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The San Francisco 49ers are poised to secure another Super Bowl victory following Sunday’s game…



The San Francisco 49ers, a team that had not won a playoff game in 30 years prior to this season, now finds themselves standing in the way of another Super Bowl appearance.


The Detroit Lions haven’t won a road playoff game since the time when Mickey Mantle, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown (during his rookie season) were crowned MVPs in their respective leagues. It was also the year when Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” topped the charts as the best-selling single.


In the NFC Championship, we have two teams with completely different styles. Despite his age, the head coach of the Niners is known for his conservative decision-making. This approach extends to his defense, which also exhibits a cautious and calculated aggressiveness.


On the other hand, the Lions’ head coach is the complete opposite. He embraces risk-taking strategies such as two-point conversions, fourth down attempts, and fake punts. When it comes to defense, expect relentless blitzes from all directions. Given the circumstances, Dan Campbell’s aggression may be amplified ten-fold this weekend.


The perception of these teams has undergone a significant shift in the past two weeks. If you were aware that the 49ers were only favored by a touchdown against a team that had previously lost to Justin Fields, struggled against Nick Mullens twice, and had difficulties against a subpar Dallas Cowboys team in December, you would undoubtedly be compelled to stop in the middle of traffic to place a bet on the Niners.


During the Divisional playoff round, the San Francisco 49ers made a multitude of errors on both offense and defense, causing many analysts to question their status as the number one seed in the NFC.


Brock Purdy performed admirably when the 49ers needed him the most, but it wasn’t solely his responsibility. The entire offense contributed to their struggles. Purdy’s performance, along with penalties, missed tackles, and poor special teams play, all played a part in their downfall. Additionally, there were five instances where a Niners’ defender slipped, resulting in either a first down or a touchdown for the Green Bay Packers.


Will the 49ers find themselves in another football game at home, facing clean conditions, where they commit a series of comedic errors for three-quarters of the game? Especially against an immobile quarterback playing behind an injury-riddled offensive line, with a vulnerable defense on the other side?


We already know the answer, but let’s delve deeper and uncover the reasons behind it.


The Packers had five opportunities in the red zone last week, but only managed to score two touchdowns. However, upon reviewing each of those drives, it becomes evident that players such as Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Javon Hargrave, Charvarius Ward, and Arik Armstead were all making impactful plays.


The 49ers’ ability to limit Green Bay to only three points on consecutive drives did not appear to be a stroke of luck. However, the same cannot be said for Detroit’s defense, as they have been exceptionally fortunate. In the final two weeks of the regular season, offenses had eight opportunities in the red zone but could only muster a total of nine points.


Scoring just a little over a point per possession would make even the formidable 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears blush.


Furthermore, there were a couple of instances where the opponent failed to score while in Detroit’s territory. For instance, Nick Mullens threw a two-yard pass on 4th & 2 from the Lions’ 31-yard line, and there was an interception on Detroit’s 26-yard line in Week 18.


In addition to these occurrences, there were other examples outside of the red zone. For instance, the Cowboys fumbled on the 1-yard line, and Dak Prescott threw an interception on the Lions’ 32-yard line. The Cowboys also failed to reach the red zone despite starting a drive on Detroit’s 29-yard line.


Now, let’s shift our focus to the playoffs, where Detroit’s chances of winning never exceeded 60 percent until there were only four minutes left in the game against the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round. Matthew Stafford led scoring drives on every possession in the first half. If not for a fade pass to Cooper Kupp in the end zone on 3rd & goal, they would have likely scored a touchdown on the opening drive.


Two drives in the second half that took place inside Detroit’s 15-yard line resulted in a total of six points. Sean McVay’s final opportunity came with just over four minutes left on 3rd & 4, but due to a holding penalty, it became 3rd & 14, forcing the Rams to punt the ball away and never regain possession.


So, does this mean the Lions won and we should celebrate? Well, Stafford actually outgained the Lions with 425 yards compared to their 334 yards, had a higher average yards per play by 1.6, and didn’t commit any turnovers. However, the Lions managed to convert all three of their red zone trips into touchdowns, while the Rams went 0-3 in that regard.


In the previous week’s game, on the fifth play, a pass intended for Mike Evans was deflected into the air and caught by a Lions’ defender. Tampa Bay moved the ball on the subsequent drive, but Baker failed to recognize a blitz and was sacked, resulting in the Bucs settling for a field goal. Later on, they missed another field goal on a different drive.


Despite these events, the score was still tied at ten at halftime.


Sacks played a crucial role in the second half, as those were the only drives where Tampa Bay failed to score, except for the interception on their final drive. However, it’s worth noting that Tampa Bay managed to have two touchdown drives in the second half, both covering a distance of 75 yards.


If you didn’t watch the game, you would assume that the Lions won convincingly. However, once again, they were outgained by their opponents. Tampa Bay had an average of 1.3 more yards per play, performed perfectly in the red zone, but also suffered from four sacks, five penalties, and two turnovers.


The San Francisco 49ers have been dominant in the red zone, scoring touchdowns at a higher percentage than any other team in the NFL. Their success rate is an impressive 67.6 percent, which increases to 69.7 percent when playing at home. Additionally, the 49ers have been one of the least penalized teams in the league and have a strong turnover margin. They have shown that they do not make mistakes and beat themselves, which makes their performance in last week’s game confusing.


In contrast, the Detroit Lions have been fortunate in recent games, with things going their way. However, the 49ers are a disciplined team and will not allow Jared Goff to get away with a dropped interception in the end zone. They have also made adjustments to their defense, with a backup lineman now in the middle, making it difficult for Detroit’s third-string running back to score on 4th & 1. Furthermore, there was a missed pass interference call on Tampa’s two-point conversion that favored the Lions.


In sports, there is a theory called the zig-zag theory, which suggests that luck can change from one team to another. The Lions have been lucky for a while, while the 49ers had a close call against the Packers but still managed to come out on top. One team has a large margin for error and still wins, while the other has relied heavily on luck and may have exhausted their good fortune.


Looking at the matchup, the Lions have made changes to their offensive line due to injuries. Left guard Jonah Jackson had a solid performance before getting injured, and he was replaced by an undrafted free agent from Buffalo, Kayode Awosikia. The difference in pedigree between players from Ohio State and Buffalo is significant, and Awosikia struggled in pass-blocking, allowing the most pressures on the team. Additionally, center Frank Ragnow is dealing with ankle and knee injuries.


Overall, the 49ers have been a strong and disciplined team, while the Lions have relied on luck. The matchup between the two teams will be interesting, especially considering the changes in the Lions’ offensive line.


Ragnow has proven his toughness by playing through a fractured throat injury in the past. However, it is reasonable to expect that he will not be at his peak performance level, likely closer to 75 percent rather than 95 percent. This will undoubtedly affect his mobility and agility, forcing the Lions to provide additional support to the interior.


In the previous game, there were instances where the left guard was cleanly beaten or where Goff had to rely on his legs to evade pressure. These plays serve as examples of the challenges faced by the Lions.


Even when Ragnow was healthy, he allowed a career-high pressure rate. I intentionally included a clip where the running back allowed a sack, as this has become a common occurrence for the Lions. Their running backs have the second-highest pressure rate this season, at 17.6 percent. The defensive line’s movements and post-snap strategies are designed to confuse the Lions and potentially create matchups where Dre Greenlaw or Fred Warner can face a running back one-on-one.


During the previous offseason, the 49ers prioritized generating interior pressure. Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave formed a formidable duo throughout the year. Despite missing a significant portion of the season, Armstead ranked second on the team in terms of pressure, trailing only Nick Bosa.


Kyle Shanahan expressed his belief that Armstead will perform even better in the upcoming week. It is expected that Armstead will be in better physical condition and have more confidence after playing a game. Throughout the season, he consistently demonstrated his strength and impact on the field. Among all defensive tackles, Arik had the seventh-best winning percentage, while Hargrave ranked 14th.


According to Next Gen Stats, Hargrave excelled in generating quick pressures, with a tie for the fourth-most among all defensive tackles this season. Furthermore, an impressive 92 percent of his snaps were against the left guard during the regular season.


When Hargrave is on the field, the 49ers achieved a 44.4 percent pressure rate this season. Similarly, when Armstead is on the field, the team successfully pressured the quarterback 48 percent of the time. Despite facing a high double-team rate of 46.2, Arik has maintained his highest pressure rate since 2019.


These statistics highlight the value of Armstead. With him on the field, the Niners’ defense has a -0.14 EPA (Expected Points Added) per play. However, when he is not on the field, this number increases to 0.02. This significant difference showcases the impact Armstead has on the team, elevating their defense from slightly above league average to an elite level.


The upcoming matchup against the Lions presents an opportunity for the 49ers to dominate with their exceptional defensive tackles. This is precisely why they invest in players like Armstead and Hargrave. Additionally, history has shown that Armstead performs exceptionally well in the playoffs.


The responsibility lies with the defense to contain Jahymr Gibbs and counter their wide zone plays. Shanahan addressed the team’s struggles in stopping the run last week, expressing concern over the number of explosive plays and the opponents consistently getting outside. This upcoming week poses a significant challenge as the Lions are known for their commitment to the running game, regardless of the players on the field. Their offensive approach closely resembles ours, making it a formidable task for our defense.


To counter the Lions’ offensive strategy, there will be a strong emphasis on keeping them contained between the tackles. It will be crucial to disrupt Goff’s rhythm by applying pressure. Goff has shown accuracy and decisiveness when not under pressure, but his performance drops significantly when faced with pressure, ranking 20th in passer rating when pressured compared to his seventh-place ranking without pressure. Additionally, Goff tends to struggle when pressured up the middle.


Brock is expected to bounce back from his previous performance. The Lions invested a first-round pick in a linebacker who struggles in coverage. Jack Campbell has allowed the second-most yards per target in the NFL this season and has not been able to force tight window targets, according to Next Gen Stats.


The Niners pose a formidable challenge for any defense, especially when weak down the middle. Linebackers Roquan Smith and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah were sorely missed due to their athleticism, which caused significant problems for the Niners. However, the same cannot be said for Campbell.


Unfortunately, Detroit’s defense struggled this year, allowing the most yards and yards per attempt on passes between the numbers. Their slot cornerback, Cameron Sutton, particularly struggled, allowing the fifth-most yards as the nearest defender. His zone coverage success rate was also subpar at 42.3 percent.


This week, all eyes will be on these two players under scrutiny. The responsibility to execute falls on the quarterbacks’ shoulders.


The Lions will heavily focus on stopping the run and will rely on Purdy to carry the weight of the game. Throughout the regular season, Detroit consistently aligned with more defenders than blockers in the box, showcasing their commitment to stopping the ground game. They were successful in limiting yards over expectation on the ground, ranking second-lowest in the NFL. Their ability to stop the run is a key strength.


However, it’s important to consider the quality of offenses Detroit has faced. Since Week 10, they have only played two teams within the top 10 of rushing DVOA, while facing more teams in the bottom five. This skews the numbers and highlights the need for caution. In contrast, the 49ers rank second in rushing DVOA.


Purdy must be aware of the positioning of two specific players before each play: Aidan Hutchinson and Brian Branch. Their presence on the field should not be overlooked.


Hutchinson is a game changer. He excels at rushing against the right tackle with a pressure rate of 16.2, compared to 11.0 for others. His quick get-off sets him apart, and he has the most games with 5+ pressures in the NFL, surpassing Nick Bosa by four.


However, I would argue that Branch poses an even greater threat.


In man coverage this season, Branch allowed an impressive league-low of 4.5 yards per target, the best in the NFL. Last week, he showcased his skills with five run stops and an unblocked sack. Against the Rams, Branch had three run stops and even batted a pass while blitzing.


Looking at the Lions’ defense as a whole, they heavily relied on man coverage in the second half, ranking fifth in the league. Unfortunately, they allowed the fourth-most yards per attempt, the highest air yards per attempt (11.3), and an astonishing +37.9 EPA allowed. This EPA allowed is more than double that of any other defense.


Shanahan will strategically utilize 21 personnel and keep Kyle Juszczyk on the field. The Lions’ base defense struggled, allowing the third-worst EPA per pass attempt. When facing defenses with four defensive backs, Brandon Aiyuk had an impressive 83 percent success rate, averaging 16.9 yards per target and 4.6 yards per route run. To put it into perspective, Tyreek Hill led the NFL with 3.72 yards per route run.


Given the circumstances, Shanahan and Purdy should have a field day, as long as abnormal weather conditions don’t affect Brock. Even if the 49ers are without Deebo Samuel, they shouldn’t encounter much resistance against a Lions defense that has relied more on luck than skill.

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