NFC East Reporter
It will be the best team in the NFC vs. the hottest team in the NFC. A quarterback who was an MVP candidate all season vs. a quarterback who has never lost an NFL game. And one Coach of the Year candidate vs. another.
There might not have been a better matchup, or a more inevitable one, than the Philadelphia Eagles (15-3) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (15-4) — the two top seeds in the conference. They will square off in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, with the winner heading to Arizona for Super Bowl LVII on Feb. 12.
The two teams boast the top two defenses in the NFL, top-five offenses, top-10 rushing attacks and 114 sacks between them.
Here’s a closer look at the matchups for what could be a classic NFC Championship Game:
At first glance it’s a mismatch. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts was an MVP candidate all season long — “Michael Jordan,” as coach Nick Sirianni called him Saturday night. And Brock Purdy is a rookie third-string quarterback forced into the lineup by injuries.
Of course, the 23-year-old Purdy has been on a roll for the ages. He’s 7-0 as a starter now. He has thrown 16 touchdown passes with just three interceptions since taking over as the 49ers’ No. 1 quarterback on Dec. 4. He doesn’t run and doesn’t throw for a lot of yards, but he’s incredibly efficient and keeps the offense moving.
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As for Hurts, he’s just everything to the Eagles. He has been the best dual-threat quarterback in the league all year long, throwing for 24 touchdown passes and rushing for 14.
The 49ers actually might be the one team in the NFC that can match the Eagles weapon for weapon. They both have a huge 1-2 punch at receiver: the Eagles with A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, and the 49ers with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. They both have dangerous tight ends: Philly’s Dallas Goedert and San Francisco’s George Kittle. And they both have strong rushing attacks led by dangerous running backs: Christian McCaffrey for the 49ers and Miles Sanders for the Eagles.
Talent for talent, it’s hard not to call this even. But the Eagles just got more out of what they had — particularly at receiver, where Smith had 95 catches for 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns and Brown had 88-1,496-11. Of course, Samuel missed four games with a sprained knee and ankle. He looks healthy now.
It’s also worth noting that the 49ers’ weapons do most of their damage on plays over the middle, which is where the Eagles have had the most trouble defending this year.
The rushing attacks
Both of these teams live on the ground. The Eagles averaged 147.6 rushing yards per game during the regular season and the 49ers averaged 138.9. They’re both also pretty deep at running back. Sanders carried the Eagles (1,269 yards, 11 touchdowns), but they sprinkled in a little bit of Boston Scott (217 yards) and Kenneth Gainwell (240), too.
Meanwhile, McCaffrey (746 yards, 6 touchdowns) has been the dominant presence in the 49ers’ backfield since they acquired him from Carolina in late October, but Elijah Mitchell (279 yards) has his moments, and they use Samuel (232) as a running back, too.
What puts the Eagles over the edge, though, is the diversity they have with Hurts as a rushing weapon. He ran for 760 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, keeping defenses off balance, wondering whether he was going to run or pass. Purdy, who had 13 regular-season rushing yards, isn’t a threat to run at all.
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The Pass Rush
The best pass rusher on the field next Sunday will be 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, who has 18.5 sacks and might end up as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
But nobody else on the 49ers is close to him, and he has nearly half of their 44 sacks. The Eagles, meanwhile, have 70 sacks. Their pass rush is deep and relentless. Four players have double-digit sacks: linebacker Haason Reddick (16), and linemen Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham, who had 11 each.
Both teams have strong offensive lines, but the Eagles have the advantage in that they can scheme away from Bosa. Purdy just hasn’t faced the kind of pressure he’s likely to see in this game.
This has been the weakness of the 49ers defense. San Francisco has been searching for a corner to play opposite Charvarius Ward since Emmanuel Moseley’s season-ending knee injury in October. Meanwhile, the Niners have had their troubles with top-tier receivers. Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb had 10 catches for 117 yards on Sunday. Seattle’s DK Metcalf had 10 catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns one week earlier.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have one of the NFL’s best secondaries. There isn’t a better 1-2 punch than Darius Slay and James Bradberry, and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions despite missing five games.
Nick Sirianni and Kyle Shanahan figure to be two of the top candidates for Coach of the Year honors for the stellar jobs they’ve done this season, and it would be hard to argue against either one. Sirianni has the more talented team — an all-star team, really — and he has managed to push all the right motivational buttons all season, while bringing out the best in his players with his game plans.
But what Shanahan has done might be more remarkable. He lost his starting quarterback, Trey Lance, to an ankle injury the second week of the season. Then he had to turn back to Jimmy Garoppolo, and just when he was getting hot — reeling off four straight wins to get the 49ers back on track after a 3-4 start — he broke his foot.
That forced Shanahan to go with Purdy, a rookie, seventh-round pick. Yet the winning never stopped. The 49ers won 10 straight to end the regular season and two more in the playoffs. It takes a heck of a coaching job to do something like that.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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