The 2024 conference title games are now just three days away. In the second of Sunday’s two contests, the No. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers will play host to the No. 3 seed Detroit Lions for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
In our effort to break down these matchups from every conceivable angle, we’re once again using this space to do a little tale of the tape type of comparison, breaking down which team has the edge at every single position. Weon Wednesday for the AFC finalists.
Without further ado …
Brock Purdy and Jared Goff are pretty similar in that they are talented but limited quarterbacks who are unquestionably elevated by their scheme and surrounding talent. It’s hard to extricate either of these players from their surroundings, but Purdy has shown a bit more ability to create outside of structure and under pressure, and has shown a higher ceiling in terms of his raw production — even while throwing at lower volume.
Running back: 49ers
McCaffrey is the NFL’s best, most versatile, and arguably most explosive running back. He led the league in rushing and has been the best pass-catching back in the league since he was drafted out of Stanford. The Lions’ tandem of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs is really damn good, and they make for excellent complements to each other given their divergent skill sets. But they just can’t touch McCaffrey at the moment.
Wide receiver: 49ers
Both of these teams have star receivers. Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Amon-Ra St. Brown are each among the very best in the NFL, and the fun part about them is that they all win in different ways. Aiyuk operates essentially as a true X receiver within Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and his ability to win at every stage of the route is rare. Samuel is the premier YAC creator in the league. St. Brown is arguably the best slot man, depending on how you classify someone like CeeDee Lamb. The top two, plus the steady contributions of Jauan Jennings as both a blocker and third-down receiving weapon, give San Francisco the edge over a group whose depth behind ARSB is intriguing but limited, at least right now. (Jameson Williams could level them up in the future.)
Tight end: 49ers
George Kittle is one of the few tight ends who would still give his team the advantage at tight end against Sam LaPorta, who had arguably the best rookie tight end season of all time. The thing is, Kittle is arguably just as strong a pass-catching threat as LaPorta, while also being the best blocking tight end in football. There just aren’t many opponents where San Francisco wouldn’t have the advantage here.
Offensive line: Lions
This is the Lions’ greatest area of strength, and they will need it to be just that on Sunday to pull off the upset. Sewell is already one of the premier right tackles in the league. Center Frank Ragnow and guard Jonah Jackson are very, very good. (Ragnow’s injury status will be important to watch this week with Jackson already being ruled out.) Graham Glasgow and Taylor Decker are quality starters. Trent Williams is the best offensive lineman on either team, and possibly in the entire league. But the rest of San Francisco’s offensive line is not nearly of the same quality, so Detroit gets the edge here.
Defensive line: 49ers
Detroit’s got a pretty good group of players up front. Aidan Hutchinson is awesome. Alim McNeill had a breakout season. There’s some pretty decent depth both inside and out. But the Niners — Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Chase Young, Randy Gregory, Kevin Givens, Javon Kinlaw, even Sebastian Joseph-Day — are loaded. The Lions just can’t compete with that.
All due respect to Jack Campbell and Alex Anzalone, as well as Derrick Barnes, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Malcolm Rodriguez, but Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are the best linebacker duo in the NFL. Nobody’s topping them.
Defensive back: 49ers
At the beginning of the season, the Lions’ defensive backfield looked much improved. Additions like Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and Brian Branch helped take the group to a higher level. Moseley is now out, replaced in the lineup by Kindle Vildor. Ifeatu Melifonwu has taken a step forward and safety, and Kerby Joseph is still solid. This is a perfectly acceptable group, but it has also been lit up at times. There’s a decent floor, but it’s not locking anybody down. Charvarius Ward is better than anyone Detroit has to offer at corner, and the combination of Ambry Thomas on the outside and Deommodore Lenoir in the slot has been good. Ji’Ayir Brown has stepped right into Talanoa Hufanga’s role and been good. Tashaun Gipson remains a good starter. Both among the regular group and the depth pieces, the Niners are better here.
Jake Moody did not have all that good a rookie season. Michael Badgley has come in and provided an upgrade over Riley Patterson at kicker. Kalif Raymond has been more of a threat as a returner this year than has Ray-Ray McCloud. We’ll give this one to Detroit.