In an NFL season littered with crazy comebacks, the NFC championship game was almost over Sunday before it started.
San Francisco’s Brock Purdy, who went from the last pick in the draft to a surprise sensation, discovered how it really felt to be “Mr. Irrelevant.”
Swarmed by a ravenous Philadelphia defense, Purdy was hit on the 49ers’ opening possession and suffered an elbow injury that effectively knocked him out of the game, far too much to overcome against the top-seeded team in the conference.
Purdy would return — mostly to hand off — and the Eagles rolled to a 31-7 victory, securing their second trip to the Super Bowl in six seasons. They will face the Kansas City Chiefs — who beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game — and Andy Reid, the former Philadelphia coach.
“I’m still processing it,” said safety Haason Reddick, who had a monster game, standing in the middle of an Eagles locker room filled with celebratory cigar smoke. “I probably won’t even come to terms with my feelings for the next two days or so.”
San Francisco came to Lincoln Financial Field with the league’s No. 1 defense, but it was Reddick who was the most impactful defensive player. He was the one who raked the ball out of Purdy’s hand on the strip sack that sent him to the sideline, and near the end of the second quarter, Reddick recovered a 49ers fumble that set up a Philadelphia touchdown.
“My arm just felt like it stretched out,” Purdy said of the play in question. “Just felt like really a lot of shocks all over from my elbow down to my wrist, front and back. Just pain, really, all over.”
Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s offensive line, the best in football, pushed open holes so wide that Miles Sanders was untouched on touchdown runs of six and 13 yards, and Boston Scott encountered contact only at the goal line on his 10-yard scoring run.
“In practice, you see what we do, we hit bags all the time,” said All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson, playing through a severe groin injury. “We put emphasis in the run game, get it to the second level and linebackers. Just I feel like the consistency of the backs has been there all year. Everybody’s getting touches, everybody’s getting yards.”
The Eagles were relentless, and the 49ers simply couldn’t keep up, not with the chaos at quarterback. Purdy was replaced by journeyman Josh Johnson, who has had 20 different NFL stops in a career that included stints in an alphabet soup of lesser leagues: the AFL, UFL and XFL.
Making matters even more bleak, Johnson had to leave the game with a concussion near the start of the third quarter. The 49ers had to send a seriously limited Purdy back out there, once running a direct snap to Christian McCaffrey. It was a disaster.
“It’s not ideal, it sucks,” McCaffrey said. “You never want to see any of your teammates get hurt, let alone the quarterback position. It’s tough. You’re never out of the fight though. We believed it, and it just didn’t turn out our way. We got beat. Wish we had another shot at it with everybody. But that’s life, the way it goes.”
There was a flicker of hope for San Francisco in the second quarter when McCaffrey tore off a spectacular 23-yard touchdown run, breaking four tackles along the way, to forge a 7-7 tie.
“Guys were up for the challenge,” San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Defense was playing real well. We felt Josh was going to go in there and execute our plan and give us a chance. … Once they got that third score, it was real tough to catch up.”
The emergency plan called for McCaffrey to play quarterback, but that would have been utter desperation.
“Wildcat’s good here and there, but it’s not really an NFL offense,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “I’m pretty sure that if we just put Christian in at quarterback and Deebo [Samuel] at running back, I think they would know what we were doing. They’d probably just put 10 in the box and you can only do so much.”
As well as 49ers defenders played at times, they also melted down. The defense was flagged three times on a 75-yard drive by the Eagles that resulted in a touchdown. And in the fourth quarter, linebacker Dre Greenlaw lost his cool on Philadelphia’s Kenneth Gainwell, repeatedly punching at the football the way Rocky Balboa worked over a side of beef.
Shortly thereafter came a near brawl, when both teams had to be sent to their sidelines and there were dual ejections of San Francisco tackle Trent Williams — who delivered a WWE-style body slam after the whistle — and Philadelphia safety K’Von Wallace.
After being flagged just three times in the divisional game against Dallas, the 49ers were penalized 11 times against the Eagles, to the delight of a crowd that was one giant swath of green. In the waning moments, those delirious fans shout-sang Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down,” sending the visitors off into the chilly night.
“It’s a dream come true for a lot of people on this team, especially myself,” Sanders said of moving on to the Feb. 12 Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. “But I mean, the job’s not done. We didn’t get this far just to get there, we’re trying to win it all. We’ve got one more game for the rest of our lives, and to play our best ball.”