Halfway into the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers’ defense and its coordinator, Steve Wilks, were in the position to take the brunt of the criticism.
The Lions piled up 280 yards of offense and scored 24 points in the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s game.
The 49ers’ defense could not get off the field, allowing the Lions to convert on third-down distances of 9, 10, 12, 18 and 7 yards.
“The men in that locker room, I knew for a fact we were going to win that football game,” Wilks told NBC Sports Bay Area after the game.
“And it wasn’t really a lot of yelling and screaming. We talked about the things we had to correct, and everybody just had to do their job.”
The Lions failed to score any points on their first four possessions of the second half. Detroit was stopped on downs, lost a fumble, punted and had a second turnover on downs.
“It started up front,” Wilks said. “The D-line took control. We started playing a little bit more man-to-man (pass coverage), which allowed our linebackers to get downhill.”
The first big momentum swing in the 49ers’ favor occurred when Lions coach Dan Campbell opted to go for it on fourth and 2 from the 49ers’ 28, rather than attempt a 46-yard field that could have given Detroit a 17-point lead midway through the third quarter.
Bosa forced Lions quarterback Jared Goff off his spot, and Goff delivered a pass that receiver Josh Reynolds could not secure.
“We knew coming in all week they were going to go for it on fourth down,” Wilks said. “That’s just who they are, and that’s why we always talked about trying to keep them out of third and short, because we knew they were going to go for it.
“And then in the second half, given the opportunity, they did. And we rose to the occasion.”
Later, Campbell opted against attempting a 48-yard field goal to tie the score in the fourth quarter.
That fourth-and-3 pass play had no chance. Then, the 49ers drove down the field for the touchdown that extended their lead to 34-24 with three minutes remaining.
Between the fourth-down stops, the 49ers’ defense came up with a huge play when safety Tashaun Gipson stripped rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs of the ball and Arik Armstead recovered.
That takeaway led to the tying points as the 49ers reeled off 27 unanswered points in the second half.
“We talked about trying to create a takeaway and (Gibbs) carried the ball loose. We mentioned that all week. And when Gip came up with that play, man, it was phenomenal.
“I knew right now that was going to be the one that turned the tide for us.”
Wilks came under scrutiny earlier in the season amid the 49ers’ three-game losing streak. He ended up moving from the coaches’ booth to the sideline, and the 49ers’ defense seemed to respond.
After the shaky first half against the Lions, the 49ers’ defense did its part to enable the 49ers to keep their season alive.
The 49ers advanced to the eighth Super Bowl in franchise history and will face the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Feb 11, in Las Vegas.
“There’s always going to be some criticism of what we should do,” Wilks said. “I know we’re one of two that are still lehft and we’re heading to Vegas.”
The 49ers realize they have to do a better job from start to finish against an offense led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce. Wilks referred to that pair as “first-ballot Hall of Famers.”
Wilks said, “To be in this situation, we’re going to make the corrections we need to correct. It’s going to be a difficult task ahead.”