Just over 10 months after the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles met with a Super Bowl berth on the line, these division leaders square off again at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday in another potential NFC championship game preview.
In this past January’s Championship Sunday, the Eagles rolled to a 31-7 victory in a game that became somewhat painful to watch with Brock Purdy famously suffering an elbow injury, his backup a concussion and the 49ers unable to run any semblance of a modern-day offense.
There’s already plenty of history and bad blood after 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel called Eagles cornerback James Bradberry ‘trash’ in the wake of last year’s loss. Samuel has chosen to stand by his comments heading into this matchup.
With those types of storylines, Sunday’s rematch on FOX should deliver the excitement and our SmartRatings has pegged this as easily the highest-rated game (72) from Sunday’s slate.
The NFC East-leading Eagles have won their last five games and have displayed the resiliency of an NFL-best team, coming off impressive victories in a six-day span by beating the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium and defeating the Buffalo Bills in overtime last Sunday, rallying from 10-point halftime deficits in each.
Our prediction model already has the Eagles in the playoffs (100%), a better than 50% chance of reaching the conference championship game (57.3%) and nearly a 1-in-5 shot of winning the Super Bowl (19.0%).
The NFC West-leading 49ers once again look like they belong in the Super Bowl conversation, having won their last three games by 31, 13 and 18 points after entering their Week 9 bye on the heels of three consecutive losses. They are now up to a 98.8% chance of reaching the playoffs, a 35.2% chance of playing in the conference title game and have the NFC’s third-best chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at 10.3% behind the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys (11.4%).
San Francisco arrives in Philadelphia with three more days of rest after it was able to claim a 31-13 win at Seattle on Thanksgiving night to improve to 8-3 and grab hold of the NFC’s No. 2 seed. The Niners find themselves two games back of the conference-leading Eagles, but a win would tighten things up atop the NFC and give them the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker over Philadelphia should they end up with the same record come season’s end.
An Eagles win, however, would essentially end any chance for the 49ers to get the conference’s top seed, the coveted first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Eagles are 5-0 at the Linc and own a sparkling 10-1 record, yet sportsbooks have tabbed the 49ers as the favorites this Sunday. Our supercomputer, however, projects the Eagles to come away with a 21-20 victory.
Since 2010, this is only the eighth time a team with an .800+ winning percentage is a home underdog this late into a season. Five of those previous seven instances, however, occurred in the final week of the season when playoff positioning was already locked up and the home team was resting starters and not too concerned with the outcome.
So, this marks only the third time in the last 14 seasons a team with an .800+ winning percentage is a home underdog between NFL Weeks 13-16. In the previous two times, the home underdog lost – the 11-2 Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 to the 10-3 New England Patriots in 2017 and the 9-2 Chiefs 35-28 to the 9-2 Denver Broncos in 2013.
Given the way the Eagles have played in recent weeks, it’s not a huge surprise the Niners come in as the best bets. Since Week 8, Philadelphia is yielding an NFL-worst 429.8 yards per game and allowing opponents to convert a league-high 51.5% of third-down tries.
The Eagles have been outgained by 437 yards in the last four games, becoming just the second team in NFL history to be outgained by 400 yards over a four-game span, yet win all four, joining the 2020 Dolphins.
The offense is having its own problems, stumbling out of the gate and going into halftime trailing in each of the last four games. The team has shown tremendous resolve, however, and Jalen Hurts and the offense has been able to overcome the early struggles and move the ball when it matters most.
In last Sunday’s 37-34 win, the Eagles registered just one scoring drive on their first seven possessions (which excludes a QB kneel-down to end the first half) before Hurts led five scoring drives on their final six possessions, throwing three second-half touchdown passes and winning the game on a 12-yard TD run in the extra period.
It was another signature victory for Hurts and the Eagles, and again displayed their ability to win despite not playing their best – a mark of a championship-caliber team.
Digging yourself into an early hole and needing to rally typically isn’t the best strategy for success, especially against a strong San Francisco team.
PHI Key: Re-establish the Run Defense
Prior to their Week 10 bye, nobody could run on the Eagles. They were first in rush defense with an average of 66.3 opponent rushing yards a game and had given up a league-low 12 runs of 10 or more yards.
In the last two weeks, however, Philadelphia was shredded by Kansas City and Buffalo’s ground attack, permitting 168 rushing yards to the Chiefs and 173 to the Bills with 13 runs going for at least 10 yards.
Those numbers are even more disturbing for Eagles fans when you consider those struggles came against two of the top passing offenses in the league.
Now they face a 49ers team that is built to run behind NFL rushing leader Christian McCaffrey.
The two-time Pro Bowler carried the ball 19 times for 114 yards with a pair of touchdowns in Week 12 and is now up to 939 rushing yards on the season – 154 more yards than Raheem Mostert of the Miami Dolphins for the most in the league.
McCaffrey excels at breaking tackles and making matters worse for the Eagles is their struggles to even get a hand on opposing running backs until they’re almost 3 yards past the line of scrimmage. On the season, they’re yielding an average of 2.9 rushing yards before contact – tied with the Chiefs and New Orleans Saints for the fourth-worst mark in the NFL.
Keeping the ball on the ground 50.5% of the time, the 49ers are one of only two teams to run on more than half of their offensive plays (the Ravens being the other at 51.2%).
And although opponents know a run is likely coming, they still can’t stop it, as San Francisco is finding success on running the ball 42.8% of the time – only the Eagles have a higher success rate running the ball at 43.5%.
Run Success Percentage
- Philadelphia Eagles (43.5%)
- San Francisco 49ers (42.8%)
- Buffalo Bills (41.3%)
- Los Angeles Rams (40.9%)
- Miami Dolphins (40.4%)
In its three losses this season, Kyle Shanahan’s team has struggled to move the ball on the ground, averaging 95.3 rushing yards compared to 151.3 in the victories.
McCaffrey is more than doubling his rush output in the Niners’ wins, averaging 99.6 rushing yards per game and a 5.14 average yards per carry compared to 47.3 yards per game and 3.74 per carry in the losses.
Getting CMC going would make everything easier, including Purdy’s ability to get the ball to Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle through the air.
SF Key: Get Hurts on the Move
It’s a small sample size, but the early returns on the 49ers’ acquisition of Chase Young from Washington have been extremely positive.
Prior to acquiring Young, San Francisco ranked 27th in sack rate, sacking opposing QBs on 5.5% of pass plays, with a mere 18 sacks in eight games. With Young in the lineup since Week 10, the 49ers have more than doubled their sack rate to 12.6 while racking up 15 sacks in three games.
Young’s presence has created all sorts of pass protection problems for opposing offenses as they can no longer simply focus on trying to block fellow edge rusher Nick Bosa.
Bosa registered two of San Francisco’s season-high six sacks against the Seattle Seahawks last week to give him five sacks since the trade after having just three sacks in the first eight games.
The 2022 AP Defensive Player of the Year is thriving with Young in the lineup and has helped open things up for the rest of the defense with an adjusted sack rate of 9.3 in the last three games.
The Bosa and Young effect have provided more opportunities for San Francisco’s defensive tackles with Javon Hargrave recording three sacks since the trade (he had three before it), while Arik Armstead has 2.5 in the last three games – the same number of sacks he had in the first eight. Armstead had a sack on Thanksgiving, while Hargrave was credited with 1.5.
This poses significant problems for a Philadelphia offensive line that has been susceptible to the pash rush. The Eagles have a pressure-allowed rate of 37.7 – the eighth-worst rate in the league after registering last season’s sixth-best pressure-allowed rate at 34.0.
The added pressure has made things a bit tougher for Hurts.
With 18 passing touchdowns and another 11 on the ground, Hurts is one of the frontrunners for league MVP. He also has thrown for nine TDs and just two interceptions in his last four games, but when flushed out of the pocket and on the move, he becomes a well-below average QB and has a more difficult time finding playmakers like A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith.
It’s not a huge surprise to see a dip in these passing stats, but to go from being among the best in the league in these categories to one of the worst is a bit alarming for a quarterback as productive as Hurts.
While the 49ers will try to get Hurts on the move, this pressure could backfire, seeing as he is also a threat to scramble when the pocket collapses. The Niners will have to stay disciplined to force Hurts to throw the ball while on the move.
One factor that will go a long way in deciding the outcome is the health of right tackle Lane Johnson. The four-time Pro Bowler is reportedly expected to play after sitting out against the Bills due to a nagging groin injury.
However, if he’s laboring at all that could make things easier for Bosa and Young to bust into the backfield and flummox Hurts.