Let’s be real, we all knew the Philadelphia Eagles weren’t going to lose to the New York Giants in the Divisional Round. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, this week’s matchup against the San Francisco 49ers figures to be much more challenging.
Let’s run through some of the most important things to watch in this year’s NFC Championship Game.
1 - Jonathan Gannon is working with history on his side
Rookie quarterbacks are 0-4 all-time in conference championship games.
They’ve combined for just four passing touchdowns to nine interceptions.
Accordingly, their losses were not particularly close. The average margin of defeat in those games is 10.25 points.
Brock Purdy certainly didn’t make it this far without defying expectation. It’s not out of the question that he could become the first rookie quarterback to make it to the Super Bowl.
But there is just no precedent in his favor. If the Eagles’ defensive coordinator allows him to go off, that would be a pretty tough look.
Here’s what Gannon had to say about Purdy:
He’s a good player. He’s a really good player. He plays extremely fast. He knows where to put his eyes. He gets out of trouble at a pretty good clip, and what I mean by that, you see some free runners or the pocket breakdown and guys have hard time getting him on the ground. He doesn’t take a lot of sacks, but he makes quick decisions, he’s accurate, he gets the ball out of his hand. You know that Kyle [Shanahan] is a really good coach. He knows how to coach the quarterback of what they’re trying to get done with certain plays, and he’s doing that. That’s a reason that they’re playing in this game.
Gannon’s point about Purdy avoiding sacks is valid. He’s only taken 14 in eight games. If we extrapolate that figure over the course of a full season, he would have taken the ninth-fewest. Interesting matchup against an Eagles defensive line that absolutely feasts on opposing quarterback.
Anecdotally, Purdy seemed to hold the ball for a long time against the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. There were some plays in that game where pass rushers came very close to strip-sacking him.
Data supports the idea that Purdy will hold onto the ball and give the Eagles chances to get to him. He ranks 26th fastest out of 41 quarterbacks in average time to throw this season.
Purdy has had some fortunate turnover luck to this point. He was begging to turn the ball over against Dallas but they did not oblige. The Eagles must take advantage of the rookie mistakes that history suggests he’ll make.
2 - Unique perspective on Brock Purdy
Interesting point made by Peter Schrager (peep the BGN shoutout in the following video) on NFL Network’s GMFB.
The Eagles employ two former Iowa State members on Nick Sirianni’s coaching staff.
Eagles assistant defensive backs coach D.K. McDonald was the Cyclones’ cornerbacks coach from 2016 through 2018 and safeties coach from 2019 through 2020.
Eagles defensive assistant Tyler Scudder was the Cyclones’ senior defensive quality control coach from 2018 through 2020.
Both McDonald and Scudder overlapped with Purdy at Iowa State for his first three out of four years in college. The units they were involved in went up against him in practice.
Perhaps they’ll be able to provide the Eagles with some valuable intel on his tendencies and weaknesses.
3 - Opposite mismatches
Anchored by stud linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, the 49ers are strongest in the middle of the field. Only seven teams allowed fewer fantasy football points to tight ends. Unlike last week, this tilt isn’t shaping up to be the biggest Dallas Goedert game.
It’s the boundary that the Birds should be looking to attack. The 49ers are relatively weaker at cornerback. San Francisco is allowing the sixth-most yards to wide receivers. And Jalen Hurts has typically been more inclined to work outside of the numbers than inside them.
The opposite is true for the Eagles. The 49ers would be doing themselves a disservice by repeatedly going after James Bradberry and Darius Slay. They should instead be looking to attack T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White.
And they likely will. The Niners lead the NFL in yards after the catch.
Schematically they get the ball to guys in space, and then they have the guys that are touching the ball, those are part of their unique skill sets where they can break tackles, they can run away from people, they can make people miss in space, and I’m not just talking about one or two guys. It’s really everybody that’s touching the ball. I think it’s a good job by Kyle. He knows how to get guys in space, and then those guys have unique skill sets. That’s why they’re a really good offense is they’ve got playmakers. So, we’re going to have do a good job with those guys because sometimes guys are going to have help, sometimes they won’t depending on the call. That will be definitely a key to victory for us is tackling.
Earlier in the year, the Eagles really struggled with tackling. They were THE worst graded unit by Pro Football Focus in that category earlier in the year. They’ve since improved to being the 14th-best tackling grade. The Eagles must continue to be disciplined and physical.
4 - A.J. Brown could be key
Don’t you just feel like Brown is due for a big game after only having three catches for 22 yards last weekend?
Brown gave the 49ers problems as a member of the Tennessee Titans during the 2021 season. He saw 16 targets for 11 receptions, 145 yards, and one touchdown in a win over San Fran.
Unlike then, Brown will not have the luxury of going up against a washed Josh Norman and a backup rookie Ambry Thomas this week.
But he will also have a much better complementary cast than he did in that scenario. The 49ers didn’t have to worry about Derrick Henry in that game since he was injured. They will have to account for the Eagles’ running game. The 49ers didn’t have to worry about receiving options outside of Brown considering the top alternatives were a cooked Julio Jones and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. They will have to account for DeVonta Smith and Goedert.
Having recently re-watched Brown’s performance against the 49ers in that game, it looked like he rose to the challenge of playing a tough defense. As a physical player himself, he wanted to out-alpha the competition.
The Eagles traded away what it took to get Brown and paid him to show up in a big game like this. Time for him to deliver.
5 - One big area of concern for the 49ers
Hat tip to my good friend Rob “Stats” Guerrera, host of the The Gold Standard podcast feed, for bringing my attention to the following statistic (how fitting) on this week’s edition of The NFC East Mixtape podcast
The 49ers have allowed a league-high EIGHT plays of 50+ passing yards.
It’s a surprising stat when one considers how much (mostly deserved) hype that San Fran’s defense gets.
You’ll recall that the Eagles hit on a big play against the 49ers last year when Quez Watkins had a 91-yard catch-and-run. (The Birds then somehow failed to get into the end zone on that drive.)
They should be looking to go back to that well. The opportunity figures to be there for them at some point.
6 - Lane Johnson vs. Nick Bosa
Lane did a great job against the Giants despite playing through a groin injury that will require surgery after the season is over.
Bosa will be a different kind of test for him. This is the likely Defensive Player of the Year we’re talking about here.
Bosa will likely face Jordan Mailata at some point as well since he moves around.
Something to consider is that the Eagles don’t always even need to block Bosa. Philly’s game plan to leave Micah Parsons unblocked and option him worked well for them in Week 6. Perhaps that’s an approach they can utilize again here.
Outside of Bosa, the 49ers’ pass rush isn’t super intimidating. Including playoffs, their second-leading pass rusher is Charles Oheminu, who has 6.5 sacks. He’s dealing with an oblique injury that caused him to leave the Divisional Round early and might hamper him in this game.
7 - A wild crowd
Lincoln Financial Field was absolutely rocking in the January 2018 NFC Championship Game. I remember feeling the press box shake with how loud it was. Eagles fans are definitely going to give their team an edge.
To further poke holes in those performances, the Panthers were starting a quarterback (Baker Mayfield) who got benched and then waived. Carolina also fired their head coach (Matt Rhule) from that game. And the Rams game wasn’t even a true road matchup since 49ers are known to take over SoFi Stadium in a town that doesn’t even really care about football.
The 49ers lost road games to the Chicago Bears (only fair to point out weird rainy and weather conditions), Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, and Kansas City Chiefs. Losing to the last team on that list is definitely understandable but the others make up three of the top eight slots in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Purdy has made just two road starts so far. The first game with a 21 to 13 win over the Seattle Seahawks, who kinda fell apart in the second half of the season. The second game was a 37 to 34 overtime win over Jarrett Stidham’s Las Vegas Raiders.
Going back to his Iowa State days, Purdy was 20-4 at home but 10-13 in non-home games (9-9 on the road, 1-4 at neutral sites).
Do not discount Philly’s home field advantage.
Gannon talked about what it was like to enter The Linc as a member of the Minnesota Vikings in Philly’s last NFC Championship Game.
In warmups, a guy that I was coaching, he looked at me with a look in his eye like, whoa. Harrison Smith. I said, whoa, back. You could feel the energy, and it’s awesome. This is one of the best atmospheres that you’re going to get in the National Football League, and obviously being the championship game, it’ll be heightened. Yeah, I thought the energy in the building was just phenomenal. Before kickoff, as the game got going, and it’s a tough place to play, and it’s a big advantage for us.
8 - No need to shy away from the rushing attack
Make no mistake: the 49ers are good at stopping the run. They’ve allowed the fewest opponent yards per rushing attempt at just 3.4.
But that doesn’t mean the Eagles should abandon it. Do recall that the Birds went up against the New Orleans Saints’ top-ranked run defense in 2020 and 2021 ... and ran all over it.
Different team, sure. But a lot of key components — Hurts, the offensive line, Jeff Stoutland — are still in place. And the Eagles just ripped off 268 rushing yards last weekend. Will they get close to that figure against DeMeco Ryans’ defense? No, probably not. But they should still make the 49ers prove they can stop the run.
9 - The non-Trent Williams offensive linemen
The Eagles are obviously familiar with Trent Williams from his Washington football franchise days. Elite-level player. He ranks fifth out of 89 offensive tackles graded by PFF in pass protection.
Here’s how the other blockers rank:
LG Aaron Banks 33rd out of 88 OGs
C Jake Brendel 10th out of 41 Cs
RG Spencer Burford 45th out of 88 OGs
RT Mike McGlinchey ranks 55th out of 89 OTs
The Eagles’ sack-happy defensive line must be able to feast on some of these guys.
Haason Reddick seems primed for another big game considering how 1) he’s thriving right now and 2) we just saw how McGlinchey can be vulnerable at right tackle.
10 - Key in on George Kittle in the red zone
Seven of 11’s Kittle’s touchdowns (and one two-point conversion) this season have come with Purdy throwing his way. And they’ve taken place in the last six games.
It’s admittedly difficult to key in on any one 49ers player since they have a lot of talented dudes. Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, Brandon Aiyuk, Elijah Mitchell, Kyle Juszczyk. All threats to score.
But they should probably make someone other than Kittle beat them in the red zone if Purdy really loves throwing to him so much.
11 - Jalen Hurts’ composure
Above all, Eagles fans should feel confident that their team is going to win because they have a special player under center. Hurts has reached a point that reminds me of where Nick Foles was at during the 2017 run. He’s just so in control out there. There’s no panic. He’s not getting rattled. You can fully trust him to deliver. He’s not going to let this team fail.
The Eagles are 15-1 when Hurts has started this season. That’s one more loss than Purdy has ... but I think you’d be a fool to bet against the Eagles’ quarterback at this point.
This should really be a 12th thing but I like 11 married to the picture of Brown better. So, deal with it.
But another factor to consider is how Nick Sirianni will give the Eagles an edge game management-wise whereas Kyle Shanahan has propensity to be a coward and turtle up in key moments. The 49ers will typically settle for a field goal or punt instead of going for a first down or touchdown.
Adding timeouts, 2 point conversions and delay of games, using win probability this time, brings Shanahan up to 14th. Sirianni is first by a country mile, with the difference between #1 and #2 greater than the difference between #7 and #14. https://t.co/j1wJZkHMrG— sunset shazz (@sunset_shazz) January 24, 2023