Big Game, Bigger Playmakers
X-Factors For Niners-Eagles NFC Championship
The Eagles on Sunday welcome the San Francisco 49ers to the Linc in the NFC Championship at 3 p.m. in a bid to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in five years.
All 22 starters for the Eagles are available for the slugfest, and their raucous legion of fans will pack the stadium.
The Niners make the East Coast trek riding high following their divisional round triumph over the Dallas Cowboys with seventh-round rookie quarterback Brock Purdy at the helm. They’ve won seven consecutive games with Purdy in relief of an injured Jimmy Garoppolo and 12 straight overall.
This is San Francisco’s second straight appearance in the NFC Championship and third in four seasons.
Let’s take a look at four X-factors poised to impact Sunday’s showdown:
WR A.J. Brown: Though he only snared a modest three receptions for 22 yards on six targets in the divisional round, Brown will likely need to be heavily featured this week if the Eagles expect to advance to Super Bowl LVII. As suffocating San Francisco’s run defense can be, it has also shown a vulnerability on the back end, allowing a combined 20 receptions for 253 yards and two touchdowns to D.K. Metcalf and CeeDee Lamb, respectively, in consecutive playoff weeks. Look for the Eagles to involve Brown early, getting him the ball in space and allowing him to run roughshod after the catch. Brown’s hulking frame and physicality should be accentuated on contested catches downfield. Niners cornerbacks Deommodore Lenoir and Charvarius Ward give up significant length and ball skills to Brown. In games in which Brown’s dominance has been a necessity – Lions, Jaguars, Bears for example –the two-time Pro Bowler and 2022 second-team All Pro delivered when his number was called. Sunday won’t be different.
S C.J. Gardner-Johnson: Niners tight end George Kittle reeled in all five of his targets for 95 yards in the divisional round against the Cowboys and appears poised for another pivotal role in Sunday’s game plan. Seventh-round rookie quarterback Brock Purdy notwithstanding, Kittle arguably serves as San Francisco’s most prominent offensive focal point, so limiting his impact should be paramount for defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. Given the team’s optionality in its personnel, the Eagles could have linebacker Kyzir White draw that coverage assignment against Kittle. So, too, could nickel cornerback Avonte Maddox, who returns to the lineup after missing the past three games with a debilitating toe injury. However, the Eagles would be best served deploying the rangy, scrappy Gardner-Johnson on Kittle. The 25-year-old had been tasked with that duty while with the Saints, so the familiarity gives him an advantage. Gardner-Johnson, the NFL leader in interceptions this season, has the best chance of consistently staying in Kittle’s hip pocket and erasing a significant piece of the Niners’ mid-range passing attack.
WR Brandon Aiyuk: From my vantage point, amid the plethora of offensive firepower on San Francisco, Kittle represents the head of the snake, but having just outlined Kittle’s impact, I wanted to highlight another crucial piece of the Niners’ offense. While Brandon Aiyuk is the quintessential No. 2 wideout, the third-year pass-catcher performed like the team’s top receiver in 2022, accruing 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns on 78 catches (114 targets) – all career highs. The Niners offense doesn’t often feature shot plays, but when they do, Aiyuk is the usual recipient, along with the occasional moonlighting from returner Ray-Ray McLoud. Aiyuk – like Kittle, Christian McCaffrey, and Deebo Samuel – is lethal in the open field and at churning out yards after the catch, so open-field tackling will need to be a primary objective to corral the Purdy-led offense.
LB Fred Warner: The best off-ball linebacker in the NFL, Warner has the acumen to cover like a safety and hit like a freight train. His blend of football intellect, instinctiveness, range and coverage acumen enables defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans to execute an exotic scheme and largely eliminates the mid-range passing game. In an effort to combat Warner’s game-wrecking tendencies and coverage prowess over the middle, I expect to see tight end Dallas Goedert moved around formations to capitalize on his big-play potential and his own open field explosiveness. The Eagles must account for Warner’s whereabouts at all times.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.