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The Hot Read, Conference Championship Edition: The Lions Gave Away a Super Bowl Berth

There is nothing noble about Detroit’s loss. Plus: Steve Spagnuolo’s masterful defensive game plan, Brock Purdy’s mobility, the only good Taylor Swift take, awards picks, and more.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL’s conference championships. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next season, when we do it all again.

The Big Thing: A Flat Finish for Detroit

A lot happened this past NFL Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.

There is nothing noble about the Lions’ loss. No fond appreciation for an excellent, well-fought season. No warm feelings about a competitive game. They had the Niners on the ropes and gave the win away.

On third-and-4 at the 49ers’ 30-yard line, up by 14 with 7:46 remaining in the third quarter, the Lions had a 90 percent chance to win the game, according to ESPN’s win probability model. They handed the ball off to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was lined up as a running back, for only a 2-yard gain. It was fourth-and-2.

The Lions ran on third-and-4 because they knew they’d go for a short fourth down in this area of the field. Next Gen Stats had the decision, on fourth-and-2, as a lean to go: 86.8 percent win probability on a go, 85.8 percent win probability on a kick.

So the Lions went. Why not? Their offense dominated for the entire first half, and on this, their first drive of the second half, they were dominating again. You can bemoan the decision all you like—Dan Campbell and the Lions got here because they’re willing to make decisions such as these. You dance with the one who brought you, and it’s the fourth down, the final down, that brought Campbell.

Josh Reynolds dropped the pass.

It wouldn’t have been an easy catch—Jared Goff was throwing off-balance, moved up in the pocket by Nick Bosa, and he threw the ball low and away from Reynolds. But it was a drop, and a backbreaking one. (Reynolds would drop a third-down conversion two drives later, but we won’t even get into that here.)

Two plays later, the 49ers did this.

This is horrible. This is just the worst thing that can happen. Cornerback Kindle Vildor is in a good position. He walls Brandon Aiyuk off from the catch point and elevates for the pick. At best, this is an interception. At absolute worst—ostensibly—it is a dropped interception that falls incomplete. Whatever this is—this face mask ricochet into first-and-goal—is just abhorrent.

But you have to recover. Dumb things happen; welcome to the league. The 49ers have scored 10 quick points to start the third quarter, but this is why you built a lead: You’re still up and in control of the game.

Then Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled on the first play of the next drive.

This was the real swing, right here. This is the moment when the 49ers’ swelling tide became a torrent. The Lions lost 5.5 expected points on this play alone—more than the 3.3 expected points lost on the Vildor-face-mask Aiyuk reception and more than the 3.2 expected points lost on the failed fourth-down conversion.

And more than the 2.6 expected points lost on the next fourth-down conversion attempt: down by three, on the 49ers’ 30-yard line, fourth-and-3 with 7:32 left in the fourth. Here, the numbers aren’t about equal: This is a clear spot to go for it. Next Gen Stats had the Lions with a 32.7 percent chance to win the game when going for it and a 30.2 percent chance to win when kicking the field goal. This was the right decision from Campbell. It is not up for debate. It is not a gray area. The Lions were made more likely to win by his choice—isn’t that the whole objective of being the head coach? It just didn’t work out:

Yet these will be the decisions that are bemoaned on Monday. Analytics will be accused of ruining the game of football that they have instead enhanced. Teams are using data to make offense easier, rapidly increasing the number of quarterbacks who can viably run a passing offense at the highest level. Increased fourth-down attempts create more high-intensity, edge-of-your-seat moments. And, hey: Teams like the Detroit Lions, a literal laughingstock of a franchise that could and would never succeed, make it to the NFC championship game because they’re maximizing their win probability, over and over again.

Folks will say that numbers don’t capture the emotions of a game, and they’re certainly right—but the emotional value of taking points is dramatically overstated at every turn. If the Lions had gone up 17 instead of suffering the Reynolds drop, they would have felt … fine? Probably a little deflated ending the drive with only three points. Sure, they had a 17-point lead—from that point on, the Niners scored 21 unanswered points.

The same is true of the later fourth down. Would they have felt better after tying the game? Sure! Would that positive feeling have emboldened the defense to get the stop that it failed to get in real life? You can claim that if you’d like, but that sounds like retconning and conjecture to me.

Now, there’s plenty that Campbell got wrong in this game. Fourth-and-2 and fourth-and-3 are both potential run downs, and given the success the Lions had on the ground to that point, I would have expected more handoffs. On fourth-and-3, the Lions not only called a pass, but lined up in an empty formation. Do you really want to tell the 49ers pass rush that you are dropping back? I wouldn’t.

Campbell also grossly mismanaged the end of the game, which should be the focus of those looking to blame the Detroit coach for what was, essentially, a series of execution errors and bounces of luck largely out of his control. Running the ball on third-and-goal from the 1, with 1:05 remaining and all three timeouts in hand, was an astonishing error. The consequence of failing to convert—having to burn a timeout and subsequently losing the ability to force a 49ers punt—is legitimately game-losing. The moment David Montgomery was tackled short of the goal line, Campbell guaranteed that the Lions needed an onside kick to win the game.

This just sucks. There’s no valor in it, no “Look at how far they came!” There are lessons to be learned, sure: The drops will remind the Lions to improve at wide receiver; the struggles at cornerback, long a narrative this season, will be addressed as well. Campbell will reevaluate how he goes through his fourth-down process. He isn’t reckless—he kicked a field goal to end the first half when the Next Gen Stats model slightly preferred a fourth-down attempt, showing that he is willing to take a cautious route. Maybe he’ll calibrate to a hostile stadium, a big second-half lead, the many factors highlighted by those who are anti-analytics; maybe he won’t.

Independent of what the Lions take away from the game (Goff played lights out, I thought) and from the season (their young core is incredible), they should be playing again two weeks from now. They tossed away a storybook season with a sloppy and unlucky second half. It was an embarrassing and avoidable loss, and one that will hang over their heads for quite some time.


The Little Things

It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.

1. THE MOBILITY of Brock Purdy

Whenever we talk about Purdy, it’s always the accuracy, the aggressiveness, and the timing: all things he needs to run the 49ers offense and has plenty of. But what saved Purdy and the 49ers offense against Detroit was Purdy on the run.

Purdy had three scrambles in this game. Each picked up at least 10 yards; each picked up a first down. Without question, the biggest came when the 49ers were up by three late in the fourth quarter but outside of field goal range on third-and-4.

By expected points added, this was Purdy’s most valuable game as a scrambler, and you can see that directly here: This scramble put the 49ers into field goal range, ensuring that the Lions would need at least a touchdown on their ensuing drive (San Francisco ended up scoring a touchdown). If the 49ers do with Purdy what they couldn’t do with Jimmy Garoppolo—beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl—Purdy’s legs will be a big reason for their success.

2. IN SPAGS we trust

Another Chiefs playoff game, another Steve Spagnuolo master class. As Chiefs defenders put it, on their T-shirts worn during warm-ups and displayed in postgame victory: In Spags we trust. (Love some good laser eyes.)

That’s not to say the Chiefs defense is always perfect in January—it isn’t. It’s impossible to call as many defensive games in the postseason as Spags has and not give up a few bad ones. The 42-36 thriller against the Bills in 2022 is the worst defensive performance in Spags’s entire stint as Chiefs defensive coordinator.

But Spags tends to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, ratcheting his chaos-oriented, game-plan-heavy defense up to an 11—and this game plan against the Ravens and Lamar Jackson was one of his best. In games that Lamar played this season, this was tied for the Ravens’ worst performance by EPA per drive and was second worst by EPA per dropback. Kansas City blitzed Lamar but actually got him down or forced him into early-scramble drill plays; on the back end, nobody got open for easy receptions.

Spagnuolo has already run the gauntlet of offensive opponents this postseason—the Dolphins, the Bills, and the Ravens—and has the final boss left in just two weeks.

3. LAMAR to Lamar

Too often we say, “Only he could make this play,” but I seriously think only Lamar Jackson is catching his own pass and running for 13 yards here.

4. EXPERIENCE for rookies

The Ravens and the Lions both played mistake-riddled games. The losses sting and will sting doubly when they review the film and see just how many points were left on the field. For the Lions, failed conversions and drops—both on offense and defense—were the culprit. For the Ravens, red zone turnovers and huge penalties wasted a tremendous defensive performance.

A common thread from both losers: the mistakes of their rookies. Ravens wide receiver Zay Flowers ended a game-changing explosive reception with a taunting penalty. That wouldn’t have mattered too much … if he didn’t later dive for the goal line and fumble the football to the Chiefs. Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs, excellent for much of the evening, went the wrong direction on a drive-starting run that ended in the fumble that pulled the Niners back into the game.

Flowers and Gibbs are two of the most talented and dynamic rookies to enter the league this season, and I think both are in for long and fruitful careers—ones that will include, hopefully, several more postseason appearances apiece. Playoff football is a different beast, as they discovered this week: The environment gets bigger, the crowds get wilder, and the other team knows how to punish your mistakes. I think both Flowers and Gibbs will live with their blunders for a while, and it will make better postseason stars out of both of them.


The Zag: Every Single Taylor Swift Take Is Bad (Except Mine)

I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.

I think I’ve made one comment on Taylor Swift in the life of this column, and this will be my second. Somehow, through unspeakable self-control and will, I have managed to talk (mostly) about football in this column about football.

Swift’s attendance at Chiefs games has gone from a novelty and an attraction to a legitimate topic of debate, which I simply do not care for. It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest that she’s attending games—I am apathetic toward her and her music, and it’s not like they’re cutting away from second-and-7 to show her silhouette through the thick glass of a crowded box.

I also acknowledge that many people care deeply about her or are watching the broadcast to see her—and, in that the broadcast does everything it can to retain the viewer’s attention, I totally understand why they show her as many times as they do. She’s an enormous celebrity! It is not surprising at all.

If shots of Swift are ruining your viewing experience, I am sorry about that. I would encourage you to retrieve the magic rectangle from your pocket that can show you whatever you want, at any time, on demand, and look at it instead of Swift. I also would enjoy the broadcast more if it didn’t show something I don’t really care about, but I won’t let it twist me up, and I’d encourage you not to let it, either.

If Swift is the story of the NFL season for you, that’s also fine. If you’re tuning into a game you don’t care for just to see her every so often, that’s wild commitment, and I don’t understand it in the slightest, but I commend you for it. I think the story of this NFL season is this 49ers juggernaut and the indomitable Chiefs and the gut-wrenching Bills and the flopping Eagles and Jordan Love and C.J. Stroud and Bill Belichick and myriad other things. But to each their own.

If you don’t want to hear any more about Swift, that’s fine. I’m with you. Just stop talking about her and feel free to consume the unimaginable gobs of NFL content that don’t really address her (like this column—until just now).

(Mostly Real) Awards

I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.

Most Valuable Player of the Century and Also Forever: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes

What do you want from me, man?

No, he isn’t throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns the way he did when he first dawned on the league. No, the Chiefs didn’t score a touchdown after their first two drives. Everyone knows this Chiefs offense is not as explosive, not as unstoppable as previous iterations.

Here’s something else everyone knows: Mahomes has played in the past six AFC championship games and has won four of them.

Here’s another good one: When gambling markets make Mahomes an underdog, as they did for this Ravens game, he is 9-3. He wins 75 percent of the games that he is expected to lose.

Early lines for the Super Bowl have Mahomes as an underdog again.

The 2020 Award: Chiefs TE Travis Kelce

The Chiefs star had a turn-back-the-clock game: 11 catches on 11 targets for 116 yards and a score. It’s easy to forget, given both his vibe and his prominent older brother, that Travis Kelce is 34 years old. He’s been showing it this year, more than ever before: His explosive play rate is down, his yards per reception are down, his yards after the catch per reception are down, and so on and so forth.

But man, Kelce is still Ol’ Reliable, even if he isn’t Ol’ Reliable and Then Some Extra on Top. That Kelce game was not just the first 100-yard postseason performance for a tight end who is at least 34 years old; it was also only the second time a tight end of such an advanced age caught all of his 10-plus targets in a single game. Kelce may not be capable of doing what he used to do for the Chiefs, but what he’s doing remains revolutionary for the position.

The Savior Award: Kansas City Chiefs CB L’Jarius Sneed

Three plays to highlight for Sneed. The first: stopping a would-be Lamar Jackson touchdown on this fourth-and-1 by surviving the Jackson stiff-arm—something that most tacklers fail to do.

The second: getting in front of Zay Flowers on this bomb, ensuring he can’t score a touchdown. Then surviving multiple Flowers cuts to remain in front of him, creating time for his defense to rally, eventually resulting in a touchdown-saving tackle.

And then last, but certainly not least: the fumble forced on the half-yard line to once again deny Flowers a touchdown.

Sneed has had a contract season for the ages. Against Baltimore, it wasn’t really about the coverage, though he was excellent there. It was about the marriage of elite athleticism and elite effort—about want-to and can-do, paired together in one fired-up player. Nobody has taken more of their opponents’ points off the board this postseason than L’Jarius Sneed.

Next Ben Stats

What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.

Minus-0.063: That’s Lamar Jackson’s career EPA per dropback in the postseason

Since the 2018 season, 30 quarterbacks have taken at least 50 dropbacks in the postseason. Lamar ranks 28th by EPA per dropback, over Skylar Thompson’s one game with the Dolphins, and Joe Flacco’s one game with the Browns.

There’s more:

11.8 percent: That’s Lamar Jackson’s sack rate in the postseason

Over all of his regular-season games, Jackson’s average sack rate is 7.4 percent. But in the postseason, it jumps 4.4 percentage points—a huge shift. We also see a jump in how long he holds on to the football: His career average for time to throw is 2.87 seconds in regular-season games; in six playoff games, it’s 3.10 seconds.

I’ll be interested to watch the tape back, but at first blush, it seemed like Lamar was often trying to do too much against the Chiefs. And over the course of a few playoff games in his career, I think that’s been a recurring issue.

0 percent: That’s how often Deebo Samuel gets tackled on first contact

I am positive that the 49ers do not win this game without Samuel, who was questionable early in the week due to a shoulder injury. He was their engine for much of the second half on quick screens, checkdowns, and even designed runs—and given the way the Chiefs rely on tackling corners, he will be very much the same in the Super Bowl. I love rooting for unique players, and Deebo is one of one.

Early Predictions That I Am 100 Percent Allowed to Change

Chiefs 27, Niners 23

MVP: Isiah Pacheco