On paper, they are two of the most complete teams in the NFL. The talent oozes off the page. The matchups set themselves.
It will all be on display with a Super Bowl berth on the line Sunday in the NFC championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles.
Both teams are stacked with game-breaker weapons. Their strengths are in the trenches.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts was MVP frontrunner before a late-season shoulder injury. Niners quarterback Brock Purdy is looking to become the first rookie quarterback to win a conference title game. The first four in his position (Shaun King, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez) were unsuccessful.
The last time Hurts and Purdy faced off was in an epic Big 12 regular-season matchup at the college level. Hurts’ Oklahoma Sooners outlasted Purdy’s Iowa State Cyclones in a 42-41 contest on Nov. 9, 2019.
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The stakes are much higher now. Here are three keys to the NFC title game:
How will Brock Purdy, 49ers handle Eagles pass rush?
The 49ers have won 12 in a row, the last seven with Purdy – the last pick of the 2022 draft – at quarterback in place of the injured Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo.
In the playoffs, Purdy has neither excelled nor stumbled against tougher competition. The Seattle Seahawks defense contained the Niners’ passing attack in the first half of their wild card game. Purdy was 19-for-29 with 214 yards, no touchdowns and no turnovers against the Dallas Cowboys.
“That was a true playoff defense, and they put a lot of pressure on our guys, and I thought it was great test for him because I don’t think he played much different than he had in all the other games,” Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Stuff was tighter, things were harder, but he still protected the ball very well and made a few big plays in some key moments.”
Philadelphia’s deep front seven and historic pass rush – the 75 team sacks through 18 games is third in NFL history – will be the toughest test Purdy has faced. Lincoln Financial Field will be a bumping environment, and the Niners worked on silent snap counts during practice this week.
Purdy’s ability to extend plays and create outside of the offense will be essential. Left tackle Trent Williams will have to play at his All-Pro level to keep the blindside clear.
Attacking the 49ers’ offensive line is a steady stream of rushers, led by Haason Reddick, who had 16 sacks in the regular season and 1.5 against the New York Giants in a divisional round win.
The rush is complemented by a secondary that can guard multiple weapons. Against the Giants, Daniel Jones was pressured all game because the Eagles were successful in taking away his first read. Shanahan should have a game plan to help Purdy get the ball out quickly.
Defending Jalen Hurts, Eagles rushing attack
Philadelphia ran all over New York in the divisional round and ran it almost twice as much as it passed, although the the selection was skewed in a 38-7 blowout.
San Francisco’s middle linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw will be charged with keeping Hurts honest if he moves outside of the pocket. They’ll also have to make plays against the run and find ways to neutralize the Eagles’ offensive line, which includes two All-Pros (center Jason Kelce, right tackle Lane Johnson) and one of the game’s best left tackles in Jordan Mailata.
Eagles coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen are not shy about keeping the ball in Hurts’ hands and having him use his legs in the red zone or in short to-go situations.
Philadelphia can open the game and the playbook if Hurts can be effective with his legs. For San Francisco to keep it close, the damage on the ground will have to come from running backs Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell. The Niners want to unleash their own pass rush, which is led by Defensive Player of the Year favorite Nick Bosa (18.5 sacks during regular season). Teammates Javon Kinlaw and Samson Ebukam would like to join that party.
Could A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith be in for big games?
The strength for the Niners defense is up the middle, with Greenlaw and Warner patrolling that area and second-year safety Talonoa Hufanga (four interceptions) coming on strong this season.
San Francisco’s three primary corners – Charvarius Ward, Jimmie Ward and Deommodore Lenoir – will have their hands full with Eagles receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith on the other side, in addition to tight end Dallas Goedert.
Smith had a touchdown and led all Eagles with six catches for 61 yards against the Giants. Brown, however, was held to three catches on 22 yards. Sirianni said this week Brown is healthy.
For all of Hurts’ running prowess, his improvement in downfield accuracy propelled his MVP candidacy and added a level of explosiveness to the Eagles offense.
Bonus key: 49ers might be able to run ball
The one weakness, if you want to call it that, on the Eagles defense is at interior defensive line. First-round pick Jordan Davis was injured during the regular season and general manager Howie Roseman signed veterans Linval Joseph and Ndomakung Suh for depth. Still, the Eagles finished 26th in expected points added (EPA) per play against the run.
Niners running back Christian McCaffrey should have some space to run and has scored in four consecutive postseason games. Elijah Mitchell, his backup, has had 50 or more yards from scrimmage in four his five career playoff games. Receiver Deebo Samuel is always a threat to run as a wide-back in Shanahan’s offense, and tight end George Kittle is arguably the best blocking tight end in the league when he’s not making acrobatic catches.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.