There’s likely to be plenty of noise emanating from Elland Road on Sunday but, on this occasion, it will be for a game being played just under three and a half thousand miles away after the San Francisco 49ers moved into a familiar position — a step away from a place in the Super Bowl.
Reaching the NFC Championship Game has become a habit for the Niners, who progressed to that stage for the third time in four seasons by defeating the Dallas Cowboys 19-12 at Levi’s Stadium last Sunday.
Their previous two trips to the Conference Championship have produced a blowout win over the Green Bay Packers in the 2019 season and an agonising defeat to the Los Angeles Rams in the 2021 campaign, and the obstacle they must clear to make it two Super Bowl appearances in four seasons is arguably more formidable than the eventual Super Bowl-champion Rams they succumbed to last season.
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Standing between the 49ers and a place in the season-ending showpiece in Arizona are the Philadelphia Eagles, the number one seed in the NFC and a team coming off a dominant 38-7 victory over the upstart New York Giants in the Divisional round.
It is a mouthwatering matchup that will be witnessed by a sizeable contingent of 49ers fans at Elland Road, which — as Leeds United confirmed this week — is hosting an official watch party the Niners hope will see their UK faithful celebrating a Super Bowl berth.
The Niners and the Eagles will be meeting for only the second time in the playoffs, their sole previous postseason encounter coming way back in the Wild Card round in 1996, when San Francisco claimed a 14-0 win at Candlestick Park.
A similar defensive struggle at Lincoln Financial Field would not be a surprise given the strengths of the respective defenses. However, even with the 49ers possessing the league’s best defense, the odds of San Francisco shutting out the Eagles appear slim.
The 49er defense was magnificent in holding Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense in check, yet the Eagles’ attack — led by MVP contender Jalen Hurts — presents an entirely different challenge and is well-equipped to exploit the limited weaknesses of coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ group.
San Francisco’s defense has long since been vulnerable to dual-threat quarterbacks who can do damage with their legs as well as through the air, and there has been no such signal-caller better than Eagles star Hurts in the 2022 season.
Hurts’ 13 rushing touchdowns trailed only NFL leader Jamaal Williams (17) in the regular season. He was fifth in the NFL in the percentage of his rushing attempts that went for first downs (40.6) and seventh in explosive run rate, with 15.8 percent of his rushes resulting in gains of 10 yards or more.
On top of his running ability, Hurts has demonstrated substantial growth as a passer in the 2022 season. Hurts ended the regular season third in yards per attempt (8.05) and was second in Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE), according to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts. Hurts completed 66.5 percent of his passes, 2.8 percentage points more than his expected rate of 63.7.
Throwing to one of the NFL’s premier wide receiver duos in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, Hurts would seem to have the ingredients to excel against the 49ers, but San Francisco’s defense will likely be similarly confident it has the personnel to stop him.
Such belief is backed up by impressive evidence. The 49ers held Prescott to only 5.57 yards per attempt in the win over the Cowboys, who only managed 3.5 yards per rush on the ground in a game in which both offenses struggled for efficiency.
San Francisco’s linebackers, most notably All-Pro Fred Warner, were the stars on defense with their prowess in both man and zone coverage — Warner producing highlight reel pass defense in the third quarter when he went stride for stride downfield with Dallas’ star receiver CeeDee Lamb.
Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair will have pivotal roles to play in slowing down Hurts and Co. San Francisco’s linebackers are magnificent in pursuit in the open field, but they will need to demonstrate excellent eye discipline to ensure the 49er defense is not undone by Philadelphia’s diverse rushing attack.
But the Niners’ trio at the position is the best in the NFL and, with San Francisco’s secondary so far responding brilliantly to the postseason challenge, Ryans’ defense can make life difficult for Hurts and his supporting cast even if Defensive Player of the Year in waiting Nick Bosa and the 49er pass rush cannot make a significant impact against an excellent Eagles offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, the 49er offensive line figures to be sternly tested by a Philadelphia pass rush that amassed 70 sacks in the regular season, with four players reaching double digits.
San Francisco’s rookie quarterback Brock Purdy managed to avoid turnovers despite coming under consistent pressure against Dallas, but doing the same against an opportunistic Philadelphia defense could be difficult if the Niners’ interior offensive line struggles to hold up in its battle with the Eagles’ deep and formidable group of defensive tackles.
The run game, so often masterfully designed by head coach Kyle Shanahan, is an avenue to alleviating the pressure the Eagles are capable of generating.
an Francisco’s ground attack was frustrated in the first half last week as Cowboys stars Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence consistently prevented the 49ers from getting around the edge.
A more direct approach that saw the Niners attack with gap scheme runs up the middle yielded much greater dividends in the second half and could be similarly successful versus Philadelphia.
The Eagles had the ninth-worst rush defense in the NFL by yards per play allowed in the regular season and, if Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell and versatile wide receiver Deebo Samuel can enjoy success on the ground, that may open the play-action game and enable the Niners to exploit an improved but still vulnerable Philadelphia linebacker group and thrive attacking the middle of the field with Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.
Worryingly for the 49ers, McCaffrey (calf) and Mitchell (groin) both sat out practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
McCaffrey unlocked the 49er offense following his arrival in a mid-season trade with the Carolina Panthers and is vital to San Francisco not only because of his explosiveness as a runner, but also because of the dynamism he provides while giving Purdy another safety net as a receiver.
But McCaffrey was emphatic when asked on Thursday if there was any chance of him missing the game.
“Zero,” he replied, adding that he was missing practice with a bruised calf to “lighten the load physically.”
The 49ers’ title game with the Eagles is one teeming with stars, and San Francisco will require the likes of McCaffrey, Samuel and Warner to be the ones that shine brightest if they are to play under the largest spotlight in American sport.
Touchdown of the week
An easy call this week, as the 49ers only scored one, which came early in the fourth quarter and put San Francisco up for good against Dallas. It came on a G-T counter run, with left guard Aaron Banks and left tackle Trent Williams pulling across the formation while right tackle Mike McGlinchey did an excellent job of moving two defenders to create the running lane for McCaffrey to plunge into and score.
Offensive player of the week: George Kittle
There aren’t too many candidates to pick from following a defensive struggle with Dallas. Williams excelled in pass protection against Parsons, reaffirming his status as the best left tackle in the NFL, but the spark plug for the Niners was tight end Kittle, who set their sole touchdown drive in motion with a spectacular juggling 30-yard catch over the middle of the field. He finished 95 yards on five receptions, with none more crucial than his remarkable show of concentration.
Defensive player of the week: Fred Warner
Warner’s fingerprints were all over the 49ers’ Divisional round win. He had a key interception of Prescott in the red zone in the second quarter and finished with nine tackles and a pass breakup. His tremendous coverage on Lamb was a demonstration of his stunning athletic ability and the type of play that separates him from his peers at linebacker. If he delivers a repeat showing on Sunday, the 49ers will have an excellent chance of going to the Super Bowl.
Tweet of the week
Stat of the week: 1
Shanahan is the first head coach in NFL history to win multiple playoff games in each of his first three postseason campaigns.
Quote of the week
Shanahan, asked about the frustrations of previous years in which he has come agonisingly close to winning the Super Bowl:
“The only time that I ever have regrets in games is when I feel I've made decisions that I didn't want to make or you don't feel like that was the right decision, you went for another reason.
“It's been a long time since I've done something like that and when you do that, you're excited for these moments, win or lose. A lot of people don't like the pressure of it, players, people in general because you put yourself out there and it's really tough if you don't come up victorious, but like I've always said and heard growing up, there's only one team that's happy at the end of the year and the other 31 teams aren't and you always keep going and try to be that team and you do that until you're done playing or until you're done coaching.”
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