For many losing football teams, they mark just how close they were in terms of time.
Take Super Bowl XXIII. When Joe Montana hit John Taylor to give the San Francisco 49ers the lead late over the Cincinnati Bengals, crestfallen Bengals head coach Sam Wyche could only look at the scoreboard and mutter to no one in particular: “34 seconds.” After the game, Wyche remarked to the media “[o]ffensively and defensively we played a whale of a game. I don’t ask anything more of them than the effort they gave today. Sometimes you win with that kind of effort,” Wyche added. “This one we didn’t. What hurts is we came so far this season. But losing is hard. We were 34 seconds away.”
A more recent example? “13 seconds.” That refers to the Buffalo Bills of course, and how they were 13 seconds away from defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round during the 2021-2022 NFL season. However, those 13 seconds were enough for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to force overtime, where they would eventually prevail.
A winter of discontent awaits the Detroit Lions, who after breaking out to a 24-7 halftime lead in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, saw their own Super Bowl hopes dashed over a 4:01 span of game time. In that period, a bizarre sequence saw the 49ers storm back, and the Lions’ lead evaporate.
We begin with 7:03 left in the third quarter, and the Lions facing a 4th and 2 on the San Francisco 28-yard line. The 49ers managed a field goal from kicker Jake Moody on their first possession of the second half to cut Detroit’s lead to 24-10, but with the Lions in field goal range, Dan Campbell has a chance to get those three points back and give Detroit a three-score lead once more.
However, as he has done almost the entire season, Campbell left his offense on the field, trusting his players to convert the fourth-down situation and potentially finish the drive with a touchdown.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the conversion did not follow. Quarterback Jared Goff, after facing some pressure off the left edge, climbed in the pocket and snapped off a throw towards Josh Reynolds, who was open for the first down. The throw was towards the outside and while it would have been a tough catch, it was still one Reynolds likely wants to have back.
The pass fell incomplete, and the 49ers took over on downs. 6:58 remained in the third quarter.
After a first-down completion to Deebo Samuel gave the 49ers 17 yards and a fresh set of downs, San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy took a deep shot of his own. He let fly down the middle of the field for Brandon Aiyuk, but the pass went through his hands initially, giving cornerback Kindle Vildor a chance for a game-changing interception.
The pass hit Vildor’s face mask, and deflected into the hands of Aiyuk:
The 51-yard gain set the 49ers up with a first-and-goal situation, and needs to be seen from every angle to be believed:
San Francisco finished off the drive with, perhaps appropriately, a touchdown pass from Purdy to Aiyuk:
After the extra point from Moody, the 49ers trailed 24-17, and 5:17 remained in the third quarter.
Still, the Lions were built for this moment, right? Chiseled in the mindset of their head coach, built to respond to a challenge like a one-score game in the third quarter of the NFC Championship. This was going to be the moment where the Lions exorcised all the demons of the past, and showed that they had not just arrived, they were for real.
But on their very next offensive snap, the football was on the turf:
Someday, maybe even someday soon, we will know exactly what happened on this play. But the exchange between Goff and rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs was awkward and the running back never clearly had control of the football. Eventually, however, Arik Armstead did have control of the football, and the 49ers were handed possession on the Detroit 24-yard line, with a chance to completely erase the 17-point deficit they faced at halftime.
There was 5:09 still left in the third quarter. Less than two minutes of game time had elapsed from the failed fourth-down try to this change of possession.
Four plays later, Christian McCaffrey was in the end zone:
The extra point from Moody tied the game at 24, with 3:02 left in the third quarter.
4:01 of the game clock that completely changed the course of the NFC Championship Game.
There will be days, if not weeks and months, of debate over some of the decisions that Campbell made in the second half, including the fourth-down decision that started this entire sequence. But during that 4:01 of game time — just 241 seconds of game time — the Lions saw their entire fortunes change.
Detroit had other chances later in the game, they had opportunities to perhaps wrestle their destiny back. But over this short sequence, the entire game changed. A drop. A missed interception. A fourth-down decision. A fumble. A sequence of events that will live on in the restaurants, bars, and pool halls across the Detroit area.
Another marker of time for a losing team to ponder until the day they get another chance.
Lions fans might be wondering just how long they will have to wait to see that day.