NFL

AUTHOR: Star Sports Content

STAR NFL PREVIEW Sun: Detroit Lions @ San Francisco 49ers

Championship Sunday in the NFL playoffs usually feature a rematch (or two) from the regular season, but both games are fresh this weekend, the first time that’s happened since 2017.

The San Francisco 49ers are not new to this round as it is their third-straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game (seventh since 2011), though the first time they are home for it since the 2019 season when they beat Green Bay 37-20 and advanced to Super Bowl 54. San Francisco will be making their NFL-record 19th Conference Championship Game appearance.

The Detroit Lions are the only NFC team that has never been to the Super Bowl, so this is a massive opportunity for them. The Lions only appearance in the NFC Championship Game was in the 1991 season and they lost 41-10 to a Washington juggernaut that year. After being a home favourite in the wild card and divisional rounds, the Lions are a +9.5point underdog this week with Star Sports at 3-4. From 1970-1998, underdogs of at least 7 points in the Conference Championship Game were 5-17 ATS (22.7%) and 2-20 SU (9.1%). Since 1999, underdogs of at least 7 points in the Conference Championship Game are 11-5 ATS (68.8%) and 5-11 SU (31.3%).

Oddly enough, the biggest game of the Lions head coach Dan Campbell career is a rematch from the very first game of the Campbell era in the 2021 opener. That was also Jared Goff’s debut with the Lions and the first game of Amon-Ra St. Brown’s NFL career. Campbell who is known for his aggressive style of play especially on offence has the Lions as close as they’ve ever been to a Super Bowl after winning back-to-back home playoff games. However, it is going to take some effort to go toe-to-toe with the #1 seeds who this season have won 11 games by at least 12 points, tied for the second-most games in a season in NFL history (1999 Rams had 13).

Although they were given a fright by the Packers last week in a 24-21 victory they still prevailed despite it being the 49ers first win this season by fewer than 7 points, the first win where they never led by double digits, the first win where they didn’t score 27 points, and it was the first game-winning drive of the season for Brock Purdy.

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This is a game where the Lions are going to prove that they can get ahead of the 49ers on the scoreboard as the Packers did if they are to be competitive and they do have the offence to do so. This game features two front-end offensive attacks. San Francisco are second in the NFL in points per drive (2.68) while the Lions are third (2.45). When these teams score points, they reach the end zone. Detroit lead the NFL in rate of scoring plays that are touchdowns (75.3%) while San Francisco are second (74.1%). The 49ers lead the NFL in yards per play (6.6) while Detroit are third (5.9). It could well be that the Lions defence especially in the passing game where they prove vulnerable. You only have to look at the list of fairly ordinary quarterbacks that have had their way with the Lions secondary in particular to realise that this facet of the game could be their ultimate downfall.

The defensive side of the ball is where there is a large discrepancy between the Lions and the other three teams remaining in the playoffs. Whereas Baltimore, Kansas City, and San Franciso rank first, second, and third in points allowed per game this season, the Lions are 23rd. When the Lions allowed 28 or more points this season, they were 2-4. The 49ers scored 28 or more points in 10 games this season, second in the NFL and it looks as though they will have WR Deebo Samuel (an integral part of their offence) back for this game after he had to leave the game against Green Bay with a shoulder injury. San Francisco have an 8-9 record with Samuel inactive over his career, including a 0-2 record without him this season.

The Lions face an uphill task but they are used to the underdog role and under Campbell have an impressive record against the spread. Under Dan Campbell, the Lions have the best spread record in the NFL since 2021 at 36-17 (67.9%), and the best spread record this year at 13-6 (68.4%). Since 2022, the Lions are 7-3 ATS as a road underdog.

It’s a well-documented fact that Lions QB Jared Goff has a far better record at home in the indoor atmosphere of Ford Field than he does on the road. Goff’s 2023 yards-per-pass-attempt average dips from 8.1 at home to 7.1 on the road and another negative for Goff in this game is the injuries and absences that the Lions are facing on their offensive line facing a fierce 49ers pass rush. Another problem that Goff will face is the fact that most of his throws are over the centre of the field or “between the numbers” and the 49ers defence has been the best in the NFL over the middle of the field. On those throws numbers to numbers, the 49ers have allowed a league-low 73.3 rating. Goff’s production when tasked to throw outside the numbers takes a hit and the 49ers will also be looking to pressure and disrupt Goff. If the Lions can keep him clean and upright Goff may well be able to thrive but that’s a tough ask against this San Francisco defence.

The Lions will want to try and establish the ground game and they have two running backs with very different skill sets. David Montgomery is very much the preferred early-down run between the tackles option with rookie Jahmyr Gibbs the explosive change if pace option who can also be used in passing downs. Considering the matchup and the state of the Detroit offensive line, there is a school of thought that tentatively expects this to be a game where Gibbs is leaned on a bit more than is typical. Gibbs a dynamic runner and we saw the Packers somewhat expose the 49ers run defence and it highlighted a weakness that hadn’t truly cropped up until the playoffs.

In the regular season, San Francisco’s run defence ranked 26th in expected points added per play allowed and 24th in rushing success rate allowed. However, this was never an issue because they were always playing from ahead. Gibbs is the better back between him and David Montgomery, and this is the game to finally unleash him. We saw how Aaron Jones generated explosive runs against this defence, and Gibbs has a similar big-play ability.

We can expect a couple of big runs from Gibbs ( just like Jones last week) and his rushing yards line at +48.5 (10-11) with Star Sports looks too low and we expect him to pass that given the game script. Gibbs receiving yards line set at +23.5 (10-11) also looks an inviting option where the overs can be played. Gibbs has also been useful as a receiver this year. He’s caught all 8 of his targets this postseason for 83 yards, picking up 40 yards against the Rams and 43 yards against the Buccaneers. Gibbs has gone over 22.5 receiving yards in 7-of-17 games this season and the 49ers allowed 90 catches to running backs this regular season – only 4 defences allowed more.

As we have already eluded to Goff likes to pass over the middle and when he does his target tree is a condensed one with WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (ARSB) and TE Sam LaPorta his two main targets. St. Brown and LaPorta have combined to see 41 of 70 playoff targets from Jared Goff through two playoff games, good for an extreme 58.6 percent combined target share. ARSB has cleared 95 yards and/or scored a touchdown in 17 of 18 games this season and if the Lions do fall behind here he can expect to see plenty of targets similar to last week against the Buccaneers where ARSB caught 8-of-14 targets for 77 yards and a touchdown.

LaPorta secured 9-of-11 targets for 65 yards against Tampa Bay last Sunday and as with ARSB he can expect to see plenty of volume again in this game, the key will be can Goff get the ball to them accurately enough for the pair to be able to be effective against a 49ers defence that excels in the area where they generally operate.

It was no surprise that 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy came out of last week’s game with some criticism attached to his performance despite marshalling a game winning drive. It’s true Purdy did struggle in the wet conditions but he’ll face no such weather issues this time around and he gets a dream matchup in the passing game with the Lions pass defence having more holes than a Connect 4 game frame. Purdy will join Ben Roethlisberger and Mark Sanchez as the only quarterbacks in league annals to start conference Championship Games in each of their first two NFL seasons.

That’s especially impressive considering Purdy was the last selection in the 2022 NFL Draft while both Roethlisberger (11th overall) and Sanchez (fifth overall) were first-round choices. Since 1994, when the NFL reduced the draft to seven rounds, Purdy is the only quarterback drafted in the seventh round to start a Conference Championship Game.

Given that 345 yards is the lowest amount allowed by Aaron Glenn’s Lions defence over the past month Purdy could well have a field day here especially as he operates behind a solid offence line and has weapons galore amongst his receiving corps. Purdy struggled last week against the Packers zone heavy defence but here he gets the Lions who use man coverage at a Top-10 rate. Purdy averages 54% more yards against man defences and with the Lions weak against the pas we can Purdy throwing the ball plenty this Sunday especially with Deebo Samuel back in the lineup who is such an important cog in the 49ers offence wheel. Purdy’s passing yards line is set at +276.5 (10-11) with Star Sports and given the Lions have already conceded 367 yards to Matthew Stafford and 349 yards to Baker Mayfield in the playoffs it’s not hard to see Purdy also reaching the 300+ yard mark if the game script allows. Purdy has passed for at least 252 yards in every home game this year. In all, he has 7 games with over 276.5 passing yards.

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches that Purdy and the 49ers can use in the passing game with RB Christian McCaffrey a useful asset in that facet of the game along with Samuel, WR Brandon Aiyuk (the best deep threat) and TE George Kittle. The Lions really struggled containing the deep areas of the field, both on the perimeter and over the middle, which plays into the upside for Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. Of that group it’s perhaps Kittle who offers a great deal of upside especially as he was the best 49ers pass catcher last Sunday. He did have a drop but still managed to grab 4-of-7 targets for 81 yards and a touchdown. Detroit offer a favourable matchup from a top-down perspective for tight ends, allowing 7.7 yards per target (24th) and a 4.9% touchdown rate (20th) to the position. Both ARSB and Aiyuk feature in front of Kittle in the Star Sports Specials Market – Most Receiving Yards on Sunday but given the matchup at 13-2 Kittle looks an interesting play in that market, when he has a big game it tends to be really big and this could be one of those instances.

Whilst Aiyuk and Samuel will be a danger in the receiving game and in Deebo’s case the run game also, the real centrepiece of the 49ers offence is RB Christian McCaffrey (CMC). This matchup has a few strength-on-strength battles, but this is arguably the best of them. The Lions rank #2 in rushing yards allowed and #3 in yards per carry. They have only allowed 5-of-19 teams to rush for 100 yards this year and now they face the almost unstoppable force of CMC. No running back has rushed for more than 69 yards in a game against them this season. McCaffrey has rushed for 78 or more yards in 12-of-17 games this season. Just three backs have hit 100 total yards against Detroit this season with those backs contributing 80, 58, and 48 yards in the receiving game, something McCaffrey is capable of and that’s where we believe he will have the most success against the Lions.

McCaffrey has a significant advantage as a receiver out of the backfield against Detroit’s linebackers and it would be a shock if 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan doesn’t exploit that weakness. McCaffrey’s averaged 36.1 receiving yards per game for the 49ers in the regular season and playoffs. CMC’s receiving yards line here with Star Sports is +36.5 (10-11) and that looks more like his floor than his ceiling.

Given the strength of the Lions run defence the 4-5 on CMC to have the Most Rushing Yards On Conference Championship Sunday looks a touch too short and we would prefer the 9-1 on Jahmyr Gibbs as a sporting play in this market given his usage and matchup.

The 49ers should win this game after last week’s wake-up call and scare against the Packers. But that was a good game to shake off the rust from the Week 18 rest and bye week, and they showed they could overcome adversity with the Deebo injury and win a close game against a Green Bay team that was playing very good football down the stretch.

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The 49ers should be a little sharper this week as Purdy was definitely off on a lot of throws, but he at least looked perfect on the game-winning drive.

The Lions have a big gap to make up for in defence in this game. Even if Samuel is out, the 49ers have so many weapons to beat them with, and the Lions are doing a poor job of covering receivers right now. This could be a huge game for Kittle and Aiyuk.

The overs are pitched at a lofty 51.5 here but it’s not hard to see that level being breached due to the 49ers having plenty of skill players on offence and the Lions won’t be backing down on offence and have to play aggressively to keep up with the 49ers. Given the scoring capabilities of the two sides in the AFC Championship Game and the likely game flow here with the Lions likely to be playing catch up it’s not hard to see all four sides on Conference Championship Sunday scoring 20+ points each, and event that priced at 3-1 in the Conference Round Specials Market with Star Sports.

This could be an entertaining game with plenty of back-and-forth but ultimately we see San Francisco being just too strong for another NFC North team and get a shot at the Super Bowl that they probably deserved last year.

ANDY RICHMOND


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