In the San Francisco 49ers’ locker room on Sunday night, red and gold confetti littered the floor and cigar smoke lingered in the air. The Niners and their jubilant moms, bewildered kiddos, and backslapping buddies filled the space, drinking champagne and tossing footballs and discussing Super Bowl travel plans in the wake of their 34-31 NFC championship game victory over the Detroit Lions.
Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk celebrated with his mother by his locker. Running back Elijah Mitchell noticed his crawling baby examining a discarded piece of popcorn and swooped in daddishly to stop him. Receiver Deebo Samuel danced to, and shouted the lyrics of, the song “soak city (do it)” with his pals. And amid the happy chaos, defensive tackle Arik Armstead sat at his stall, shook his head, and concluded with a tiny smile: “We gotta start playing like ourselves.”
For the second week in a row, the no. 1–seeded Niners wrangled a playoff victory from the jaws of defeat, battling back from a 24-7 halftime deficit against a surging, darling Lions team and earning the right to a Super Bowl rematch against the Kansas City Chiefs. “The guys didn’t want today to be their last day,” head coach Kyle Shanahan explained after the game. And so it wasn’t. Instead, the Niners scrambled and scratched. Instead, the Niners survived.
“They had us in the first half, not gonna lie,” said tight end George Kittle, simultaneously referencing a viral video while also describing the state of play early in the game. It took the Lions, who were playing in their first NFC championship game since 1992, less than two minutes to complete a four-play, 75-yard opening drive that showcased both their comeback kid quarterback Jared Goff and also their talented running back corps. Detroit converted first downs at will. They scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions. Niners QB Brock Purdy threw an interception. The many, many Lions fans in the stadium were loud and giddy—so giddy, in fact, that when San Francisco kicker Jake Moody missed a 48-yard field goal wide right in the first quarter, the cheers were so loud that I mistakenly assumed he’d made it.
The mood at that point in Levi’s Stadium was a far cry from what it had been before the game, when tailgaters blasted Tupac and hoisted all kinds of Niners flags, many of them proudly tattered by time and use. (One man I chatted with said that his family had been tailgating not only since the old Candlestick days, but even before that, when the Niners played in Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park.) Former San Francisco Giant Hunter Pence, clad in a Kittle jersey, roamed the pregame sidelines. So did Jerry Rice, wearing a medallion necklace that said: GOAT FUEL. After all, this was the third straight year that San Francisco made it to the NFC title game. With great success comes greater expectations.
Detroit fans, meanwhile, were soaking up the moment. Many I spoke with had bought their tickets for the game last Sunday, immediately following Detroit’s 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Some didn’t even wait for that game to end before clicking purchase. After all, when you’re a Lions fan, the conference title game comes around only once, maybe twice every half century.
But on Sunday night, at halftime, as Journey performed “Don’t Stop Believin’” (and changed the lyrics to “born and raised in South Francisco” instead of “South Detroit”), it seemed as if this might just be the Lions’ time. They had a sizable lead, and their offense looked like a force—they just had to keep it going. And for San Francisco, it seemed as though this might be another season that abruptly faded to black.
Then Purdy started hitting Samuel, the Niners started moving up the field, and Moody converted a 43-yard field goal. And then the Lions, whose aggressive play-calling had gotten them this far, were stopped on a fourth-and-2 well within Niners territory instead of settling for a field goal. Aiyuk hauled in a 51-yarder (with the help of a Lions helmet) and later snagged a short throw for a touchdown to bring San Francisco within seven. Detroit fumbled, Purdy scrambled—“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” Shanahan would later say of his quarterback’s wheels—and a few plays later, Christian McCaffrey was blazing a trail straight into the end zone, as he is wont to do.
By the end of the third quarter, San Francisco had tied the game 24-24, and now it was the Lions who looked lost. The Niners took advantage, adding a field goal from Moody and a touchdown run from Mitchell in the fourth and hanging on defensively to eke out the win and head back to the Super Bowl. It was the biggest comeback in an NFC championship game since the 2012 season, when the Niners came back against the Falcons.
Last year, San Francisco’s postseason ended oddly, with both Purdy and his backup QB getting injured in the NFC title game, the sort of conclusion that doesn’t really answer any questions. This year, the Niners had a goal in mind of earning two home playoff games, which they did—even if it wasn’t always pretty. “Everybody thought the sky was falling when we lost three in a row,” Armstead said on Friday, referring to the team’s rough stretch back in October. And, he added, “we got beat on Christmas Day in front of the world.” But neither of those situations derailed them. Nor did any of the discourse surrounding Purdy in the wake of a shaky, rain-soaked victory over the Packers in the divisional round. “He takes a lot of heat for absolutely no reason,” McCaffrey said of his quarterback following Sunday night’s game. “He competed his ass off today” was Shanahan’s assessment.
“Obviously we’ve got one more,” Purdy said after the win. “The job’s not finished.” The Niners will have their work cut out for them against the defending champion Chiefs, who seemed to really coalesce against the Ravens on Sunday. At the same time, though, San Francisco has gotten to the Super Bowl without totally hitting its stride. All that’s left for them to do is to play like themselves.