Jalen Hurts. Brock Purdy. MVP candidate versus unlikely Rookie of the Year contender.
That’s how this game has been presented this week, but it’s so much more than that. It isn’t often that a pair of such well-balanced teams like these two end up meeting in the conference championship. Usually, one or both squads possess a defined strength in one or two areas and might be hiding a weakness. Not these two.
For both teams, it’s the most important game to this point. And both don’t show many vulnerabilities.
Philadelphia owns home-field advantage, while San Francisco lays claim to the longest-running hot streak of any remaining team in the playoffs. Thanks to the stunning success of Purdy, the 49ers have the feel of a team of destiny. The Eagles, meanwhile, have felt as if a Super Bowl awaited them since the moment they acquired A.J. Brown.
One of these two teams’ journeys will end Sunday. Neither will feel satisfied with a loss, but only one can win.
A clash of titans awaits us in Philadelphia. Let the show begin.
Here are five things to watch for when the 49ers visit the Eagles on Sunday:
1) Two powerhouses battle for a trip to the Super Bowl. We as a football collective sure lucked out with this one. Two teams with top-five offenses and defenses square off in the hostile confines of Lincoln Financial Field. Philadelphia police are already greasing the poles in the city. San Francisco hasn’t lost a game since late October, and if you haven’t heard of Brock Purdy’s unlikely journey to this point, you must be living under a rock. The 49ers have ascended from a sneaky contender to an outright machine, riding a stifling defense and an offense that hasn’t missed a beat despite operating with its third quarterback of 2022. Philadelphia sprinted to a 13-1 start before losing its quarterback for a couple of games, and appears to have regained its momentum just in time to complete a run to a Super Bowl. This is a veritable meeting of an unstoppable force versus an immovable object. There’s no telling who might come out victorious, because both teams are that good. All that’s left is to let the two squads battle it out while we sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
2) Will Jalen Hurts be the game-breaking QB the Eagles need? It’s no secret the Eagles’ star signal-caller has been dealing with a shoulder injury for more than a month, yet he didn’t seem too bothered by it in Philadelphia’s Divisional Round win over New York. Then again, the Giants aren’t the 49ers, owners of the league’s best defense that is equipped to pressure Hurts — Nick Bosa leads the NFL in sacks with 18.5 — much more than New York did in a game in which Hurts had ample time to throw and only had to make a few plays with his legs. Championship Weekend promises to present Hurts with a greater challenge, which will inevitably test his health. When asked Friday if he would be able to pull off athletic feats he’s described in the past as getting “freaky,” Hurts replied bluntly: “I don’t know. We’ll see.” Hurts has never started a regular season or playoff game against a team that ranked No. 1 in scoring or total defense (San Francisco ranks first in both), and he hasn’t faced a team that has ranked in the top five in both categories since his rookie season of 2020. These Eagles are explosive, dynamic and confident. San Francisco will aim to humble them, and if Hurts has any physical limitations, the 49ers’ chances of doing so increase substantially.
3) Is Brock Purdy’s Cinderella story winding down? When Purdy heard his name called with the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, it’s unlikely he envisioned himself preparing to start for the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game — at least not in 2023. Yet, here he is, riding a hot streak that includes a perfect 7-0 record as a starter and enough hype to power a quarter of the homes in the Bay Area. Advancing to the Super Bowl would only make his story even more captivating, but a few worrisome signs have arisen in the last week. First, we can all admit Purdy wasn’t the main reason San Francisco won last week. He struggled in the first half, and a steady diet of runs and suffocating defense helped close out the 49ers’ 19-12 win over the Cowboys. It’s not alarming, but it also wasn’t a highlight-filled outing for Purdy. The 49ers faithful will pound the table while shouting “a win is a win!” and while this is true, it might not be enough against Philadelphia. The Eagles recorded the third-most sacks as a defense in NFL history in 2022, finishing with 75, thanks to four Eagles (Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham and Javon Hargrave) each finishing with 11 or more sacks, and becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to have 15-plus more sacks than any other team in the NFL in the regular season. It won’t be as simple as focusing on one game-changing rusher for the 49ers. History also isn’t on Purdy’s side: Four rookie quarterbacks have started in conference championship games in NFL history, and none have won. No rookie quarterback has ever started in a Super Bowl, either, meaning one of two things: Either Purdy’s unlikely run is entering its final chapter, or he’s about to make history.
4) Which rushing attack prevails? The Eagles racked up 416 yards of total offense in their Divisional Round win over the Giants, and only 154 came from Hurts. If this comes as a surprise, you haven’t watched the Eagles much in 2022 (or in 2021, for that matter). Philadelphia tied with the 2006 Chargers for the second-most rushing touchdowns scored by a team in a season in the last 30 years, finishing one rushing score shy of the 1995 Cowboys. They own a diverse attack that, when fully healthy, weaponizes Hurts’ running ability and supplements him with the likes of Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott. Even if Hurts isn’t at 100 percent, it’s still a frightening attack: Gainwell and Sanders combined for 202 yards and one touchdown on 29 attempts, while Hurts and Scott tacked on 66 more yards and two scores last weekend. If there’s a defense that can stop it, it’s San Francisco’s, which has allowed 3.4 yards per carry and 79 rushing yards per game, including the playoffs, which ranks second in the NFL. As for the 49ers’ rushing attack, it’s somewhat of the same story: Christian McCaffrey leads the way with 4.9 yards per attempt on 184 rushes, while Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel also pose a threat. The biggest determining factor here might be health: McCaffrey (bruised calf) returned to practice Friday, while Mitchell (groin) did not. Will San Francisco have enough horses in the stable to keep pace? Or will the Eagles’ attack be enough to dominate time of possession against one of the NFL’s best rushing defenses?
5) Who wins the chess match? San Francisco has thrived by trusting its front four to pressure opposing passers and dare quarterbacks to try to find throwing windows against its zone coverage, relying on zone at the highest rate of any playoff team in the Next Gen Stats era at nearly 90 percent of coverage snaps. Interestingly, Hurts has thrived against zone coverage this season, posting a passer rating of 104.4 versus such coverage this season (including playoffs). Only one quarterback has been better against zone: Purdy. Philadelphia is equipped with the ideal group of pass-catchers to attack zone, with A.J. Brown’s size and speed creating advantageous opportunities for completions, DeVonta Smith’s speed allowing him to find soft spots in zone, and Dallas Goedert creating mismatches he can exploit for receptions in between defenders. San Francisco has a counter for Goedert in the form of Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair, but the rest of the defense will have to stop the other two (plus Quez Watkins). Add in Hurts’ mobility and suddenly, San Francisco’s pass rush could be neutralized. It won’t be that simple, though, not with Kyle Shanahan and Nick Sirianni at the respective controls. San Francisco is a rolling yards-after-catch machine, with all three top targets (Samuel, McCaffrey and George Kittle) ranking in the top three at their positions in yards after catch over expected. Like the Eagles, the 49ers can attack defenses from a number of different angles. Ultimately, this one might come down to in-game adjustments. Cooler, composed heads will be essential to victory Sunday.
Image & Story Credit: nfl.com