SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The aggressiveness that characterized the turnaround for the Detroit Lions under coach Dan Campbell backfired at the worst possible time.
Detroit failed on two fourth-down tries in field-goal range in the second half, contributing to a blown 17-point halftime lead and a 34-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game Sunday.
“It’s easy in hindsight and I get it,” coach Dan Campbell said. “I get that. But I don’t regret those decisions. And that’s hard. It’s hard because we didn’t come through. It wasn’t able to work out. But I don’t. I don’t. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. That’s part of the gig, man.
“It just didn’t work out.”
The success-starved Lions (14-6) appeared poised to make their first Super Bowl in franchise history when they took a 24-7 halftime lead against the Niners — only to allow 27 straight points in a mistake-filled second half.
Kindle Vildor turned a potential interception into a 51-yard pass play when Brock Purdy’s long throw hit the Lions cornerback’s facemask and bounced to Brandon Aiyuk.
Rookie Jahmyr Gibbs lost a fumble to set up another touchdown. Josh Reynolds had two key drops on third and fourth down to stall drives.
The Lions botched downing a punt at the 1-yard line, leading to a touchback.
The result was just the fourth conference game loss for a team that held a lead of at least 17 points.
“Pretty devasted,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “There’s a state of shock a little bit. I’m just proud to be a part of this team. It’s hard to juggle those two emotions of being proud of what we’ve done this year and dealing with the heartache of the loss.”
Campbell played his own role in it with the failed fourth-down decisions. Detroit had a league-high 62 conversions on fourth down in Campbell’s three seasons, but came up short when it mattered most.
Leading by 14 early in the third quarter, Campbell opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 28 but Reynolds couldn’t hold onto Goff’s pass.
The Niners then drove for a touchdown to make it a one-score game.
Then with the Lions down three midway through the fourth quarter, Campbell went for it again on fourth-and-3 from the 30. Goff threw another incompletion and San Francisco drove for the insurance touchdown.
But Goff wasn’t second-guessing the decisions after so many success fourth-down conversions helped the Lions even make it this far this season.
“He believes in us,” Goff said. “I don’t know what the numbers are, but we had a lot of big-time conversions this year that changed games.”
A magical season for the Lions ended one game short of the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.
Detroit remains the only team to play every season of the Super Bowl era without reaching the ultimate game. This looked as though it could be the breakthrough season to end that drought when Detroit won back-to-back playoff games after winning just one in the previous 56 seasons.
But the Lions must wait at least another year to have a chance at their first NFL championship since 1957.
“When you lose that way, it’s hard,” Campbell said. “You feel like you get your heart ripped out. But I’m proud of that group and I’ll go anywhere with that group.”
Story by Josh Dubow, Associated Press pro football writer