The 49ers’ loss to the Eagles in the NFC championship game felt anticlimactic. It felt like Goliath was supposed to fight another giant, but then David showed up and he didn’t have a sling or stones.
A matchup between the two clearcut best teams in the NFC turned into a 31-7 laugher where the 49ers sustained two injuries to quarterbacks, leaving their once high-octane offense a one-dimensional mess.
Trying to paint some broader picture about the state of the 49ers after this year’s conference championship game loss is nigh impossible. Nothing happened that would indicate the 49ers need to make some kind of wholesale changes to their roster or organization. They ran into a series of unfortunate events in the biggest game of the year.
Alas, we tried to find a few takeaways from the wreckage:
QB train finally derails
The 49ers survived two injuries to quarterbacks this season. They might’ve even survived a third. A fourth was where the dam broke though, and Josh Johnson’s concussion following Brock Purdy’s elbow injury was the nail in the coffin for the 49ers’ 2022 campaign. It’s admirable that San Francisco even had a puncher’s chance on the road in the NFC championship game with their fourth-string quarterback under center. The weight of even one QB injury breaks most teams. The 49ers found a way to get to the conference title game with their third-string QB. What they did this year was remarkable.
The 49ers’ defense may have allowed 31 points, but nuance of the game script shows they were much better than that. They held the Eagles to just 4.8 yards per pass, 3.4 yards per carry, and 3.8 yards per play. Had their offense offered any support – Philadelphia ran 70 plays compared to just 45 for the 49ers – the defensive numbers might’ve looked better. There were a ton of problems for San Francisco on Sunday, but their defense was not one of them.
One of the keys to San Francisco’s 12-game winning streak from Week 8 through the divisional playoffs was their penchant for taking the ball away on defense, and not giving it away on offense. This year the 49ers were 15-0 when they either won or tied the turnover battle. They were 0-5 when they lost it, including Sunday’s game where they were a minus-two. Their first giveaway was Purdy’s fumble on the play where he got hurt. San Francisco’s defense forced a punt after that. The killer was the second turnover, a fumble by Johnson late in the first half that allowed Philadelphia to score a third TD and take a 21-7 lead into halftime. The 49ers never got close after that.
One early game-changing play
Too much happened in Sunday’s game to chalk it up to one play, but an early turning point that looms large is the fourth-down snag by Eagles WR DeVonta Smith. On a fourth-and-3, Eagles QB Jalen Hurts heaved a deep shot to Smith, who laid out and appeared to make a miraculous one-handed grab. Shanahan opted not to challenge the play as the Eagles raced to the line to get a snap off. It turns out Smith did not hang onto the football. Had Shanahan challenged it, the 49ers would’ve taken over at their own 35. Instead, the Eagles got the ball at the 49ers’ 6 and scored two plays later to take a 7-0 lead. The ripple effect of the decision to not challenge the catch reached all the way through to the end of the game.
One time for Christian McCaffrey's TD
Can't step on McCaffrey 😤 @CMC_22
📺 #SFvsPHI on FOX
📱 NFL+ // https://t.co/KTh0i4nCVJ pic.twitter.com/N9TO2Mc8mV
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 29, 2023
There’s not a lot to say here, we just wanted to revisit this unbelievable individual effort by McCaffrey to account for the 49ers’ only touchdown of the game.
Penalties aren’t always a problem for the 49ers, but when they become an issue, they can really get in the way. San Francisco was flagged 11 times for 81 yards, and they gifted the Eagles seven first downs via penalty. That’s more first downs than they had through the air. With two QBs hurt, the 49ers were going to need a perfect game in every other facet, but they couldn’t keep laundry off the field often enough to get momentum on either side of the ball.