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Key Matchups Eagles, 49ers Can Exploit in NFC Championship Game

The stage has been set for championship weekend, and the ensuing Monday discourse will certainly be extremely brain-poisoned. Rookie quarterback window discussions. Armchair coaching. None of it will be fun, some of it will make your head hurt and it’ll all be worth it anyways because we have two compelling matchups this weekend.

So much of the Bengals-Chiefs game is contingent on Patrick Mahomes’ ankle, so perhaps it's more interesting to preview the litany of matchups in the NFC contest between the 49ers and the Eagles.

The following is cliched and somewhat reductionist, but the matchup between Philadelphia's offense and San Francisco's defense is whether or not the Eagles can make big plays. You’ve heard it all before: the league’s No. 1 defense vs. the No. 2 offense, an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, etc. In this case, the saying seems true.

Keys for Eagles' Offense

The Eagles have been far and away the league’s best team at targeting go routes and fades. They netted 33 expected points added (EPA) on such throws, which is 10 higher than the second-best team (the Bengals) had on 26 more attempts. That’s good news for Philadelphia because San Francisco spends roughly half its snaps in Cover 3 and Cover 4 and will often lock the weakside cornerback in man coverage.

Getting those chunk plays will be particularly important because the intermediate middle of the field will likely be shut off by linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, who ranked 15th and second, respectively, in Pass Coverage Total Points among linebackers.

Jalen Hurts doesn’t hunt those grounds too frequently anyway – he ranks 15th in the league in attempts to the middle of the field from 5-20 yards – but that will likely be attenuated by the 49ers' linebackers.

What will be more bothersome is the extent to which San Francisco has bottled up opposing passers this season. Their defense has allowed just 11% of dropbacks to result in scrambles or throws outside the pocket, which was the fourth-lowest in the NFL. Conversely, 17% of Hurts’ dropbacks resulted in those out-of-structure plays.

Practically speaking, those numbers probably represent a difference of only two plays, but scrambles and scramble drills are typically high-yield for offenses. And as good as the Eagles offensive line has been this year – they rank first in the NFL in wins above replacement (WAR) at 2.8 – they and Hurts rank are tied for 13th in pressure rate allowed (33%).

Keys for 49ers' Offense

On the flip side of this matchup, it feels like it’s more important for the 49ers simply to avoid mistakes on offense. And by the 49ers, I mean Brock Purdy, who is tied for the third-most dropped picks since Week 13 with four. He also ranks 15th in on-target rate despite also being 24th out of 27 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in average depth of throw (6.6) in that time period. He is mediocre by some measures, but Kyle Shanahan and company have made life easy for him. As long as he doesn’t have a Willie Beaman moment, they’ll probably be fine.

The Eagles rank 29th in run defense Total Points this year, whereas the 49ers have ranked fourth in Rushing Total Points/play since acquiring Christian McCaffrey via trade in Week 7. The 49ers' offensive line as a whole isn’t dominant, but Shanahan is arguably the best run game designer in the NFL. He does an excellent job of creating favorable angles and defensive rotations via formations and shifts, and there should be opportunities for them to crease Philadelphia's front.

While the line and the quarterback might not be the best in the league, they do have the best receiving corps in the NFL and are averaging 0.19 Receiving Total Points per play. On the other side of the ball, the Eagles have one of the best corner tandems in Darius Slay and James Bradberry, so the onus will be on Shanahan to create matchups he would prefer to isolate.

Championship-round games are always expected to be competitive, and there are a ton of strength-on-strength matchups across the board. However, we can also expect some cat-and-mouse here, and each team has a win condition it can exploit. With so many even matchups across the board, it seems likely each team will have its fair share of wins within those matchups.

This game is going to come down to which team can play to its win condition, rather than which team can brute force its way through.

Prepared by Bryce Rossler