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David Murphy: A few thoughts on the 49ers and why the Eagles enter the NFC championship game as slim favorites

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Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and wide receiver A.J. Brown walk off the field after the playoff victory on Saturday.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (right) and wide receiver A.J. Brown walk off the field after the playoff victory on Saturday. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

In the first round, the Eagles played like they have something to prove.

In the next round, they’ll actually get to prove it.

Pay no attention to Brock Purdy’s draft status or the relative ease with which the Eagles advanced to the NFC championship game. Against the 49ers, they will face a team that poses a significant test ... maybe the first one they’ve faced all season.

This is about matchups more than anything. What you saw from the 49ers in their 19-12 win over the Cowboys on Sunday night was a team that has the personnel in the right places and the scheme to match. On the defensive side, they are suffocating the run and unbelievably quick to the ball. On the offensive side, they possess one of the few offensive lines and rushing attacks that stacks up to the one the Eagles themselves possess. They have a coach who is determined not to let his quarterback beat himself. And they have big-play threats at three critical positions.

That shouldn’t sound overblown. If it does, it’s only because the Eagles’ schedule during the Nick Sirianni era has numbed us to what the run-up to a real football game is supposed to sound like. Just look at the betting line. The Eagles opened up as a 1.5-point favorite, their lowest odds with Jalen Hurts under center since last year’s playoff loss to the Buccaneers. Nobody is saying that the 49ers are a juggernaut, or that you should cancel those Phoenix flight alerts. But they are a real team, and that’s something that the Eagles have not faced in quite some time.

In a lot of ways, this is a compliment to the Eagles. The intriguing thing about this matchup is how similarly constructed the two teams are. Both offenses are built on a foundation of rock-solid offensive lines and coaches who are the best in their class at scheming the running game. Each team possesses one of the better blocking and more physical tight ends in the league. And each enjoys a portfolio of talent in the backfield that allows for tremendous creative and strategic freedom.

Where the 49ers and Eagles differ is under center and on the defensive side of the ball. In all likelihood, the game will be decided by whose strengths are stronger. Consider some of these matchups:

1) Eagles run game against the 49ers run defense

Few teams have run the ball better than the Eagles this season, and nobody has been better at defending the run than the 49ers. As good as Hurts has been as a passer, as much as he deserves the MVP award, the foundation of the Eagles’ success is their ground attack. Fact is, the Eagles rushed for 268 yards against the Giants on Saturday. It was the sixth time in 18 games this season that they racked up 200-plus yards on the ground.

Life is a lot easier when you are a hot knife playing against butter. It’s no coincidence that all three of the Eagles losses have come in the five games in which they failed to gain 100 yards rushing. Granted, there is some chicken-egg self-selection baked in there, since teams tend to run the ball more with a lead. Fact remains, if you can’t stop the Eagles’ running game, you have no chance.

The 49ers are one of the few teams in the league whose run defense is their hallmark. They’ve allowed just 77 rushing first downs this season, 13 fewer than the next-closest team. They allowed just 3.4 yards per carry during the regular season. You saw it on Sunday against the Cowboys: Dak Prescott was the guy who had to win it. And the 49ers feasted.

2) Hurts and A.J. Brown against the 49ers’ zone

The 49ers have allowed some crooked numbers to No. 1 receivers this year. They do not have the man-to-man shutdown corners that the Eagles possess. Their strength is in their speed to the ball and their bruising physicality. A.J. Brown could end up being a big factor in this game, just as CeeDee Lamb was on Sunday. The key for Hurts is to avoid the interceptions that plagued Prescott, who threw two and almost a third.

3) Eagles run defense against Kyle Shanahan, Deebo Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey

Jonathan Gannon has this front seven playing its best football at the right time of year. Saquon Barkley had nowhere to run on Saturday. But Shanahan is one of the game’s best play-callers and he has built himself a stable of offensive weapons that maximize his creativity. The 49ers aren’t going to suddenly decide to play to the Eagles’ strengths and challenge Darius Slay and James Bradberry.

The Eagles can absolutely win this game without a marquee performance from Hurts. But he is the biggest potential trump card on the field and this is his moment to excel. We’ve seen how much he has grown this season. But the league’s best defense with a Super Bowl berth on the line? That’s the ultimate test.

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Two years in a row the Dallas Cowboys have flubbed their last-ditch drives against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. Last year, Dak Prescott ran too far on a quarterback draw and handed the ball to his center instead of the umpire. Time expired before he could get off one more play for a Hail Mary. This time, it was those around him who made the mistakes. 

The San Francisco 49ers defense hadn’t been playing up to its usual high level in recent weeks, allowing a few too many big plays. On a day when the offense struggled to produce, the Niners defense responded with a signature performance that sent them back to the NFC championship game.

The Philadelphia Eagles are heading to the NFC championship game on the strength of wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. Brown had 88 catches for 1,496 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, while Smith finished his second NFL season with 95 catches, which are the most by a wide receiver in team history.

Dallas star Micah Parsons sees himself and fellow All-Pro edge rusher Nick Bosa of San Francisco as entertainers in their divisional playoff. It's just more of a sideshow, in Parsons' view, compared to the bigger plot of who moves on to the NFC championship game. Both players were All-Pro edge rushers in 2022, and Bosa is the overwhelming favorite to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. 

Defense stills wins in the NFL playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals advanced to the conference championship games with excellent defensive performances on Sunday. The Philadelphia Eagles also had a standout defensive effort Saturday night.

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