For much of the 2022 NFL season, the Eagles and 49ers have stood tall as the apparent class of the NFC. Philadelphia's 13-1 start paved a relatively smooth path to the No. 1 seed. And San Francisco has now won 12 straight, with rookie quarterback Brock Purdy unbeaten in his first seven starts replacing an injured Jimmy Garoppolo.
Set to square off in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, these contenders have also been among the conference elite for a while. Philly is making its seventh NFC title bid since 2001, racking up more conference championship appearances than all but the Patriots during that stretch. The 49ers, meanwhile, are in the NFC Championship Game for the third time in four seasons.
We know both teams are talented. But which side is best suited to move on? Here's a position-by-position breakdown of where the Eagles and 49ers have the edge:
Eagles: Jalen Hurts
49ers: Brock Purdy
What Purdy has done off the bench in San Francisco is nothing short of stupendous. In eight games and seven starts, the rookie has flashed the kind of fluid mobility the 49ers sought in Trey Lance, plus the efficiency of predecessor Jimmy Garoppolo, quickly going from Mr. Irrelevant to front-runner for the 2023 job. Hurts, however, has been on another level. Seemingly back to full strength after a shoulder injury, the third-year vet is unwavering in his composure. More than that, he's grown into one of the most reliable dual threats in the game, offering the vision and strength of a running back alongside vastly improved downfield touch. It's remarkable that there's even a comparison to be made, but the more gifted, experienced athlete gets the nod.
This is closer than you might think, mainly because Sanders has been both healthier and more physical this year behind a sturdy front; the fourth-year pro easily posted career-best numbers (1,269 yards, 11 TDs) as Hurts' running mate. McCaffrey and Mitchell are also especially prone to their own bumps and bruises. When active, however, the latter two give Kyle Shanahan's offense an elite 1-2 punch: Mitchell is adept at finding lanes in a run-first attack, and McCaffrey is one of the game's top safety valves; with four different 80-catch seasons, and 50+ receptions in just 10 starts with the 49ers, he's perpetually open for dump-offs.
Another tight contest, this one's loaded with star power. Samuel is a difference-maker with the ball in his hands, even if his impact comes more as a Swiss Army knife than traditional downfield threat. Aiyuk has grown as more of a straight-line vertical option. But the Eagles' top duo is even more well-rounded. Brown is the alpha from a physical standpoint, his imposing combo of size and speed either giving Hurts a near-uncoverable target or drawing attention away from Smith. But his counterpart might be even more feisty with his approach to the game, winning with elite concentration, route-running and body control in tight spaces.
You can see, with each and every position, why this overall matchup is so good. The all-star talent is everywhere! Here, at tight end, you'd be hard-pressed to find two better big-bodied pass catchers this side of Travis Kelce. Both Goedert and Kittle battled injuries this year, but when healthy, they make everything look easy. The former is a lock to rumble and stumble his way for extra yards after every over-the-middle catch, while Kittle gets the edge for his ability to take over a game with straight-line speed.
Few teams can match, if not eclipse, the Eagles' bookends better than the 49ers, who get premium protection from Williams and McGlinchey off the edge. Williams, in particular, still sets a standard for blind-side blocking at age 34. In addition to top-end tackles in Mailata, who often wins on sheer size and athleticism, and Johnson, a warrior who really excels in the run game, the Eagles just have a bit more on the interior. That's mostly thanks to Kelce, who at 35 isn't just a revered locker-room leader but excels as a lead blocker at the second level.
On paper, this is about as even as it can get. Riddled by injuries earlier this year, Armstead and Kinlaw are big names with all the talent to be difference-makers; the former certainly helped keep Dak Prescott under pressure in the 49ers' divisional round win. But Philly's interior has simply been more consistently productive. Cox isn't the game-wrecker he briefly was at the height of his career, but Hargrave has been a steady pocket disruptor on a contract year, logging a career-high 11 sacks.
If any collective is going to decide Sunday's game, it might be this one, as both clubs boast some of the scariest pass-rushing units in the NFL. Both teams are relentless; they just happen to be built differently. In San Francisco, it's Bosa who does the majority of the work, single-handedly torturing QBs to the tune of an NFL-best 18.5 sacks and 49 (!) QB hits. In Philly, Reddick is the clear headliner, enjoying a career year as a confident stand-up rusher (16 sacks, five forced fumbles), but Sweat and Graham rotate in with such efficiency (22 combined sacks) that it's more evenly distributed pressure.
Edwards has been an underrated tackling machine at the heart of the Eagles' "D," but there might not be a clearer talent advantage across the board, as San Francisco is absolutely loaded in the middle. Warner remains one of the rangiest players at his position and is perhaps better than ever in coverage. Greenlaw, meanwhile, doesn't get nearly enough attention for his own sideline-to-sideline abilities, logging a career-best three takeaways this year.
A big-money addition from the Chiefs, Charvarius Ward has generally been a rock-solid cover man for San Francisco, despite a lack of gaudy numbers, but has also been beaten deep a bit more down the stretch. Jimmie Ward, meanwhile, has fared well as the 49ers' physical chess piece when healthy. In Philly, Slay is also prone to surrendering the occasional big play, but he and Bradberry have been like 1A and 1B for the NFL's top pass "D." Both vets are appropriately handsy in tight windows, and Bradberry has saved his takeaways for the brightest spots. An X-factor will be the Eagles' slot corner spot, where Maddox has shined but struggled to stay healthy.
If you like takeaways, then these safety duos are for you: Hufanga and Gipson have combined for nine picks, and Gardner-Johnson has six on his own, despite missing a big chunk of time due to injury. Surprisingly, none of these defensive backs has been overly suffocating in coverage; they've all just been very opportunistic. It's a testament to the real strength of both sides' dominant defenses: the trenches, where steady pressure has forced more errant throws toward the back end.
Elliott still has some of that magic from his 2017 title run, as he's yet to miss a field goal in the postseason. He also remains a good bet on long kicks, going eight for nine on 50+ yard tries the last two years. Gould is just as reliable, however, with an additional 13 seasons under his belt, making 16 of his last 17 field goals and drilling a pair of 50-yarders in their divisional round win over Dallas. Wishnowsky, meanwhile, has the NFL's best percentage of punts inside opponents' 20-yard line, and McCloud brings some electricity to the return units.
Eagles: Nick Sirianni (HC), Shane Steichen (OC), Jonathan Gannon (DC)
49ers: Kyle Shanahan (HC), Bobby Slowik (PC), DeMeco Ryans (DC)
Much like fellow wizkid Sean McVay, Shanahan isn't nearly as situationally dominant as his reputation might suggest, leaning conservative at some curious times. Sirianni has been much more aggressive on the Eagles' end, rounding out an energetic approach that fuels his persona as "one of the boys" in Philly. But make no mistake: Schematically, Shanahan and Ryans are two of the NFL's finest. The former draws up QB-friendly drives like clockwork, and Ryans' emotional connection to his physical lineup shows up on big downs. Gannon, on the other hand, is a bit more reliant on his front four getting home without exotic pressure to win the day. It's a close call, but the 49ers' longer track record helps them as well.
Eagles advantages: 5
49ers advantages: 5
Well, would you look at that? Unlike in the AFC Championship, where we see the Chiefs holding a slight overall advantage on the Bengals despite a dead-even draw at the QB spot, this one is even all around. And here's the thing: Even some of the positional advantages -- like RB for the 49ers, or CB for the Eagles -- could've easily been ties themselves. This is truly a pound-for-pound heavyweight showcase featuring two of the NFL's most well-rounded clubs, and it's all the more apparent when you break it down one player at a time.
The key X-factors, then, are probably at the most premium spots: Hurts has our vote at QB, but how will Purdy handle the cold Philly crowd with a Super Bowl trip on the line? We think the pass rush is even, but will Bosa get after Hurts often enough to let San Francisco's superior LB corps bottle up the QB as a dual threat? And on the sidelines, do Shanahan and Ryans truly warrant our trust over Sirianni and Gannon? The answers to these questions will prove who really has the edge in what figures to be one of the postseason's toughest, tightest battles.