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49ers are the anti-heroes of the NFC championship game

People who hate puppies. Anyone who plays videos or takes calls in public without using headphones. The folks who put the milk back in the refrigerator even though there’s only five drops left in the carton.

And now, the San Francisco 49ers.  

Yes, the NFC’s No. 1 seed has joined the list of the universally hated this week. The 49ers’ great sin? Besides their stadium? They happen to be playing the Detroit Lions, who’ve become America’s new favorite team after decades of futility, in the NFC championship on Sunday.

‘It’s harsh winters, right? Auto industry. Blue collar. Things aren’t always easy. That’s what we’re about. You want something the city can be proud of. You can look at those guys and say, ‘I can back that guy. I can back that team. I can resonate with this group of guys.’ They’re kind of salty. They don’t quit. They play hard,’ Lions coach Dan Campbell said.

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‘These guys, they have a kinship with this city and this area. They love it.’

You don’t have to be from Detroit or Michigan to fall for this scrappy team, which only a few years ago only the most diehard Lions fans would claim.

The Lions weren’t just bad, they were historically bad. The first NFL team to go 0-16, in 2008, and one of just five in league history to have a winless season. Playoff appearances were both sporadic − Detroit is in the postseason for only the fifth time in the last 27 years − and short.

As for the Super Bowl, please, that was a pipe dream. The Lions, who’ve been around for 90-plus years, have never played in one. The only other teams that haven’t are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who didn’t even exist until 1995; and the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns, which are also quasi-expansion teams.

The Lions also had two of the best players the game has seen in Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, and both retired because of broken hearts. OK, that wasn’t the official reason. But it might as well have been, each of them walking away because they knew the Lions weren’t going anywhere anytime soon and it was futile to stick around any longer.

Now Campbell embodies the toughness of the city, talking at his introductory news conference about biting kneecaps and ingesting caffeine like a 1969 Chevy Camaro SS guzzled gas. His players are equally gritty. Sure, Jared Goff was the first pick of the 2016 NFL draft, but the Los Angeles Rams tossed him aside as soon as they could get somebody better. Amon-Ra St. Brown had a career season this year and got snubbed for the NFL’s personality contest, err, Pro Bowl.

The 49ers, meanwhile, might as well be NFL royalty. They have five Super Bowl titles, one fewer than the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Granted, their last one came in the 1990s, but they’ve at least gotten to the NFL’s biggest stage this century.

This is their third consecutive appearance in the NFC championship, and fourth in five years.

It isn’t just the franchise with a sterling pedigree, either. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan’s father is Mike Shanahan, who coached the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles. Niners running back Christian McCaffrey’s father, Ed, was one of top playmakers on those Broncos teams.

And when both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams were announced this season, they could have been mistaken for the 49ers depth chart.

McCaffrey; fullback Kyle Juszczyk; tight end George Kittle; tackle Trent Williams; and linebacker Fred Warner were first-team All-Pro. Quarterback Brock Purdy; defensive end Nick Bosa; cornerback Charvarius Ward joined them as starters on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster.  

So, yeah, the choice of who to root for Sunday is an easy one. The team with seemingly everything? Or the team that’s clawed its way up from nothing?

There’s nothing wrong with the 49ers. They’re not cheaters, they’re exciting to watch and their players are actually quite likeable. But they’re not the Lions, and that now makes them the bad guys.

San Francisco might be the No. 1 seed, but Detroit is the people’s NFC champion.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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