SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Football can be a beautiful game, replete with dazzling athletic feats of finesse, improvisation and grace.
Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles won’t be that kind of football.
No, the Niners and Birds are set to play a brutal, facemask-to-facemask, mud-and-blood contest in Philadelphia. A trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. If scars are the price to pay for a chance at winning the title, so be it.
This will be football in its cardinal form. The NFL has become a pass-first league, but these teams didn’t join the trend. The Eagles were second in the NFL in rushing attempts this season, the 49ers were fifth. So this game will be settled in the trenches by the burly, manhandling offensive and defensive lines, with input only coming from smaller players if they can punch well above their weight.
There’s something beautiful about that kind of football, too.
And here’s the thing about this game in particular: I don’t know who will win.
The 49ers are an outstanding football team, having not lost since Oct. 23. But they have not faced a team as tough as Philadelphia all year.
The Eagles (15-3) were the No. 1 seed in the NFC for a reason. They lost only one game this season when quarterback Jalen Hurts played — 15-1 so far. They have outstanding schemes and outstanding players all over the field. The Niners will have their hands full.
But the Niners must also keep their hands clenched into a fist.
Great teams take on the identity of their cities, and the Eagles are no exception. They’re a nearly-cliché representation of the Philadelphia spirit. They carry a big attitude, and they want to push their opponents around. “The city of brotherly love” was always an ironic slogan.
The Niners line up with the Bay Area’s ideals, too. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is the NFL’s most innovative, the roster is built off a true meritocracy (that’s how rookie quarterback Brock Purdy made the team as the last pick in the draft), and the stadium is impressive, but not nearly impressive enough to cost that much to build or visit.
There’s a deeper level to it, too:
The Niners are truly West Coast. They might be nice and say complimentary things about the Eagles, but they are not kind.
No, these 49ers will gladly trade blows with an Eagles team that faced the weakest schedule in the NFL. They seem excited about a rock fight of a game.
“We’ll see on Sunday, won’t we?” tight end George Kittle said when asked the Eagles stack up to the Niners’ toughness. “When you look at paper, it should be like ‘Oh yeah, we can match their physicality.’
“Then you get on the field on Sunday, and the film after the game will show you. … I know we’re going to come out and be violent and physical. I’m expecting them to do the same thing. We’ll see.”
While toughness might be the determining factor in Sunday’s game — which team can impose its will on the opponent? — there are still rules to the game and details to such endeavors.
Every team — even the NFC’s two best all season — has weaknesses.
Both teams seem particularly suited to exploit the other.
The Niners’ issue is that its defense can’t handle running quarterbacks. It’s a longstanding problem with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s teams. Fleet-footed quarterbacks force the 49ers’ defense, which prefers to play zone coverage (where everyone covers a space on the field), to play man-to-man, lest no one defends the quarterback if he keeps the ball.
And there was no better-running quarterback in the NFL this season than Hurts.
Ignore Hurts as a runner, and he’ll pick up first down after first down. Ignore him as a passer, and he’ll find his elite receiving corps — led by the impossibly fast and strong A.J. Brown — with deep throws, which the 49ers have also proven susceptible to this season.
There’s a reason Hurts is up for MVP. He drives defenses crazy.
The 49ers’ might have the best defense in the NFL, but this team lost both games it played against running quarterbacks this season. It nearly lost a third such game to a Raiders team that turned its non-running quarterback into one for the day.
The 49ers will need linebacker Fred Warner — arguably the best linebacker in the NFL — to have his best game of the year. If the Niners call the wrong defense — or Hurts changes his mind midplay — it’ll be Warner’s job to clean up the mess. If Warner fails to do that, it could be a big mess, indeed. The Eagles’ offense is a juggernaut.
But Philadelphia has a weakness, too: The Eagles’ defense can’t stop the run.
While the Eagles have the top defense against the pass in the NFL — they had 15 more sacks than any other team, and their defensive backs are elite at covering receivers — the Eagles don’t tackle well.
For a 49ers’ team with a rookie quarterback and a coach that wants to run the ball on every play, this is a tantalizing opportunity.
This game is why the 49ers’ signed do-it-all wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel to a three-year, $71.5 million contract in July. This is why they traded for superstar running back Christian McCaffrey in October. (The Niners have yet to lose a game when McCaffrey has had had a whole week of preparation — 12 straight wins.)
The Niners are poised to run, run and run some more on Sunday.
The Eagles are poised to do the same thing.
And in a game where the expected margin is within a field goal — oddsmakers have the Eagles as 2.5-point favorites — the deciding factor will be which team is physically and mentally tougher.
Save your 50-pass-attempt, basketball-on-grass, three-hand-touch football for the regular season. Sunday is going to be playoff football at its finest — a battle of both mind and body.
So bust out an old tube TV — high-definition won’t do this game justice — and create some cognitive separation between entertainment and morals. The Eagles and 49ers will produce a truly worthy NFC champion on Sunday, but they’ll both be pitiless in the process.