The NFC Championship game between the 49ers and Eagles will be an old-school slugfest with a new-school twist. The new school would be the 49ers' position-less football and Kyle Shanahan's motion offense, and the Eagles' RPO attack led by MVP finalist Jalen Hurts. Sure, there are superstar playmakers all over the field, but make no mistake, this game will still be one for the football purists, fought and won in the trenches.
"I expect it to be a battle all the way through," 49ers linebacker Fred Warner told reporters on Wednesday. "Both the Cowboys and Eagles are physical and talented teams who are really fast and have a lot of talent. Just like it was a battle this past week [against Dallas], I'm expecting that, if not more, this week, them being in their home stadium, home crowd behind them. They're going to be juiced up, ready to go."
Both teams come in highly rated up front. The Eagles have the No. 1 pass block and pass rush grades at Pro Football Focus, while the 49ers are top five in both categories.
Trench matchup for the ages
It starts with an embarrassment of riches in the trenches, where each team is loaded with talent. They combine for 13 offensive lineman and front-seven players who rank top 15 at their position in Pro Football Focus grades, including nine on the Eagles side.
Top-15 PFF grade at position this season among 49ers and Eagles' O-line/front-seven players:
- OT Trent Williams SF (1st)
- C Jason Kelce PHI (2nd)
- LB Fred Warner SF (2nd)
- EDGE Nick Bosa SF (3rd)
- LB T.J. Edwards PHI (4th)
- EDGE Brandon Graham PHI (5th)
- LB Dre Greenlaw SF (6th)
- OT Lane Johnson PHI (6th)
- OG Isaac Seumalo PHI (8th)
- EDGE Josh Sweat PHI (10th)
- EDGE Haason Reddick PHI (13th)
- DT Javon Hargrave PHI (13th)
- OT Jordan Mailata PHI (14th)
Of the 19 NFC Pro Bowl selections at those positions this year, seven are on these two teams. And the offensive line might boast a couple Hall of Famers. Trent Williams, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson make up three of the five AP first-team All-Pro selections along the offensive line this season.
Eagles have the best O-line and D-line in football
The Eagles could have the upper hand as they have arguably the best offensive and defensive line in football. They are only the second team in the last 15 seasons with the No. 1 pass block and pass rush grade from PFF. The 2021 Rams are the other team, and their domination up front paved the way for a Super Bowl title.
Philadelphia may not have a weak link on either side of the ball. The Eagles' entire offensive line was either named a Pro Bowler or an alternate this year. They had an NFL-record four players with double-digit sacks this season. In total, they have nine O-line and front-seven players with top-15 grades at their respective positions, the most of any team.
The results have been nothing short of historic. According to PFF, the individual offensive lineman have combined for the fewest sacks (14) and lowest pressure rate (3.5%) allowed this season. They are led by Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson, who are nearly impenetrable and have an amazing streak to prove it. They've combined to play 3,487 consecutive snaps since either last allowed a sack, including playoffs. The last one allowed was by Kelce in Week 6 of last season.
Not to be undone, Philadelphia's pass rush has racked up 75 sacks this year, the third-most in a season in NFL history, including playoffs, behind the 1985 Bears (80) and 1984 Bears (82). When it's just you and the Monsters of the Midway, watch out!
The 49ers are certainly up to the task as well, anchored by Trent Williams and Nick Bosa on each side of the ball, possibly the best tackle and pass rusher in the league.
Best individual matchup: Lane Johnson vs. Nick Bosa
The individual matchup I'm gearing up for is a battle of first-team All-Pros, Lane Johnson and Nick Bosa.
Eagles teammate Brandon Graham, told "Angelo Cataldi and the Morning Team" that he's confident in his lineman. "Oh man, I'm gonna put my money on Lane all day [to win that battle]," Graham said. "Because I know Lane is out here making his groin injury look easy. I know for him, it just means a lot to him. I know that he's going to work his butt off and I'm going to make sure we keep sharpening each other."
Johnson allowed zero pressures on 26 pass-blocking snaps last week while playing with the aforementioned injury, an incredible performance chronicled by Jeff Kerr. Johnson has allowed just EIGHT pressures all season, one of the lowest marks in the NFL, and he has not allowed a single sack in the last two seasons.
Nick Bosa, the Defensive Player of the Year favorite, led the NFL in sacks this year and was tied with Micah Parsons for the NFL lead in pressures. Bosa sacked Jalen Hurts twice in their meeting last season, but neither was against Johnson.
|This Season (Including Playoffs)||DE Nick Bosa||OT Lane Johnson|
Pressure vs. pressures allowed
Pressure rate vs. pressure rate allowed
Sacks vs. sacks allowed
Individual matchup to exploit: Mike McGlinchey vs. Haason Reddick
Brock Purdy's blindside is well protected by Trent Williams, PFF's highest-graded offensive tackle in the NFL. Williams held his own after locking horns with Micah Parsons this past weekend. The rest of the line has some holes, though, particularly on the right side with tackle Mike McGlinchey, who ranks 34th among 84 qualified tackles in PFF's grade. He'll be matched up frequently with Haason Reddick, who has the second-most sacks in the league behind Nick Bosa, including playoffs.
Best unit matchup: Eagles' RPO vs. 49ers' front
The best strength-vs.-strength matchup by unit has to be the Eagles' ground game against the 49ers' run defense. Both units rank top five in the league in rushing yardage this year.
"I think [they're] really well coached on the O-line," Bosa explained. "Smart, savvy and obviously the running quarterback component is an extra piece."
Jalen Hurts will be the engine that makes the Eagles' ground game go. The run-pass option (RPO) offense he engineers is a triple threat that creates conflict for the defense. It's nearly impossible to take away Philadelphia's option to hand off to a running back, and for Hurts to tuck it and run or even pass. This was clicking on all cylinders last week when the Eagles ran for 268 yards against the Giants, including over 100 for over seven yards per carry on option plays.
If any team can hold up against these threats, it's the 49ers, though, who have game-changing speed and playmaking between linebacker Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. San Francisco has the fewest missed tackles on rushing plays in the league this year, with its star linebacker duo playing a big part. No individual rusher has even crossed the 70-yard threshold against the 49ers this year, and they've gone 32 straight games without allowing a player to hit the century mark.
Stingy would be an understatement, but if there's one crack, it could be defending mobile quarterbacks. Their four losses this season came at the hands of Patrick Mahomes, Marcus Mariota, Russell Wilson and Justin Fields. Atlanta controlled the clock against San Francisco earlier this year, totaling 40 rushes for 168 yards, including over 50 and a score from Mariota. We'll have to see how much running Hurts will do coming off his shoulder injury, but he proved dangerous against the 49ers last year with 82 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Unit matchup to exploit: 49ers vs. Eagles' run defense
The most likely matchup to be exploited is the 49ers' dynamic rushing attack against Philly's front. The 49ers create confusion by using motion at one of the highest rates in the NFL and can attack you in a variety of ways with Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell and "wide back" Deebo Samuel, maybe the greatest runner at the wide receiver position ever.
What makes them even more dangerous, though, is the commitment to blocking at every position, from All-Pro fullback Kyle Juszczyk to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle.
"You can have some of the most talented people in the world, but, if they don't have the mentality that on every single run play they're going to block their ass off, a lot those plays don't work," Kittle said Wednesday on "The Pat McAfee Show."
The Eagles run defense was its Achilles heel earlier in the season, but that may no longer be the case with the return of first-round pick rookie Jordan Davis and signings of Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh. Philadelphia's defense ranks sixth in success rate against the run since Joseph and Suh made their Eagles' debuts in Week 11, after ranking 28th prior.
Which QB can handle the pressure: Hurts or Purdy?
I've spent a lot of time hyping the ground battle, but it's still a passing league and we can't forget about the aerial attacks. This game features a lot of pass-rush power between Nick Bosa, who led the league in sacks, and the Eagles defense. This is the first conference championship matchup between the league's individual and team sack leader.
The side that wins the battle will create a massive advantage through the air as both quarterbacks have struggled against pressure this year.
It was a strength for Brock Purdy for much of the season until he faced his toughest test yet in the Dallas front. He was 3-for-11 passing with two sacks when pressured by the Cowboys last week. It should only get tougher this weekend against Philadelphia.
And Hurts is an MVP finalist for a reason this year, but his play against pressure isn't one of them. He ranks 25th in completion rate and yards per pass attempt when facing pressure.
Who has the edge? Eagles
It will be fascinating to see how this strength vs. strength matchup in the trenches plays out on Sunday. Given the Eagles' incredible depth on both sides of the ball, the triple-threat Hurts gives them and the extra juice they should get from playing at Lincoln Financial Field, I like the Eagles to impose their will up front, although would anyone be surprised by a stalemate?