49ers rally vs. Lions in NFC title game to reach Super Bowl LVIII

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As the seconds ticked away in the San Francisco 49ers’ Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, tight end George Kittle was filmed on the sideline vowing to return to the NFL’s biggest stage. It took four years and a historic comeback Sunday, but the Niners finally made good on Kittle’s promise.

With their stunning, 34-31 come-from-behind win against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers are not only returning to the Super Bowl but will get a chance to avenge that loss to the Chiefs on Feb. 11 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

To get there, the Niners needed to overcome a 24-7 deficit after a first half in which the Lions were the clear aggressor, running the ball at will and pressuring San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy on nearly 60% of his dropbacks.

But the veteran-laden Niners didn’t bow out, sparked by receiver Brandon Aiyuk’s 51-yard catch off a deflection off Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor’s helmet, and rattled off 17 points in an eight-minute span to tie the game. The Niners took their first lead with 9:52 left on a 33-yard field goal from kicker Jake Moody to make it 27-24.

To ice the victory, the Niners got a fourth-down stop in their territory (their second of the game), a 3-yard touchdown run from back Elijah Mitchell to make it 34-24, and an onside kick recovery from Kittle. It was tied for the biggest comeback in an NFC Championship Game, matching the 2012 Niners who came back from down 17 to beat the Atlanta Falcons.

It also was a bit of revenge for the 1957 Niners, who, coincidentally, had a 24-7 halftime lead and went up 27-7 against the Lions in the 1957 Western Conference playoffs, only to lose 31-27.

With the victory, the Niners sit alone in NFL history for most playoff wins with 38, surpassing the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers. Coach Kyle Shanahan improved to 8-3 in playoff games, which ties him with Tom Flores for the second-best playoff win percentage among coaches with at least 10 games, and it puts him behind only Kansas City’s Andy Reid (14) in playoff wins since Shanahan became a head coach in 2017.

Making their third consecutive NFC Championship Game appearance and fourth in five years, the Niners arrived at Sunday’s game with memories of last year’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles fresh in their minds.

That loss, in which Purdy suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during the first quarter, left the Niners lamenting a missed opportunity, not just because they believed they could beat Philadelphia, but because they know as well as anyone this side of Kansas City how difficult it is to climb the mountain to get back to this point of the postseason.

On Thursday, left tackle Trent Williams laid out just how difficult it is.

“If you’ve been there, you know what it takes to get back there,” Williams said. “We’ve been there obviously last two years. You kind of got to have control, too, because you want to get it all back in one day. You want to win a championship the first day at OTAs. You’ve got to have patience and understand this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint.”

The 49ers’ marathon isn’t finished but they are entering the home stretch. That they will get a chance to atone for the loss to Kansas City in their last Super Bowl appearance is the icing on top. The Niners led that game by 10 and had the ball with 8:53 to go but fell 31-20 as the Chiefs rattled off the game’s final 21 points.

Kansas City has since been back to the Super Bowl two previous times, winning one of those, and will enter this one as the defending champions. The 49ers opened as 2.5-point favorites at ESPN BET, but the lined dipped to -1.5 within 20 minutes after being posted and was as low as -1 at some sportsbooks Sunday night. The total opened at 47.5.

For the Niners, this will be their eighth Super Bowl appearance, tied for second most all time with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. A win against the Chiefs would give San Francisco its long-awaited sixth Lombardi Trophy, which would tie the Steelers and Patriots for the most all time.