SANTA CLARA — The Lions got to the NFC Championship in part because of their philosophical commitment to being aggressive.
It also helped the 49ers complete a 17-point comeback at Levi’s Stadium to end their storybook season.
The Lions went scoreless for most of the second half, a run that included a pair of turnovers on downs within field goal range. Each helped the 49ers gain and carry momentum in their stunning 34-31 comeback victory to go to the Super Bowl. Lions head coach Dan Campbell said he won’t lose sleep over either.
“It’s easy, hindsight, and I get that,” Campbell said postgame. “But I don’t regret those decisions. It’s hard. Because we didn’t come through. It wasn’t able to work out. But I don’t. I don’t. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get, that’s part of the gig, man. It just didn’t work out.
So often in football, fourth-down decisions get boiled down to pure numbers. Yet in his explanation from the postgame podium, Campbell didn’t mention models or analytics. Campbell’s reputation is as an alpha dog, a former blocking tight end who famously said in his introductory press conference that his Lions need to metaphorically bite their opponents’ kneecaps.
Campbell’s style is to play with aggression. Detroit went for it on fourth down 40 times in the regular season, second only to the Carolina Panthers.
“That’s how they’ve done it most of the year, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they were here,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said postgame. “You win a lot of games making some of those decisions, and then you make some decisions and you lose them.”
Sunday’s matchup presented an interesting philosophical divide between Campbell and Shanahan. The 49ers head coach has historically been conservative in his fourth-down decisions, and that stayed true in the NFC Championship: The 49ers consistently took the points when faced with go-or-kick decisions. Campbell, meanwhile, actually seemed to waver a bit.
There were three key fourth-down decisions Campbell and the Lions had to make. At the end of the first half, they kicked a chip-shot field goal to go up 24-7. In the third quarter, they opted against going up three scores with what would have been a 45-yard kick. Then in the fourth, they could have tied the game at 27 with a 47-yard field goal try, but instead went for it, unsuccessfully.
These are the plays that games, and seasons, hinge on. In the NFC Championship, they went San Francisco’s way. Here’s how they unfolded.
0:07, second quarter: 4th and Goal at SF 3 – DET 21, SF 7
At the moment, it felt like a no-brainer for Detroit — take the points to go into halftime up three scores. But it was also the type of situation where the Lions have taken big swings all season.
The Lions had all the momentum. They’d recorded 11 plays of at least 10 yards compared to one for the 49ers. They’d run all over the Niners defense. They’d scored on a dominant opening drive, then continued to roll.
Initially, the Lions kept their offense on the field, but then quickly brought out the field goal unit for the safe play.
Taking the points may have been uncharacteristic for the Lions. It was also one of the most pivotal plays. According to the 4th Down Decision Bot, a Twitter/X account that assigns analytical projections to fourth down calls, the Lions ceded 4.4 percentage points of win probability by kicking. Still, it’s hard to pass up an almost surefire 24-7 lead.
—> DET (21) @ SF (7) <—
DET has 4th & 3 at the SF 3, Q2 00:07
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 29, 2024
7:03, third quarter: 4th and 2 at SF 28 — DET 24, SF 10
The Lions could have regained a 17-point lead early in the second half, but instead chose to go for it deep in San Francisco territory.
They had the right play call, too. Jared Goff took the shotgun snap and Reynolds quickly broke open on an option route past the line to gain. Goff hit him in the hands with a pass as the receiver leaned to the grass, and the ball clanked away.
“(The coaches) called it because they fully expected us to get it, and so did we,” Reynolds said of the call. “But you know, it comes down to the execution.”
The floodgates opened for the 49ers right afterward. Almost immediately after the ball changed hands, Brandon Aiyuk caught a miracle 51-yard pass from Brock Purdy. Then Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled, Josh Reynolds dropped a crucial third-down pass and the Lions botched a perfect punt. In less than 12 minutes of game time, the Lions had coughed up their big lead.
7:32, fourth quarter: 4th and 3 at SF 30 — DET 24, SF 27
By this play, the Lions had choked away their lead and faced an uphill battle. They went scoreless in the third quarter and were struggling to move the ball.
They went for it, again, when they could have tied the game with a field goal. A kick wouldn’t have been a sure thing, but kickers are paid good money to drill 47-yarders.
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The 4th Down Bot recommended the Lions go for it, and they did. But not because of the numbers.
“I just felt really good about us converting, getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball,” Campbell said. “They were bleeding the clock out — that’s what they do — and I wanted to get the upper hand back.”
The Niners’ pass rush flushed Goff out of the pocket and forcing an incompletion. After the stop, members of San Francisco’s defense flooded into the end zone, egging on a rabid Levi’s Stadium crowd.
The fourth-down missteps were not solely responsible for the 49ers, not the Lions, heading to Super Bowl LVII. They had nothing to do with Purdy out-running Detroit’s linebackers on key scrambles, Gibbs’ fumble, a dropped touchdown pass to Jameson Williams, or Kindle Vildor’s interception that turned into Aiyuk’s circus catch.
Many of those plays, according to The Ringer’s Ben Solak, were even more statistically impactful than the fourth-down results.
So maybe Campbell doesn’t have much to regret after all. Perhaps the aggressive coach’s only second thought is whether he was aggressive enough.