The game against the Philadelphia Eagles matters a lot less than we think it does.
Ultimately, the difference between 14-3 and 13-4 isn’t that dramatic outside of the slim possibility of a No. 1 seed. I wouldn’t put money on the Eagles losing more than two games this season - they are *unkillable*.
This Eagles game isn’t a game to get too high or too low about, beyond just the San Francisco 49ers needing to be the best version of themselves and continuing to keep getting better. It feels so much bigger than it is, and I think it’s because of this idea that this one game will reveal more to us about the 2023 49ers than the entire season has up to this point.
There’s a wound in the Niners’ fans psyche from seeing our favorite team sit hopeless on a sideline, staring at the totality of a once-in-a-lifetime season crumble in front of their very eyes. It was an altogether new form of sports suffering, completely different from seeing them lose at the last second the way we did to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Better? Worse? Hard to say, but definitely unique.
Every step of this journey so far has been exactly that: unique, unprecedented, something new altogether for us as sports fans. From the moment Brock Purdy took over in the Miami Dolphins game, to the moment his opening act ended on the same spot he’s playing on Sunday afternoon, through all the moments in his first full season. How many guys start their training camp with so much outside noise and doubt and bizarre dynamics the way he did with Trey Lance?
Just think: those emotions around trading a third overall pick because No. 262 is playing better than the first overall pick, then go on a five-game winning streak and then throw back to back game-losing picks in the fourth quarter. And then post a perfect passer rating during another run getting better with each game?
Since I last wrote a weekly vibe check (my apologies - life has been life’ing), we learned that Brock Purdy doesn’t tighten up, ever.
Those game-breaking picks weren’t because he was overthinking or in his own head. Those picks looked and felt like exactly the near-picks he always throws. They’re simply the other side of the Purdy aggression - the tightrope he walks that most of the times is shaded just below the threshold and becomes remarkable plays. You don’t get the Brock Purdy that scored that first touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars without that Brock Purdy that tried to over-anticipate and threw that pick against the Cleveland Browns.
Those picks felt like it was the same Brock that was gunning for these crazy throws that are a couple inches between a touchdown and a pick six. This is the zone that Brock thrives in. Not multiple tens of yards that accompany a rocket arm, but the few inches an elite mind can manipulate toward a perfect passer rating. It’s such a narrow margin of error when you play that game, and you can’t get to the 76 yard bombs without the over-anticipated picks.
It’s this narrow margin of error that the 49ers season lives and dies by, and the outer bounds of that margin is created by the quality of Purdy’s protection. The line play determines whether he gets that extra half second he needs to find that tiny area that Brandon Aiyuk is running
toward in between four Seattle Seahawks defenders.
He has the brain, the footwork, every mental and physical skill to make that throw happen - to find those magical few inches in that extra half second - but he needs the offensive line to deliver him those first two seconds. Get Purdy just enough space and he’ll make the rest happen. And when the rest happens, the superstar skill players make even more happen. That Christian McCaffrey/Brandon Aiyuk/Deebo Samuel/George Kittle-induced avalanche begins when the offensive line gives the first push of the snowball.
When Trent goes downfield, he’s like Wembanyama... his very presence discourages the opposing players from even TRYING
The Eagles are a perfect test to see how far the offensive line has come this season, with their fearsome pass rush and vulnerable secondary. The offensive line brings it, and skill players will cook. They get overwhelmed, and it’ll be tough sledding on offense. On the other side of the ball, the revamped and reloaded pass rush is meeting its realest test yet.
Is the 2023 49ers Defense 2.0 ready for the playoffs?
Over the course of a football season, teams live multiple lives. Chase Young was a clear before-and-after moment, and since his arrival, fans have caught a glimpse of what this defense can really play like when it’s firing on all cylinders.
When the Ohio State guys and their friends get home, the rest of the defense can go from surviving to thriving. Fred Warner and Charvarius Ward and the rest of their units are opportunistic playmakers. They’re put in the position to succeed the most when the defensive line is disrupting the offense’s margin of error.
Much like Brock looks so much better with 2.5 seconds rather than 1 seconds, the defense has that same dynamic to inverted outcomes. The back seven have such a bigger impact - turnovers and PBUs and TFLs - when the defensive line sets the foundation.
Jason Kelce and his colleagues will work to expose any flaws, exploit any miscommunications, and bully the bullies. On the other side, Fletcher Cox and Haason Reddick and the Georgia Bulldogs filling out the rest, are about to give the offensive line all they can handle. A version of this team was on full display earlier in the year, able to win on a sheer talent edge on the trenches - that 5-0 streak felt like watching an SEC team run throughout of conference opponents.
We saw a version of that team that couldn’t find the focus edge, the schematic edge, the get-stuff-done edge when they faced opponents with similarly talented units. The Browns’ pass rush and the Vikings + Bengals passing attack outsmarted, out-physical’d, and outplayed the 49ers, and they didn’t have another gear.
The Eagles have all those different elements each of those opponents possessed in one package. They have a defense as elite as the Browns and an offense as elite as the Vikings and Bengals... in fact, a more athletic quarterback with a better offensive line and arguably better running backs and on-par receivers as those two teams. They are the NFL’s most complete team that knows best how to win in today’s league. They have the gear the 49ers desperately need to show they have.
There is a world where the 49ers lose, and it’s not the most disheartening thing in the world, outside of injuries. The 49ers can simply refocus their chase for the No. 2 seed and gear up for a third crack at their winged foes when it’ll matter ten times as much. And by then, the offensive and defensive lines will have even more reps, continuing to iron out their communication, and developing their chemistry with one another as they work to peak at the right time.
No matter the final outcome of Week 13, I’ve seen enough to have total confidence in every other aspect of this team. Brock, Warner, CMC, Aiyuk, Charvarius - I’ll bet on them in any playoff scenario. But they won’t determine how far this season goes because the ceiling they provide needs a sturdy floor to stand on. The linemen carry the greatest burden, with as much glamor and glory as a rip, chop, pull, and pancake can possibly bring.
Football is a beautiful game. Here’s to the biggest and ugliest game possible between the big uglies of the two best teams in the NFL.