Detroit Lions fall apart late in 34-31 loss to 49ers in NFC title game: How it happened

49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk catches the ball over Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor in the third quarter of the NFC championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.

The Detroit Lions seemed to be on the verge of their first-ever trip to the Super Bowl, but were outscored 27-7 in the second half to fall to the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, in the NFC championship game and conclude their 2023 campaign.

It would have been the Lions' first-ever trip to the Super Bowl and first NFL championship game since 1957, but instead, the 49ers are going to their eighth Super Bowl as a franchise with a chance to win their sixth Lombardi Trophy. San Francisco will face the Kansas City Chiefs, who beat the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 in the AFC championship game, in the Super Bowl in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

Check out our game recap of live updates from throughout the game in Santa Clara below.

Lions vs. 49ers game recap, highlights

0:56, fourth quarter: Jameson Williams scores 2nd TD, Lions trail 49ers 34-31

There was a tiny, tiny chance at a comeback if the Lions could have recovered an onside kick after Jameson Williams scored a 3-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal to cut the lead to a field goal with just under a minute to play. The Lions went 75 yards on 11 plays, and took two minutes off the clock. The Lions picked up big chunk gains on completions to Sam LaPorta, Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown.

But the Niners recovered the attempt and ran the clock down to 0:00 to move onto the Super Bowl in arguably the Lions' most crushing loss ever.

3:02, fourth quarter: 49ers go up 34-24 on Elijah Mitchell TD run

The Lions' season is inching towards the end now as the 49ers converted another failed fourth down into a touchdown on the ensuing possession, this time on a 3-yard run by backup running back Elijah Mitchell right up the gut through the heart of the Lions' defensive line. Christian McCaffrey had five touches on the drive, picking up 46 yards, and Brock Purdy added another 21 on a scramble on third down.

Jared Ramsey

7:32, fourth quarter: Lions fail on 4th down again from SF territory

The gambles are not paying off for Dan Campbell and the Lions in the biggest moment of the season. Instead of attempting about a 47-yard field goal, Campbell kept the offense on the field for fourth-and-3 from the San Francisco 30-yard line. Jared Goff was under pressure immediately and had to roll out to his right and floated the ball downfield to no one for a turnover on downs. The drive started with consecutive chunk plays from David Montgomery and Jameson Williams to cross midfield.

Jared Ramsey

9:52, fourth quarter: 49ers take 27-24 lead on Jake Moody FG

The 49ers took the lead for the first time this game after they forced a quick Lions punt and drove down the field for Moody's second successful field goal of the game, this time from 33 yards out. The 49ers started the drive with a first-down pass to Kyle Juszczyk on a scramble drill, then moved into Lions' territory on a 28-yard completion to George Kittle over the middle of the field. The 49ers picked up one more first down on a Brock Purdy scramble to reach the Detroit 13-yard line, but the Lions came up with back-to-back sacks from Tyson Alualu and Alim McNeill.

Jared Ramsey

3:02, third quarter: 49ers tie game at 24 with Christian McCaffrey TD

It did not take long for San Francisco to turn the fumble into a touchdown the other way to tie the game at 24. On the second play of the drive, Brock Purdy scrambled from the Detroit 25 all the way down to the 4-yard line, setting up a pair of runs from Deebo Samuel and then McCaffrey to break into the end zone.

Jared Ramsey

5:09, third quarter: Jahmyr Gibbs fumbles, 49ers recover

This has been a nightmare third quarter for the Lions. On the first play of the offensive drive following the touchdown, Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled the ball after trying to spin through the hole in the middle of the field and Arik Armstead dove on the loose ball for San Francisco. It appeared he had a miscommunication with Jared Goff on the exchange.

Jared Ramsey

5:17, third quarter: Brandon Aiyuk TD catch cuts Lions' lead to 24-17

The 49ers are coming alive in the second half, and just like that, the Lions' lead is down to one possession. San Francisco found the end zone on a 6-yard slant to Aiyuk, who beat Cam Sutton off the line, for a touchdown three plays after a 51-yard catch by Aiyuk put them within the Detroit 5-yard line. The drive started with a 17-yard completion to Deebo Samuel, then Brock Purdy connected on a deep heave to Aiyuk, who hauled in the catch after the ball bounced off Kindle Vildor instead of hitting the ground.

Jared Ramsey

6:58, third quarter: Lions fail on 4th down in SF territory

Dan Campbell chose to play it safe with a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down at the end of the first half, but the always-aggressive coach jumped on the next opportunity to keep the offense on the field on the next fourth down attempt. On fourth-and-2 from the San Francisco 28-yard line, Jared Goff couldn't connect with Josh Reynolds for a turnover on downs. The Lions reached field goal range on first downs on a Sam LaPorta catch, an offsides penalty against Javon Hargrave and a David Montgomery run.

Jared Ramsey

11:02, third quarter: 49ers hit FG on opening 2nd half drive, Lions lead 24-10

The 49ers came out of halftime and were able to move the ball into Lions' territory, but the defense stood tall at the 25-yard line to force a 44-yard field goal from Jake Moody, who made the kick this time to make it a two-touchdown difference in the game. The drive got going with an 8-yard McCaffrey run, followed up by a 26-yard completion to Deebo Samuel over the middle. The Lions forced a third down on the next set of downs, but a circus pass from Brock Purdy across his body over the middle leading to a one-handed Jauan Jennings one-handed catch for a first down, but that was the last fresh set of downs the 49ers picked up on the drive before the field goal.

Jared Ramsey

0:10, second quarter: Lions add last-second FG to increase lead to 24-7

The Lions forced a quick three-and-out to get the ball back, and manufactured a 17-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a chip shot field goal from Michael Badgley to make it 24-7 at the halftime break. The Lions got the ball back with five minutes left, and ran the ball until the two-minute warning hit, reaching the San Francisco 47-yard line. The Lions picked up a first down on third-and-12 on a 13-yard run from Jahmyr Gibbs to move it down to the 34, and converted a third-and-18 on the next set of downs with a 19-yard completion to Amon-Ra St. Brown. From there, the Lions played keep away with the ball, running down the clock before deciding to kick the field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line instead of going for it.

Jared Ramsey

5:54, second quarter: Jahmyr Gibbs gets loose for 15-yard TD, Lions lead 21-7

The interception led to a touchdown five plays later on a 15-yard run from Jahmyr Gibbs. Gibbs followed his lead blocker Sam LaPorta around the right side of the offensive line on a trap pitch to the edge, juked one defender out of his shoes, broke two more arm tackles and walked into the end zone for the Lions' third rushing touchdown of the first half.

The Lions started with a minus-5-yard rush, but quickly moved the chains with a 17-yard completion to Amon-Ra St. Brown two plays later, followed up by the dance to the end zone by Gibbs.

Jared Ramsey

8:37, second quarter: Malcolm Rodriguez intercepts Brock Purdy

Malcolm Rodriguez has primarily played on special teams this season, but the reserve linebacker came up with the biggest play of his career with an interception on a fluttery Purdy pass over the middle. Rodriguez, who was filling in for an injured Derrick Barnes, leapt to intercept the pass, which floated aimlessly through the sky after Josh Paschal hit Purdy's arm on the throw, and Rodriguez returned it to the San Francisco 21-yard line, but an illegal blindside block on C.J. Gardner-Johnson backed them up to the 46.

Jared Ramsey

13:49, second quarter: Christian McCaffrey TD run cuts Lions' lead to 14-7

The 49ers found their groove on the second offensive possession, thanks to a large dose of touches for McCaffrey. After a 28-yard catch and run that involved a disrespectful stiff-arm to C.J. Gardner-Johnson, McCaffrey powered into the end zone from 2 yards out to make it 14-7 two plays later.

The 49ers went 75 yards in eight plays, with most of the yards being generated out of the backfield. After a short completion to Deebo Samuel to start the drive, Brock Purdy found his fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who got open on a scramble drill down the field, for a 23-yard gain. McCaffrey then had three straight runs for a first down before he had the long catch and short touchdown run.

Jared Ramsey

2:34, first quarter: David Montgomery powers in for TD, Lions lead 14-0

This has been a picture-perfect start so far for the Lions in the first quarter, who converted on their second drive with a 1-yard David Montgomery touchdown to take a 14-0 lead. After lumbering down to the 1 on first-and-goal, Montgomery plunged over the goal line behind the left side of the offensive line, and the big men up front finished the job by pushing him into paydirt.

The Lions went 62 yards in 11 plays, mainly keeping the ball on the ground once again to pick up chunks of yards. The drive began with a short completion to Sam LaPorta, followed up by a first down run by Jahmyr Gibbs. Then, Jared Goff hit Montgomery out of the backfield for a 14-yard completion to move into San Francisco territory. They moved closer on a 17-yard completion to Amon-Ra St. Brown, then another 10-yard run from Gibbs put them inside the red zone, setting up the bruising runs by Montgomery to finish the job.

Jared Ramsey

7:54, first quarter: 49ers miss field goal, Lions lead 7-0

There's a lot of overlap between Michigan football and Lions fans, but the Wolverines' supporters will not be sad to see the latest kick from San Francisco's Jake Moody, who drafted him out of Michigan. Moody pushed a 48-yard field goal wide right to keep the Lions' early lead at a touchdown. The missed kick nullified a 12-play, 45-yard drive that reached the Detroit 30-yard line. Christian McCaffrey had five carries for 14 yards, while Brock Purdy completed three of six passes for 31 yards. It is the third missed kick in the last four attempts for Moody dating back to the end of the regular season.

Jared Ramsey

13:18 first quarter: Jameson Williams scores on 42-yard run, Lions lead 7-0

Jameson Williams picked a good time for his first big play of the playoffs. The Lions struck first after receiving the opening kick with a four-play, 75-yard drive, finished off with a 42-yard run from Williams on a reverse for a touchdown. Coming around the right side of the line, the speedy second-year receiver cut upfield at the line of scrimmage to get a first down, spun out of a tackle and used his patented track speed to race to the end zone for the early Detroit lead.

The Lions only ran three plays before the touchdown, picking up two first downs on a David Montgomery run and a completion to Sam LaPorta on a play-action pass.

Jared Ramsey

Lions inactives: James Houston active for first time since Week 2

Outside linebacker James Houston is active for today's game for the first time since he fractured his fibula in a Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Houston had eight sacks in seven games last season after starting the year on the practice squad.

Left guard Jonah Jackson (knee), return man Kalif Raymond (knee), safety Tracy Walker, quarterback Hendon Hooker (emergency third QB), outside linebacker Charles Harris, defensive tackle Brodric Martin and cornerback Steven Gilmore are inactive for the Lions.

Jared Ramsey

Lions fans invade Santa Clara

Not that we should be surprised at this point, but tailgating has begun outside Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara and Lions fans have shown up in droves. One 49ers fan, according to Free Press reporter Dave Boucher who's on the scene, has already remarked about how many Lions fans there were. Well done. Fans are also packing downtown Detroit streets and bars for watch parties or to grab a bite before the watch party at Ford Field.

—Brian Manzullo

When is the Lions-49ers NFC championship game?

Date: Sunday, Jan. 28.

Time: 6:30 p.m. ET.

Where: Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

—Marlowe Alter

What channel is the Detroit Lions vs. San Francisco 49ers game?

TV channel: Fox.

Streaming live: Try Fubo (free trial).

Radio: WXYT-FM (97.1) in Detroit (find all Lions radio affiliates).

Kevin Burkhardt will call the game on Fox, with NFL former tight end Greg Olsen as the analyst. Erin Andrews and Tom Rinaldi are the sideline reporters. If you don't pay for a cable or streaming subscription, you can watch the game live on Fubo with a free trial.

—Marlowe Alter

FOR SUBSCRIBERS: Why Detroit Lions' Alex Anzalone is the 'LeBron James of our defense'

Lions-49ers pregame notes

The Lions are trying to make franchise history on Sunday by securing their first trip to the Super Bowl ever with a win in the NFC championship game. It is a true David vs. Goliath matchup in terms of franchises, as the Lions vie to play for their first NFL championship in the Super Bowl era, while the 49ers are appearing in their third straight NFC championship game to play for their eighth Super Bowl appearance and a chance to win a sixth Lombardi trophy.

More notes:

  • Despite the history and entering the game as a touchdown underdog, the Lions are very confident that this team is the one that can get the job done. After all, this Lions team was the one who broke the long droughts without winning the division, winning a playoff game and making it to the NFL's semifinals. Even though there is increased attention on Detroit right now, head coach Dan Campbell said they prepared the same this week as they would for any other game, and he will not try to temper the team's emotions before one of the biggest games of in franchise history.

  • On the field, it will be a battle between two of the best offenses in the NFL this season. The 49ers had one of the most efficient offenses in the league this season because its All-Star roster all over the field, primarily at the skill positions. Running back Christian McCaffrey, the front runner for Offensive Player of the Year, was the engine of the offense, accounting for 2,023 all-purpose yards in the regular season. Along with him, they have All-Pro talents at wide receiver (Brandon Aiyuk), tight end (George Kittle), left tackle (Trent Williams) and fullback (Kyle Jusczyk) and another former All-Pro at receiver in Deebo Samuel, who will be active despite leaving last week's game with a shoulder injury.

  • Despite the stats and talent, the 49ers offense struggled against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, before quarterback Brock Purdy manufactured a late comeback drive to escape with the 24-21 victory. Purdy, the former last pick of the 2022 draft, has emerged as a quality starter for San Francisco, accounting for 4,280 yards and 31 touchdown passes, while leading the league in yards per attempt (9.64) and a league-high passer rating on deep passes (113.0). The Lions' defense has trended up in recent weeks, especially in the red zone, but has still been susceptible to giving up yards and touchdowns through the air while boasting a top-ranked rushing defense.

  • For the Lions, their top-ranked offense continued to hum last week against the Buccaneers in a 31-23 victory. After hitting a lull in the second quarter, the Lions broke a 10-10 deadlock in the second half with touchdowns on three straight drives to pull away. Jared Goff has been spectacular so far in the playoffs, completing nearly 75% of his passes the past two weeks without a turnover while throwing for 564 yards and three touchdowns. David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have continued to provide a 1-2 punch out of the backfield, and will be called upon again on Sunday against a 49ers' defense that was gashed at times by Green Bay's Aaron Jones last week.

  • The 49ers' defense is one of the best the Lions will face this season, ranking eighth in total defense (303.9 yards allowed per game), third in scoring defense (17.5 points allowed per game) and third in rushing defense (89.7 rushing yards allowed per game). In their one playoff game so far, San Francisco gave up 21 points to the Packers, while giving up 330 total yards (194 passing, 136 rushing) and trailed for most of the game until two late interceptions by linebacker Dre Greenlaw helped spur the comeback and shut the door on Green Bay.

—Jared Ramsey

Lions fans from all over descend upon Santa Clara

Everyone loves an underdog story in sports, and the Lions' quest for their first trip to the Super Bowl is the best example of the narrative in the sports world right now. The Lions have truly become America's team during this playoff run, with fans all over the country pulling for the Lions, and those in the state of Michigan have become engulfed in Lions fever.

Hordes of the Honolulu Blue faithful made the expensive trip across the country to watch the Lions game in person, making sure they don't miss a chance at history, while those who stayed are lining up early in bars and the watch party at Ford Field to watch the game with company.

Fans who made the trip gathered in a San Jose sports bar last night to celebrate a diehard fan's 72nd birthday and prepare for game day with the Lions fight song and "Jared Goff" chants. They're also seeing Lions billboards invading the Bay Area.

A win would mean everything. But even a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, who Las Vegas favors by a touchdown on Sunday, would not dim the light that appears to burn bright among a fandom desperate for a consistent winner.

—Jared Ramsey

Lions-49ers predictions

Our Free Press writers who cover the Lions believe this is the team that will make history with the first Super Bowl trip in franchise history. Beat writer Dave Birkett predicted a nail-biting 28-27 Lions victory, while columnists were split 2-to-1 in the Lions' favor.

—Jared Ramsey

Lions vs. 49ers betting odds

Game lines and odds from BetMGM as of Sunday:

Spread: 49ers (-7).

Over/under: 52.5 points.

Moneyline: 49ers (-350), Lions (+280).

The 49ers are a clear favorite as the 1-seed, despite nearly getting upset by the 7-seed Packers. The Lions' moneyline of +280 means a better would profit $280 for every $100 bet on the Lions to win the game.

Want to bet on the NFL? Find more information on legal sports gambling in Michigan.

—Marlowe Alter

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions fall to 49ers in NFC championship game: How it happened