Biggest comebacks in NFL playoff history

Edwin  - CEO January 29, 2024
Updated 2024/01/29 at 8:12 AM
9 Min Read

Lions blow 17-point lead, lose NFC championship heartbreaker to 49ers



NFL fans could hardly believe what they watched for much of the game. The Lions were not just beating the 49ers; they were handling San Francisco, a team many believed was the best in the NFL, Edward Sutelan reports for The Sporting News.


However, what was at one point a 24-7 lead evaporated, and it didn’t take long for it to disappear completely. The 49ers scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter and booted a fourth-quarter field goal to cap off four straight scoring drives that flipped the score. San Francisco held on late, winning 34-31 to top the Lions and earn a trip to the Super Bowl to set up a rematch from 2020 with the Chiefs.


The third quarter has been a consistent bugaboo for the Lions all season. Detroit allowed 111 third-quarter points in 2023, the most in the NFL, and scored just 73 points, tied for 15th in the NFL.


At one point, NFL Next Gen Stats listed the Lions as having a 90.4-percent chance to win. How did they blow it? Here’s what you need to know.


How the Lions blew the lead to the 49ers


Detroit went into the locker room having just booted a field goal to go up 24-7. The game was far from over, but it was a statement to take a three-score, 17-point advantage. Kyle Shanahan had deferred to the second half, hoping to double up, but now was hoping the first-half possession would allow San Francisco to get back in the game.


The first possession out of the locker rooms was a step in the right direction, but it hardly felt enough. San Francisco took nine plays before kicking a 43-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 24-10. That’s where the chaos started.


First controversial decision to go for it


Dan Campbell is known for making aggressive fourth-down decisions. Given his aggressive tendencies, he has advised people watching Lions games to wear diapers. This time, he might have gone a bit too far.


The Lions stalled at the 49ers’ 28-yard line and faced a 4th-and-2. A field goal would have put the Lions back up three scores again and matched the field goal earlier in the game. Instead, Detroit wound up going for it.


Campbell opted to put the ball in Jared Goff’s hands, and it appeared the play worked as intended. Unfortunately, the ball hit off Josh Reynolds’ hands, dropping for a crucial incompletion and a turnover on downs.


Brandon Aiyuk’s heroic drive


Deebo Samuel started the drive off, showing off his speed with an impressive 17-yard catch to get to the San Francisco 45, but make no mistake — this was the Brandon Aiyuk drive.


Purdy threw a deep pass that overshot Aiyuk and appeared headed for an interception to Kindle Vildor. The ball deflected off Vildor and was scooped up by Aiyuk, who made an acrobatic 51-yard grab to move the 49ers up to the Detroit 4-yard line.



But he wasn’t done there. The 49ers struggled to get the ball in the end zone until Purdy shifted in the pocket and threaded the needle to Aiyuk for a touchdown, which brought the game to 24-17.



Quick turnaround


What happened next didn’t take long to unfold. The Lions had the ball back with 5:17 left in the third quarter and a chance to regain momentum. It did not unfold that way at all. Instead, Jahmyr Gibbs mishandled the handoff and lost the ball when he got to the line of scrimmage. Arik Armstead hopped on it at the Detroit 24, and the 49ers had the ball back.



The 49ers made quick work punishing the Lions for the turnover. Purdy scrambled for 21 yards to the Lions’ four-yard line, Samuel added another three yards, and Christian McCaffrey finished it with the game-tying touchdown.



First lead change


The Lions had been gashing the 49ers on the ground all game. Still, after David Montgomery ran for only a yard on the first-down carry following the game-tying score, the Lions opted to have Goff pass twice, the last one again resulting in a brutal drop by Reynolds.



The punt from Jack Fox appeared to be perfect, bouncing inside the five-yard line and going straight up in the air, but the momentum of the Lions’ gunner carried him into the end zone, resulting in a touchback with the ball to give San Francisco the ball at the 20.


The game now tied, San Francisco was able to get back into its style of combining methodical passes with gashing runs. Purdy and McCaffrey systematically carved their way up the field, taking 7:09 off the clock on 11 plays, ending in a 33-yard field goal to give San Francisco the lead with 9:52 left in the game.


Second controversial decision to go for it


Did we mention Campbell advised wearing diapers? Yeah, well, again, he throws caution to the wind, and for the second time on Sunday, it ended controversially.


The Lions reached the 49ers’ 30-yard line with 7:32 left, but they were stuck at a 4th-and-3. The field goal would have tied the game. Instead, Campbell put the ball in Goff’s hands. He was flushed out of the pocket and threw a wobbler downfield short of a diving Amon-Ra St. Brown.


Tasked with defending their first lead, the 49ers again marched down the field. This time, they didn’t stop with a field goal, capping it off with a three-yard touchdown by Elijah Mitchell to give the 49ers a 10-point lead.



The Lions scored one more touchdown, but needing an onside kick, Detroit came up unsuccessful, and the 49ers were able to run out the clock on the victory.


Most prominent blown leads in NFL playoff history


The Lions at least won’t go down in history as having blown the largest lead in playoff history. That still belongs to “The Comeback,” a wild game where the Bills mounted an improbable run to come back from down 32 to defeat the Oilers in the wild-card round of the 1993 AFC playoffs to win 41-38.


Matchup Date Round Deficit Winner
Bills vs. Oilers Jan. 3, 1993 AFC wild card 32 Bills, 41-38
Chiefs vs. Colts Jan. 4, 2014 AFC wild card 28 Colts, 45-44
Jaguars vs. Chargers Jan. 14, 2023 AFC wild card 27 Jaguars, 31-30
Patriots vs. Falcons Feb. 5, 2017 Super Bowl 25 Patriots, 34-28
Chiefs vs. Texans Jan. 12, 2020 AFC divisional 24 Chiefs, 51-31


The Lions did tie the Falcons’ record for the largest blown lead in NFC championship history. The 2012 Falcons led the 49ers 17-0 early in the second quarter. They proceeded to be out-scored 28-7 the rest of the game, coughing up the 17-point lead.


However, the largest comeback in conference championship history belongs to the Colts in 2007. Indianapolis trailed Tom Brady and the Patriots at one point by 18 points midway through the second quarter. Peyton Manning led the Colts to a 38-34 win en route to winning that year’s Super Bowl.


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