For 30 minutes Sunday, it looked as if the Detroit Lions might reach their first-ever Super Bowl. But then the San Francisco 49ers stormed back to steal the NFC Championship, ensuring a title-game rematch with the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs.
It wasn’t necessarily a pretty postseason journey for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, as the 49ers barely survived the upstart Green Bay Packers before falling behind 24-7 against Detroit. So how, exactly, did they surge all the way back to the Super Bowl, guaranteeing their second crack at a Lombardi Trophy in the last half-decade? Here are 10 reasons:
1. Kyle Shanahan has an all-star lineup
General manager John Lynch can be thanked for assembling such a sterling roster, but it’s the special pairing of so much talent with Shanahan’s schemes — specifically an offense designed to generate space and spread the ball to an array of multipurpose playmakers — that really makes the 49ers click, week in and week out.
2. Brock Purdy is Shanahan’s best QB
And it’s not particularly close. Jimmy Garoppolo advanced to a Super Bowl as Shanahan’s former figurehead, but at 24, through one-and-a-half seasons as the starter, Purdy’s already proven much more dynamic, not only as a play-extender but a downfield thrower. He’s had his erratic moments, but all in all, the poise and polish on this kid is hard to dismiss.
3. Christian McCaffrey has been a legit MVP
If Purdy’s been the ceremonial MVP as the point guard of Shanahan’s attack, McCaffrey has been the engine, refusing to go down as both a runner and receiver. He is a true safety valve and an undisputed momentum-maker at an otherwise devalued position, and if anyone’s poised to claim Super Bowl MVP honors on this team, it’s him.
4. The defense rallies, and wears teams down
Detroit put up 31 points Sunday, so it’s not like the 49ers are invincible. But they settled in down the stretch in the NFC title game and have been noticeably physical all year, not so unlike the Chiefs and Ravens who went head to head in the other conference championship. With so many veteran leaders, including Fred Warner, they’re built to outlast opponents.
5. They’ve been to the big stage before
The roster has shifted some since the 49ers were actually in the Super Bowl, but this team is absolutely no stranger to high-stakes contests, also playing in four of the last five NFC title games. The Chiefs will get the majority of headlines as the team that’s been there, done that, but the Lynch-Shanahan regime and player infrastructure has been in the mix for a while.
6. Their top WR duo is still underrated
Purdy and McCaffrey were this year’s MVP darlings, but both Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk have remained Grade-A weapons out wide, with the former serving as an explosive human wrecking ball and the latter starring as an acrobatic downfield outlet. Both targets were reliable against the Lions, continuing a season-long trend of impact.
7. Every level of the ‘D’ has a difference-maker
Up front, in the trenches, it might be Nick Bosa or Javon Hargrave. In the middle, it might be Warner or Dre Greenlaw. On the back end, it’s probably Charvarius Ward. No matter where you look on San Francisco’s defense, you’re bound to run into trouble. Call it an extension of the all-star roster-building, but it’s a huge reason for their success as a ball-control winner.
8. They can win any kind of game
Speaking of ball control, the 49ers are best suited to take and then maintain an early lead, considering their strengths as a rushing offense. But they’ve now shown in back-to-back playoff games they can also dig themselves out of a hole and win a shootout, outgunning both the Packers and Lions despite initial struggles through the air.
9. Their staff is adaptable
Unlike the Lions, who dug themselves into a deeper second-half hole Sunday by prioritizing their trademark aggression over situational smarts, the 49ers pivoted at halftime of Sunday’s game to restore control when it mattered most. It marked a second straight week of resilience from both the players and the play-callers on San Francisco’s side.
10. The NFC playoff field was kind of peculiar
This isn’t to discount the 49ers’ journey, but the conference postseason picture was certainly unexpected: Once-perceived heavyweights like the Cowboys and Eagles collapsed early, leaving fringe contenders like the Buccaneers, Packers and Rams to advance and, in a way, smooth the path for San Francisco to get to the big game.