Kawakami The 49ers didn39t just come back to win the

Kawakami: The 49ers didn't just come back to win the NFC title, they justified this entire era – The Athletic

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – When the moment of absolute truth came Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers weren't afraid, they were angry. They were ashamed. They missed the NFC Championship game and knew they would never forgive themselves.

And they had one half of football to change the course of everything. To not only capture the moment, but to justify an entire era of this franchise. Good teams don't lose like that. Teams with character don't end up so miserable. Teams built this way fail no step away from the Super Bowl. Look in the mirror. Find out.

“It was embarrassing,” Nick Bosa said of the 49ers’ 24-7 halftime deficit against the Detroit Lions. “Somehow I felt helpless. We didn’t want to go down as failures.”

What happened next was about 20 things, all happening in random synchronicity, full of frantic momentum from the 49ers, increasingly shaky responses from the Lions, and thunderous energy that flowed through Levi's Stadium and probably reverberated throughout the solar system. What happened next was a third quarter that started slowly and methodically, then picked up speed, moving frantically from unlikely to possible, feasible, probable and finally inevitable until the 49ers had beaten Detroit 17-0, with the score tied and had prepared one of the most convincing victories in the history of the 49ers, 34-31.

The third quarter was like watching Mike Tyson get off the canvas and just keep hitting until it was over. It was the 49ers who restored their confidence just in time. Because if they lost like that, if they lost their third straight NFC Championship Game, could they even bear to try it all again next season and the season after that with the same players and leaders?

It was a victory that made the 49ers' advance to Super Bowl 58 against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 11 seem, at least for now, more like an epilogue than the main story. It was a victory that left the 49ers players and coaches almost too exhausted to celebrate and too relieved to lie about how it happened.

They stunk in the first half. Then they decided to stop the smell.

“I think we were just mad,” Kyle Shanahan said. “I think the boys were extremely angry. The first half wasn't about losing by 17 points, it was about how behind we were. (The Lions) kind of had their way in the run game. We didn't achieve much in our running game either. We don't want to go out like that. We have dug ourselves into a big hole.

“I didn’t just talk about how to win this game. I talked about how to start playing correctly. We have too much respect for our team. That would have been a really tough finish if we hadn’t been able to play better with our group.”

The 49ers bounced back so quickly in the third quarter – a field goal after the second half kickoff, a fourth-down stop by the Lions, a touchdown drive, a fumble recovery and another touchdown tied the score at less than 12 Minutes out of game time – that they didn't even have to stage a comeback in the fourth quarter.

That meant they didn't change the famous statistic of being 0-38 when trailing by seven or more points in the fourth quarter in the Shanahan era, but after their late comeback against the Packers a week ago and now of this monumental comeback Just tell the 49ers that there are statistics that prove they are incapable of great comebacks.

“It's two weeks in a row,” said Brandon Aiyuk, whose amazing 51-yard catch (after a looping deflection) set up the ensuing TD catch that put the 49ers up 24-17 with 5:17 left in the third . “Victory that we apparently shouldn’t have. But these are two strong wins, wins that just show what kind of team we have. The mindset, the will and the heart that everyone has.”

Brandon Aiyuk's catch of a pass from Kindle Vildor was a crucial play. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Of course, the only way to pull off a comeback like that is to play so poorly in the beginning that it's necessary, and that's exactly what happened to the 49ers on Sunday. The Lions played faster than the 49ers in the first half, they created misdirected running plays that made the 49ers' defense look slow and confused, and the Lions also largely confused the 49ers' offense. Brock Purdy threw an interception. For the most part, the 49ers' running game went nowhere. Jake Moody missed a field goal.

But the 49ers knew they had the impetus to start the third quarter and knew if they scored just one point and then stopped the Lions even once, Levi's might start rumbling and anything could happen. And the 49ers knew they were talented enough to do it. Hell, they knew they were talented enough that they probably should do this.

“I never felt like we didn’t have a team that could come back or win a game like that,” Shanahan said. “I just had to do it today when it mattered most.”

Bosa said: “I think there was a statistic that Kyle didn't come back after a loss. I think it's a testament to our group that we were able to fight back. And you have to do things like that to have a special season.”

Additionally, the 49ers were happy to capitalize on a call from Lions coach Dan Campbell, who built this team with an extremely aggressive attitude and then helped close out their season by going all-out on a Moody hit on the Lions' first possession of the second half The field goal brought the 49ers within 24-10. On fourth-and-2 from the 28-yard line, Jared Goff was pressured by Bosa, had to move right and threw an incompletion. A field goal by the Lions would have put them ahead by three points. Sales at Downs boosted Levi's.

“Huge,” Bosa said. “I think that was the turning point and just rattled Goff, which kind of made him uncomfortable back there.”

The 49ers still needed points and not just field goals. When Purdy got the ball back and had the chance to get Aiyuk deep against one-on-one coverage, he took advantage. The ball bounced off the hands of Detroit defensive back Kindle Vildor, Aiyuk chased it down before it hit the ground, and suddenly the 49ers found themselves at the Lions' 4-yard line. Aiyuk's TD came three plays later.

“After BA made that play, he unleashed it with such explosiveness,” Shanahan said of the 51-yard catch. “Somehow you unlocked the whole team. … Right after that you could feel all the momentum of our players, the stadium and the kind of flip on the sidelines. I felt like it continued after that.”

Faster, faster, faster. On the next play from scrimmage, Tashaun Gipson Sr. hit the ball off Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Arik Armstead recovered and, yes, the 49ers felt it. The tide had turned. The Lions were starting to feel it too. The Lions started playing like that was all they felt.

“I have a question for you,” said George Kittle. “Why do analysts say momentum isn’t a real thing? … That’s just the biggest crap I’ve ever heard in my life.”

When did Kittle sense it was Sunday?

“We had a good opening drive in the second half and (then) that fourth stop,” Kittle said. “We just feel a kind of energy. We go down and score – all right, that’s huge. A turnover? I thought, oh man, everything is lost now. Bang-bang.”

Two plays after the fumble recovery, Purdy ran 21 yards to the Lions' 4-yard line. Two plays later, a rushing touchdown by Christian McCaffrey evened the score. Yes, the momentum is real and Purdy swam right into it. He was largely ineffective and appeared frustrated in the first half. In the second half, Purdy completed 13 of 16 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown and had two key 21-yard runs.

“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” Shanahan said of Purdy’s five runs for 48 yards. “He made some big plays with his legs, got out of the pocket, moved the chains on some first downs and some explosives. He worked his ass off today. Wasn't easy for any of us. He kept fighting and was incredible in the second half.”

Purdy had to be incredible in the second half, including the two drives in the fourth quarter that gave the 49ers the winning margin. Otherwise the 49ers would have lost and there would have been serious self-doubt within this franchise. The 49ers defense, with so much money invested in it, had to be incredible. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks had to forget the first half and be incredible in the second. Aiyuk had to be incredible. Any important 49er had to be incredible. One slip-up, one failed mission and the Lions would have planned their trip to Las Vegas.

It was all incredible and it all happened so quickly. It was a defining moment for this era and at the same time a confirmation.

(Top photo of Brock Purdy with the George Halas Trophy after Sunday's NFC Championship Game: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)