This is it. The last exit on the road to the Super Bowl. The NFC Championship is a day away. This stuff hypes itself.
A lot of people think this game will be a close, low scoring affair, similar to the 49ers-Cowboys game. I’m not so sure.
Neither team has faced an offense like their opponents
Eagles offense vs 49ers defense
On the Eagles first possession, FOX will show a graphic that the 49ers run defense was 2nd in the league in the regular season. They may even mention that it led the league in yards per rushing attempt at 3.4. They probably won’t tell you that they had so few yards against because they faced the second fewest rushing attempts against. The Eagles offense averages 32 rushing attempts per game, which is nearly half their plays and the 3rd most in the regular season; the 49ers have faced at least that many just 5 times, and only twice since week 6: against the Commanders and Raiders in Weeks 16 and 17. Of course those rushing totals are direct results of the leads they’ve had all season. But for the Eagles it’s also by choice. And that’s a problem for the 49ers.
No one really faces an offense like the Eagles this year until they actually face the Eagles. The best they can do is play an offense sort of like the Eagles, which the 49ers haven’t done in a while.
The only QBs they have faced this season that can come close to what Jalen Hurts can do on the ground were Justin Fields in Week 1 in a monsoon that rendered the game irrelevant for evaluation purposes; and Marcus Mariota in Week 6 when three quarters of the 49ers starting defensive line was out with injury: Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Javon Kinlaw. Mariota had 6 carries for 50 yards and a TD in a Falcons win. However last season when they played the Eagles Hurts had 82 yards and a TD on 10 carries.
The Eagles also bring explosive plays, they’re 2nd in the NFL in pass plays of 20+ and 40+ yards. Jalen Hurts has been very good on deep passes: 4th in deep DVOA, 5th in completed air yards per pass attempt, and 7th in deep DYAR. Among players with at least 3 catches a game, AJ Brown is 5th in yards before the catch and 10th in average depth of target.
Meanwhile the 49ers defense can be beaten deep, and they have given up catches of at least 46 yards in each of their last five games. Outside of their Week 1 slopfest in the rain, the 49ers have had seven games they lost or won by a single score, and five of them had an opposing WR having a big game: CeeDee Lamb had 117 yards, his third most of the season; Davante Adams had 153, his second most of the season and 2 TDs; JuJu Smith-Schuster had 124 and a TD, in the same game Marquez Valdes-Scantling had 111, both were season highs; and Courtland Sutton had 97, the second most of his season. A big game by AJ Brown or Devonta Smith is certainly possible, and both of them having strong games isn’t out of the question. Additionally Quez Watkins had a 26 and 91 yard catch last year against the 49ers. He’s been a non-factor this season, but taking a shot with Watkins on Sunday is reasonable.
Because of the 49ers limitations in their secondary, Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen would be unwise to go with a run heavy approach to start the game. Their game plan should be similar to the Titans game when they had 41 pass attempts to just 24 rush attempts, most of the carries coming in the second half. But they shouldn’t be scared to run if presented with the option, especially in the short yardage that they have excelled at. The 49ers were 22nd in Football Outsiders’ power success, their short yardage measurement.
The 49ers pass rush is hugely dependent on Nick Bosa, who has 42% of their sacks, and they had just one against the Cowboys. The 49ers defense is 24th in hurry rate, which might actually benefit them–Jalen Hurts has been excellent in the pocket, but the 49ers would probably prefer him to not use his legs.
When the 49ers have faced a QB who can run, they have struggled. When they face a team that can run the ball in short yardage situations, they have struggled. When they face a team with a deep threat WR and a deep threat QB, they have struggled. The Eagles can give them problems on any down.
49ers offense vs Eagles defense
But just as the 49ers haven’t faced an offense like the Eagles, neither have the Eagles faced an offense like the 49ers, because there isn’t one.
The league continues to slowly shift towards “positionless” skill players on offense, and the 49ers run the most notable one. Christian McCaffrey caught 85 passes, more than anyone on the 49ers did (and if you prorate his 11 games with SF to 17, he still would have led the team with 80 catches) good for 17th in the league, and he was 9th in rushing attempts. Deebo Samuel averages four catches and three rushing attempts a game. The 49ers will put any of their players anywhere on any snap, and give them the ball.
Except for one. In the three previous seasons George Kittle had 10 carries, but this season he has none, and he’s never had one in the playoffs in his career. Might that change on Sunday?
Where the 49ers could have a real advantage is their dependance on yards after the catch. This season over half of the passing yardage by Brock Purdy and Jimmy Garappolo has come from yards after the catch, while the Eagles defense has been plagued by bad tackling all season long.
Can Mr. Irrelevant return to irrelevance?
You know Brock Purdy’s story by now. The rookie, literally the last player drafted and thus Mr. Irrelevant, is 7-0. The stats say he’s been excellent. 14 TDs to just 2 INTs as a starter, and a passer rating of 116. He’s completed over 65% of his passes for over 8 yards per attempt.
But watching him play tells a different story. Brock Purdy has only really been tested once, and he did not play great. Dallas got pressure on Purdy on nearly half his drop backs, and he struggled. His pass that hit Anthony Barr in the hands that then just missed Brandon Ayuik and then fell out of the hands of Trevon Diggs was exceptional fortune and not the first close call Purdy has had. He continued his habit of turning his back to the play to scramble to the left, he’s gotten away with it so far but eventually that bill will come due.
At some point Brock Purdy is going to have a bad game. Every rookie does. The out of nowhere success stories Purdy is being compared to had their stinkers. Tom Brady in 2001–who wasn’t a rookie–had four multi-interception games, in one game he had four. Dak Prescott had a late season game with a 45.4 passer rating his rookie year. Purdy is a Rookie of the Year nominee. Recent winner Justin Herbert had a late season game with a 43.7 passer rating throwing 2 INTs and 0 TDs. Kyler Murray had consecutive late season games with 56.4 and 67.2 ratings. Purdy might very well be a legitimate QB. But putting up a stinker game is what rookies do.
The Cowboys did give him his worst game so far, but even then he was not bad, completing 66% of his passes for 7.4 yards per attempt and he didn’t turn the ball over. But also only led one touchdown drive, and from the start of the second half, when the game was tied, to the two minute warning, when they had a 4 point lead, the 49ers called 10 pass plays to 17 run plays.
In his limited playing time, Purdy has struggled early and late. His worst performance has come on 1st and 10, where he has completed 57% of his passes for 1 TD and 3 INTs and a 67.3 rating. On all other downs he has completed 73% of his passes for 12 TDs, 1 INT, and a 132.1 rating. His worst quarter is the 4th, where he is completing 56% of his passes for a 71.4 rating.
These are very small samples, but Purdy’s 1st down and 4th quarter production is in line with a 7th round rookie, and even if this isn’t your normal 7th round rookie, his non-1st down and non-4th quarter performance is simply unsustainable.
No rookie has ever won a Conference Championship. Will the clock strike midnight on Purdy at 3pm?
Sirianni vs Shanahan
Kyle Shanahan has been an offensive coordinator or head coach since before Nick Sirianni was in the NFL. Sunday will be his 107th game as a head coach and 9th playoff game. His experience runs laps around Sirianni.
But experience only matters when you know what to do with it. Shanahan has consistently been one of the worst in-game managers in the NFL, all that experience hasn’t seen him improve. Last week on 4th and 2 from the Dallas 29 with 3:48 in the 2nd quarter, he kicked a field goal. A minute and a half of game time later, with 1:15 to go, he had the ball back after a Dak Prescott interception gave the 49ers the ball on their 28. On 1st down he called a run play for Deebo Samuel, it gained 8 yards. Their next play was run with 0:56 to go, it was another handoff, and after it gained just 1 yard Shanahan waited far too long to call timeout, stopping the clock with 30 seconds to go. Two plays, 9 yards, 45 out of 75 seconds used. That’s pitiful. Last year in the NFC Championship Game he had a chance to go for it on 4th and 2 up 17-14 on the Rams with 10 minutes to go. Shanahan said “We were never thinking about going for that.”
Nick Sirianni has consistently shown through his short tenure that he is thinking about that. He is one of the best coaches at going for it on 4th down, and at using timeouts wisely. If this game comes down to which coach is not a coward–the 49ers-Cowboys game could have, but both coaches are cowards–the Eagles win.