That’s it. The last exit on the way to the Super Bowl. The NFC Championship is a day away. This stuff exaggerates itself.
Many people think that this game will be a tight low scoring affair, similar to the 49ers Cowboys game. I’m not sure.
Neither team has experienced an offensive like their opponents
Eagles attack versus 49ers defense
On the Eagles’ first possession, FOX displays a graph showing that the 49ers’ run defense was second in the league during the regular season. You can even mention that it led the league in yards per rush attempt with 3.4. They probably won’t tell you they had so few yards against because they faced the second fewest rush attempts. The Eagles offense averages 32 rushing attempts per game, which is nearly half of their games and the third most in the regular season. The 49ers have faced that many opponents at least five times, and only twice since Week 6: against the Commanders and Raiders in Weeks 16 and 17. Of course, those sizzling totals are direct results of the leads they’ve had all season. But for the Eagles, it’s also optional. And that’s a problem for the 49ers.
No one really faces an offensive game like the Eagles this year until they actually face off against the Eagles. The best they can do is play some sort of offense like the Eagles, which the 49ers haven’t done in a while.
The only QBs they faced this season that Jalen Hurts can get close to on the ground were Justin Fields in Week 1 in a monsoon that made the game irrelevant for rating purposes; and Marcus Mariota in Week 6 when three-fourths of the 49ers’ starting defensive line were injured: 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 are 2nd in the NFL in passing for 20+ and 40+ yards. Jalen Hurts was very good at deep passes: 4th in deep DVOA, 5th in air yards completed per pass attempt, and 7th in deep DYAR. Among players with at least 3 catches per game, AJ Brown ranks 5th in yards from catch and 10th in average target depth.
The 49ers defense is now beatable and has given up catches of at least 46 yards in each of their last five games. Aside from their Week 1 slopfest in the rain, the 49ers have had seven games lost or won by a single point, and five of them had an opposing WR who had a big play: 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 season highs; and Courtland Sutton had 97, the second-highest of his season. Strong play from AJ Brown or Devonta Smith is certainly possible, and strong plays from either are not ruled out. Also, Quez Watkins had 26 and 91 yard catches against the 49ers last year. He hasn’t been a factor this season but shooting with Watkins on Sunday is reasonable.
Due to the 49ers’ limitations in their secondary school, it would not be wise for Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen to start the game on a run-heavy approach. Their game plan should be similar to the Titans’ game as they had 41 passing attempts to just 24 rushing attempts, with most of the carries coming in the second half. But they shouldn’t be afraid to run if they get the chance, especially in the short yardage they excelled at. The 49ers finished 22nd in the Football Outsiders’ power hit, their short-distance measurement.
The 49ers’ pass rush relies heavily on Nick Bosa, who has 42% of his sacks, and they only had one against the Cowboys. The 49ers defense is 24th in a rush, which could actually work in their favor — Jalen Hurts was excellent in the bag, but the 49ers would probably prefer him not using his legs.
When the 49ers faced a QB who could run, they had problems. When they face a team that can run the ball in short yardage situations, they have problems. When they face a team with a high threat WR and a high threat QB, they have problems. The Eagles can give them trouble on any down.
49ers offense versus Eagles defense
But just as the 49ers haven’t faced an offensive like the Eagles, the Eagles don’t have to contend with an offensive like the 49ers because there isn’t one.
The league continues to slowly shift towards “positionless” skill players on offense, and the 49ers lead the most notable. Christian McCaffrey caught 85 passes, more than anyone in the 49ers (and if you count his 11 games with SF as 17, he would still 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 rush attempts per game. The 49ers put each of their players anywhere on every snap and hand them the ball.
Except for one. In the previous three seasons, George Kittle had 10 carries, but he has none this season, and he has never had one in the playoffs in his career. Can that change on Sunday?
Where the 49ers might have a real advantage is in their reliance on post-catch yards. This season, over half of Brock Purdy and Jimmy Garappolo’s passing yardage has come from yards after catch, while the Eagles defense has been plagued by poor tackles all season.
Can Mr. Irrelevant return to irrelevance?
You know Brock Purdy’s story by now. The rookie, literally the last drafted player and therefore Mr. Irrelevant, is 7-0. Statistics say he was excellent. 14 TDs to only 2 INTs as a starter and a passer rating of 116. He completed over 65% of his passes for 8 yards per attempt.
But watching him play tells a different story. Brock Purdy was only really tested once, and he didn’t play great. Dallas put pressure on Purdy on almost half of his drop backs and he struggled. His pass, which landed in the hands of Anthony Barr, who then narrowly missed Brandon Ayuik and then fell out of the hands of Trevon Diggs, was exceptional luck and not the first close call Purdy had. He continued his habit of turning his back on the game to climb to the left, he’s gotten away with it so far, but eventually that bill will come due.
Eventually, Brock Purdy will have a bad game. Any beginner does. The sudden success stories that Purdy is compared to had their stinkers. Tom Brady – who wasn’t a rookie – had four multi-interception games in 2001, in one game he had four. Dak Prescott had one late-season game in his rookie year with a 45.4 passer rating. Purdy is a Rookie of the Year nominee. Recent winner Justin Herbert had a late season game with a 43.7 passer rating and threw 2 INTs and 0 TDs. Kyler Murray had back-to-back late-season games with ratings of 56.4 and 67.2. Purdy could very well be a legitimate QB. But putting together a stinky game is what beginners do.
The Cowboys gave him his worst game yet, but even then he wasn’t bad, completing 66% of his passes for 7.4 yards per attempt and not turning the ball over. But also led just one touchdown drive, and from the start of the second half when the game was tied to the two-minute caution when they had a four-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 came in places 1 and 10, where he completed 57% of his passing for 1 TD and 3 INTs and a rating of 67.3. On all other downs, he completed 73% of his passes for 12 TDs, 1 INT, and a 132.1 rating. His worst quarter is 4th, where he completes 56% of his passes with a 71.4 rating.
These are very small examples, but Purdy’s performance in the 1st down and 4th quarter is equivalent to that of a rookie in the 7th round, and even if this isn’t a normal rookie in the 7th round, his performance is outside of the 1st down and the 4th quarter just unsustainable .
No rookie has ever won a conference championship. Will the clock strike midnight on Purdy at 3pm?
Sirianni versus Shanahan
Kyle Shanahan was an offensive coordinator or head coach before Nick Sirianni was in the NFL. Sunday is his 107th game as head coach and his 9th playoff game. His experience revolves around Sirianni.
But experience only counts if 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 made him better. Last week on the 4th and 2nd of the Dallas 29 at 3:48 in the 2nd quarter, he kicked a field goal. A minute and a half later, with 1:15 left, he had the ball back after a Dak Prescott interception gave the ball to the 49ers on their 28. On the 1st down, he called a run play for Deebo Samuel, who gained 8 yards. Their next play was executed with 0:56 to go, it was another handoff, and after gaining just 1 yard, Shanahan waited far too long to call a timeout, stopping the clock with 30 seconds to go. Two plays, 9 yards, 45 of 75 seconds used. That’s pathetic. Last year in the NFC Championship Game he had a chance to win 17-14 against the Rams in 4th and 2nd place with 10 minutes remaining. Shanahan said, “We never thought about doing that.”
Nick Sirianni has shown time and again during his short tenure that he thinks about it. He’s one of the best coaches when it comes to finishing 4th and using timeouts wisely. If this game boils down to which coach isn’t a coward — the 49ers-Cowboys game could have, but both coaches are cowards — the Eagles win.