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January 29, 2023

First half observations: Eagles 21, 49ers 7

The Eagles are 30 minutes from a Super Bowl berth.

The Eagles struggled for most of the first half on offense, but great play from the pass rush and three different rushing touchdowns put them up 21-7 on the 49ers at halftime of the NFC Championship Game.

Here's what I saw in the first 30 minutes.

The Good

• It didn't take long for Jalen Hurts and A.J. Brown to come up with a play out of nothing to save a Philadelphia drive. Lurking around midfield, the Eagles were stuck on third-and-long with San Francisco bringing the house against Hurts. Left with little time to get rid of the football, Hurts threw a soft toss in Brown's direction, and he snagged it right before it hit the turf, extending the series in spectacular fashion.

It would only take a few more plays for his counterpart to top that catch. Faced with fourth down at San Francisco's 35-yard line, Nick Sirianni opted to go for it, a choice with plenty of risk this early in the game. For a moment, it looked like hope was lost, with Hurts waiting for someone to get open downfield while rolling to his left. Hoping his guy could make a play, Hurts' confidence was rewarded and then some, with Smith pulling down what looked like an absolutely ridiculous catch to extend the series and give Philadelphia a first-and-goal opportunity:

Smith's football IQ showed up next, as he wasn't exactly sure whether he landed in bounds/completed the catch. So instead of celebrating, Smith immediately signaled to his teammates to get up to the line in order to avoid a potential challenge. Once Fox showed a replay of the process, it looked like the 49ers would have had a chance to overturn the call, but they weren't quick enough on the draw. You could probably criticize the 49ers for looking at Smith and not sensing something was up, but I'm inclined to tip the cap to the wide receiver, who had his sights on more important things than celebrating a huge play.

Two plays later, Miles Sanders was waltzing into the end zone for an easy first score of the day, and a raucous crowd in South Philly was ready to turn up even more. Doesn't get better than that to start a game.

• Philadelphia's pass rush had a special season in 2022, powered by the addition of local hero Haason Reddick. No matter how good you thought he was when they signed him, Reddick has been even better than that, constantly terrorizing opposing linemen after a slow first game or two with the Eagles.

His dream season for the Eagles doesn't look like it's slowing down anytime soon. On San Fran's first drive of the game, Reddick came screaming around the edge with his sights set on Brock Purdy. The rookie QB never saw him coming, and a swipe down from Reddick caused a fumble that wasn't immediately clear until the Eagles opted to challenge the incomplete ruling.

After just one possession for each team, the importance of being quick on your feet (and having good spotters in the booth) became quite clear. Sirianni won his team an extra possession by forcing the officials to take the extra look at a potential turnover, while Kyle Shanahan was asleep at the wheel for a potential game-changing stop. Add on that Sirianni was willing to go for it on fourth down early, and the Eagles had the clear edge in the coaching department early.

(Didn't love Philly's decision to punt at midfield, honestly, but that's a separate discussion.)

You never root for anybody to get injured, obviously, but Reddick's forced fumble had a positive injury side effect for Philly, with Purdy knocked out of the game (at least temporarily) as a result of an elbow issue. That left the 49ers with career backup Josh Johnson at quarterback, and at that point, Reddick had to sense the moment was his/theirs for the taking. On Johnson's first dropback of the game, he got a quick reminder of who the hell Reddick is, with Reddick launching himself like a quarterback-targeted missile right into his chest.

San Francisco might want to think about blocking this dude. At least make an attempt!

For a moment, it looked like Reddick had caused another fumble, Reddick walking away from Johnson with ball in hand, playing up the moment to an absolutely delirious crowd. Even without the second forced fumble, Reddick continues to roll, and his addition has lifted up the rest of the talent on their line. Hard to imagine a better debut season for him in Eagles green. 

• I don't need to remind any of you that this is far from a one-man show in the defensive trenches. Reddick might have been the missing piece they needed, but they became the first team in NFL history to have four guys with double-digit sacks. They attack you from all angles with a rotation of killers, and that continued in the first half on Sunday.

Backup quarterback or not, the Eagles are absolutely dominating the 49ers up front. Javon Hargrave got a sack of his own in the second quarter, and Johnson is operating with hands in his face at all times, assuming he's allowed to get a throw off in the first place. With San Francisco down to a fourth-choice QB, Jonathan Gannon's unit is showing no mercy.

• Rather than showing cowardice in the face of mounting pressure, Sirianni stuck to the principles that have carried Philadelphia to this moment. On fourth-and-short inside their own territory, Sirianni could has justified punting the ball back to Johnson, hoping the defense would get it back quickly. No dice — Sirianni trusted that their QB sneak dominance would hold up in the biggest game of the year, and he was rewarded for that faith.

With Hurts struggling to find his footing in the championship game, Sirianni and Shane Steichen used their final two drives of the half to start leaning on the run game. After a monster game against New York a week prior, Kenneth Gainwell got right back to work against San Francisco, adding a north/south element to the run game while picking up critical yards after the catch on a reception in the second quarter.

The star of the first half, though, was the offensive line. Philadelphia's big boys mauled on their second scoring drive of the day, and both of Sanders' touchdowns so far on Sunday have come on untouched scampers to pay dirt. Running behind Jason Kelce, Sanders met no resistance as he put the Eagles back in front before the halftime whistle.

May not have been a pretty half on offense, but it will do, and Sirianni's fourth-down decision will go down as the biggest of the half.

• There's a reason the phrase "It's better to be lucky than good" rings throughout time. The Eagles could have drawn a team with a much better quarterback situation than the 49ers have in the conference championship, and they had nothing to do with Johnson's fumble with just over a minute to play. But what you can say about the Eagles is that they've constantly been prepared to prey on mistakes from their opponent, and Johnson handed them a golden opportunity late in the first half.

Boston Scott was the man to carpe that diem, so to speak. 

Three rushing touchdowns in a half. Not too shabby.

• A good opening kick return? What a concept.

• The crowd was absolutely doing their part early on, as multiple delay of game penalties are a credit to the yelling and screaming fans in the stands. Good job, gang.

The Bad

• If the Eagles were going to punt the ball on fourth down anyway, I wouldn't have given Gainwell a third-and-four carry on the possession following Purdy's fumble. Running there is fine if you're treating it like four-down territory, but felt like Sirianni and Co. got stuck between two mindsets.

• Hurts had a bad, bad overthrow on Philadelphia's final possession of the second quarter, and it was certainly the most consequential miss of the season to date. Brown was running basically by himself and probably going all the way for six points if Hurts hits him in stride, but he didn't really get close. We'll see if he lives to regret that mistake.

If that were a one-off mistake, it would be easier to shrug it off as an outlier, but Hurts and the offense have sputtered early in this one. The lowlight of the half came near their own endzone, with Hurts and Sanders botching a zone read so badly that Nick Bosa nearly brought Hurts down for a safety. Hurts' confidence in himself as a runner is admirable, but it was the perfect time to give the ball to Sanders so he could chew up yards, and he nearly paid dearly for the bad choice. It didn't help that Jack Stoll just decided he wasn't blocking anybody, which allowed Bosa a direct line to Hurts. Sort of similar to what was said about Reddick further up, I don't know how you let that guy go unblocked, of all people you could lose track of on the field.

The strange decision-making continued as we moved closer to halftime. Hurts ran himself into trouble on multiple occasions, even with options to throw to for short-to-intermediate gains. This looked more like the Hurts of last season, who certainly had flashes as a thrower but was far more erratic than the guy we've seen this season.

Hurts has been under some pressure in the pocket but has had good protection overall, and he doesn't look to be struggling to put zip on his throws. He has figured out a way to bounce back whenever adversity has hit this year, and they need that now more than ever. You can tell that this is the biggest game of his career, with the stress showing up in his reads to open the game.

• Honestly, I know I'm going to be on an island with this one, but I was more impressed by Christian McCaffery's touchdown run than mad about the tackling. Marcus Epps' whiff was the worst part of the sequence, but that was an incredible combination of speed, power, and agility from McCaffery more than anything else. It is special to be able to slither through a tiny space like that while still generating enough pace and power to run through tackles.

(To be clear, the tackling wasn't good, but sometimes awesome players make awesome plays. Can't be perfect for 60 minutes.)

• Enough with the east-west running. The 49ers are a fast defense, and all of Philadelphia's best plays on offense came when they got downhill in a hurry. We can all see it, so I assume the coaching staff can too.

The Ugly

• Horrible flag thrown on Jobe near the end of the first quarter. It's the NFC Championship game, let these dudes play and scrap.

• The officials had an absolutely miserable start to this game, missing the Smith call that benefited Philadelphia, missing the forced fumble that the Eagles had to challenge to get right, and then, well... what exactly happened on Brett Kern's punt? Their official explanation of "we can't confirm" that the ball hit the wire seems to ignore basic logic, as one could look at the changing spin of the ball and conclude that something happened mid-flight.

Rough start for the zebras, in any case.

• Two straight weeks of the chains being broken? Come on, man.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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