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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the NFC Championship with Niners Wire

It’s gameday. The Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers face off at 6:30 p.m. ET tonight with the NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Both teams earned their way here with great seasons and impressive playoff wins. The Lions and 49ers haven’t played since the 2021 season, back when Detroit was a much different team and the 49ers had a different feel, too. To help get caught up on the top-seeded 49ers, I asked a few questions of my colleague Kyle Madson of Niners Wire.

He was gracious to shed some light on Brock Purdy, the 49ers defense, what worries him about the game, and a final score prediction.

Brock Purdy had an amazing season. Just how good is he, or is he a product of the Shanahan scheme?

I’m  going to be a bad sports takesman here and ride the fence. It’s a little bit of both. Kyle Shanahan’s system absolutely elevates his QBs. This is an objective fact that has 15ish years of data to back it up. Trying to say otherwise would be foolish.

However, Purdy has elevated that system well beyond where it was when any of Brian Hoyer, CJ Beathard, Nick Mullens or Jimmy Garoppolo were running it.Purdy is an excellent processor who moves well in the pocket, creates outside of structure, and pushes the ball downfield more effectively than any QB Shanahan has had in San Francisco.

So while the system surely inflates some of Purdy’s numbers (9.6 yards per attempt is insane), he does enough on his own to garner more credit than any other 49ers signal caller has under Shanahan.

How much does the experience of being here before matter for the 49ers?

If the Packers game in the divisional round is any indication, it will matter a lot. Green Bay fell apart in the latter stages of that contest while San Francisco just kept chipping away and eventually overcame some dreadful play in the beginning without ever letting the wheels fall all the way off.

More than that though, I think there’s a level of motivation here for San Francisco since their entire core has lost at least one NFC title game in the last two years, and most of this group has lost a pair of them and a Super Bowl in the last four postseasons. They understand their window is rapidly closing and that there’s a very real chance this is their last shot at winning a Super Bowl together.

Desperation can matter a lot in the NFL, and that might be a bigger deal than experience Sunday evening.

If you were coaching against SF, what's one vulnerability you would focus on exploiting?

Their offensive line is not very good. Left tackle Trent Williams is one of the best to ever play the position, but outside of that it’s a flimsy group at best. Left guard Aaron Banks is typically reliable, but allowed five pressures in the divisional round. Right tackle Colton McKivitz has struggled all year — he also allowed five pressures and a sack vs. Green Bay. They’re still figuring out who their best right guard is between Spencer Burford and Jon Feliciano, and center Jake Brendel is a better run blocker than he is a pass protector.

If I’m Lions DC Aaron Glenn, I’m doing everything I can to put pressure on that offensive front. Doing so speeds Purdy up and can force him into getting out over his skis a little bit. Typically Purdy is good at playing within himself, but when the pressure heats up, he’s liable to make a couple of disastrous throws that can swing games. The 49ers’ offensive line is susceptible to getting its QB hit, and Glenn should be dialing up every blitz and wrinkle he has to take advantage of that mediocre group.

How much did the defense change with DeMeco Ryans departure?

Not a whole lot, but that was by design. The 49ers had statistically the best defense in the NFL last season and they’ve had one of the best groups over the last five years. New DC Steve Wilks didn’t need to do much tinkering given how talented San Francisco is on that side of the ball. Wilks blitzes a little more often than Ryans did, but beyond that the defense is largely the same.

One of the big changes has honestly been the development of the 49ers’ defensive backs. That position is Wilks’ specialty, and all three of their starting CBs — Charvarius Ward, Ambry Thomas, and Deommodore Lenoir — have put together their best seasons as pros.

What scares you the most about the Lions?

In this order: Aidan Hutchinson, Jahmyr Gibbs, Dan Cambell, Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Hutchinson is going to destroy McKivitz. TJ Watt posted three sacks and a forced fumble vs. the 49ers in Week 1 thanks to his matchup with the first-time starter at right tackle. I’m expecting the same type of outing from Hutchinson.

Gibbs is pure electricity and the 49ers’ run defense is susceptible to giving up big plays. They’re not particularly good at stopping the run on the defensive line, and they miss enough tackles that Gibbs could easily turn a couple of short runs into long TDs. San Francisco is also terrible at defending screen passes which could also result in game-changing plays for Gibbs.

Campbell is scary because of his unpredictability. Teams have to prepare for everything when they face this Lions club. Fake punts. Fourth-down plays. Two-point conversions from 10 yards out. Cannibalism. It’s just a lot for an opposing team to try and get its arms around.

St. Brown is in the same boat as Gibbs. Yards after catch are available against San Francisco because they will miss tackles, and there aren’t many players better than St. Brown after the catch. He could have a huge day against a 49ers secondary that can struggle getting pass catchers on the ground.

Who wins and why?

I’m waffling on this big time. The 49ers are 7-point favorites and the odds on the Lions with the points are now +100! That’s insane and leads me to believe Vegas thinks the 49ers are going to win by a lot. I just can’t get there. The Lions are better in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and that matters so much in these types of games.

My biggest hangup with the Lions is Jared Goff. He’s been really not good outdoors this year, and he’s 0-5 in his last five vs. the 49ers. That may or may not wind up mattering on this stage and with this supporting cast, but an ugly Goff performance is the only path I see toward a 49ers blowout.

All of that said, I’m leaning Lions at the moment I’m writing this because of the things I mentioned above. Detroit should be able to generate yards even if Goff doesn’t play particularly well, and the Lions’ defensive line should be able to force Purdy into a game-swinging mistake.

Give me the Lions 24-20.

Story originally appeared on Lions Wire