SANTA CLARA — How does one explain what happened Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium?
Maybe there is no sufficient explanation for how the 49ers rallied to beat the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers did not give up hope even when it appeared as if all hope was lost.
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“I’m proud to be a part of this team,” 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw said after the 49ers’ 34-31 victory at Levi’s Stadium. “And I’m proud of all the guys who fought.”
The 49ers showed plenty of fight and resiliency after falling behind 24-7 at halftime. This is the classic case of it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Here are their grades from an NFC Championship Game that becomes an instant classic.
San Francisco 49ers
Christian McCaffrey had just 29 yards rushing on 10 carries in the first half. Then, emblematic of all the other areas of the team that showed dramatic improvements in the second half, the 49ers got rolling.
McCaffrey finished the game with 90 yards and two touchdowns on 20 rushing attempts. And quarterback Brock Purdy added 48 big yards on five rushing attempts.
“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of Purdy’s scrambles.
Backup running back Elijah Mitchell stepped in for McCaffrey late in the game and scored on a 1-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 10-point lead. McCaffrey left the lineup when he felt like he might have experienced a shoulder stinger. After the game, McCaffrey said he was just fine.
It was not a thing of beauty from start to finish, but Purdy made the plays when they were required for the 49ers to have any chance of the comeback.
Brandon Aiyuk had an acrobatic 51-yard reception in the third quarter that provided a big spark for the team. Then, Aiyuk caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Purdy on a third-and-goal situation that pulled the 49ers to within seven points.
Purdy completed 20 of 31 passes for 267 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Deebo Samuel was the 49ers’ leading receiver with eight receptions for 89 yards.
The 49ers’ run defense got gashed in the first half, surrendering 148 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of the game.
After halftime, the Lions managed just 34 yards rushing on eight carries.
Safety Tashaun Gipson came through with a huge play in the third quarter when he forced a fumble on Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs that Arik Armstead recovered.
That takeaway led to a quick touchdown that tied the game late in the third quarter.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff had a solid game, completing 25 of 41 pass attempts for 273 yards and one touchdown.
But Detroit failed to convert two crucial fourth-down pass plays in the second half. One was a dropped pass. The other was more of what the 49ers did defensively with pressure on Goff that forced an incompletion.
Defensive end Nick Bosa had a big day with two sacks and four quarterback hits.
Like everything else for the 49ers, it did not start well as Jake Moody missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt wide right to end the 49ers’ first drive of the game.
Moody made his next two field-goal attempts, including a 33-yarder with 9:52 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the 49ers their first lead of the game.
The 49ers had no answers in the first half.
But they put it all together in the second half, and that includes the X’s and O’s from Shanahan and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
The adjustments were made and the coaching staff kept the defense focused and believing that a comeback was going to happen.
In the second half, while the 49ers were pushing all the right buttons, it was the Lions’ sideline that made the decisions that backfired.
The 49ers won the NFC Championship Game. It does not matter how they did it. Any win that propels a team to the Super Bowl is about as good as it gets.
The 49ers turned a first-half failing grade into something special and memorable.
Each individual phase of the game could have been better, of course. But the sum of the parts can only be classified as an “A” performance.