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NFC championship game preview: 49ers, Lions face off for spot in Super Bowl

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The top-seeded San Francisco 49ers will host the No. 3-seeded Detroit Lions Sunday to determine who will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in Las Vegas. 

On the home team’s sideline, the 49ers own the second-longest streak ever, making a conference championship game in each of their last seven playoff runs. 

The Lions’ two playoff wins are more than they’ve had in the last 65 years combined. Their one playoff win during that stretch came in 1991, when they reached the NFC title game. 

Let’s take a look at the key points of this matchup to see who may have the edge Sunday.

Will Deebo Samuel play?

One of the big questions entering Sunday is whether versatile 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel will play. 

Samuel injured his left shoulder in last week’s win over the Green Bay Packers and couldn’t play for most of the game. 

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As a result, the 49ers’ offense didn’t run as smoothly as head coach Kyle Shanahan would’ve hoped, and the two games Samuel missed during the regular season resulted in similar struggles. 

He did, however, start practicing on a limited basis Thursday and started to trend in the right direction. Samuel’s presence in this offense, whether he has the ball in his hands or not, is a big advantage for the 49ers and the rest of their talented weapons. 

Stopping the run

If you think the Lions are the only team that needs to worry about the run game defensively because of Christian McCaffrey, think again. 

David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have provided a one-two punch this season that produced the fifth-best rushing offense per game (135.9 yards), while San Fran ranked third (140.5 yards) with McCaffrey leading the league in rushing this year.

Jahmyr Gibbs

While both teams can establish the run, they’re also both good at stopping it. 

The Lions surrendered 88.8 rushing yards a game, second best in the league. The 49ers were reight behind them at 89.7 rushing yards allowed per game. 

So, that area of the matchup is similar, but McCaffrey provides an edge.

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The hard-nosed running style of Montgomery mixed with Gibbs’ ability to make people miss anywhere on the field will provide the San Fran defense a difficult challenge. 

Aidan Hutchinson needs to get home

The 49ers’ pass rush on Goff will be featured all game long with multiple stars, including Nick Bosa and Chase Young, leading the way. For the Lions, the onus will be on Aidan Hutchinson, the second-year man out of Michigan, to get to Brock Purdy. 

Aidan Hutchinson plays against the Raiders

When Purdy has a clean pocket, he’s one of the most accurate and efficient quarterbacks in the league, finding weapons like Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle in the pass game. 

Hutchinson has gotten home at least once in his each of the first two playoff games of his career – two sacks against the Los Angeles Rams and one against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Hutchinson’s disruption of Purdy’s pocket will be a key factor if Detroit is to advance. 

Exploit the Lions’ secondary

For the 49ers, giving Purdy time to find receivers will be key because Detroit has been suspectable to big plays this season. 

Looking at tape from last week’s game against the Bucs, quarterback Baker Mayfield tested Lions cornerback Cam Sutton a lot when Mike Evans was matched up with him. Evans did well exploiting press coverage, and he finished with eight catches for 147 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. 

Brandon Aiyuk runs

Detroit has allowed 338 yards per game in the playoffs, the most of any team. During the regular season, the Lions gave up the fourth-most yards through the air (4,562 total). 

How to watch

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The 49ers-Lions matchup can be seen on FOX. Coverage of the game begins at 6 p.m. ET with kickoff starting at 6:30 p.m. ET.

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