NFC Championship Preview: A battle of dynamic offences vs. elite defences

Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Jason Kelce spoke about the challenge of facing the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship, calling them the best defence they've faced up to this point in the year.

No NFC team was better than the Philadelphia Eagles over the course of the regular season and no team in football has been hotter down the stretch than the San Francisco 49ers.

How can you not be excited for Sunday afternoon’s anticipated NFC Championship?

The Eagles and 49ers didn’t play each other in the regular season, so unlike the AFC Championship matchup there are more unknowns and variables when lining up the Xs and Os.

Philadelphia’s head coach Nick Sirianni and his team improved from a 9-8 record and wild-card round elimination a year ago to leading the NFL in wins this season alongside Kansas City. This well-rounded Eagles roster was led by quarterback Jalen Hurts whose career year resulted in him being an MVP finalist.

Kyle Shanahan and his 49ers return to the NFC Championship for a second consecutive season and the third time since 2019. Shanahan’s team has overcome losing the top two QBs on the depth chart after Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo went down with long-term injuries. They acquired a superstar in Christian McCaffrey via mid-season trade and the team, winners of 12 straight overall, hasn’t lost since third-string rookie Brock Purdy took over behind centre.

Hurts and Purdy entered the NFL under starkly different circumstances – Hurts as a second-round pick following time spent in two of college football’s best programs and Purdy as a Mr. Irrelevant unexpectedly called into a starting role – but both find themselves one win away from a Super Bowl appearance.

This is the first time in Conference Championship history in which the combined age of the two starting quarterbacks has been this low.

Jalen Hurts and Brock Purdy played each other in a Big 12 matchup during the 2019 college football season – Hurts was a senior in his ninth start at Oklahoma since transferring from Alabama and Purdy was in his sophomore season at Iowa State.

If Sunday’s game is anywhere as dramatic as that college game, then fans should be in for an enthralling four quarters.

Hurts’s Sooners won the game 42-41 and both QBs shone. Hurts threw for 273 yards on 18 completions, three touchdowns, one interception and he rushed for an additional 68 yards and two TDs. Purdy, meanwhile, had 282 yards on 19 completions, five passing touchdowns, plus 55 yards and a score on the ground.

Purdy led the Cyclones to a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback but instead of tying the game up late with an extra point they attempted a two-point conversion to take the lead on the road. Purdy threw an interception on the attempt and Oklahoma won the game.

Both the Eagles and 49ers are rolling and both rosters are healthy. This should be great.

How the Eagles got here: Philadelphia looked refreshed coming off their bye week and against the Giants they rushed for a combined 268 yards in a 38-7 drubbing. Lane Johnson returned after the right tackle, who didn’t allow a sack this season, missed the final two regular-season contests with an abdominal injury and Hurts managed to protect his recently injured right shoulder enough that it seemed to be a non-issue. The QB carried the ball nine times for 34 yards and added his first career post-season rushing touchdown.

How the 49ers got here: San Francisco didn’t have quite as easy a time advancing. They held off the Dallas Cowboys thanks to another strong performance from the defence and four clutch field goals from Robbie Gould who is a perfect 29 for 29 in his career in the post-season. The defence made it tough on Dak Prescott and forced two interceptions, although it probably should’ve been more than just two. It was the first time since a 13-0 Week 12 shutout of the Saints that San Fran had not scored at least 21 points and three touchdowns in a game.

Will Philadelphia’s D-line get to and faze Purdy?

The Eagles’ top-tier pass rush led the league in sacks during the regular season and swarmed the Giants backfield in the Divisional Round. The best part about it is they usually don’t require a blitz to break through opposing offensive lines. The Eagles’ front four is top class.

Dallas’s defence kept the 49ers in check last week. Philadelphia has the pieces to do the same and the style to force mistakes out of a rookie pivot that has so far shown poise well beyond his years. Purdy is the fifth rookie to start a conference championship game since 1999 but Purdy would become the first such QB to win in that situation if the 49ers pull off the road upset.

Which skill position player will step up for the 49ers?

Last week it was George Kittle whose five catches for 95 yards, including a couple clutch first downs, led the way for his team. In the wild card round both Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samul went off and combined for 301 yards from scrimmage and each had a touchdown. Brandon Aiyuk and Elijah Mitchell have also been involved in recent weeks. With a plethora of options, who can go off in the biggest game of the season? Keep in mind, McCaffrey and Mitchell both missed a couple practices this week and Samuel also wound up on the injury report.

Matchup to watch: 49ers run defence vs. Eagles rushing attack

The 49ers have been stingy against running backs weekly and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. The Eagles have had three different players register at least one 100-yard rushing game this season – Miles Sanders did it thrice, Hurts once and Kenneth Gainwell did last week against the Giants.

If Philly can’t move the ball on the ground, the RPO playbook won’t be nearly as effective, and A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith will have fewer quality chunk play opportunities. Brown wasn’t needed and had a light workload versus New York but closed out the regular season dominantly by averaging more than 110 yards per game and scored four touchdowns in a six-game stretch from the beginning of December into January. The 49ers have been susceptible to big games from opposing teams’ top wideouts. Last week CeeDee Lamb caught 10 of his 13 targets for 117 yards.

Ultimately this game should be a classic example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. A tale as old as time.

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