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January 29, 2023

Final observations: Eagles 31, 49ers 7

The Eagles are headed to the Super Bowl following a 31-7 punking of the 49ers that caused the visitors to spend most of the second half in meltdown mode. Treasure this, Philadelphia, because you don't get many who are so good they cause on-field tantrums from the opponent.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Late in the season, the "Jalen Hurts is a system quarterback" argument appeared to be dead, with Philadelphia limping into the playoffs after a Hurts-less stretch cost them multiple opportunities to clinch home-field advantage. He has more than proven his merit as the leader of this offense. But with Hurts in the midst of a bad game, the NFC Championship Game drove home that the Eagles are in the hands of a very good head coach, one who might not buckle under the pressure late in the year.

It's easy to be aggressive on fourth down — or even just say you want to be aggressive on fourth down — when you're an ascending team, or a first-year coach just looking to turn things around. Once you become the No. 1 seed with a target on your back, there are plenty of football coaches who fall back on conventional wisdom and lose the spirit that carried them to winning campaigns. This is the position Sirianni finds himself in, and as of this moment, he has not blinked. On two different occasions in the first half, Sirianni chose to challenge San Francisco's might on fourth-down plays, and he ended up on the winning side both times. 

Instead of fearing how momentum was working against them, he made choices to seize it back, and two out of their three scoring possessions in the first half came after he opted to go for it on fourth down. And one of those plays was a fourth-and-one call at Philadelphia's own 34-yard line — there are only a small handful of coaches in the league who would go for it in that situation, and the Eagles employ one of them. That willingness to push the envelope is part of what powered Philadelphia's Super Bowl run under Doug Pederson.

Two years into his tenure, Sirianni has pushed the Eagles to the biggest game in the sport.

• The story of this game, and I'm not sure there's a close second, was Philadelphia's pass rush. The cheap way to downplay Philadelphia's win to go to the Super Bowl is to call it a win over a team playing a "fourth-string QB," pointing out that they struggled on offense for a lot of the game. That would be a more compelling argument if the Eagles did not personally knock two different quarterbacks out of the game. Brock Purdy did not leave the game because he played poorly, because he suffered a non-contact injury, or because his body simply gave out on him. Purdy was sent to the locker room because Haason Reddick beat the brakes off of his matchup on the outside, and inflicted pain on Purdy that made it impossible for him to impact the game. Whether that's what anyone wanted to see happen or not, it is what happened.

Reddick could not have dreamed of a bigger, better return home than the season he has put together this year. It took a couple of games for Reddick and the rest of the pass rush to get rolling, but they have been an overwhelming force ever since, growing even more terrifying as they move deeper into the season. Scooping up Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh in the middle of the season increasingly looks like a masterstroke for Howie Roseman, as their additions in the middle of the line have given Philadelphia further depth and additional production, supplementing the high-end talent they already had.

With the Niners in a miserable place behind center, San Francisco's gameplan became as predictable as it gets in the second half, Purdy's return basically signaling that the Niners were going to have to try to just run through Philadelphia to win this game. There was no real interest in throwing the ball downfield from Kyle Shanahan, and that made it easy enough for the Birds to contain the run and funnel Christian McCaffery and Deebo Samuel toward multiple tacklers at a time.

We've had some very serious conversations about the impact of football on the human body in recent years, with some people checking out of the sport entirely as the risks of playing have become clearer. But as long as it is played, football is going to be a sport about inflicting pain on the opponent. That's the reality of the game. And for four quarters on Sunday, the Eagles beat the hell out of the 49ers in the trenches. They created San Francisco's quarterback problem all by themselves, even though I'm sure they didn't come in with a plan to injure anybody. 

• There are people who can break down Philadelphia's dominance in the trenches better than I could, but the Eagles won an NFC Championship game with pretty poor QB play because they absolutely mauled San Francisco in the trenches. You are not going to see many better groups than this one in your lifetime, unless Cam Jurgens eventually steps into Jason Kelce's shoes and runs with them.

It's an embarrassment of riches for Hurts and the running backs to play behind. Lane Johnson is one of the single-best players in the NFL, and you can hardly tell he is playing through a serious injury right now. Jordan Mailata is a gigantic, athletic brick wall opposite Johnson. Kelce is one of the most unique talents at his position in the history of sports. They're likely to have a changing of the guard (pun intended) in the offseason, but no problems to deal with there right now.

These guys are so good that it feels like borderline cheating at times. Now let's just see if they make it to the big game completely healthy...

• Philadelphia's biggest question mark heading into the Super Bowl appears to be the physical state of their quarterback. He missed quite a few throws that he has made basically all season, and he also looked a bit nervous in the pocket at times, running himself into trouble and big hits that they would have liked to avoid. Whether he can out-duel Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow in a Super Bowl is something we'll only know in two weeks.

But before we get there, it's worth a moment of our time to say this dude is a tough SOB. While clearly not at 100 percent, he was still out there in the third quarter of this game putting his body on the line, running through some absolutely brutal tackles, and still calling his own number on the next play. He took a late hit while running out of bounds on a nice gainer late in the third, and rather than going away from him, the Eagles lined up in the middle of the field and dared the Niners to stop their QB from scoring on a sneak. Advantage Eagles:

This was far off of the standard that Hurts set all season, but his career has been a case study in caring about the success of the group over individual accolades. I can't imagine he cares much about an off day, because that off day came attached to the best team achievement he has as a professional. And now, he has two weeks to get his mind and body right.

(A quick footnote: Hurts now officially has the best rushing QB season of all-time, with 15 TDs on the ground between the regular season and playoffs. Hell of a thing.)

• It hasn't always been clear what Kenneth Gainwell's purpose has been on Philly's roster, or perhaps it's fairer to say that having a pair of small, dual-threat runners on the depth chart has always felt a bit strange. But Gainwell has been one of the stars of Philadelphia's playoff run so far, and he followed up a huge outing vs. New York with another rock-solid effort against the Niners.

• The Eagles are marching into the Super Bowl and have received little resistance on their way to the big game. There will be plenty of people who use that as an opportunity to dump on their credentials and dismiss their achievements. And I want you to remember that none of that matters at all. Do not engage dumb people who make these claims, and do not spend a drop of anger or emotion on those people.

From start to finish, the Eagles have done whatever it takes to put themselves in a position for postseason success. They have been a complete team all year, boasting an MVP-caliber QB, a historic defensive line, an offensive line with multiple Hall of Fame candidates, an elite cornerback duo, and maybe the best 1-2 WR combo in their history.

Plenty of people will forget all of that if they lose in the Super Bowl and let all of it go to waste. But this is without question one of the best, most talented Eagles teams ever assembled, and they have earned this. Not with a win over the Niners, but with 19 games of well-executed, high-level football. Savor this for however long it lasts.

The Bad

• Come on, man. This team cruised to the Super Bowl. I'm supposed to complain? We got Gardner Minshew snaps in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game!

The Ugly

• The only real blemish in this game was the sight of Landon Dickerson grabbing his arm, and walking to the sideline without moving his right arm much. He didn't have the body language of a guy dealing with a serious injury, but no guarantees until he gets looked at. Hope for the best.

• Boy, the 49ers sure took a lot of stupid penalties in this game. And on top of that, showed a ton of loser energy in the second half. Cheap shots galore between halftime and the final whistle. Enjoy the flight back home.

• The Eagles vs. Andy Reid in the Super Bowl would be unbelievable theater. Need it like I need oxygen.

• K'Von Wallace is going to be lucky if he avoids a suspension after throwing a punch in the final few minutes of this game.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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