SANTA CLARA — Red, white, and gold confetti shot into the Levi’s Stadium air at 6:43 p.m. on Jan. 19, 2020. The top-seeded 49ers were Super Bowl-bound, by virtue of an offensive onslaught over the Green Bay Packers for the NFC crown.
That same celebration could repeat after sundown Sunday. It should repeat. Otherwise, the 49ers will have lost a third straight NFC Championship Game, while the Detroit Lions head to their first-ever Super Bowl.
The 2021 49ers blew their shot, as well as a 10-point lead in the season’s final quarter against the Los Angeles Rams. That ruined their Super Bowl Revenge Tour, which had been delayed a year because of a 2020 season marred by COVID protocol and player injuries. Speaking of injuries, last year’s NFC title game went off the rails once Brock Purdy’s elbow ligament got torn on his sixth play in Philadelphia.
“Obviously I got hurt last year and it sucked that was part of the game,” Purdy said Wednesday. “Going into this game, I’m healthy and feeling good. We’re obviously hungry and want to get to the next game after. We have to handle business first.”
Speaking of handles, here is what our pigskin prognosticators are picking for Sunday’s conference title twin bill:
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens, noon PT
Cam Inman: It’s simply poetic that the only two franchises to beat the 49ers in a Super Bowl — in the Niners’ last two appearances — will battle it out for a shot to play the Niners (oops, I spoiled my NFC prediction) for the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas. Reigning champion Patrick Mahomes is the better quarterback. The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson is the better all-around football player and likely NFL MVP, again. Do we roll with the Ravens’ season-long dominance and the Harbaugh family’s championship mojo (see: Jim, Michigan, natty)? Do we go with Andy Reid’s offensive ingenuity and the Chiefs’ overlooked but super-stingy defense? Score: Chiefs 28, Ravens 27
Jerry McDonald: The Chiefs haven’t looked like themselves all season, then out of the blue seemed to find themselves in the divisional round against Buffalo. The one consistent thing about Kansas City all season has been its defense. But Jackson is unlike anybody else and at the top of his game. And as good as the Chiefs are on defense, Baltimore is better. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen, cornerback Marlon Humphries and safety Kyle Hamilton are all difference-makers that can make life difficult for Patrick Mahomes. Ravens 24, Chiefs 16
Dieter Kurtenbach: You’re not getting me to bet against Patrick Mahomes this week, either. The Chiefs quarterback has lost three playoff games ever — one in overtime and two to Tom Brady. Jackson is certainly worthy of being No. 4, but Kansas City’s sound defense will dare him to throw. This game should be a strict spin-it contest. Give me No. 15. Chiefs 24, Ravens 22
Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers, 3:30 p.m. PT
Inman: George Kittle’s fury after last season’s NFC Championship Game still echoes: “How does it feel to lose in an NFC championship game because I don’t have a quarterback? Pretty (expletive) to be honest. Yeah, that’s about it.” Well, the 49ers have got a Pro Bowl quarterback in a record-setting Purdy, and a tremendous supporting cast that is healthy and hungry. Do they have a championship-caliber defense? I asked cornerback Charvarius Ward before his sixth straight conference finals, and he responded: “What do you think? We didn’t play our best last week. But what makes us a championship defense is we have great talent, great coaches, and a great scheme. We love each other, play hard for each other, and all want to see each other succeed. We don’t care if Bosa gets the game-winning sack or Greenlaw gets the game-winning pick or I get it. We don’t care who makes the game-winning play. We just want to make it.” 49ers 30, Lions 20
Lions defenders must be aware of 49ers WR Jennings at all times
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Kurtenbach: Conservative Kyle Shanahan still tightens up in big games. Lions coach Dan Campbell lets it rip. That difference could prove massive in the NFC Championship Game
McDonald: Did the 49ers peak against the Eagles on Dec. 3 in the “Revenge for Brock’s Elbow” game in Philadelphia? They’ve scored 30 points or more only one time since, and that was 45-29 against Arizona. A game in which they gave up 234 yards rushing. That’s the thing about being a star-laden team. Either approach perfection or every armchair analyst with All-22 game video becomes an expert on forecasting how the 49ers are headed for an ugly crash and burn. Purdy spent all season getting bashed because he has never won from behind, and then when he finally did, he got crushed for falling behind. Detroit is very good and a seven-point spread seems like too much, but the 49ers are healthy, at home and headed for a Ravens rematch. 49ers 31, Lions 27
Dieter Kurtenbach: it’s going to be a perfect California day for bad-bad-weather quarterback Brock Purdy. He will be the third straight playoff QB to tear up the Lions’ weak pass defense. Expect a big game from Brandon Aiyuk, too. The Lions will get theirs — they have too much offensive firepower — but any pressure of Goff renders their attack moot. The Niners get enough to turn him over multiple times. 49ers 34, Lions 22