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Lions vs. 49ers preview, predictions: What to expect in clash of grit vs. flash

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In the NFC Championship Game for a third straight year, the San Francisco 49ers are looking to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2019 season.

In their way are the upstart Detroit Lions, who won their first playoff game in more than three decades this postseason and seek to reach the NFL championship game for the first time in the Super Bowl era. 

The two teams meet at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

Winners of five of their past six games dating back to the regular season, the Lions lean on an explosive offensive attack led by quarterback Jared Goff, receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and running back Jahmyr Gibbs. That high-octane Detroit offense will face one of the most formidable defenses in the league, powered by 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner.

“These are the times that you dream of as a kid, hoping to be in these final games,” Goff told reporters this week. “We’re one win away from our ultimate goal of getting to the Super Bowl, and hopefully winning that game as well. But we are where our feet are today, being very present, and we know this will be a challenge for us this week.”

FOX Sports NFL writers Eric D. Williams and Carmen Vitali dive into the details of Sunday’s contest.

Williams: Carmen, Jared Goff knows the 49ers well from his time playing in the NFC West with the Los Angeles Rams. What’s your assessment on how much that will help Goff on Sunday when facing a San Francisco defense led by Bosa and Warner?

Vitali: I don’t know if it will help Goff beyond the individual tendencies he knows of Bosa and Warner and the like. I fully expect this defense, now under coordinator Steve Wilks, to have evolved from the time Goff was in a division. 

Lions vs. 49ers: Who has the edge?

What’s going to be the biggest contributing factor to how Goff does this week is the health of his offensive line, as it has been all season. We know left guard Jonah Jackson won’t be available after having surgery on his meniscus, though the team is optimistic he could return should the Lions advance to Las Vegas. Center Frank Ragnow suffered both a sprained ankle and knee against the Buccaneers but finished the game. He is expected to play this weekend, pain be damned. He means so much to that unit and the team as a whole. 

I captured left tackle Taylor Decker getting emotional about Ragnow in the locker room this past weekend.

I don’t expect Ragnow to show any signs of weakness, but I do fully expect San Francisco to take advantage of the left side of the line with Jackson out. Tampa Bay did manage two sacks on Goff on Sunday and hit him another five times, yet Goff was steadfast as ever. He’s played beautifully in Detroit’s two postseason games, ranking second in completion percentage among all playoff quarterbacks. He also hasn’t thrown an interception. 

Now, he runs into a Niners unit that ranked top-five in takeaways in the regular season. Eric, what can we expect from Wilks to continue that trend in the conference championship?

Williams: It will be interesting to see if Wilks decides to blitz more to heat up the pass rush. San Francisco finished without a sack against the Packers last week but had a 40% pressure rate, according to Next Gen Stats — tops among teams remaining in the playoffs. The 49ers managed to force Jordan Love into two interceptions corralled by linebacker Dre Greenlaw, that last one sealing the game.

San Francisco blitzed just 8.6% of the time against Green Bay and 21.7% during the regular season, third lowest in the NFL. Blitzing Goff can be a boom or bust proposition for the 49ers. Goff has 13 touchdowns against the blitz during the regular season, but also six interceptions. The bottom line is that the 49ers will have to figure out how to make Goff uncomfortable playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

“You cover up his first couple reads,” Bosa said this week. “Then you get after him, hit him a couple times and that changes things a little bit.”

Carmen, Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has been on a tear this season. What makes him so effective? And who will the Lions lean on if the 49ers try to take St. Brown away?

Vitali: I fully expect the Niners to try and take St. Brown away, as most teams attempt to do. But it’s hard. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson moves St. Brown around a lot, though he makes his money mostly in the slot. Even if that’s where he’s aligned pre-snap, he doesn’t necessarily stay there. I saw Johnson motion St. Brown quite a bit against the Bucs — so much so I made a remark that watching St. Brown’s routes from pre-snap motion to post-snap movement was making me tired from the press box. 

To get St. Brown open, he’ll cross the formation before the ball is snapped, releasing out of the opposite wide alignment, only to travel back across the field on a post on the opposite hash. St. Brown is simply one of the most versatile receivers you’ll find. But if San Francisco can contain him, the Lions can lean on a plethora of other weapons.

Against the Bucs, none of the usual suspects scored for Detroit. It was Josh Reynolds who had the lone touchdown by halftime. Then it was running back Craig Reynolds who scored next before the game broke open thanks to a 31-yard touchdown run by rookie Jahmyr Gibbs. He’s a guy the Lions lean on, along with David Montgomery, who the Bucs were able to shut down last Sunday. That tandem is one of the best backfields in the NFL because, together, they are so complete. Need a downhill runner? That’s Monty. Need a guy to catch passes out of the backfield or tiptoe to the outside? Gibbs. 

Then there’s another rookie in tight end Sam LaPorta, who was one of Goff’s top targets this year. The Lions got him involved early on Sunday, even though LaPorta is fighting through injury. He got them some hard-fought yards when nothing else was working and set up his teammates later in the game. Johnson is one of the most creative playcallers in the NFL — that’s why multiple teams are interviewing him for head-coaching vacancies. It’s what makes Detroit so dangerous.

But the Lions aren’t the only ones to have a plethora of offensive weapons. Eric, what’s the status on Deebo Samuel and will he be part of the arsenal Brock Purdy has available to him this weekend? And if not, how will the 49ers compensate?

Williams: Samuel did not practice on Wednesday. Last Sunday, of course, he reaggravated a left shoulder injury that forced him to miss two games earlier this season, putting his availability into question for this Sunday. 

And it’s fair to say that as Samuel goes, so goes San Francisco’s offense.

Colin Cowherd: How a Deebo Samuel-less 49ers squad mirrors the Raiders

The 49ers average three points more per contest when Samuel plays. They are 8-9 in games he has missed compared to 53-23 (including postseason) when he plays. The Niners average 7.1 yards per play with Samuel on the field and 5.7 yards per play without him.

Fellow receiver Brandon Aiyuk told reporters he’s hopeful Samuel will play. But if he can’t go, the 49ers will lean on No. 3 receiver Jauan Jennings, along with back-end roster guys like Chris Conley, Ronnie Bell and Ray-Ray McCloud.

Also, frontline players Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and Aiyuk will be asked to take on larger roles in the offense. I would expect McCaffrey to take the lion’s share of the touches if Samuel is out.

Both of Detroit’s wins in the postseason so far have come at home in front of rowdy crowds, but the Lions finished 6-3 on the road during the regular season. Carmen, how much will the gritty culture that Dan Campbell has developed help the Lions when they face the 49ers in San Francisco? 

Vitali: The Lions have risen to every occasion dating back to last season. In Week 18 last year, they saw themselves eliminated from playoff contention via a win by Seattle right before Detroit kicked off at Lambeau Field. The Packers would have punched their ticket to the postseason with a win but instead, the Lions went out and kicked them in the mouth. Detroit finished 2022 winning six of their last eight games and went into this season with all the momentum.

That momentum became a full-on target in Week 1, when they knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs on banner-raising night at Arrowhead. Even when the Lions lost this season, they’d answer right back with a win. Detroit hasn’t lost back-to-back games all year, in fact.

NFC Championship Game: Will Detroit shock the world?

It’s all because of this singular belief Campbell has instilled in this team. It allows the players to focus inward, blocking out any outside noise — good or bad. They embody the blue-collar city of Detroit and have turned it Honolulu Blue, just like they’ll try to turn Levi’s Stadium. I expect Lions fans to travel well as they have all season now that history is on the line.

Eric, It’s probably time to make our picks and, because I’ve fired myself up, I’m rolling with the Lions. I have them knocking off the home favorites in another nail-biter, 37-34.

Williams: Carmen, I’m here for it, and certainly would not be surprised if the Lions got the W. However, I think the San Francisco defense will be the difference in this one. I’ll take the 49ers by a touchdown, 27-20. 

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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