This is a fitting matchup in the NFC Championship Game with the two best teams in the conference squaring off at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday at 3 PM. What do we know about the 49ers? The surface stuff – rookie quarterback, 12-game winning streak, great defense, a lot of weapons on offense, and a third appearance in the last four NFC title games.
We're going to get into it throughout the week, but here are some early thoughts on the keys to beating the 49ers and some areas the Eagles are focusing on as they prepare for this huge ballgame ...
1. Create negative plays on defense
San Francisco has a variety of weapons offensively, with tight end George Kittle, wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and running back Christian McCaffrey leading the way. It is a powerful offense that can attack defenses in a variety of ways. Clearly, the Eagles need to be outstanding against Kittle, a superb catch-and-run player, and they have to defend against the dual-threat skills of Samuel and McCaffrey. It would help a great deal if the defense can put rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, 7-0 as the 49ers' third starting quarterback this season, in some third-and-long situations. Creating some negative plays is crucial. The Eagles can't allow the 49ers to stay on schedule.
2. Make life difficult for QB Brock Purdy
The 49ers have enormous faith in their rookie quarterback, who has been poised and productive and flat-out terrific in his seven starts. He and Kittle have a strong connection, Purdy thrives on slant routes and throws in the middle of the field, and he doesn't make many mistakes. The Eagles had the best pass rush in all of football with 70 sacks and that continued with another 5 on Saturday night against the mobile Daniel Jones. The secondary features cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry, who match up well against every set of wide receivers, so forcing Purdy to beat those outstanding coverage players works to the Eagles' advantage.
3. Find weaknesses in the San Francisco defense
There were only a few games during the season in which the 49ers' defense gave up a lot. Patrick Mahomes passed for 423 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-23 Chiefs win on October 23, so what can the Eagles learn from that game when they go back and look at the play-by-play? Mahomes was sacked just one time, the Chiefs scored 30 points in the second half, and San Francisco just couldn't match the aerial fireworks. A week earlier, the Falcons ran for 168 yards and quarterback Marcus Mariota played the part of a dual-threat quarterback by completing 13 of 14 passes with two touchdowns and running for 50 yards and a touchdown as Atlanta converted 9 of 14 third downs, played keep-away from the 49ers' offense, and upset San Francisco.
Maybe the best tell was the Week 17 game in which the Raiders nearly beat the 49ers, eventually losing in overtime. But quarterback Jarett Stidham threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns and the Raiders ran the ball effectively on the way to 500 total net yards. There is no denying the strengths of the San Francisco defense – it has strength all the way through. But there are weaknesses on every team, so the onus is on the Eagles finding a few and winning those battles on Sunday.
4. Win in the key statistical categories
You can look at this any number of ways, but here are some to win on Sunday: effectiveness on third down both offensively and defensively, touchdown efficiency in the red zone on both sides of the ball, and turnover differential. You saw it this past weekend – the Eagles were great on third downs, they dominated in the red zone, and they created the only turnover in the game. Same with the 49ers in their win over Dallas – they won on third down, they were the same as Dallas in the red zone, and they won the takeaway battle, 2-1. Look, you want to limit big plays and quarterback sacks are key and there are a lot more numbers that matter, but those three – third downs, red zone, and turnovers – are the three to focus on here.
5. Find a way to minimize 49ers' offensive pieces
They have a lot of them, and they come at defenses in a variety of ways. Kittle is a physical, athletic, great-hands playmaker who had 60 receptions and 11 touchdowns in the regular season. He was held in check by Seattle, but then had a huge game against Dallas with 5 receptions, 95 yards, including the big 31-yard catch and run that sparked the San Francisco offense.
Samuel is a fine receiver who is also used as a running back – the 49ers find ways to get him the football and he's physical, breaks tackles, and is an emotional spark. McCaffrey is as threatening as a receiver as he is running the football, so the Eagles have to be aware of him on every play. Aiyuk continues to rise as he contributed 78 catches, 1,015 yards, and 8 touchdowns to the all-around, threats-everywhere offense. Those are four threats right there, but there are more – fullback Kyle Jusczcyk is considered the best in the NFL, wide receiver Jauan Jennings is a contributor as is receiver Ray-Ray McCloud is a threat, and running back Elijah Mitchell forms a good combination with McCaffrey.
Those weapons give Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon a lot to think about this week. Dallas did a good job on Sunday by winning at the line of scrimmage, by stopping the running game (the 49ers gained 113 yards on 32 carries), and by tackling very well. This is the Eagles' biggest challenge of the season.
6. Get the offense in gear quickly
We saw how it worked for the Eagles on Saturday night: They scored touchdowns on their first two drives and led 28-0 at halftime. Quarterback Jalen Hurts tossed two scoring passes and the running game went for 268 yards and three touchdowns. The 49ers have the top-ranked defense in the league, No. 1 against the pass and No. 2 against the run, and they are fast and solid and just very, very good. This is a defense that just doesn't give up a lot of explosive plays, and that's something the Eagles do very well. Running the football is crucial, and Hurts is the important element in that equation. The offensive line has a tough battle and must contend with a great defensive front, led by end Nick Bosa. This is a classic matchup, the best vs. the best. It's going to be a great, great game at Lincoln Financial Field.
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