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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Why the 49ers Worry Me Ahead of the NFC Championship Game

Jan 28, 2023 at 2:45 PM--

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This is something special. You can already feel it in the air. This weekend, with the scope of the NFL season boiled down to two games, there's no hint of fraudulence left. There's no frisky underdog just hoping to make some noise. On Sunday, we're going to witness two heavyweight fights, one juggernaut against another for control of each conference, no love lost between the contestants.

It's gonna be fun.

But with the stakes raised as high as they are, the buoyant enthusiasm that permeates a winning season has vanished. It's been boiled away by the crucible of postseason pressure. Lose tomorrow, and there is no more football this season. No more chances for a special iteration of a storied team. An offseason into the howling dark of frustration and despair.

Which brings us to Philadelphia. Tomorrow afternoon, 3 PM Eastern Time, the 49ers will face off against the Eagles in a battle of the unquestioned two best teams in the NFC. Both teams have been electric this season, and to be honest, I'm worried. For the first time in a long time, this game doesn't have the air of a matchup that the 49ers *should* win. For a team that's harbored nothing short of championship aspirations since their riotous winning streak to start 2019, that's scary.

There are a few reasons that the Eagles match up to the 49ers better than any team has in years. Some of these are based off of nothing more than purely observational concerns, statistical outcomes that the Niners will need to tilt in their favor. Some of them are based off of gut feelings, patterns that have emerged in the larger fabric of NFL history that San Francisco, like every other team, will have to struggle against in the battle to reach the very top. Let's start with those.

The Abstract

The 49ers are, once again, on the warpath. Winners of 12 straight games, it's hard to argue that there's a hotter team in the league this deep into the playoffs. But something about this playoff run feels different than the 2019 and 2021 ones did. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what. But for the sake of trying, let's invoke the Hall of Fame, because by and large that's where champions hang out.

Take stock of the final four teams in the playoffs this year. The Chiefs have a shoo-in first-ballot Hall-of-Famer at quarterback; the Niners know exactly what he can do in the brightest games. The Bengals are led by two young stars on a Hall of Fame trajectory, and you don't need me to say Joe Burrow or Ja'Marr Chase to know who I'm talking about. If there was a Hall of Fame for entire defensive lines, they'd put the 2022 Eagles front in it. They put up 64 sacks this year by themselves. 64. That's 8 less than the single-season record for an entire team, and 9 more than the second place Cowboys, who held the 49ers to under 20 points. That comparison, which places Philadelphia in a realm that can only be described as historic, doesn't bode well for San Francisco tomorrow.

As for the 49ers? There's a phrase someone used this week to describe the NFC Championship Game that I can't get out of my head. "Of the two squads playing on Sunday, one is a great team. The other is a team of very good players." And it bugs me that I don't know which one is which. The Niners have an ungodly collection of All-Pro players, but for some reason, something feels like it's missing. Some level of dominance that demands nothing less than complete capitulation from the opponent.

In 2019, that was the run game. Part of what makes this year so nerve-wracking is comparing these games to the path the 49ers took that year (technically, January 2020). That year, the 49ers gathered behind their run game and basically walked directly into the Super Bowl. It was unstoppable. The Vikings got obliterated, to no one's surprise, but Aaron Rodgers in his prime couldn't hold a candle to that running game. And when you've got something in your arsenal that's leaps and bounds more dangerous than a Hall-of-Famer, as Rodgers undoubtedly is, you've got a fantastic shot at a championship.

This year, though? I'm struggling to identify the silver bullet that will get San Francisco out of the Linc alive. Deebo Samuel almost single-handedly carried the team through the playoffs last year, but he's been relatively quiet this year. Brandon Aiyuk is the kind all-star receiver that every team wants, but he's more of a 1B than a 1-of-1. George Kittle has been known to go absolutely berserk, but is he going to be able to put up 100+ yards and a score if he's constantly needed to block Philadelphia's ferocious front? And of course, there's Christian McCaffrey, whose arrival changed everything in Santa Clara. His gravity opens up the entire playbook, but even then, he could barely run behind a generally solid offensive line last weekend against Dallas. If all of those weapons, not to mention Trent Williams, Elijah Mitchell, and a few more, could only put up 19 points at home against the Cowboys, where do they find extra points against Philadelphia?

And the defense, which has rated #1 all year in a plurality of defensive categories, feels very similar. Against anyone who's not a game away from the Super Bowl, yeah, they should win easily. They have the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year in Nick Bosa… who hasn't gotten a sack in the playoffs. Apart from him, it's hard to bet on anyone in particular finding pay dirt, and mobile quarterbacks are a massive Achilles' heel for this defense. The secondary is full of no-doubt starters, but is it full of guys that Jalen Hurts and the Eagles actively fear? You can basically pencil in 1-2 deep against them already, and we've already seen Jalen Hurts do it before. The biggest strength of this 49ers defense is probably the linebackers, with Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Azeez Al-Shaair forming almost certainly the best linebacking corps in the NFL. But will they be enough to anchor San Francisco against a team with two WR1s, three dangerous running backs, a good tight end, and a quarterback with 10 rushing touchdowns, and a top-3 offensive line?

If there is some kind of silver bullet for the 49ers, it takes someone smarter than me to dig it up. Much has been made about the Eagles' substandard rush defense, but the acquisition of Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh have given them a legitimate argument for having the best run defense in football the past two months. If the 49ers struggle to create positive rushing plays even more than they did against Dallas, then they - like any team not named Kansas City forced to operate exclusively out of the passing game - will be in massive trouble.

The Concrete

Unfortunately, most of the nagging concerns I have for the 49ers revolve around the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles are simply a great football team. Without any obvious weakness to target, the 2022-2023 NFC Championship Game will come down to a coaching battle between Kyle Shanahan and Nick Sirianni. Who can rip a scale off the dragon first before driving in the sword? 49ers fans should have faith in their head coach, who's been in playoff situations many times, and has been on an absolute tear as a play-calling mastermind this season.

But there is one thing, less a matter of scales than of strategy, that concerns me. Part of Shanahan's effectiveness comes from setting his team up for success by probing the defense, drawing them out of position for a critical strike later. But there's an opportunity cost in doing so, especially against great defenses. That strategy takes plays to set up, plays that may not be in abundance. Any longtime watcher of the Kyle Shanahan 49ers can tell you that his teams don't tend to come out of the gate firing. Hell, you heard it this week from star left tackle Trent Williams, who said this during a Thursday press conference:

"The running game, especially this late in the year, it's not instant... it's not like you just open the game running the ball down people's throats."

Williams followed up that quote by stating, "Everybody's gonna have a different wrinkle, how they're going to approach us, and a couple of drives is spent just trying to see... what are they doing different than we've seen on film," and that "we never go into the game expecting to just bust the gate open with 100 yards in the first quarter."

That slow, methodical game style works wonders against teams you can grind into dust. I'm not sure - in fact, I'm thoroughly convinced - that Philly isn't one of them. And I'm not saying that it's a bad strategy. It's where Shanahan is at his best, and that's where the 49ers will need him to win tomorrow. But against an offense with as much firepower as the Eagles', and with a defense so adept at punishing teams playing from behind, which the 49ers aren't built to do anyways, it's risky. If the scale starts tipping towards the Philadelphia side, I'm not sure it stops.

Another reason the Niners aren't likely to pull their usual commanding victory has to do with simple circumstance. The Eagles, due to a rare scheduling quirk, received two bye weeks this postseason: the first due to being the NFC's #1 seed, the second due to playing the Giants for 8 minutes. Part of the reality is that despite being as healthy as they've been all season, the 49ers are at least a little more worn down than Philadelphia. That's why, if they lose a close game, I'm not going to be tearing up or throwing my remote. This Eagles-Niners matchup features strength-on-strength all over the board, but in terms of sheer physicality and grit, the Eagles have a baked-in advantage. It's hard enough just to play 20 games in a season. It's almost impossible to wear down a rested team 20 games into the year.

There's one last area that I'll be watching with rapt attention on Sunday - the turnover margin. Both defenses can get after the ball, although I'd expect it to be from interceptions for San Francisco and from fumbles/strip sacks for Philadelphia. But on offense, the matchup is absolutely fascinating.

Brock Purdy has taken about 200 snaps since taking over as the full-time starter in week 13. In that span, he's thrown 3 interceptions. He's had turnover-worthy plays that didn't end up there, certainly, but it's also extremely important to note that his few turnovers have been the result of good process - passes that bounce off a receiver's hands, a 4th-down go-ball arm-punt from midfield, that sort of thing. And that's great news for the 49ers, who have endured Jimmy Garoppolo's turnover-prone arm through the past two playoff runs.

The only problem? Jalen Hurts is even better at protecting the football. 6 interceptions on 484 pass attempts this season, paired with efficiency through the air and on the ground that's earned him in top-3 MVP consideration. At best, this playing field is level, and that's no knock on Purdy - it would be an incredible feat for him to match up to Hurts in a championship game. But as far as opportunities go, it seems like the 49ers will simply have less of them.

And that hurts, no pun intended, insofar as the 49ers have gone as far as their turnover margin has taken them. The 49ers have not lost when they've won or tied the turnover margin. They have not won when they've lost the turnover margin. And it's not an ironclad rule, but this team, built the way it is to sustain drives methodically, play opportunistically on defense, and generally outmaneuver and outcompete their opponents? It's hard to see them maintaining a lead if they give away the ball and the Eagles don't.

Perhaps that's simply a hidden sign that it's Brock Purdy's time to emerge as a legitimate, even top-tier NFL starter by making key plays under pressure against an exceptional defense. Maybe George Kittle or Deebo Samuel will take matters into their own hands and drag San Francisco right to a Super Bowl berth. Perhaps George Odum will find a ball thrown directly at him that he doesn't drop, the way Jaquiski Tartt did in 2021 or Dre Greenlaw did last week or…

Regardless, the margin for error that the 49ers have enjoyed this season from sheer talent discrepancy just doesn't exist against the Eagles. It's not impossible that they win, or even that they win big. But it's just not more likely than them losing, even with fairly even odds. Philadelphia is just as hard to play in as Seattle or Kansas City. The Eagles have a roster that's just as good. The draw just isn't ideal. Someone will walk away with this game, and I'll be hoping just as hard as everyone else that it'll be the 49ers.

But for the first time in 3 months, it might not.

**Note: Details and quotations from Trent Williams edited for accuracy**
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • David G
    And it resulted exactly that way, sad finish to this season. Thanks for the joy anyway 49ers. See you again the next, and hope to be better.
    Jan 30, 2023 at 8:41 AM
  • Faithful
    Thanks for ruining everybody's hopes and dreams, JD Salazar.
    Jan 29, 2023 at 8:25 AM
  • BigAl
    Why not just write football and skip all this poetic garbage
    Jan 29, 2023 at 6:20 AM

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