SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers have been waiting a year to get back to the NFC championship game after last season's disappointing loss.
The wait for the Detroit Lions and their fans has been far longer, with the success-starved franchise one step away from their first Super Bowl appearance.
Either the Niners (13-5) will avenge title game losses from the past two seasons or the Lions (14-5) will win in their first appearance on this stage in 32 years when the teams meet in the NFC championship game Sunday.
“You worked so hard all season long. We talked about it all season. To be able to put ourselves in a position where we can play the NFC championship game again. We did that,” 49ers All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said. "We have that opportunity right now. ... I know they type of team we have, the type of players we have and talent.
"I know if we play our best ball for three hours, we’ll get the job done.”
While San Francisco has been a top contender the past five seasons under coach Kyle Shanahan, this is new territory for the Lions.
Coach Dan Campbell came aboard in 2021 and helped lead a turnaround that reached a new level this season with Detroit hosting a playoff game for the first time in 30 years and winning one for the first time in 32 years.
Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, whose late father, William Clay Ford, bought the team six decades ago gave Campbell a chance to be a full-time NFL coach for the first time.
“It feels good to prove her right, but we’re not done yet,” Campbell said Thursday.
Now the only franchise that has played every season in the Super Bowl era without reaching the ultimate game has a chance to end that drought.
“There’s four teams left and these are the times you dream of as kid and you grow up, hoping to be in these final games," said quarterback Jared Goff, who went to the Super Bowl with the Rams five years ago.
"We’re one win away from our ultimate goal of getting to the Super Bowl and winning that game as well.”
The 49ers have a long history of playing against Goff, who spent his first five seasons in the NFC West with the Rams. Goff got the best of the early matchups against Shanahan's Niners, winning all three starts in 2017-18, with a 136.3 passer rating, nine TDs and no interceptions.
As San Francisco improved, Goff struggled in the matchup by losing all four in the 2019 and 2020 seasons with a 70.3 rating, four TDs and four interceptions. The Niners expect a much better version of Goff this time.
“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league right now with the way that he’s playing,” Warner said. “I think just the delivery of football, his decisiveness, the amount of playmakers that he has on that side, I think he’s the one that’s leading that group and he’s the reason why they are where they are right now.”
Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit’s 21-year-old rookie running back, became the youngest NFL player to score a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime of a playoff game in last week’s win over Tampa Bay.
Gibbs started left and darted to his right on a 31-yard run that broke a tie with the Buccaneers and left at least one teammate in awe.
“That cut on that touchdown is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Lions center Frank Ragnow said.
GO FOR IT
The matchup offers a big discrepancy in coaching aggressiveness with Campbell one of the most likely to go for it on fourth downs, while Shanahan traditionally has been more cautious.
Detroit leads the NFL with 118 fourth-down tries since Campbell arrived, converting 52.5% of them. The Lions are 2 for 2 in the postseason, scoring TDs on two fourth-and-shorts. Detroit's 13 TDs on fourth down in the regular season and playoffs since 2021 are tied for the most in the NFL.
“Those guys are trying to steal possessions as much as they can," Shanahan said. ”I’ll tell you after the game whether that’s a good thing or bad thing for us. Any time you try to steal possessions, you’re also offering an opportunity to lose possession. So those are opportunities for them, but they’re also big opportunities for us, too."
San Francisco has attempted only 50 fourth-down tries the past three seasons, the third fewest in the league.
Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson is from suburban Detroit and attended Michigan, giving him an up-close view of the Motor City’s long-suffering franchise that has fired up a fan base.
“Growing up here, you grow up with a lot of the same-old Lions stuff and a lot of the tragedy,” Hutchinson said. “I see videos of little kids, and seeing that generation grow up with this Lions team and the Lions teams to come, it’s cool.”
The Lions like to blitz defensive backs and they often get home.
Ifeatu Melifonwu became the league’s first safety to have 1 1/2 sacks in a postseason game in nine years in last week’s win over Tampa Bay, and set a franchise record for sacks by a defensive back with four. Rookie Brian Branch, meanwhile, set a team mark with eight tackles for losses from a player in the secondary.
“I’m willing to give up something to get something,” Campbell said.
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed to this report
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