The San Francisco 49ers are heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles in an unfamiliar position this season—as the underdogs.
For the first time since their Week 7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, oddsmakers are against the Niners, with Philadelphia opening as a 2.5-point favorite in most sportsbooks. In order to avoid falling in the NFC Championship Game for a second straight year, the 49ers will need to get strong play out of one position group in particular.
If there’s any element of the San Francisco defense that’s viewed as a weakness, it’s the secondary. Yes, Deommodore Lenoir intercepted Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott during the first half of last week’s NFC Divisional win, but Jalen Hurts and the Eagles offense will be a much tougher test.
While Prescott threw two interceptions against San Francisco and tossed 15 in just 12 regular season games, Hurts only threw six in 15 games, and he has a better group of receivers at his disposal than Prescott. Outside of CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys’ receivers were largely ineffective. Sure, tight end Dalton Schultz caught a touchdown, but he also made two boneheaded plays on the final drive and recorded catches on just five of his 10 targets.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, has a loaded receiver group. A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith each easily plowed past the 1,000-yard mark in the regular season, tight end Dallas Goedert averaged 12.8 yards per reception and Quez Watkins was a quietly solid option in the slot. With Hurts on the field, the Eagles average 29.4 points per game.
Simply put, the San Francisco defensive backs will have to step up. Jimmie Ward finished the win over the Cowboys with a punishing tackle on KaVontae Turpin and Lenoir picked Prescott off to set up Robbie Gould’s first field goal, but the 49ers haven’t faced a passing attack of Philly’s caliber in months.
Linebacker Fred Warner excels in coverage, but may also be needed in the pass rush to address Philly’s stellar offensive line. That pass rush may be further compromised if defensive end Charles Omenihu, who was arrested Monday on suspicion of domestic violence, is unable to play. That means Talanoa Hufanga, Charvarius Ward and Tashaun Gipson Sr. will need to answer the call in order to send the Niners to their eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]