At a Philadelphia podium on January 29, two shadows obscured Kyle Shanahan’s face.
Shanahan’s team-logoed baseball cap cast the physical shadow over the eyes of the San Francisco 49ers head coach. And then there was the psychological shadow, just as visible in his deflated expression, as he processed the shock of quarterback injuries decimating his team’s promising postseason run.
"I just hurt for those guys," Shanahan said after Brock Purdy's UCL tear and Josh Johnson's concussion sent the 49ers to a no-man's land so extreme that the NFL would soon change its rules to avoid a repeat. "I thought they got dealt a pretty tough card today. A tough hand.
“I thought we had a chance to knock them off today and came up short.”
Ten months after the Eagles’ 31-7 NFC championship game win, the 49ers travel to Philadelphia for a rematch Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET. The return is emotional – for Purdy, who’s since rebounded from offseason UCL surgery to lead the league with a 112.3 passer rating; for the 49ers, who seek not just to be very good every year but to win the whole thing; and even for the Eagles, who won an uncompetitive conference championship and then fell three points short of a Lombardi Trophy.
The contest is also inarguably significant to the landscape of league greats. Sure, as Shanahan and Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni have preached this week, these 2023 squads front players, schemes and ethos that have evolved since January. And yet: These teams once again hold the top two NFC playoff spots entering Week 13. The 10-1 Eagles boast the league’s best record, while the 8-3 49ers’ mark trailed only the Eagles and Baltimore Ravens through 12 weeks.
This game is about much more than exorcising last season's demons. It's as meaningfully a referendum on what each team can do this postseason, when the Eagles and 49ers are currently tied at +400 with the best odds to win the Super Bowl, per BetMGM.
"Neither team finished the job (last season), so it's not like they're looking back and reminiscing on an NFC championship win either way," 49ers All-Pro edge rusher Nick Bosa said this week. "I'm sure we were both sad at the end of the year. We both have aspirations to win Super Bowls.
“So it’s a new year and this is a big step for both of us to get to that aspiration.”
Which brings us to the crux of what will determine this matchup and what won't. While Purdy's health will headline the changes that boosted the 49ers to betting favorites this week, his production may not be what should scare the Eagles most.
Because another unit the 49ers have bolstered in 2023 may be poised to wreak even more havoc.
49ers’ endless DL investments will threaten Jalen Hurts, Eagles
With the caveat that the NFL seems to endlessly prove its “any given Sunday” mantra, the first 12 weeks of this season support two conclusions.
The first: The 49ers are going to score a lot of points on Sunday.
Their offense is stacked, from the efficient and productive Purdy to all-purpose touchdowns leader Christian McCaffrey to defensive-coordinator nightmare Deebo Samuel to receiver Brandon Aiyuk. That list doesn’t even include All-Pro tight end George Kittle, whose 667 receiving yards and five touchdowns rank third and tie for second, respectively, at his position.
The Niners have piled up 28.2 points per game even factoring in a three-game losing streak in which they didn’t surpass 17 points in Samuel’s absence. The 49ers have not lost a game this season when Samuel was healthy, as he is this week. Their No. 3 scoring offense poses an advantage against the Eagles’ No. 20 scoring defense, the 49ers’ offense ranking first in DVOA while Philadelphia’s defense ranks seventh.
“They do a good job mixing the run and pass, and Brock really runs that offense really well,” Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai said this week. “He’s slippery, he’s a little bit quick and can be evasive in the pocket, and he keeps his eyes upfield and is able to target some explosives downfield that way.
“They’re very challenging.”
The Eagles – whose defense lags at 20th in points per game allowed and 19th in yards per game allowed – should not expect to fully slow the 49ers. They should instead aspire to keep pace with them.
Which leads us to Conclusion 2: Philadelphia’s offense will face a tougher task at the line of scrimmage than they did last year – and a tougher task even than San Francisco’s opponents faced two months ago.
The 49ers have long invested in and emphasized the use of their front seven. But this season, they’ve only continued to bolster a group that already included homegrown first-rounders in Arik Armstead and three-time Pro Bowl rusher Nick Bosa.
San Francisco signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in free agency after Philadelphia let him walk; traded the Denver Broncos for edge rusher Randy Gregory in early October; and acquired 2020 No. 2 overall pick Chase Young just before the trade deadline on Oct. 31.
Young ranks seventh among edge rushers in pass-rush win rate, per ESPN, while Bosa ranks 14th despite facing twice as many double teams as Young. Hargrave (seventh) and Armstead (10th) are the only teammates to both crack the top-10 in defensive tackle pass rush win rate. The sum of this group is overwhelming.
“Everything’s gone up huge with our D-line,” Shanahan said. “All of them collectively I feel like are at the top of their game right now.”
Data reflects that.
While the 49ers haven’t changed their pressure trends much across this season, their effectiveness in applying that pressure has skyrocketed. San Francisco registered a 40.5% pressure rate through four weeks of the season, 40.7% the next four weeks with Gregory in house, and a 39.2% pressure rate since Week 9, when both Gregory and Young were available, per Next Gen Stats data.
And yet: Their sack percentage across those periods rose from 4.7% through four weeks to 6% in Weeks 5-8 to a whopping 12% since Week 9.
After averaging 2.25 sacks across their first eight games, the 49ers have averaged five sacks per game with Young in the lineup.
“I guess ever since we got Chase Young, things kind of flipped around, didn’t they?” All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said after the 49ers’ Thanksgiving win. “I feel like as long as we are on top of our job in the back, the D-line is so relentless (that) as long as we're sticking our covers, they’re going to go out there, they’re going to eat every time.
“So kind of spending extra time going over the route concepts, especially on third down, and working in unison rush and coverage – I think that’s why you see the results.”
Do Eagles have firepower to withstand 49ers? Bettors weigh in
No team should be more prepared than the Eagles to handle the 49ers in the trenches. Eagles left guard Landon Dickerson ranks fourth among interior offensive linemen in pass-block win rate and first in run-block win rate, per ESPN, while center Jason Kelce ranks sixth in pass-block win rate and fifth in run-block win rate.
Against Bosa and Young, the Eagles are expected to regain right tackle Lane Johnson (groin), who leads all offensive tackles in run-stop win rate and ranks fifth in pass-block win rate. Left tackle Jordan Mailata slots fifth against the run and 17th against the pass.
It’s no surprise then that the Eagles lead the league in team run-blocking grades, per ESPN, and rank sixth in pass-blocking.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts will have the best possible supporting cast to execute the latest episode of Philadelphia's "Brotherly Shove," and a nearly-as-formidable unit buying him a few extra seconds to diagnose defenses, go through his progressions and determine the best swing on a run-pass option.
The question that looms: Will all of that be enough?
“They’re a really, really, really, really, really good defense,” Hurts said. “They have great players at every position on that D-line and very elite players. We have to be ready for that challenge.”
No team has stifled scoring threats more than the 49ers, who have allowed opponents just 15.5 points per game compared to the 22.4 the Eagles have allowed. Consider that differential alongside the teams' identical scoring output, and it's less surprising that Vegas has swung the odds from the Philadelphia home edge to naming the Eagles three-point underdogs.
“I think it’s OK to be the underdog,” Sirianni said in response. “Before I ever stepped foot in the city, all I knew about this city was Rocky versus Apollo Creed. This city plays the underdog well.”
Shanahan said the betting line "doesn't make a lot of sense to me," which history supports: The Eagles are the first 10-1 team with their primary quarterback to be home underdogs by a field goal or more, per ESPN Bet.
Favorites or not, both teams can appreciate the caliber of play they’ve maintained since their NFC title game matchup, the stakes for what could be yet another one this coming January and the expected availability of both primary quarterbacks.
None of this wasn’t guaranteed when Shanahan was wallowing in his shadow and, two weeks later, the Eagles were joining the disappointment train.
“This is 2023, right? It’s not 2022,” Sirianni said. “So this is about the 2023 Eagles versus the 2023 Niners. Both teams are doing well.
“It’s going to be a heck of a battle.”