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Lions vs. 49ers: Last-minute thoughts and final score prediction

We’ve made it to the NFC Championship game! For just the second time in the Super Bowl era, the Detroit Lions are playing with a Super Bowl appearance on the line.

Sunday night’s game against the top-seeded 49ers in San Francisco figures to be a great one. As I anxiously mull about on Saturday night before an early-morning trip to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, here’s what I’m thinking about the matchup between the Lions and 49ers and how the game might play out.

Why I think the Lions will win

  • Jared Goff is playing some seriously inspired football. His confidence and mastery of the Lions offense is exemplary, and Goff’s play has risen when the stakes have gotten higher. He’s got big-game experience from his Rams days, and he won’t be fazed by playing a team he’s seen many times over the years.

  • The 49ers defensive front is designed to get pressure on the QB, not stop the run. Not that Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, et al, aren’t capable against the run, but it’s not their forte. David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have both been among the NFL leaders in yardage on first-down carries and red zone success rate. Moreover, the Niners aren’t used to a team sticking to the run even when San Francisco holds a lead. Detroit won’t abandon it and that can be very effective.

  • The Lions played a stylistically similar type of opponent last week, notably on defense. Tampa Bay and San Francisco do a lot of the same things defensively from the same base formations. The Lions won’t have to adjust the game plan of attack to accommodate a divergent style of defense. Meanwhile, the 49ers defense faced the Packers, who do a lot more deep throwing and quarterback movement than Detroit does. They’ll need to do more to adapt to the more diverse weaponry, power/gap run scheme and superior offensive line the Lions are bringing to the table.

  • Aidan Hutchinson is riding a heater, and he will primarily match up against 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz. That’s the weakest right tackle in pass protection he’s faced in weeks. With Brock Purdy vulnerable to making mistakes under pressure, if Hutchinson stays hot, the Lions pass defense could get chances to make plays. They’ve been better at making those than the Packers defense that couldn’t corral Purdy’s mistakes last week.

  • Dan Campbell told his team in the locker room after last week’s win (paraphrasing here) that they’re too young to know they’re not supposed to keep winning. There’s no pressure on them. For the 49ers, there is considerable pressure to not lose the NFC Championship game for the third year in a row. Campbell knows how to coach that plucky underdog type of team, whereas I don’t trust Kyle Shanahan to wear the front-runner hat all that comfortably.

What worries me about the 49ers

  • They’re the No. 1 seed because they’re a very well-rounded team. Top five scoring offense. Top five scoring defense. They don’t need one unit to thrive to win. Detroit doesn’t need that either, but the 49ers have more margin for error built in.

  • Brock Purdy throws the most accurate deep ball (over 20 air yards) in the league, completing 70 percent of his deep downfield passes per SIS. He pulls that off in part because he’s got several targets who can get open deep, from Brandon Aiyuk to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle to Jauan Jennings. The Lions pass defense is infamously terrible at covering the deeper throws against inferior quarterbacks to Purdy with fewer quality options.

  • The injury situation on the Lions offensive line could be a lot worse, but it’s still suboptimal to face the 49ers rush without starting left guard Jonah Jackson and with Frank Ragnow nursing injuries to more body parts than a trainer learns exist on the first day of med school. As good as Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Sam LaPorta and the run game are all playing, it all functions because the offensive line is great. Kayode Awosika was rough in pass protection in relief of Jackson last week, and there is zero depth behind anyone else. There could be some negative blocking impact from losing TE Brock Wright, too.

  • The fact I made it this far in talking about how good the 49ers are and didn’t even mention Christian McCaffrey, the NFL’s best all-around running back, is telling. Detroit’s decline in tackling of late must end, or else McCaffrey will prove why he deserves more MVP consideration.

Final score prediction

I think the 7-point line favoring the 49ers is way too high. I think the Lions would win about 46 of 100 matchups between these two current teams in San Francisco. Here’s hoping it’s one of the 46! But I can’t in good faith pick against the NFC’s top team at home with how good they are on both sides of the ball. 49ers 32, Lions 28.

Story originally appeared on Lions Wire