SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Ben Johnson and his Detroit Lions offensive linemen and running backs were having the time of the their lives in the first half of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. Johnson, the offensive coordinator who may soon be a head coach elsewhere, got San Francisco’s defense off balance with motion, and then smashed the 49ers with running plays. The Lions ran for 148 yards in the first half, at 7 yards a pop, to take a 24-7 lead at halftime.
In the back of his mind, Lions coach Dan Campbell knew the 49ers would stand up. He just never imagined that his team would fold and lose 34-31.
“They’re a heavyweight team that’s done it, that’s lived it … with too many good guys, you knew they were going to make a play,” Campbell said. “You have to be able to answer back and we weren’t able to do that. … And that’s very uncharacteristic of us. We’ve always been able to get our momentum back. … We just couldn’t quite get over the hump.”
The Lions gave up 27 straight points, and for some reason, ran the ball only eight times for 34 yards in the second half. There were some costly drops, some questionable decisions by Campbell on fourth down and an inability on defense to stop quarterback Brock Purdy from extending plays with his legs.
But the reason the Lions lost this game was because their offense went from dominant to dormant.
“We felt like we were in a rhythm and we were really rolling,” center Frank Ragnow said. “It’s frustrating. We weren’t able to keep it going.”
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David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs had 106 yards rushing in the first half and 32 in the second half. Amon-Ra St. Brown had 73 yards receiving in the first half, 14 in the second half.
“I don’t know what shifted,” St. Brown said. “A few third downs that we could have converted … we went for it on fourth down a few times. I wish we would have had those. They played well on defense in the second half.”
The 49ers scored the first 10 points of the third quarter, and then the crowd went wild when Gibbs fumbled at the Lions 25-yard line with 5:15 left in the quarter. Gibbs, who had eluded a dozen or so tacklers on his second-quarter touchdown run, would not get a handoff the rest of the game.
San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner said for safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. “to knock the ball loose and to have Arik (Armstead) fall on it, that was everything right there.”
Gipson was one of the defenders who couldn’t grab Gibbs earlier, and he was complimentary of the rookie after the game.
“He is a heck of a player,” Gipson said. “He’s going to have a great career, especially the way that they use him. Tough, dynamic running back … it’s tough to tackle him in open space. Shoutout to those guys, they played a heck of a game.”
After Christian McCaffrey scored to tie the game at 24, the Lions went three-and-out. They then turned the ball over on downs for the second time in the half after the 49ers had taken a 27-24 lead. Both fourth-and-short plays were incomplete passes.
“We definitely had the momentum, but we knew San Francisco’s the type of team that’s not going to go away,” Lions tackle Taylor Decker said. “They are very much a physical and confident team. … We were able to throw a couple of haymakers early but they came right back at us.”
Quarterback Jared Goff, playing in front of family and friends from nearby Marin, said the collapse was easy to explain. And also impossible.
“Momentum changed pretty quickly,” he said. “They scored, we didn’t convert the fourth down, they scored again, we turned the ball over. That little sequence right there makes it tough … and I had plenty of opportunities to still win it there at the end and just came up short.
“I struggle finding the words to totally encapsulate how or why, but I do know I’m proud of this team. … No quarter or half defines us.”
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Decker and his teammates believe the Lions changed the narrative about their team with a great season. The suddenness of the loss is made more painful by the knowledge that some of these teammates won’t be sharing a locker room again.
“Ultimately, only one team is going to go home happy at the end of this season,” Decker said. “It’s just hard to climb up that mountain and to know that it’s probably going to be even harder next year to get back to this point.
“But that’s why you play the game.”
Campbell said the loss felt “like getting your heart ripped out.”
“We weren’t doing back flips like ‘we’ve got this thing won,’” he said about the Lions’ halftime mindset. “They know better. We talked about it. We knew (the 49ers) would make a run in the second half. We talked about it. We knew we would have to weather the storm in the second half. So when they started to make a push, we weren’t surprised.
“We just couldn’t counter back. And we’ve always been able to counter back.”
(Photo of Amon-Ra St. Brown: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)