It was the dream start. But there was no fairytale ending for the Lions.
In fact, it was closer to a nightmare as Detroit blew a 17-point lead and a chance to book the franchise a trip to Las Vegas for its first-ever Super Bowl appearance.
Watch every game of the NFL Postseason including the Super Bowl, LIVE on ESPN via Kayo Sports. New to Kayo? Start Your Free Trial Today >
Instead, the San Francisco 49ers ended their NFC Championship Game curse, rallying home in the second half to score 27 unanswered points on their way to a 34-31 win at Levi’s Stadium.
It means the 49ers will now meet the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII, seeing Patrick Mahomes and Brock Purdy face off in an intriguing battle of quarterbacks who have taken very different journeys to this point.
Mahomes will be playing in his fourth Super Bowl in five years and is on a 10-year, $450 million ($A683m) contract while Purdy will be making his first trip, signed to a four year, $3.7 million ($A5.6m) contract after being drafted by San Francisco with the final pick of the 2022 NFL draft.
The 49ers had fallen just short at this stage of the playoffs two years in a row and looked set for the same fate after finding themselves in a 24-7 hole heading into halftime.
But some big plays on the ground from Brock Purdy, who scrambled for 51 yards in the win, proved crucial even as the 49ers quarterback struggled at times with his accuracy.
The Lions, meanwhile, live and die by head coach Dan Campbell’s aggressiveness and on Monday it contributed to their downfall as Detroit failed to convert on two fourth-down plays.
The Lions opened Monday’s game with a perfectly-balanced opening drive as David Montgomery got things started with two runs for 19 yards.
Quarterback Jared Goff then found tight end Sam LaPorta for a 14-yard gain before a brilliant play design saw Lions speedster Jameson Williams race away and beat multiple 49ers defenders on the way to a 42-yard end-around touchdown run.
The touchdown, while a promising start for Detroit, wasn’t going to mean much if the Lions defence couldn’t stop the 49ers from marching up field and answering back.
While San Francisco has a multitude of weapons on offence, Lions coach Dan Campbell had said earlier in the week that stopping the run game, led by Christian McCaffrey, would be key.
“Stop the run. You’ve got to stop the run, because if you don’t they’ll rush for 250 (yards) on you and they won’t even worry about passing. Everything has to start there,” he said.
McCaffrey had six runs on San Francisco’s opening drive of the game and managed 19 yards while chain-moving catches for Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel moved the 49ers into field goal range.
Jake Moody’s 48-yard attempt though was no good, seeing Detroit take over with favourable field position and a chance to push even further ahead.
The Lions went on to do just that, with Montgomery punching it in from close range as he has done all season long, seeing Detroit take a stunning 14-0 lead on the road on the back of dominant play from their offensive line.
Having contained McCaffrey well in the first quarter, a missed tackle by C. J. Gardner-Johnson opened up space for the 49ers running back to rumble 28 yards and into the red zone.
Only two plays later McCaffrey went straight through a gaping hole created by the San Francisco offensive line to rush two yards for a much-needed touchdown.
The 49ers looked to be building some momentum but pressure from the Lions defence, and in particular Joshua Paschal, led to Purdy’s first interception of the game.
Paschal was able to get a hand to the ball as Purdy looked to force it into Samuel, with Malcolm Rodriguez in position to pick the 49ers quarterback off.
It led to points too as a monster block from Sam LaPorta helped open up space for dynamic rookie running back Jamhyr Gibbs, who cut back inside for a 15-yard touchdown.
LaPorta had a big 16-yard gain only mpls inutes earlier after Gibbs lost five yards on the first run of the drive while a sensational adjustment from Amon-Ra St. Brown on a tight throw from Goff put the Lions in the red zone.
St. Brown then stepped up with two big catches for 23 and nine yards on the final drive of the second quarter to put Detroit in position for one final dagger before the half.
The Lions ended up having to settle for a field goal to close it out, with Goff just missing Gibbs for a touchdown on 2nd-and-goal at the San Francisco 16-yard line.
The 49ers opened the third quarter with a warning shot to the Lions’ defence as Purdy found Samuel for a big 26-yard gain on the second play of the game, with the San Francisco receiver picking up another nine yards on the following play.
Just as the offence looked like it was starting to find some rhythm Purdy’s accuracy issues popped up again, completing one of his next three passes.
The one he completed, which went eight yards to Jauan Jennings, was everything you don’t want to see from Purdy — throwing against his body and to the middle of the field.
Jennings though made an incredible grab on the 3rd-and-4 to keep the drive going and eventually the 49ers would kick a 43-yard field goal to reduce the deficit to 24-10.
The Lions had an opportunity to extend the lead back out to 17 points on the next drive but an aggressive Campbell, as he has all season, backed his offence in on a 4th-and-2.
Goff’s pass to Josh Reynolds went incomplete though as the 49ers forced a critical turnover that proved a turning point in the game.
San Francisco went on to make it a one-score game as Aiyuk scored on a six-yard catch after a silky move to separate from the Lions defence.
It was the second big play of the drive from Aiyuk, who had a 51-yard strike in the most unusual of circumstances after it looked like Purdy was going to be picked off by Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor.
Instead, the ball bounced off his hands and into his facemask before sitting up for Aiyuk.
A Gibbs fumble on Detroit’s next drive then gifted San Francisco prime field position and a brilliant 21-yard Purdy scramble set up McCaffrey for his second score of the game.
Suddenly under pressure, the Lions quickly went three-and-out on their next drive as Reynolds came up with another big drop, this time on a 3rd-and-9 after finding himself wide open.
The 49ers, on the other hand, once again quickly worked their way up the field again into scoring position as Burdy found tight end George Kittle for a big 28-yard gain.
But indecision from the San Francisco quarterback led to back-to-back sacks that had the 49ers pushed back nine yards and facing a 3rd-and-19.
It meant San Francisco had to settle for a field goal, which Moody made from 33 yards out to give the home team its first lead of the game.
Detroit almost turned the ball over on the first play of its next drive as Goff targeted Williams, with the ball bobbling out only for the second-year receiver to reel it back in.
Goff went back to Williams on a trick play soon after, shooting it deep for the speedster in the end zone but the ball went through his hands as a touchdown went begging.
Still, the Lions were able to get in field goal range but once again passed up on the opportunity to tie the game as Campbell maintained his aggressive approach to go for it on 4th-and-3.
This time around there was no receiver that even came close to catching the pass from a scrambling Goff as Detroit turned it over once more.
The Lions desperately needed to get a stop and looked to have it on a 3rd-and-4 without any open receivers for Purdy to throw to.
But as he had all night, the 49ers quarterback used his legs to save the day as Purdy scrambled 21 yards to pick up the first down.
A despondent Lions team then gave up a 25-yard run to McCaffrey before second-string running back Elijah Mitchell rushed for a back-breaking touchdown.
If there was any moment that summed up Detroit’s second half it came as the Lions frantically worked the ball down the field, with Goff finding rarely-used tight end Anthony Firkser for what looked to be a quick-fire touchdown.
Firkser though stepped out of bounds just shy of the mark and while Williams eventually scored for his second touchdown of the game it took another 20 seconds off the clock.
Detroit then had to attempt an onside kick but could not recover the ball as its fairytale run came to a crushing end.
Originally published as NFL fairytale turns nightmare as Super Bowl combatants locked in