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Five Questions That Will Decide Eagles-49ers—and Maybe the Entire NFC

Philly and San Francisco last met up in January’s NFC championship game, but injuries made that a lopsided fight. This time around, these teams are squaring off to see who has the edge in the race for the NFC’s top seed—and who should be the Super Bowl favorite.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Eight minutes. That’s how far the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers got into last season’s NFC championship game before Brock Purdy was hit by Haason Reddick and suffered an elbow injury. Not long after that, San Francisco lost its QB2, Josh Johnson, to a concussion, and NFL fans lost all hope of seeing a competitive game. The Eagles capitalized on the Niners’ misfortunes and ran away with a 31-7 victory that didn’t tell us much about either squad.

Aside from the points column, there wasn’t much separation between the teams on that game’s stat sheet. San Francisco averaged 3.6 yards per play. Philadelphia averaged 3.8. The 49ers averaged 5.1 yards per pass attempt even with their QB injuries. The Eagles averaged just 4.8, and that number was inflated by a 29-yard reception that would have been ruled incomplete if Kyle Shanahan had challenged the play.

I’m not here to speculate on what would have happened had Purdy been able to play the entire game—I’m simply pointing out that we didn’t learn much about how these teams stack up from the January contest. In a few days, though, we’ll get the answers we—and the players themselves—have been clamoring for the past 10 months.

Here are the five biggest questions that Sunday’s Eagles-49ers game should answer.

1. Has Brock Purdy developed into a Super Bowl–level quarterback?

Risk management is a concern for any quarterback going up against the Eagles. Philly’s pass rush isn’t on the record pace it set last season, but it still has moments of game-wrecking dominance—especially when it comes time to close out games. With Reddick and Josh Sweat on the edges, and two capable interior rushers in rookie Jalen Carter and Fletcher Cox, there’s nowhere for QBs to escape when these guys start pushing the pocket.

Finding time and space to throw is challenging against Philadelphia, but that’s one of the areas where Purdy has made the most progress this season. When he was a rookie, his first instinct when facing pressure was to try to escape out of the back door and get outside, where his view of the field was clearer.

This season, Purdy is hanging in the pocket a beat or two longer, which allows him to make throws he wasn’t even attempting during his breakout rookie campaign. Rather than fleeing when a rusher beats his block, Purdy will now shuffle over a few feet, buying him just enough time to get a throw off.

What we haven’t seen consistently from Purdy this year is the ability to navigate the pocket while trying to locate an open receiver. If he already has a target in mind, the 23-year-old has no problem unleashing a throw, but keeping his eyes downfield when his immediate options aren’t available is another matter. On plays when Purdy has been moved off his spot but has remained in the pocket, he’s averaging minus-0.84 expected points added per play with a 28 percent success rate, per Pro Football Focus. Those are Mac Jones numbers, folks. And Purdy’s 12 percent turnover-worthy play rate in those situations is the main reason for those ugly figures. That’s the sixth-highest rate in the league, per PFF.

This season, 49ers games have followed a simple formula: If Purdy protects the football, they win; if he hands the ball to the other team, they lose. Purdy registered nine turnover-worthy plays during San Francisco’s three-game losing streak earlier this season. He’s had just one in the team’s current three-game win streak. The Eagles have a rush that’s capable of putting the young QB in situations where he tends to turn the ball over. Whether he can avoid doing that will almost certainly decide this game.

2. Does new Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson have the goods?

Ask an Eagles fan this question, and you’ll get a loud “no,” along with some cuss words and complaints about third-down QB draws. Ask an opposing coach who knows a thing or two about quality play-calling, though, and you’ll get a much different response.

“They do such a good job of balancing everything out with the dropbacks, the play-actions, the RPOs, the quarterback run game, the regular run game,” Shanahan said of the Eagles offense this week. “So it’s really impossible to stay ahead of them in terms of who has the chalk last. They’ve got a lot of answers in their run game and stuff, which could put [Jalen Hurts] in some pretty good situations.”

Philadelphia’s game-winning play against Buffalo on Sunday was an excellent example of how the Eagles always “have the chalk last”—which is just coach speak for “which team determines its play call last.”

In the play above, Hurts is reading Buffalo’s backside safety. If the safety runs with D’Andre Swift motioning out of the backfield to the opposite side, Hurts keeps the ball on the—cover your eyes, Eagles fans—QB draw. If the safety stays put, Hurts flips it out to Swift, and the Eagles have a numbers advantage on the perimeter.

The Eagles aren’t changing their play; rather, they have two plays built into one. And these run-pass option designs serve as the foundation of the offense. That was true under former offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, and it hasn’t changed under Johnson.

And while I would agree with any fan who says that Johnson hasn’t been as effective as his predecessor—who, as the Colts head coach, has created a similar offensive setup in Indianapolis—the criticism the young first-year play caller has received has been a bit harsh. It feels similar to the situation we saw play out in Buffalo with Ken Dorsey, who was never able to win over Bills fans after replacing the beloved Brian Daboll. While facing a more difficult schedule, Johnson’s offense has so far kept pace with Steichen’s unit from last season.

Now, Johnson has benefited from a massive talent advantage in most weeks. He has the best offensive line in football, an elite wide receiver tandem, and an MVP candidate at quarterback. The numbers should be good. But he won’t enjoy that advantage this Sunday going up against the Niners defense, which is loaded with stars. If the rookie OC aces this test, the rest of the season shouldn’t be a problem.

3. Has the 49ers defense really gotten its shit together?

The 49ers have played three games since I last wrote about their issues defending the run, and things have certainly improved since then. At the time, the run defense ranked 29th in both EPA and success rate allowed. But even then, those numbers were a bit misleading. As I explained:

The run defense has been comically bad on third-and-short. San Francisco has defended 13 runs in that situation, and it has prevented a conversion on exactly ZERO of them. Not one stop! Opposing offenses have a 100 percent success rate when running on third-and-3 or fewer, and they’re averaging 1.13 EPA on those plays, per TruMedia. … On first and second down, it ranks in the top half of the league in most measures, including yards per attempt and EPA allowed.

I’ve got exciting news: The 49ers defense got a stop on third down! It was just one stop—on a Geno Smith sneak—but it’s progress. You’re probably starting to realize why this particular issue could be a problem against the team that’s weaponized the tush push. We’ve got a real unstoppable force vs. a movable object situation here, and the only way the 49ers will win in those situations is to avoid them altogether.

My prescription for defensive coordinator Steve Wilks? Get weird, dude. If the 49ers are going to avoid third-and-short, they’ll need to win—and win big—on first and second down. Holding Philly to 4-yard gains on early downs won’t cut it. Wilks must treat first and second down like third down, when defenses tend to get more aggressive with blitzes and pressures. We saw the Patriots and Vikings defenses both disrupt the flow of the Eagles offense with wonky game plans that included a lot of “Cover Zero” looks early in a series of downs. The Chiefs employed a similar plan and found success in a losing effort.

But copying New England’s and Minnesota’s plans won’t be enough. Wilks will have to mix up his calls and change the picture on Hurts and center Jason Kelce. He can’t let Philly always “have the chalk last,” as Shanahan puts it. If the Eagles win first and second down, third down—and possibly the game—won’t be much of a contest.

4. Can new Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai hang with Kyle Shanahan?

This game looks like a great matchup for Philadelphia until you get to this question. That’s not a knock on Desai, who’s in his first year as the Eagles defensive coordinator. Shanahan is a handful for most DCs. But the only time these play callers have previously matched wits was in a 2021 game when Desai was the Bears defensive coordinator and San Francisco scored 33 points and averaged 8.6 yards per play. It was a mess.

Fortunately for Desai, he’ll have much more firepower to work with this time around. He didn’t have this depth of talent in Chicago, and he certainly didn’t have a pass rush capable of wrecking a game like the Eagles’ can. But even with all that talent, Desai hasn’t gotten great results this season. Philadelphia’s numbers are worse than they were last season almost across the board. Sacks are way down. Opponent EPA, success rate, and explosive play rate are all up. The defense that broke the 49ers in January hardly resembles the one Desai has built in 2023.

But there has been improvement in one area that provides some hope for the Eagles: The run defense is so much better, and Desai has improved it while deploying fewer defenders in the box. If there’s a proven strategy against a Shanahan offense, it’s stopping the run without committing extra numbers to do so. And while the Eagles defense has been mediocre overall this season, it’s come up big against elite offenses, including the Dolphins’, which is led by former Shanahan assistant Mike McDaniel. Maybe this isn’t as one-sided a matchup as it appears to be.

5. So … who’s winning the NFC?

I’m with Shanahan, who couldn’t understand how his team was favored, on the road, against a 10-1 team.

My prediction: Desai’s defense will make enough plays to survive Shanahan’s dynamic attack. The Eagles will be able to run the football and get into those short-yardage situations they’ve nearly perfected. And while I might rethink my pick if this game were being played in another location, Philadelphia’s home-field advantage is enough for me to confidently take the Eagles.

But the answer to “Who’s winning this game?” isn’t necessarily the same as the answer to the question posed in the header. If I’m right, and Philly does take this one, I’d actually lean toward Dallas winning the conference. The Cowboys have a front that can deal with the Eagles run game—as we saw in the game last month, a narrow home win for Philadelphia—and there isn’t a quarterback playing better ball than Dak Prescott right now.

Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long to test this theory. After this matchup with the 49ers, the Eagles will travel to Dallas for a game that will likely decide the NFC East and the race for the no. 1 seed in the conference. So my honest answer to this question is to ask me again in 10 days.