After 20 hard-fought weeks that have led us through a rollercoaster of a season, the 49ers head to Philadelphia with one final obstacle in the way of them and a trip to Glendale to play in the Super Bowl in two weeks.
This should be one for the ages, as two heavyweight opponents that are very evenly matched across the board will look to win what should be a generational war of attrition between these two squads.
DraftKings Sportsbook currently lists the Eagles as a 2.5-point favorite, with the over-under set at 46.5. Here are a few things to watch for in this matchup.
Goliath vs. Goliath
Some people might be inclined to push the 49ers closer to David, given they still have a rookie quarterback under center, but I am not one of them. Forget the draft slot where Purdy was selected; the 49ers' rookie signal-caller has made it clear that draft evaluations are far from foolproof, and he is more talented than where he ultimately had his name called.
Even with the history of a rookie quarterback never winning a conference championship working against the 49ers, they are still a formidable opponent for any foe and boast one of if not the best rosters in the entire league from top to bottom.
They are strong up front, have a collection of star players at the skill positions, and possess the league’s number one defense that has repeatedly proven they have the chops to stymy explosive offenses in the postseason.
If the 12-game win streak they currently find themselves on wasn’t evidence enough, the 49ers are for real, and they are not shy about letting people know it. However, so is their opponent on the other side, an Eagles team that has lost just one game this season with Jalen Hurts as their starting quarterback.
Philadelphia mirrors the 49ers and their strengths in a lot of ways. Both are built to win up front on both sides of the ball with a physicality that seems all but lost in the modern era of finesse football. In addition, both teams have a diverse running game and the ability to light up a scoreboard at a moment’s notice.
This Eagles team was the class of the league for the majority of this season, and they have to feel quite confident after they beat the brakes off of the New York Giants in the divisional round.
In my eyes, these are the two most complete teams in football, and I think it is very realistic that we get a scenario similar to the 2013 season, where we reflect back feeling like the NFC Championship was the real Super Bowl.
Will the 49ers have success running the ball in 21 personnel
This is the personnel grouping that allows the 49ers to get their best players on the field at the same time. For those who don’t know, 21 personnel is two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers.
That means the 49ers can trot out Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk, and Christian McCaffrey at the same time. As a defense, where do you even begin to try and slow down this dynamic group of players at the same time?
In an era of football that has seen the majority of the league pivot towards spreading the field out in 11 personnel, the 49ers' consistent usage of 21 personnel is an ode to the days of old. However, it also presents a unique challenge for opposing defenses. The looks the 49ers will show out of this personnel grouping is not something that teams are regularly facing nor prepping for consistently throughout the season.
Since Shanahan took over in 2017, the 49ers have scored 70 touchdowns out of 21 personnel. The next closest team on this list is the Patriots at 32 touchdowns, not even half of what the 49ers have amassed over that time.
The key for the 49ers' offense to consistently win in 21 personnel starts and stops with their ability to run the football, particularly when we are talking about outside zone. One area where the Eagles have been very strong this season is their ability to defend the outside zone in 21 personnel.
Philadelphia only allows 3.2 yards per carry against outside zone in 21 personnel looks this season. This is going to be a major factor in deciding the outcome of this game. If the 49ers are unable to get into a rhythm running the ball with their best players on the field, it could end up being a long day trying to put points on the board against a formidable Eagles defense.
Will the 49ers cover 3 pose problems for Jalen Hurts
Hurts has been playing out of his mind this season and should find himself firmly in the MVP conversation as a result. The third-year quarterback has been lights out for the Eagles this season, who are 15-1 in the games he has started this season.
The dynamic potential Hurts brings with his ability to threaten defenses with both his arms and his legs is something that poses a major threat for any team, even the 49ers, and their number-one-ranked defense.
However, one area where Hurts has struggled happens to coincide with something the 49ers' defense does often and well. Based on EPA/Play, the coverage that has given the Hurts the most trouble this season is cover 3, which the 49ers happen to run about 35 percent of the time.
If the 49ers will have a chance to pull off this upset, they will have to do everything possible to make Hurts uncomfortable. Based on the numbers from this season, a heavy dose of Cover 3 might be a good place to start.
QB efficient vs each coverage through Divisional weekend. Jalen Hurts being pretty bad vs cover 3 and facing the 49ers (play cover 3 on 35% of plays, 7th highest rate) is something worth looking out for on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/xfoQINYiY4— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) January 25, 2023