What to Watch For in the N.F.C. Championship Game
The San Francisco 49ers (13-4) will make their third N.F.C. championship game appearance in four seasons when they face the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles (14-3) on Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern time, broadcast on Fox.
Betting lines slightly lean toward the Eagles, playing at home, as a 2.5-point favorite, which is a testament to their consistency in the regular season. But the modest spread also shows that experts predict this game between two of the league’s best teams to be competitive.
The matchup highlights how the teams built a complete roster in the modern N.F.L., as both clubs fielded lineups that are deep in key positions because of shrewd draft choices and trades by Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman and 49ers General Manager John Lynch.
Jalen Hurts is still thriving
The Eagles, the top seed in the N.F.C., share the best record in the N.F.L. with Kansas City and have ascended to the league’s elite because of the development of quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts, selected in the second round of the 2020 N.F.L. draft, has drastically improved in his second full season as a starter, throwing for 3,701 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing over 66 percent of his passes. A.J. Brown, a receiver whom Roseman traded for in April, caught half of those touchdown passes, posting 1,496 yards and 11 scores.
Hurts also rushed for 760 yards and 13 touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl selection despite missing two games with a shoulder injury. Hurts’s rushing ability, coupled with his arm, has allowed the Eagles to thrive in Coach Nick Sirianni’s run-pass option offense, a scheme that allows the quarterback to hand the ball off or throw to a receiver depending on the reaction of the defense. The quarterback dispelled concerns about his shoulder by completing a 40-yard pass on his second play of the divisional-round win against the Giants.
The Eagles’ offensive line, led by center Jason Kelce and tackle Lane Johnson, is one of the best in the N.F.L., allowing the Eagles to rush for 147.6 yards per game, the fifth-most in the league. Defensively, the Eagles secured the most sacks (70) and allowed the fewest passing yards per game (179.8), largely because of players Roseman traded for or added in free agency in the last three years, such as cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry and linebacker Haason Reddick.
Brock Purdy is still surprising
The Eagles will face a 49ers offense led by the rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, who began the season at the bottom of the depth chart. But he was inserted midway through the year after injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo.
He transitioned seamlessly.
The 49ers have won 12 consecutive games, including the seven games Purdy has started since Garoppolo’s foot injury against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 4. Purdy, the last pick of the 2022 N.F.L. draft, has played efficiently under Coach Kyle Shanahan, who also acts as the offense’s play caller. Purdy has thrown just four interceptions while adding 1,374 yards and 13 touchdowns in nine games. But his success is also tied to the offensive weapons around him.
Lynch in October traded for the star running back Christian McCaffrey, whose ambidextrous rushing and receiving skills align with Shanahan’s desire to capitalize on players’ ability to run after the catch and position them in different areas of the field. McCaffrey, who has posted 1,403 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns since joining San Francisco, complements the versatile receiver Deebo Samuel and adds to a crop of targets that also include tight end George Kittle and receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
The 49ers ranked as the top overall defense in the league this season, allowing the fewest points (277) and the second fewest total yards (5,110). DeMeco Ryans, the defensive coordinator, has become a sought-after coaching candidate by other teams because of the unit’s success, and defensive end Nick Bosa, who leads the league in sacks (18.5), is a favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
How each team might win
The matchup is likely to be decided by whose offensive line performs better. Of the four remaining quarterbacks in the playoffs, Purdy has the lowest air yards per passing attempt (6.7), according to Next Gen Stats, meaning he normally throws to receivers on short routes. Purdy will need to continue to release the ball quickly to tame Reddick and the Eagles’ pass rush.
Philadelphia has succeeded this season by operating a balanced offense, but the San Francisco defense allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game (77.7). Stymieing the Eagles’ rushing attack could make them lean heavily on the pass, which would create sack opportunities for Bosa. The 49ers are the more injured team, but Shanahan said he expects McCaffrey (calf), Samuel (ankle) and running back Elijah Mitchell (groin) to play.