Key matchups, strengths and weaknesses, predictions

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In one of the most anticipated games of the year, the San Francisco 49ers will travel east to face the Philadelphia Eagles in a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX and the FOX Sports app). 

During that conference title game, of course, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy suffered an elbow injury in the first quarter that required offseason surgery and the Eagles cruised to a 31-7 victory. 

With Purdy now healthy, San Francisco hopes for a much different outcome this time. The 8-3 Niners, winners of three straight games by an average of 19.3 points, actually enter Sunday’s contest as road favorites over the 10-1 Eagles, who continue to win close games.

Philadelphia has plenty of motivation as well. Along with earning home field throughout the postseason, the Eagles can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over San Francisco, along with a loss or tie by the Los Angeles Rams in the cleanest scenario.

“We’re 10-1, but that don’t mean anything because we don’t hold that ring,” Eagles veteran edge rusher Brandon Graham told reporters this week. “And so we just have to make sure we’re getting better as the season goes.” 

To take a closer look at this epic matchup, FOX Sports NFL writers Eric D. Williams and Ralph Vacchiano dive into the details.

Eric: The smack talk around this game has already reached a crescendo, Ralph, and I’m here for it. The talk ranges from Deebo Samuel saying Philadelphia cornerback James Bradberry is trash to Eagles edge rusher Haason Reddick accusing San Francisco players of crying and challenging them to show up at The Linc and prove they are the better team. 

Do you think this much-anticipated rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game will live up to the hype?

Ralph: Who doesn’t love trash talk, right? The more, the better as far as I’m concerned. I’d be shocked if this game doesn’t live up to the hype. These are two of the three best teams in the NFC and maybe two of the four or five best teams in football. They’re also both rolling right now, too. 

The matchup has all the elements: great defenses, outstanding quarterbacks, MVP candidates, weapons all over the field and two really smart coaches. Also, the Eagles have a knack for playing close games. They don’t often run away from their opponents. I’m sure both teams see this as a big test, too. 

I don’t think the Eagles feel like they get the respect they deserve, even at 10-1, and the last thing they want to do is give the NFC reason for hope. The 49ers need the game to keep pace in the NFC race. I’d be shocked if one of these teams has a letdown like the Cowboys did in San Francisco last month.

Are Eagles disrespected as underdogs vs. 49ers?

Are Eagles disrespected as underdogs vs. 49ers?

Here’s my biggest question heading into this game: Should the Eagles be more worried about the San Francisco offense or defense?

Eric: Great question. San Francisco’s offense features some of the top playmakers in the game, led by Christian McCaffrey, Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. And Purdy is an MVP candidate in just his second year. The 49ers also have a solid offensive line, anchored by one of the best left tackles in the business in Trent Williams. San Francisco averages 28.2 points per game, tied for No. 3 in the NFL — with the Eagles.

However, it’s been the improvement of San Francisco’s defense that has led to the team’s resurgence after its bye week. Since the midseason trade for edge rusher Chase Young, the 49ers have 15 sacks in the past three games, have forced eight takeaways and have held opponents to an average of 10 points a contest. The addition of Young to the defensive line has freed up reigning Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, who has five sacks and 28 quarterback pressures over the past three games. 

While San Francisco has been playing well defensively, the 49ers will have their hands full trying to bottle up Jalen Hurts and Philadelphia’s potent offense. What’s been working for the Eagles on offense during the team’s five-game win streak?

Ralph: Honestly, what’s been working for them the most is Jalen Hurts. I could make a good argument that he’s been the difference in all five games in the winning streak. The beauty of the Eagles is they have a dozen different ways to beat teams. 

They can steamroll teams on the ground. They’ve got two No. 1 receivers who can carry them. The constant, though, is the quarterback. He rarely puts up spectacular numbers, but he has spectacular games where he just finds a way to step up and make big plays exactly when the Eagles seem to need them. He did a lot of that in the second half both against the Bills last Sunday night and against the Chiefs a week earlier. 

He didn’t play perfect games. He has thrown a career-high 10 interceptions, including three in the past five games, and that’s one way the Eagles are worse than they were last year. But when the game is on the line, when it really matters, Hurts just finds a way to throw a perfect pass, make a well-timed run. It’s pretty impressive.

Are the Eagles the toughest team in the NFL?

Are the Eagles the toughest team in the NFL?

I would guess if I asked 32 general managers if they preferred Hurts or Brock Purdy, almost all of them would take Hurts. I’d give the Eagles the big advantage in the QB battle here. But is that unfair to Purdy? Is he closer to being an elite quarterback than he gets credit for being — or maybe is he closer to at least playing at that elite level right now?

Eric: I would say the latter. Purdy executes San Francisco’s offense at an elite level. He understands exactly what head coach Kyle Shanahan wants in the scheme and where to go with the football. 

He also has a good balance of taking care of the football but also being fearless and taking risks when necessary to push the ball down the field. After turning it over six times during San Francisco’s three-game losing streak, Purdy has been more careful. Over San Francisco’s three-game win streak, Purdy has completed 75.3% of his passes for 838 yards, with seven touchdowns and just one interception for a 131.6 passer rating.

The Iowa State product processes things quickly, has good arm strength and underrated mobility as a runner. And he’s well-liked in the locker room for his toughness and work ethic. 

Is Purdy a top-10 quarterback in the NFL? Nope, but he’s not expected to be at this stage. He was the last pick in last year’s draft and still has a lot to learn in the league. However, Purdy’s accelerated recovery from UCL surgery was impressive. Now, the 49ers will get a chance to see how they match up with the Eagles with their quarterback healthy. 

What makes Brock Purdy, 49ers so hard to stop?

What makes Brock Purdy, 49ers so hard to stop?

But forget about Purdy for a minute. The 49ers will face a Philadelphia defense that allowed more than 500 total yards, including more than 150 on the ground, in a late-game win over the Bills last week. How will Philadelphia contain San Francisco’s potent run game?

Ralph: You noticed that, huh? The Eagles don’t like to talk about it, but their defense has really been a bit of a problem the past four weeks. It wasn’t just all the yards and points they gave up against the Buffalo Bills. It was the first half in Kansas City. It was the 406 yards they gave up to the Cowboys before the bye week. Heck, they even gave up 472 to the Washington Commanders the week before that.

The worst part, as you noted, is their run defense. In the past two weeks, against the Chiefs and Bills, the Eagles gave up 341 rushing yards. They didn’t give up that many in the first five games of the season combined! 

It’s hard to pinpoint the problem. Their tackling was an issue against the Chiefs, especially with their linebackers. Against the Bills, they were torched by Josh Allen, who just kept escaping their pass rush. 

Christian McCaffrey should worry the Eagles. They have a terrific front line, but they don’t have the best tacklers in the back seven. I’d say it’s a good bet that McCaffrey will find his way through the line a few times, and the way the Eagles are playing right now, it’s going to be hard to contain him. That’s probably the 49ers’ biggest advantage coming into the game, because that run defense really looks like the Eagles’ biggest weakness.

I know the 49ers’ run defense has been pretty strong, but how are they when it comes to stopping mobile quarterbacks? After playing through a knee injury, Jalen Hurts has looked healthy the past couple of weeks and has started running a little bit more. Will he be able to do that on Sunday?

Eric: San Francisco has struggled at times with quarterbacks who can move. Earlier this year, before he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, Joshua Dobbs carried 12 times for 48 yards for the Arizona Cardinals. Also, Joe Burrow ran for 43 yards in Cincinnati’s road win over the 49ers in Week 8.

In last year’s NFC Championship Game, Hurts finished with 39 rushing yards and a score. San Francisco’s defensive front can get too focused on getting up field and getting after the quarterback, leaving rush lanes for opposing signal-callers to escape for big gains. In facing such a dangerous runner as Hurts, that will be something defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has to remind his players to avoid.

Considering there are so many talented players on the field, what would you consider the key matchup heading into Sunday’s contest? 

Ralph: That’s a really good question and there are about five of them that I could pick. There are some great matchups along the line of scrimmage on both sides. The battles in the trenches are going to be tremendous. 

I’m also looking at that San Francisco secondary and wondering if Eagles receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith might be thinking about a big day if Jalen Hurts can get (or create) time to throw.

But I think the matchup that I’m watching most is Christian McCaffrey vs. the Eagles linebackers. Especially now with Zach Cunningham out, the Eagles are dangerously thin at linebacker, and as I mentioned earlier, their run defense hasn’t been very good. If the 49ers offensive line can open enough holes and McCaffrey can get through to the second level — or even if he can get there in the passing game — he could create a lot of problems for Philadelphia. 

Christian McCaffrey credits O-line after 4-TD game vs. Cardinals

Christian McCaffrey credits O-line after 4-TD game vs. Cardinals

I’d imagine that stopping him is the key to Philadelphia’s defensive game plan. What do you think is the key matchup? And while we’re at it, what’s your prediction for the game?

Eric: I’m interested in seeing how the 49ers will protect Purdy up front, based on the fact he did not finish the game the last time these two teams played. Purdy has been sacked just 21 times this season, while the Eagles have 32 sacks on the year. 

Philadelphia’s ability to generate pressure and make Purdy uncomfortable will be a key part of this game.

All right, predictions. The 49ers have been pointing toward this game all season and feel like they need this win to prove that they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. So, I will take San Francisco in a defensive battle, 24-20. 

Who ya got?

Ralph: I’ll be honest, I’ve been real close to picking San Francisco. Every time I watch the Eagles, they seem to waver a bit or expose a flaw that worries me. They have so many close calls that I start to think they will get beat by a more complete team — like the 49ers. 

But here’s the thing: I think my standards are too high for the Eagles. 

I think I’m looking for flaws. The truth is, in almost every game for the past two years there have been moments where I think “Now they’re in trouble” and they always seem to find a way to win in the end. 

They are remarkable in that way — maybe the most remarkable team I’ve ever covered. They don’t always look great, but they just find a way.

So, I assume it’ll be the same on Sunday. I’m not sure how the Eagles will do it. I think the score will be relatively high because they’ll have trouble with McCaffrey and the 49ers’ weapons, and they’ve got enough weapons of their own to keep up. I think the 49ers will have a lead, maybe even in the fourth quarter. 

But in the end it’ll be the same old, same old: Eagles 30, 49ers 27.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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