The time is now. The matchup that everyone’s been waiting for all year. The two teams that nearly every expert would agree have the most loaded rosters in the NFL are set to square off for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
49ers vs Eagles. They’re the #1 vs #2. They’re both built on a deadly pass rush. They’re both creative in the run game. They’re both loaded up with pass catchers, including a dynamic duo of receivers and a top tier tight end. They’re both relying on their young quarterback to lead them. It’s strength on strength, power vs power, punch counter punch, etc. Securing the slight margin of victory here will be a little bit like walking a tightrope made of razor blades.
To help us understand just how the Eagles or Niners might be able to pull that off today, I reached out to Brandon Gowton from Bleeding Green Nation to give us the inside info on this Philadelphia team.
1 - Jalen Hurts suffered a shoulder sprain near the end of the season, which didn’t seem to impact him against the Giants in the Divisional Round. That said, how concerned are you about your star quarterback being less than 100%?
It’s a concern in the sense that there’s typically a very thin margin for error at this stage in the season. Indeed, Hurts seemed largely unaffected last Saturday. He started the game by completing all seven of his passes for 89 yards, two touchdowns, and a 158.3 passer rating to give the Birds a 14 to 0 lead. He was hardly limited as a ball carrier; the Eagles called six designed runs for him.
But he did uncharacteristically overthrow A.J. Brown in the end zone at one point. Was the inaccuracy due to his shoulder? Did he feel the need to overcompensate? Hard to say. But he can’t afford to leave plays on the field moving forward.
The good news for the Eagles is that Hurts was not listed on the injury report each of the past two weeks. And Sunday marks 42 days from when the sprain occurred.
Earlier this week, though, Hurts admitted that he’s still not quite 100%: “I’ve felt better. But it doesn’t really matter. Gotta get it done.”
Hurts is playing through pain. But he’s a pretty tough dude, so I’m not sure how much that really matters.
2 - The Eagles lead the league by a wide margin in sacks at 70. What makes their pass rush so effective?
Their defensive line is talented and deep. They became the first team in NFL history to have four players — Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham, and Javon Hargrave — hit double-digit sacks.
The depth in the trenches allows the Eagles to heavily rotate their rushers and keep them fresh. Last week, Reddick led the way with just 36 snaps played (69%). By contrast, Nick Bosa played 54 snaps (89%).
The Eagles’ rush also benefits from good coverage in the secondary. James Bradberry and Darius Slay are All-Pro/Pro Bowl talents who can shut down wide receivers and force the quarterback to hold on to the ball.
3 - Nick Sirianni has been consistently aggressive on 4th down, and of course he should be when the team leads the league in conversion rate at 68.8%. What’s the biggest factor in the Eagles’ ability to win on the do-or-die down?
The Eagles are virtually unstoppable in short-yardage situations. Especially when it comes to the QB sneak. Their offensive line is elite; it’s arguably the best group in the NFL. And they’re blocking for a dude who’s able to squat 600 pounds. So, yeah, not so easy to stop.
The coaching staff also deserves credit for being creative and building off their sneak success. We’ve seen the Eagles pretend to sneak only to go with a toss that picks up a first down. Or that time when they lured the Cowboys into a coverage bust by running a standard play for Dallas Goedert that sprung DeVonta Smith wide open for a touchdown.
What makes them so good in these situations speaks to the team’s success as a whole. They have the right mixture of talent, execution, and coaching.
4 - Who’s a player on offense and defense that you expect to be difference makers for the Eagles that fans of the Niners might be unaware of coming into Sunday?
OFFENSE - Quez Watkins. Niners fans may recall he burned Deommodore Lenoir for a 91-yard gain last year. (Of course, the Eagles blew that drive by turning the ball over on downs in their goal-to-go sequence after that catch.)
There’s real boom or bust potential for Watkins in this game. Last week, he didn’t even see a target for the first time since Week 1. He was out snapped by Zach Pascal, who has consistently been WR4, for the first time this season. Watkins’ decreased usage probably isn’t unrelated to he struggled down the stretch. But it could also have to do with the Birds going with a more run-heavy approach against the New York Giants, since Pascal is the superior blocking option.
With the 49ers allowing the most plays of 50+ passing yards this season, the Eagles could very well look to go his way with a deep shot or two. It’s really the only way they should be targeting Watkins, considering his more recent struggles as a short or intermediate target. He’s hardly the Eagles’ only vertical threat, but he’s certainly their fastest receiver, considering his 4.35 speed. DEFENSE - Milton Williams. I went with Williams as my under-the-radar pick last week, but he didn’t really stand out. Maybe I was a week too early? I’ll double down and say he makes an impact here.
Williams is the forgotten man with all the name power the Eagles have on their defensive line. Especially with an interior that is otherwise compromised of Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph, and Jordan Davis.
Entering the playoffs, Williams had logged one tackle for loss in each of his last three games. He had totaled five in his last five games. That was after only logging four in his first 12 games this season. And only six TFLs in 17 games as a rookie.
The light seems to be going on for him. Williams may not be super flashy, but he could help to limit the 49ers’ run game in addition to having a key pressure on Purdy.
5 - DraftKings Sportsbook has the Eagles as 2.5 point favorites, with 46.5 set as the over/under. Do those feel like fair numbers? How do you see this game going? And what’s your final score prediction?
I don’t have a strong feeling about the over/under.
I do think the line is slightly unfair to the Eagles. I know the 49ers are great. But the Birds should be standard three-point home favorites. Brock Purdy and the 49ers have not been as awesome on the road. Philly’s home field advantage is a very real thing; I was there for the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, and it was a crazy atmosphere.
Jalen Hurts is 15-1 as a starter this season. I trust him to deliver in a big spot. I’ve reached the point where I have unflappable faith in him, like I did with Nick Foles during his Super Bowl run. He’s just so calm and composed out there.
The 49ers will undoubtedly put up a great fight. They have too much talent not to do so. But the Hurts to A.J. Brown connection will ultimately prove too much for them to handle. Brown tormented the 49ers last year, and he seems poised to go off after only having three catches for 22 yards in the Divisional Round.
Philly’s pass rush will prove to be too much for Purdy to handle. There’s literally no precedent of a rookie quarterback winning a game in this spot. They’re 0-4 in conference championship games with 4 TDs, 9 INTs and an average loss margin of 10.25 points.
The edge that Sirianni will give the Eagles in terms of game management might be the biggest mismatch in this matchup. I feel like I can count on Kyle Shanahan to leave points on the field by kicking a field goal or punting in a critical spot.
The Eagles win this one, 24 to 20.