The 34-31 loss to San Francisco by the Lions in the NFC title game was very avoidable. Like, you all didn’t already know that? Pretty stupid of me to open this piece with that statement, but I feel so bad about it, that stupid is what describes my entire attitude while watching the second half. I was stupefied. It was unbelievable that the Lions, who dominated the first half so completely, could somehow let it slip away. I feel terrible for the coaches, players, owners, and staff. They are all in on this, and they all are feeling it.
There is a simple post mortem too. In big games like this you have to execute and guard against mistakes in the most intense way possible. What happened in the second half. A turnover, a couple dropped passes, a freak play goes against you, a missed tackle here and there, and the next thing you know, the tsunami is tumbling you toward the rocks. Some wounds self-inflicted, some from fate and luck, but in the end, it turned into defeat. The most disappointing of defeats.
The game has been analyzed by now so much it’s hard to see the forest from the trees. So, from me, you are going to get two things about the game that I thought were vital.
First, the thing I don’t think anybody saw coming, was Brock Purdy beating Detroit with his legs. The most distressing thing that happened to the Lions defense was Purdy getting first downs on his scrambles. In my mind more than anything, his ad libs kept the Lions defense off stride in the second half. Purdy’s ability to extend plays, complete passes from bad spots, kept the Lions defense off balance. And, it gave the 49ers offense confidence–a very bad two-for-one if you are the Lions. If you want one thing the 49ers did that the Lions didn’t have an answer for, Purdy’s scrambles were that thing.
The other point I want to address is the 4th down calls by coach Campbell. First of all, I want to make it clear, this is not a criticism. I watched this guy all year get very aggressive on his 4th down, and most times I applauded him. At one point, earlier this season, I think I even wrote that if it backfires, don’t go all crazy, because if you love it when it works, you have to understand the dangers if it doesn’t. Dan Campbell is being second guessed on these a lot, and he even admitted he knew it was coming in his post game remarks Sunday night. I appreciate his honesty, and I love him as the leader of this franchise.
The pundits, or Monday morning quarterbacks, are saying that this was what Campbell did all year. It’s what you get with Dan Campbell as your coach. To a degree that is true, but, in the San Francisco game, right before the half, he had a 4th and goal from the 49ers three yard line and chose to kick the field goal for a 17 point lead. If he was following his pattern he would have gone for it, right? Well he didn’t. He instead in his mind made a decision to kick the fiield goal and get to half time with a three score, 17 point lead. I was totally on his side for that one.
That decision alone shows it’s not just an automatic for Campbell. That’s why the 2nd half 4th down decisions surprised me. On one of those 4th downs a field goal would have pushed the Lions lead from 14 to 17 like it did right before half time. Instead the Lions didn’t make it. The 49ers momentum and impending tsunami gained strength.
Look maybe there wasn’t a lot of faith in the kicker that played a part. I don’t really know all that stuff, but if you are good enough to be a kicker on a roster in the NFL, you should be good enough for a coach to get you out there for an under 50 yard kick. It’s all history now. Whatever the reason, the final still reads, San Francisco 34, Lions 31.
Here’s the final take on this 4th down and kicking thing. The 49ers and the Lions each had three opportunities where they were forced to kick field goals. Kyle Shanahan admitted his opening drive of the 3rd quarter he needed to score, and he wanted a touchdown, but the offense stalled and he called on his kicker to make one. And his kicker, Jake Moody, who had missed one earlier in the game, came in and made it. Moody made another one later. So, the Niners were 2 of 3. The Lions made one of their field goals, but the other two opportunities turned into 4th down stops. The difference is three points…the difference in the final score was three points.