Lions had 'heart ripped out,' but don't regret decisions in NFC finale, coach says

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell opted to go for fourth-down conversions twice in the second half, instead of kicking field goals, allowing the San Francisco 49ers to build a 10-point lead. File Photo by David Tulis/UPI

Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Coach Dan Campbell said the Detroit Lions had their "hearts ripped out," but he doesn't regret controversial fourth-down decisions he made during a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.

Campbell spoke about the crushing loss Sunday night at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The Lions literally ran over the 49ers in the first half, with 148 rushing yards over the first two quarters to propel a 24-7 advantage.

The 49ers smothered that attack in the second half, becoming the first team in NFL history to overcome a halftime deficit of at least 17 points in a conference title game.

"It's hard when you lose that way," Campbell told reporters. "You feel like you get your heart ripped out, but I'm proud of that group and I'll go anywhere with that group. You wish you could keep it [the roster] all together, but that's not the reality."

The Lions and 49ers each went 6 for 12 on third-down conversions. The Lions went 1 for 3 on fourth-down conversions. They faced just two fourth downs in the first half, punting on the first and making a field goal on the second. In the second-half, failed fourth-down conversion attempts -- paired with turnovers and mental errors -- led to their demise.

Detroit Lions wide receiver Josh Reynolds dropped a pass during a fourth-down attempt, allowing the San Francisco 49ers to take momentum in the second half of their loss Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. File Photo by Mark Black/UPI

"I just felt really good about us converting and getting our momentum and not letting them play long-ball," Campbell said of his aggression against the 49ers. "They were bleeding the clock out. That's what they do. I wanted to get the upper hand back. It's easy, in hindsight, I get that.

"But I don't regret those decisions. It's hard because we didn't come through and it wasn't able to work out. I understand the scrutiny I'll get. Thats part of the gig, but it just didn't work out."

Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff completed 25 of 41 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. File Photo by David Tulis/UPI

The 49ers cut the deficit to 24-10 on the first drive of the second half. The Lions marched to the San Francisco 28-yard line on the next drive, setting up a 4th-and-2. Campbell opted to go for a first down, instead of attempting a 45-yard field goal. That kick could have given the Lions a 27-10, three-possession edge.

Instead, quarterback Jared Goff threw a short pass to Josh Reynolds, who let the ball hit off his hands for a drop and failed conversion attempt.

Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs had a costly second-half fumble in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. File Photo by Mark Black/UPI

Five plays later, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Aiyuk, cutting the deficit to one score.

Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled on the first play of the next drive. Running back Christian McCaffrey then helped the 49ers tie the game with a short rushing touchdown.

Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and the Detroit Lions offense were among the most aggressive teams in the NFL this season in fourth-down conversion attempts. File Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI

The 49ers needed less than four minutes to erase their deficit after the Lions' failed conversion. Another failed Lions conversion helped them build a 10-point edge.

Jake Moody made a field goal with 9:56 remaining for the 49ers' first lead. The Lions again attempted a fourth-down conversion on the drive after that kick. That play came on a 4th-and-3 from the San Francisco 30, where they could have attempted a 47-yard field goal and tied the score.

Instead, Goff threw an incompletion while targeting wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. Running back Elijah Mitchell scored a 3-yard rushing touchdown about 3:30 later to give the 49ers a two-possession lead.

Goff and the Lions converted their final fourth-down attempt, which came with 56 seconds remaining. The quarterback connected with wide receiver Jameson Williams for a 3-yard touchdown on that play, but the Lions ran out of game time in their attempt at a comeback.

"It's very uncharacteristic of us," Campbell said of the Lions struggles. "We've always been able to get our momentum back. It's hard to say. I honestly, right now, can't put my finger on it. That's not like us.

"We had plays to be made, but we just didn't make them like we normally do."

The Lions ranked second in the NFL in fourth-down conversions (21) and attempts (40), converting at a 52.5% clip during the regular season.

"He believes in us," Goff said of Campbell's reputation for being aggressive on fourth downs. "I don't know what the numbers are, but we had a lot of big-time conversions this year that changed games. ... It can change a game if you convert them and we didn't. It's part of the reason why we lost."

In 2022 under Campbell, the Lions ranked third in fourth-down attempts. They set a record for the most fourth-down conversion attempts (41) in NFL history in 2021, Campbell's first season with the franchise.

Overall, the Lions converted 52.8% of their fourth-down attempts over Campbell's three-year tenure. They went 3 for 5 this postseason.

Goff said he agreed with Campbell's decisions to go for the first downs, instead of kicking field goals.

"I loved them," the Lions quarterback said. "We've gotta convert."

Goff also spoke about momentum changes in the second half when he was asked about the collapse, but said the Lions lost for a "variety of reasons." He blamed himself for missing throws, when asked about the Reynolds drop.

"Momentum certainly changed pretty quickly," Goff said. "They scored. We didn't convert the fourth down. They scored again. We turned the ball over. That sequence right there makes it tough. ... We had plenty of opportunities to still win in there at the end. We just came up short.

"I struggle finding the words to totally encapsulate how or why?"

The 49ers will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas. The 49ers opened as 2.5-point favorites to win the title game, which will air at 6:30 p.m. EST on CBS.