Story behind 49ers' miracle catch in NFC Championship

49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, top, catches a pass against Detroit Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor (29) during the second half of the NFC Championship NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024  --AP Photo  Godofreedo A Vasquez
49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, top, catches a pass against Detroit Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor (29) during the second half of the NFC Championship NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024 --AP Photo Godofreedo A Vasquez

SANTA CLARA — Brandon Aiyuk called it luck, but the play that might’ve saved the 49ers’ season had something else to it, too.


Confidence — bordering on arrogance, perhaps — and experience.


Brock Purdy’s 51-yard bomb that went through the arms of Detroit Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor, bounced off his face mask and popped into the hands of Aiyuk turned into the play of the game for the 49ers, who went on to overcome a 17-point deficit in a stunning 34-31 win to earn a berth in the Super Bowl.


Aiyuk provided a simple explanation of the catch to Fox’s Erin Andrews: “Before the game, a ladybug landed on my shoe, and y’all know what that means. That’s all I can say.”


If a ladybug lands on you, it’s considered good luck.


“I saw the replay and I was like, ‘Ha, just how we intended it to look, off the guy’s face mask and right to BA,’” George Kittle said. “Dang, Brock’s good at football isn’t he?”

Kittle smiled. Maybe the 49ers needed a little bit of luck.


They scored shortly after Aiyuk’s miracle catch, then got lucky again on the very next possession. Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs appeared to turn the wrong way while receiving a handoff, which kept him from positioning the ball properly in his arms. It was quickly stripped by Tashaun Gipson Sr., leading directly to another 49ers touchdown.


More fortunate followed for the 49ers on the Lions’ next possession, when wide-open receiver Josh Reynolds dropped a pass that would’ve converted a third-down play. The Lions were forced to punt. The Niners went ahead on the very next possession. They never trailed again.


Perhaps it was luck that keyed Aiyuk’s catch, but as Purdy and Niners coach Kyle Shanahan explained, there was more to it. And there was a precedent.


Go back to Week 5, when Purdy was playing a near-perfect game against the Arizona Cardinals. Nothing could go wrong for Purdy that day, and so even when Aiyuk was double covered on a deep ball, his quarterback let one fly and trusted he’d come down with it.


Aiyuk reacted a split second before both defenders, jumped in front of them and hauled in a fingertip catch.


Was it an ill-advised pass? Not to Purdy, who called it “an opportunity ball.”


He trusts his receivers, Purdy said, and he trusted Aiyuk would catch it.


Back to Sunday’s game against the Lions, when the Niners were struggling to find anything on offense and fell behind two touchdowns midway through the third quarter. They were desperate.


“We needed it to get down the field pretty quick,” Purdy said.


And because the safety never covered the deep ball, the corner was one-on-one against Aiyuk, who just completed a 1,342-yard season.


“In that moment I’m looking at it like, ‘We need a play,’” Purdy said. “I’m not going to be stupid and just throw the ball up. BA is one-on-one. I’m going to take that up. Especially in this kind of game, we need that kind of play.”


He threw another “opportunity ball.”


This time, the corner beat Aiyuk to the spot, cut him off and the ball fell right into his hands. But Vildor whiffed. The ball bounced off his helmet and Aiyuk, who was already taking a spill, snatched the ball with one hand and hauled in a ridiculous catch.


A lucky play? Perhaps, but it should still be remembered with Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, Julian Edelman’s tipped-ball catch in Super Bowl LI and David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII.


“People can say what they want, but I was giving my guy a shot and it worked out,” Purdy said.


Shanahan remembered the earlier play in Arizona, the “opportunity ball,” and loved that Purdy went for it again.


“That definitely is the read,” the coach said. “When the middle-third safety cuts the high cross, that’s where the ball is supposed to go. Last time he did that was versus Arizona at home.…


“That’s almost exactly what happened today, too. When they cut, usually the middle is open. The corner was disciplined, stayed on top. Couldn’t run by him. Brock read the defense, gave BA a shot, BA made it right.”


Three plays later, Purdy fired to Aiyuk for a touchdown that turned the momentum of a game that had otherwise been almost entirely one-sided.


“That was the play that changed things,” said Kyle Juszczyk. “Definitely shifted the momentum. It was on after that.”


“We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” Juszczyk said. “We’re back in the Super Bowl.”


In the locker room more than an hour after the game, Aiyuk stood near his locker surrounded by family and friends. He was still in full uniform. A cigar in one hand, he bent his knees and started to dance.


Hardly saying a word, he didn’t stop dancing for nearly 10 minutes. He just wiggled around his corner of the room like a man without a care in the world.


Like a man who, six hours earlier, had a ladybug land on his shoe


Jason Mastrodonato — San Jose Mercury News

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