Four intriguing 49ers-Eagles matchups to watch in NFC title game


With a trip to Super Bowl LVII on the line, Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles is set to be a matchup for the ages.

Both teams come into the conference title game at Lincoln Financial Field with stacked rosters, few losses and some of the NFL’s best football minds coaching on the sidelines -- no surprise coming from the NFC’s two best teams.

And when you really dive into the statistics, just how close Sunday’s big game could end up becomes even more apparent than it already was. It’s truly the best of the best going up against, well, the best of the best, though that doesn’t mean both sides don’t have weaknesses the other could expose.

From clashes between the Eagles and 49ers’ best units to matchups that offer each powerhouse its own advantages, here are four must-follow storylines featuring NFL Next Gen Stats ahead of the NFC Championship Game:

Jalen Hurts in the Seams vs. Fred Warner's Coverage Dominance

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts has attacked the seams this season more often than any of his past campaigns, and he has done so effectively.

But on the other side of the ball, the 49ers have Fred Warner.

The All-Pro linebacker is known for his elite coverage in the middle of the field, and his abilities were front and center in San Francisco’s divisional-round win over the Dallas Cowboys. Warner allowed only two receptions for eight yards on five targets that game -- and came up big on a huge third-quarter play covering explosive Cowboys wideout CeeDee Lamb.

With the score tied at nine apiece, Lamb took off on a deep seam route from the slot. Warner closed a 9.7-yard gap between himself and Lamb at the snap to a tight window when the pass arrived (0.8 yards) to force an incompletion, staying within two miles per hour of Lamb’s speed the entire way.

“He’s a smart player,” Hurts said Friday of Warner. “He knows he’s smart. He plays very instinctually, and he’s fast -- he flies to the ball. He’s a real leader on film … He definitely sets the tone.”

According to Next Gen Stats, Hurts ranks fourth among NFL quarterbacks in receptions over expected on throws fewer than 10 air yards. There’s no denying the quarterback likes his short game in addition to deep throws, but he also is a productive risk-taker with just six interceptions on the season.

Warner’s coverage skills against Hurts’ passing game could be a matchup that decides the NFC title, and the Eagles quarterback can expect to face plenty of tight windows in the middle of the field come Sunday.

Deep threat A.J. Brown vs. The 49ers' Secondary

The Eagles’ trade for wide receiver A.J. Brown has paid dividends this season, and he likely will try to exploit a 49ers defensive backfield that has been susceptible to vertical routes.

In addition to 1,248 vertical yards allowed on the season, the 49ers’ defense has surrendered at least one completion of more than 45 yards in each of their last five games (h/t Jack Hammer). 

With a mobile quarterback like Hurts threatening to escape the pocket and resources also dedicated to running back Miles Sanders and tight end Dallas Goedert, defending Brown -- along with fellow receiver DeVonta Smith -- will be no easy task.

But second-year pro Deommodore Lenoir appears ready to defend the deep ball despite struggling in doing so during the regular season.

Only two cornerbacks allowed more completions on throws of 20 or more yards this season than Lenoir, but he allowed just one long catch against the Cowboys last week and picked off quarterback Dak Prescott. Against the Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round, he also pulled in an interception of Geno Smith.

“He’s gotten better. He’s gained more confidence,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said Thursday of Lenoir. “And you see it for the past two games. He’s went out and made two big plays that have helped us to win playoff games and move on, so it’s just the growth and it’s the mindset to get better. That’s where Demo has allowed himself to really help our team.”

Confidence is key, and Lenoir needs to be brimming with it now more than ever as the 49ers prepare to stop Brown.

49ers' Stingy Run Defense vs. Eagles' Explosive Run Game

The 49ers are well-versed in both defending the run and pounding the rock, but the Eagles’ offense also features a potent ground attack -- setting Sunday up to be a titan clash of epic proportions.

Philadelphia also ranked fifth among NFL teams in rushing yards per game during the regular season, while San Francisco’s defense allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game.

This strength-versus-strength matchup is another that might decide the game’s outcome, as the final score very well could come down to which team runs the ball better.

Like the 49ers, the Eagles boast a bountiful backfield aside from Hurts’ rushing abilities. Miles Sanders is having a career year, and Kenneth Gainwell picked up his first 100-yard game against the New York Giants in the divisional round. Boston Scott scored a touchdown against the Giants, too, but the trio might have met their match in the 49ers’ defensive front.

That group is led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Nick Bosa, who led the league in sacks and credited the Eagles’ dynamic run game to a number of factors.

“I think [they’re] really well coached on the O-line and smart, savvy,” Bosa said. “And then, obviously, the running quarterback component is an extra piece.”

Ryans said the 49ers have made improvements in defending mobile quarterbacks since allowing Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jarrett Stidham to make an impact with his legs in Week 17.

The team hasn’t allowed a quarterback to rush for over 50 yards this season, though they’ll need to back up their coordinator's words Sunday against Hurts, who has crossed that milestone six times this year.

“We are expecting this quarterback to run it,” coach Kyle Shanahan said Thursday. “We are expecting him to lower his shoulder, so we always have to come out and treat him like a running back until he gives himself up, which is sliding or being in that pocket, and when he does, our guys are good enough athletes to have to deal with it."

Critical moments in the playoffs often come down to rushing attempts, which the Eagles have proven they excel at with a first-place ranking in rushing success rate.

But the 49ers have proven they’re among the NFL’s best at stopping those attempts.

49ers' Offensive Line vs. Eagles' Non-blitz-dependent Pass Rush

The Eagles’ defense has pressured quarterbacks at a phenomenal level this season, leading the NFL with a team total of 70 sacks during the regular season. Philadelphia’s pass rush brought Giants quarterback Daniel Jones down five times last weekend, and it will be looking to give 49ers rookie Brock Purdy the same treatment on Sunday.

Perhaps the most frightening part about the Eagles’ league-leading sack total is the fact that they didn’t need the blitz to do it.

That’s thanks largely in part to the speed of defensive end Josh Sweat, who has recorded career highs in pressure rate and sack rate this season.

The middle of the 49ers’ offensive line was a point of concern heading into the season, given the uncertainty surrounding left guard Aaron Banks, rookie right guard Spencer Burford and center Jake Brendel.

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But, along with veteran tackles Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey, the offensive line has evolved into an improved unit for the 49ers this year, with the interior linemen contributing mightily in each of their roles.

The group will have its work cut out Sunday against the Eagles’ pass rush, as the 49ers try to give Purdy time to target their top playmakers while also creating holes for running back Christian McCaffrey.

The offensive line got its feet wet last week against the Cowboys and their elite pass rush, allowing two sacks and five quarterback hits in the win.

The only defense ranked higher in sack rate than Dallas is Philadelphia, and the 49ers will face yet another tremendous test on Sunday.

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