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Key Eagles-49ers matchups to watch in the NFC championship game

Can the Eagles stop the Niners gang from having its way at the Linc?

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts runs as tackle Jordan Mailata blocks 49ers defensive lineman Nick Bosa on Sept. 19, 2021.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts runs as tackle Jordan Mailata blocks 49ers defensive lineman Nick Bosa on Sept. 19, 2021.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The Eagles are now just one game away from reaching the Super Bowl for the second time in six seasons. The conference’s top seed will host the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game at 3 p.m. Sunday.

“As far as the players, man, this is a talented team,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said of the 49ers on Monday. “A lot of good playmakers on this football team offensively and defensively, and it’s no surprise that they’ve won [12] games in a row. They have good coaches and good players. ... We’re working on [making] sure that their good players don’t wreck the game.

» READ MORE: Thumbs up or down: Eagles beat writers weigh in on the matchup with the 49ers instead of the Cowboys

“But we have good players, too, and we’re excited about the matchups. There’s a lot of good-on-good out there that’s going to be happening in this game. That’s what the NFC championship game should be. It’s going to be good-on-good, and it’s going to be tight.”

Here are some key matchups to pay attention to.

A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith vs. Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir

The Eagles tend to rely on their offensive line and they favor the running game, especially against opposing defenses with holes across the front seven. That isn’t the case with the 49ers, who have very few weaknesses. This DeMeco Ryans-led unit plays with a unique blend of aggressiveness and discipline that has catapulted the 49ers to the top of the NFL’s defensive rankings.

The 49ers rank second in rushing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which could present tough sledding for running backs Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, and Boston Scott. Quarterback Jalen Hurts offers his own unique dynamic as a dual threat — and he showed he’s healthy enough to allow the coaching staff to dial up options and designed QB rushes — but the 49ers represent one of the best run defenses that the Eagles will face all season.

Insert A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, who are bound to have opportunities on the outside, especially with tight end Dallas Goedert keeping the opposition honest with his routes across the middle. Similar to Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, Ryans deploys a zone-heavy scheme with an emphasis on his Cover 3 calls. Those situations will present single coverage matchups for Brown and Smith, a duo that became the first in franchise history to record 1,000-plus receiving yards each.

Brown got dinged up during the divisional round, but Sirianni expects the team’s top receiver to be ready for the NFC championship game. Smith has proved the ability to consistently win throughout his route, while Brown has built his reputation as an aggressor and a dangerous weapon in the open field. If Brown and Smith are matched up one-on-one with cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir, Hurts will need to make his checks and find a way to deliver the football to his top playmakers.

Nick Bosa vs. Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata

Nick Bosa is a flat-out game wrecker. The 25-year-old pass rusher is the front-runner for NFL defensive player of the year. His league-best 18½ sacks represent nearly half of the 49ers’ total. Ahead of the divisional round, Hurts said that he has a “bounty on me every week.” That sentiment couldn’t be more evident this week with Bosa coming to Philadelphia. He is deployed regularly on both edges, so both Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata will be tasked with protecting their quarterback. The last time the Eagles and 49ers met, in Week 2 of the 2021 season, Mailata did not allow a single quarterback pressure across 33 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Bosa did record two sacks in the game, which San Francisco won, 17-11.

» READ MORE: Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson are toughness personified as the Eagles pulverize the Giants in the trenches

Johnson is still nursing a torn tendon in his groin, an injury that will eventually require surgery in the offseason. However, the All-Pro right tackle had a stellar outing against the Giants. Johnson, who labored and winced early on, admirably fought through his pain while allowing zero sacks and zero quarterback pressures in 26 pass-blocking snaps. How Johnson’s body responds over the next several days will be crucial.

Christian McCaffrey vs. Eagles’ run defense

Since the 49ers acquired him from the Panthers in October, Christian McCaffrey has been a force under coach Kyle Shanahan, an offensive wizard. McCaffrey is capable of lining up everywhere on the field, and is supported by fullback Kyle Juszczyk, top offensive weapon Deebo Samuel, and reserve tailback Elijah Mitchell. Over 17 games with the Panthers and 49ers, McCaffrey compiled 1,880 total yards and 13 touchdowns.

» READ MORE: Eagles open as slight favorite in NFC Championship game vs. 49ers

The Eagles shored up their run defense toward the end of the season, but the group is still susceptible to allowing gains in bunches. The interior line, aided by in-season veteran acquisitions Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh, will need to be on top of its game, while linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White must rapidly close space and tackle with force and technique.

Brock Purdy vs. Eagles’ pass rush, hostile crowd at Lincoln Financial Field

“Mr. Irrelevant,” aka the 262nd and final player picked in last year’s NFL draft has done a commendable job filling in for injured quarterbacks Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. Brock Purdy is 7-0 as the 49ers’ starter, but the rookie has yet to face a vaunted pass rush like the Eagles bring.

He also arguably hasn’t played in a truly hostile NFL environment, such as Philadelphia, having played on the road just twice during the regular season at Seattle and Las Vegas. If Purdy throws an interception, gets strip-sacked, or the 49ers face early adversity, the expected raucous crowd at Lincoln Financial Field will surely let the 23-year-old quarterback hear it. The Eagles might struggle at times against the run, but they’re a sound unit in the passing game, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ pass DVOA, rankings that take into account the quality of offensive opponents.

The Eagles led the NFL with 70 sacks. Haason Reddick had a career-best 16, while Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat, and Brandon Graham finished with 11 each. For perspective, Samson Ebukam ranks second behind Bosa on the 49ers with five sacks. Veteran defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, meanwhile, ranks fifth on the Eagles with seven. Purdy’s perfect record is impressive and All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams is typically a stone wall, but the Eagles should have an advantage at rushing the quarterback and forcing rushed decisions.

» READ MORE: A few thoughts on the 49ers and why the Eagles enter the NFC championship game as slim favorites