As I mentioned earlier on this site, I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area for nearly half a century.
I watched Dick Vermeil create a championship team here (1980) only to suffer a blowout loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV (15). I witnessed three of Andy Reid’s NFC title game losses prior to his lone conference championship game win (2005). Two weeks later, New England defeated Andy’s Eagles by a field goal in Super Bowl XXXIX (39).
On February 4, 2018, in my final shooting assignment for NFL Films—despite Tom Brady’s 502 passing yards—Doug Pederson’s Eagles beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII (52). To reach their fourth Super Bowl, the Eagles need to defeat the San Francisco 49ers Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia—where it’s definitely not always sunny!
This won’t be easy!
One week after acquiring Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco began an 11-game win streak that continues into this weekend. During this stretch, the multi-dimensional RB personally accounted for more than 1400 total offensive yards and 13 touchdowns running, receiving and throwing the football.
Together with wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle and a veritable host of others, San Francisco’s skill position players have performed so well, that 7 of those 11 consecutive wins have come with rookie quarterback Brock Purdy (aka “Mr. Irrelevant) taking the snaps.
To be clear, “Mr. Irrelevant” historically applies to the final player selected in any given year’s annual NFL Draft. It's an identifying rather than a disparaging term. But the Iowa State rookie has been anything but irrelevant, throwing for 1900+ yards and 16 touchdowns over his 7-game stretch as the 49ers starter. That includes two postseason victories, during which Purdy’s passer rating actually climbed a couple points.
This performance by a rookie QB over his first seven NFL starts including playoff games is at least the equal of any other rookie quarterback performance in NFL history!
And by the way… the 49ers defense allowed the fewest points in the league during the 2022 regular season. Dallas managed only a dozen last weekend!
Several weeks ago, when Eagles QB Jalen Hurts was sidelined with a shoulder injury and Purdy was rolling, the media crowned San Francisco this year’s Super Bowl Favorite. But after Hurts and the Eagles steamrolled the New York Giants 38-7 on the fifth anniversary of the team’s 2018 NFC title game win over Minnesota by the exact same score, NFL pundits reconsidered their premature coronation of the 49ers. Now, at least, Philadelphia seems to have secured a home team’s fighting chance.
So who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVII (57)? Allow me to speculate while I postulate winning scenarios for both teams.
If San Francisco can stuff Philadelphia’s ground game—a very tall order, they may regret it. Despite their high overall team defense rankings, the 49ers finished near the bottom third of the league in passing yards allowed in 2022. The Eagles ranked 6th in passer rating and 8th in passing yards gained. Philly also ranked fifth in rushing yards and first in both rushing touchdowns and red zone scores.
In short, the Eagles offense can advance the football and score points from any point on the field, especially nears its opponent's goal lines.
Conversely, if Philly’s defense can stuff the 49ers ground game, I will be shocked! San Francisco’s zone-blocking, stretch run plays will burden the Eagles’ large and more mature defensive linemen. They'll need to move more than they are accustomed to moving—or perhaps capable of doing—without wearing down considerably.
It will also slow the Birds pass rush, by far the NFL’s best in 2022 by a very wide margin. Bottom line, a winning Niners game plan will not program Purdy to throw 50+ times.
San Francisco ran the ball 504 times this year, the ninth highest total in football. If SF can’t run the ball effectively, chances are Philly’s defensive line will be controlling the line of scrimmage. If so, then Mr. Irrelevant could find himself in third-and-long yardage situations scrambling to keep plays alive with Philadelphia pass rushers in hot pursuit—hardly an ideal situation for a young man starting only his 8th NFL game. And the Eagles know that.
During the 2022 season, San Francisco played only 5 games against teams with non-losing records, and two of those were against Seattle. Philly played 11 teams with non-losing records. Three teams from the Eagles’ division made the post-season, and the Washington
Commanders, who ruined Philadelphia's unbeaten season, finished just ½ game out.
In short, Philadelphia appears to be a bit more battle-tested than its West Coast opponent.
But statistics don’t win playoff games. Ultimately, the team that scores the most points this weekend will execute a well-thought-out-and-conceived game plan that best fits its own personnel and maximizes its own scoring potential. Be more specific, right?
For the 49ers, that means ball control and timely play action passes, giving Purdy a chance against a big pass rush and a hostile crowd. Rendering Eagles' ball carriers ineffective and forcing Philly to throw more often than they would like, against a defensive unit that rallies quickly to pass catchers and tackles well, also will benefit San Francisco’s cause.
For the Eagles, showing respect but no fear for the 49ers front seven in both run and pass situations will aid Philadelphia regardless of the play call. The Eagles large and seasoned offensive line can block either. Containing the elusive Purdy when he scrambles will factor mightily into the outcome. And, of course, making San Francisco sustain drives the length of the field with its rookie QB will be key.
Barring key skill player injuries, this game likely will come down to a single and decisive fourth quarter possession. Whichever team has the most left in its fuel tank in the contest's waning moments--and whichever team exerts its will and sustains momentum throughout in crucial ball-control situations--will likely advance to Super Bowl LVII.
In a nutshell, the last team with the ball probably will still have a chance to win the NFC Championship. That’s how close this intriguing title game matchup appears to be!