Thu, 30 Mar 2023

Spadaro: A 6-pack to preview the NFC Championship

Philadelphia Eagles
28 Jan 2023, 18:12 GMT+10

Dave Spadaro

The stage is set for a classic NFC Championship Game battle - No. 1 (the Eagles) and No. 2 (the 49ers) go at it on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. It's a star-studded Conference Championship on and off the field (Brian Dawkins is the Honorary Captain, Grammy Award-winner performer Anita Baker is singing the National Anthem, and Philly's own DJ Jazzy Jeff is going to do a lights-out, literally, halftime show).

We've waited all week. It's almost here. Keys to the game? There are obvious ones of course - blocking, tackling, execution, taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, winning the turnover battle, being more physical, etc.) - and there are others to discuss right here. Because, yes, every single moment matters and as the Eagles prepare for their eighth Conference Championship Game in franchise history, they understand this very, very well.

With that, some odds and ends and matchups to watch and, heck, let's go win an NFC title!

1. Let's throw all of these in together, and then agree that maybe they matter, maybe they don't

• Teams that play on Saturday in the divisional round - and then enjoy one extra day of rest - have gone 17-9 in the conference title round over the past 13 years. In seven of the past nine years, the home team has won the NFC Championship Game.

• San Francisco's Brock Purdy will be the fifth rookie quarterback to start in a conference title game (Shaun King, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, and Mark Sanchez are the others). Those rookies went 0-4 and combined to throw nine interceptions and four touchdowns in those losses.

What all of that means for the game, truly, who knows? Did you ever hear the one about Tampa Bay not being able to win a game in temperatures of less than 40 degrees ... (if you don't get that reference, you weren't around in the 2002 season).

2. How to contain Nick Bosa and Co.?

San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa is a strong candidate to be named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year after recording 18.5 quarterback sacks, most in the league, 19 tackles for loss, 48 quarterback hits, and two forced fumbles. He moves from side to side, so both Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson will have their reps against Bosa. It's not all Bosa, as San Francisco's front seven is outstanding and has been dominant in these playoffs, even as Bosa did not register a quarterback sack in wins over Seattle and Dallas. Arik Armstead is outstanding, there is depth up front, and the linebackers, led by Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, swarm to the football.

The Eagles need to make sure that Bosa doesn't ruin the offense, which he is capable of doing. In instances of strength (49ers defensive line) vs. strength (Eagles offensive line), the Eagles have always had success. They need to do the same here. The offensive line must communicate against the 49ers' games up front and, first and foremost, contain Bosa.

3. May the best running game win?

Both teams like to run the football and they have unique ways to do it. San Francisco brings Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell (who is questionable with a groin injury) out of the backfield and they get downhill in a hurry. The 49ers use jack-of-all-trades Deebo Samuel on jet sweeps and out of the Wildcat formation and he will challenge the edges. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is the best in the NFL and something the Eagles really haven't seen this season - a true lead fullback. The Eagles have to be physical and set the edge and win one-on-one against the 49ers' offensive line and tackle very well - all 11 players on the field.

At the same time, San Francisco has a lot to contend with against the Eagles' running attack. It's diverse, it's explosive, and powerful. San Francisco allows only 78 rushing yards per game, and while you might think that because the 49ers are 20th in the NFL against the pass and that the Eagles might want to throw the ball a lot, understand that establishing the running game is a huge part of what the Eagles do - 147.6 yards per game and 268 on the ground against the Giants last week.

4. Win the situational football game

Field position, penalties, short-yardage situations, timeouts - all so important in these games. The Eagles obviously would love to start the game as they did against New York with a touchdown on offense, a stop on defense, and a touchdown the next time they had the football to take a 14-0 lead. Game over.

San Francisco is experienced on this kind of stage - the 49ers have been here three of the last four seasons - and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan is one of the very best in the NFL. Nick Sirianni has to coach as he's done since he has been here - aggressively, confidently, and intelligently. He has been outstanding scoring points at the end of the first half and early in the third quarter of games. He handles short-yardage situations very well. The Eagles don't blow timeouts. This is a well-coached team and they've discussed situational football throughout the season. They're ready for this moment.

One more thing here: The 49ers are as good as any team on special teams. The Eagles have played really well on teams down the stretch and they need to keep that going. A blocked field goal in last season's Week 2 game hurt the Eagles, so every kick and every return and coverage play counts in a big, big way.

5. Take Brock Purdy out of his comfort zone

The worst thing that could happen is for anybody to underestimate Purdy, who is 7-0 as a starter and has demonstrated poise and maturity and discipline. The Eagles have the league's best pass rush and they bring it from everywhere, so the defense needs to make Purdy play hurried football with his head on a swivel. And if the Eagles have a chance to take the football away - something neither Seattle nor Dallas was able to do - they have to secure the football. Purdy will want to get the football out to his first read and keep the chains moving. It will be interesting to see how Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon lines up against Samuel and McCaffrey and tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and San Francisco's many weapons.

6. Start fast and finish strong

Last week was a dream scenario in the blowout win over the Giants. That is not likely to happen on Sunday, so putting the 49ers on their heels and getting a lathered-up crowd into a fevered pitch and keeping them there will be extremely important. The script that the coaches put together for the offense and defense designed to score points with the offense and to get the defense off the field is huge. What will the offense do to get into an early rhythm? How will the defense force a three-and-out series from San Francisco? Great questions, all part of the prep work during what has been an intense week at the NovaCare Complex.

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