Eagles-49ers player matchups to watch in NFC Championship Game

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Eagles-49ers player matchups to watch in NFC Championship Game originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The top-seeded Eagles will host the No. 2-seeded 49ers in the NFC Championship Game at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Linc.

This is a collisions of the two best teams in the NFC. It should be fun.

Here are some matchups to watch:

Eagles rushing game vs. 49ers run defense

The Eagles dominated in the trenches in their 38-7 beatdown of the Giants but it shouldn’t be that easy against the Niners. While the Giants were statistically one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, the 49ers are one of the best.

So this is a matchup of two respective strengths: The Eagles’ dynamic run game and the 49ers stout defense. It’s going to be fun to watch.

During this season, the 49ers gave up just 77.7 yards per game, the second best average in the NFL and also allowed just 3.4 yards per attempt. The Eagles, meanwhile, finished as the fifth-best rushing team in the NFL, averaging 147.6 yards per game and went off at 4.6 yards per attempt. The Eagles probably would have been ranked even higher in yards per game if there weren’t some games where it made more sense to run.

While the Eagles ripped off an incredible 268 rushing yards against the Giants, the 49ers held the Cowboys to just 76 in their 19-12 win in the other NFC divisional round matchup.

Jalen Hurts vs. Fred Warner?

The Niners have been great against the run, but they haven’t faced a QB running threat like Hurts. They drew the Bears way back in Week 1, when Justin Fields had 11 rushing attempts for 28 yards but Fields didn’t really start cooking on the ground until a few weeks later.

Hurts against the Giants, despite his telling sideline reporter Pam Oliver that he wasn’t near 100 percent, looked like his old self. He had just 9 attempts for 34 yards and a touchdown but his presence as a running threat on the backside definitely helped the Eagles have a great performance on the ground. And any caution gets thrown out in the conference championship game, knowing he’ll have two weeks to heal up before the Super Bowl.

So how will the 49ers attempt to stop Hurts? If they choose to spy Hurts, especially in the red zone, they have some athletic linebacker options, starting with Warner. But they also have Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair. With Warner and Greenlaw, the 49ers have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Using Warner as a spy on Hurts might work, but it would also take him out of coverage, an area he excels. That’s the obvious downside to using him in this fashion. My best guess is that if and when the Niners spy Hurts, it’ll be more of a team effort.

Eagles WRs vs. 49ers corners

In just about every game the Eagles feel like they have an advantage with A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith going against the opposition’s cornerbacks. This week is no different.

The 49ers top cornerback is Charvarius Ward and he’s a really good player, one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. In fact, PFF ranked him as the No. 7 corner in the league this season. But Ward doesn’t travel a ton. In the Cowboys game, all of his snaps came as the LCB. But even if the 49ers have Ward following Brown, that leaves Deommodore Lenoir on Smith and that’s a matchup the Eagles will be happy to use all game. The Eagles should try to attack Lenoir and Jimmie Ward in the slot. The beauty of the Eagles offense is that they use their top two receivers in the middle of the field a ton.

The 49ers are mostly a zone team but there are a ton of 1-on-1 matchups for the Eagles to take advantage of. And the Niners have given up plenty of big games to opposing receivers this season. Seven 100+ yard games against them:

Week 2: Tyler Lockett: 9 catches, 11 targets, 107 yards
Week 4: Cooper Kupp: 14 catches, 19 targets, 122 yards
Week 7: Marquez Valdes-Scantling: 3 catches, 4 targets, 111 yards
Week 7: JuJu Smith-Schuster: 7 catches, 8 targets, 124 yards, 1 TD
Week 11: Greg Dortch: 9 catches, 10 targets, 103 yards
Week 13: Tyreek Hill: 9 catches, 14 targets, 146 yards, 1 TD
Week 17: Davante Adams: 7 catches, 11 targets, 153 yards, 2 TDs

Lane Johnson vs. Nick Bosa

After missing a couple of games down the stretch after tearing an adductor in his groin on Christmas Eve, Johnson returned to action in the divisional round and was great. He played 67 snaps, exiting just at the end when the Eagles rested their starters. Johnson was dominant in the run game and a brick wall in pass protection. According to PFF, Johnson had 26 reps in pass protection against the Giants and didn’t give up a single pressure. That’s great against Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari, who are good young players, but a bigger test looms.

Nick Bosa this season led the NFL with 18 1/2 sacks, which was 2 1/2 more than Haason Reddick and Myles Garrett. Bosa is likely going to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. Throughout his incredible season, Bosa has lined up on both sides of the line but got significantly more snaps on the left side of the defensive line. If that holds true, it means he’ll be seeing a lot of Johnson on Sunday afternoon. Johnson, by the way, has not surrendered a sack since Week 11 of the 2020 season, according to PFF.

This is a heavyweight fight.

Brock Purdy vs. Jonathan Gannon

The last pick of the 2022 draft has now won seven straight games as a starter and has helped the 49ers offense get better down the stretch. But it has to come crashing down at some point, right?

In those seven starts, including the two playoff games against the Seahawks and Cowboys, Purdy has thrown 16 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. He hasn’t thrown a single pick in his last three games. But he has thrown a few passes in the last two playoff games that probably should have been picked off and the Seahawks and Cowboys were not able to capitalize.

The Eagles finished with the second-best defense in the NFL (just behind the 49ers) in yards-per-game this season. So this will be the best defense Purdy has seen all year outside of practice. The Eagles also finished fourth in the NFL in takeaways with 27 so they’re a ball-hawking group.

49ers OL vs. Eagles DL penetration

The Niners have a future Hall of Famer and arguably the best overall lineman in the NFL in Trent Williams. There’s no getting around that. Williams, 34, is incredibly still playing at a very high level. So it’ll be tough for the Eagles to get around him.

But the rest of that offensive line? Beatable. That was certainly the impression I got from watching the Cowboys on Sunday night. While Purdy was not sacked in that game, the Cowboys got 11 total pressures and moved him off his spot plenty of times. Watching Osa Odighizuwa wreak havoc is a really good sign for defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox entering this game.

And right tackle Mike McGlinchey — Philly guy — is a solid tackle but he’s not great. And the Eagles have to like the matchup of Haason Reddick against him. Reddick is coming off an incredible performance in his first NFL playoff game against Evan Neal. McGlinchey is better than Neal but this is still an advantage for the Eagles.

Niners WRs vs. Eagles corners

The 49ers have a ton of talent on offense and boast a strong duo of receivers in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. This season, Aiyuk went over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and also caught eight touchdowns. And Samuel’s numbers took a dip after he played just 13 games but he is still an absolute YAC monster and it’ll be important for the Eagles to get him down when they have a chance.

As good as Deebo and Aiyuk are, the Eagles should feel pretty good with them against Darius Slay and James Bradberry. But of course, this is just scratching the surface of the 49ers unique offense and skill players.

Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle vs. Middle of field players

OK, let’s get to what makes the Niners so unique. Having players like Deebo, Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and even Kyle Juszczyk gives them plenty of skills players who can at times be interchangeable and present really tough matchup problems.

McCaffrey came out of the Cowboys game with a little calf injury and if he’s not 100 percent, that’s something to keep in mind in the game on Sunday. But the 49ers will try to get McCaffrey and Kittle in advantageous matchups against the Eagles’ linebackers and safeties. Kyzir White finished the season strong but him against McCaffrey in the flat is a clear advantage for the Niners.

And the possibility of getting Avonte Maddox (toe) back for this game would be great. Maddox might be able to practice. Because if Maddox is back, then C.J. Gardner-Johnson can slide back to his spot at safety. That’s in no way a knock on Reed Blankenship, who played well at safety in Maddox’s absence, but having a completely stocked secondary would help. Because Kittle is a really tough guy to slow down and he’s a big play machine.

Game management

Nick Sirianni has been a poster child for the CEO head coach this season. The obvious benefit of his giving up offensive play calling last season is that the offense got better. Shane Steichen has a real knack for it and it has helped Hurts and the offense be more efficient. But the other benefit is that it freed Sirianni up on game day. And he’s been making really good decisions in situational football. There haven’t been many moments of Monday Morning Quarterback with him this season.

That brings us to Kyle Shanahan. He’s a really innovative offensive mind and there’s a ton to love about his offensive scheme and play-calling. But some of his in-game management leaves something to be desired. He always seems to err on the side of caution. And that makes some sense given his defense and having a rookie quarterback. But if it’s close, he’s probably kicking.

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And then there are moments where time management is shaky. The Niners were lucky to were lucky to get out of the first half with a field goal with just 1 second left. They nearly blew an opportunity to get some points. Something to keep an eye on Sunday.

Turnover battle

These are two very good rosters battling on Sunday so the margin for error is going to be pretty slim. So turnovers could be a very big deal. The Niners this season were first in the NFL in turnover differential at +13 and the Eagles were third at +8.

The 49ers this season are 13-0 when they are at least even in turnover margin and they’re 0-4 when they have a negative turnover margin. The Eagles are 11-1 when they are at least even in turnover margin and they’re 3-2 when they’re in the negative.

One big turnover could decide who goes to the Super Bowl.

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