolition of Dallas a week earlier. For about three quarters, it appeared that the Niners would share that same fate, falling behind 14-21 midway through the third quarter. After a quick three-and-out, (Head Coach) Kyle Shanahan saw his troops turn the tide when Jordan Love was intercepted at midfield by (veteran Linebacker) Dre Greenlaw, eventually setting up (Rookie Kicker) Jake Moody for a 52-yard field goal to cut the deficit to four points. The two sides would trade punts before the hosts finally put together a 12-play, 69-yard drive, culminating in a 6-yard touchdown run by (All-Pro Tailback) Christian McCaffrey to take the lead with just over a minute left to play. Green Bay would attempt to mount one final offensive, though Love would once again be intercepted by Greenlaw, who jumped a route as the young Quarterback attempted to hurl the football back across his body to midfield. When it was all said and done, it was far from a clean performance from the 49ers, who amassed 356 total yards on just nineteen first downs, rushing for 111 yards and two scores on twenty-four carries, while (Sophomore QB) Brock Purdy had a hard time at the office in the rain, completing just 23-of-39 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown. McCaffrey would finish with 128 yards from scrimmage and two rushing touchdowns on twenty-four touches, including a 39-yard jaunt to paydirt, while (veteran Tight End) George Kittle hauled in four catches for eighty-one yards and a 32-yard score midway through the second stanza. Defensively, San Francisco had a hard time getting a handle on the visitors’ motion, particularly early, shipping 136 rushing yards on twenty-eight carries and conceding 7-of-13 third downs. Saturday’s victory also marked a first for Shanahan, who enjoyed his first win with the team after trailing by five or more points at any point in the fourth quarter (1-30). Prior to that nail-biting affair, it would be very difficult not to like the Niners’ prospects to advance to Super Bowl LVIII, for coming into this campaign, the common opinion was that there were just three teams that were capable of emerging from the NFC and legitimately challenge for the Lombardi Trophy, with the likes of the Cowboys and Eagles having already been eliminated in spectacular fashion. Simply put, it would be a MAJOR upset if these Niners don’t make it to Las Vegas next week, for apart from a disappointing loss to the Ravens on Christmas Night, this has been the most dominant side in the NFC. On the season, Shanahan’s charges ranked third in both points scored (29.8) and allowed (17.5), second in total offense (409.7) and eighth in total defense (303.9), fourth on third down (47.5%) and first in the red zone (67.2%), all the while operating with a healthy +10 turnover differential. For those concerned over the growth of Purdy (pictured below), the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft has continued to prove his naysayers wrong, completing an efficient 69.4% of his throws for an average of 267.5 yards on 8.74 net yards per attempt, with thirty-one touchdowns in comparison to eleven interceptions en route to a QBR of 72.7, the highest such figure in the league. Indeed, the Pro-Bowler is much more of a distributor than a raw thrower of the football, but that is just fine within Shanahan’s scheme, particularly when you consider the talent that he is surrounded by. In his first full season with the 49ers after being acquired at the trade deadline last year, McCaffrey led the NFL with 1,459 rushing yards on 5.4 yards per carry, while continuing to play a sizable role in the passing game with sixty-seven receptions for another 564 yards and seven scores, bringing his all-purpose totals to 2,023 yards and twenty-one touchdowns, both of which were first among his peers. the 27-year-old is the chess piece that Shanahan utilized in a myriad of ways, oftentimes lining up as a Receiver in an effort to create mismatches with Linebackers, while (fellow Pro-Bowler) Deebo Samuel in turn lines up in the Backfield as the rare Wideout that can carry the football from behind the line of scrimmage. Defensively, San Francisco faced the prospect of replacing their second Defensive Coordinator in three seasons, bringing in Steve Wilks to call the shots in place of DeMeco Ryans, who became the Head Coach of the Texans. Interestingly, Wilks was an import rather than an in-house option, which has its pros and cons, though the 54-year-old eventually became acclimated to a unit that was the league’s finest in 2022. Under his direction, the Niners ranked third in run defense (89.7), fourteenth against the pass (214.2), and fifth in takeaways (28), though they weren’t quite as impressive from a situational sense, yielding a generous 40.9% success rate on third down (24th Overall) and a middling 54.5 red zone percentage (16th Overall). This group still ended up with four Pro-Bowlers, including (All-Pro Linebacker) Fred Warner, who led the team with 132 tackles, along with four interceptions and forced fumbles apiece. (Reigning Defensive Player of the Year) Nick Bosa logged 10.5 sacks and thirty-five QB hits, while (Defensive Tackle) Javon Hargrave made quite the impact after coming over from Philadelphia with seven sacks and and fourteen hits of the passer.
From a betting perspective, the 49ers may come into this showdown in Santa Clara with a stellar 13-5 record straight-up, but they haven’t been nearly as rewarding against the spread, where they have covered just nine of their seventeen games thus far (9-8-1 ATS). As we’ve lamented many times within this column, the reason for this is due to San Francisco being sizeable favorites, laying points all over the place this season. Seriously, this team is the ONLY team this year have been favored in literally every one of the games thus far, with ten of them featuring a spread of at least seven points (5-5 ATS). Why is this significant, you ask? Well, Shanahan’s troops have now failed to cover SIX consecutive home games as a favorite, a streak that was furthered with last weekend’s scare against the Packers, who nearly upset them outright despite being 10.5-point underdogs. Looking at this particular matchup, the Niners have owned the Lions over the past two decades, winning NINE of ten meetings dating back to 2001, though have covered only four of them, including none of the last three encounters. When they last met in that aforementioned 2021 season opener, the 49ers manhandled the Lions in a 41-33 tilt that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would lead you to believe. The two sides would trade scores through the first twenty-four minutes of play, only for the visitors to put their foot on the gas and run off TWENTY-FOUR unanswered points between the second and third quarters thanks in large part to a 39-yard interception return to the house courtesy of the aforementioned Greenlaw and a 79-yard catch and run by Samuel. The hosts would add some consolation scores late in the fourth period, but it would be a case of too little too late as San Francisco kicked off the campaign with a victory. When it was all said and done, the visitors amassed 442 total yards on twenty-one first downs, rushing for 131 yards on twenty-eight carries, while (former Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo completed 17-of-25 passes for 314 yards and a touchdown. (Backup Tailback) Elijah Mitchell rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on nineteen carries, while Samuel erupted for 189 receiving yards and that score on nine receptions. Defensively, the Niners shipped 430 total yards and thirty-one first downs, but sacked Goff three times, hit him on eight occasions, and logged ten pressures. As for Bosa, he recorded a sack, two hits, and three pressures, while Greenlaw’s pick-six shifted the momentum squarely in favor of the visiting side. On the injury front, all eyes will be on Samuel, who was forced to exit last weekend’s narrow escape of the Packers with an injury to the same shoulder that had sidelined him for three weeks during the middle stages of the regular season. Keep in mind that the 49ers lost all three of those games without the productive pass-catcher, who reportedly avoided suffering a second fracture to his shoulder. According to the player and Shanahan, Samuel will be active for this NFC Championship Game. Looking ahead, a win tonight would send San Francisco to their second Super Bowl of the Shanahan era and the eighth in franchise history (5-2 all-time), where they will face either Baltimore or Kansas City, with revenge being the theme in either matchup; the Niners lost to the Ravens in one of the most entertaining Super Bowls ever back in 2013, while suffering their most recent defeat on the grandest of stages to the Chiefs four years ago.