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The Eagles return to the Super Bowl as the 49ers collapse

PHILADELPHIA – Fireworks went off atop Lincoln Financial Field, and Eagles players and coaches headed to the end zone in ecstatic celebration as Boston running back Scott trotted intact for a 10-yard touchdown just before the ‘interval.

There were still 30 minutes to play on Sunday, but with the Eagles leading by two possessions and their NFL-best pass rush in front of a fourth-string quarterback, the touchdown looked like an exclamation point. The Eagles held the lead to beat the San Francisco 49ers, 31-7, to win the NFC Championship, earning a trip to Glendale, Arizona for the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl appearance.

The Eagles have been one of the most complete teams in the league this season and they proved it again on Sunday. With the win, they will face either Kansas City or Cincinnati in their first Super Bowl since winning it all in the 2017 season.

“You see this city and the passion they have for this team. We really appreciate these fans,” Philadelphia coach Nick Sirianni said at a postgame press conference. “Look at this place. There’s no place like this in the NFL. It’s a hardworking city, it’s a blue-collar city. that’s the kind of team we have.”

The Eagles defense, which during the regular season amassed the most sacks (70) and allowed the fewest passing yards per game (179.8) in the league, ended a Cinderella run for the 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy. After the Eagles scored on their opening possession, linebacker Haason Reddick sacked Purdy with about seven minutes left in the first quarter, resulting in a fumble. Purdy injured his right, throwing his elbow on the play, and sat out the remainder of the first half.

The 49ers managed a scoring drive in the second quarter, which ended in a 23-yard touchdown run by running back Christian McCaffrey, but otherwise their offense broke out behind Purdy’s backup Josh Johnson. Johnson left the game early in the second half with a concussion and Purdy returned, but was clearly impaired. Purdy finished the game with four pass attempts. He completed them all for 23 yards.

It was a jarring end to the successful run Purdy had been orchestrating since December, when he was brought into the lineup following injuries to the 49ers’ top two quarterbacks on the depth chart, Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. Purdy, the final pick in the 2022 NFL draft, has won seven games as a starter, playing efficiently while throwing for 1,374 yards, 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions in the regular season.

He became just the fifth rookie quarterback to start a conference championship game, aided by robust coaching and a superb roster. He excelled in part at the guns around him: receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk; tight end George Kittle; and versatile running back McCaffrey, whom general manager John Lynch traded for in October — and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s plan to run effectively and allow passing targets to gain yards after the catch.

But without Purdy, the 49ers offense struggled to find a rhythm behind Johnson, an eighth-season pro who played for seven teams. Johnson, before heading out, completed just 7 of 13 passes for 74 yards and also fumbled on a mishandled snap, which the Eagles recovered. Shanahan’s luck in passing smoothly through quarterbacks was finally over.

Shanahan said the atmosphere in the locker room was particularly depressed as players and staff pondered what might have been.

“We were really excited about today and really wanted an opportunity to play with that team,” said Shanahan. “They’ve done some good things, but we’d like to have a little better opportunity than today.”

Both San Francisco quarterbacks were terrorized by Reddick, who finished with three tackles and two sacks, and served as an example of the key free agency signings and trades orchestrated by general manager Howie Roseman to restore the Eagles to relevance.

Reddick signed with the Eagles ahead of the season, joining the team with cornerback James Bradberry, who was released by the Giants last May, and safety CJ Gardner-Johnson, whom Roseman traded for in August. Those three led a defense that harassed the 49ers and limited them to just 164 total yards of offense. This put insurmountable pressure on the 49ers defense, which had finished the regular season as the league’s top-tier unit.

“We really felt there was a great opportunity, but you have to get the right players, and we have the right players,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a scrum with reporters inside the Eagles locker room. “They are outstanding.”

The Eagles offense looked in sync Sunday, capitalizing on inopportune penalties from the 49ers and using a balanced approach, as they had all year. Jalen Hurts, the third-year quarterback who blossomed into his second full season as a starter, finished with just 121 passing yards, but stretched the plays with his legs, rushing for 39 yards and a touchdown. He also jammed the ball into tight windows, as he did on a pass that receiver DeVonta Smith caught with one hand in the first quarter, although it appeared that Smith did not maintain possession of the ball as he hit the ground. Shanahan said he discussed throwing the challenge flag but didn’t see a concluding view on the replay.

A stable of Eagles running backs – Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell and Scott – combined for 111 rushing yards and three touchdowns against a 49ers defense that had allowed just 77.7 rushing yards per game in the regular season, the second less in the league.

The unraveling for the 49ers was seen in the actions of their players as well as the stat sheet: Linebacker Dre Greenlaw was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for punching the ball still in a running back’s hand after a play in the fourth quarter , and safety Talanoa Hufanga was reported to have hit Hurts late out of bounds. San Francisco offensive lineman Trent Williams and Philadelphia safety K’Von Wallace were ejected after sparking a fourth quarter brawl in which both benches cleared.

The Eagles had sunk into mediocrity after their Super Bowl win, making early exits in the playoffs in the 2018, 2019 and 2021 seasons; in 2020 they have won just four games. They fired their coach, Doug Pederson, after that 2020 season and traded their 2016 first-round pick, quarterback Carson Wentz, in a clear move to rebuild.

Sirianni and Hurts made the playoffs in their first year together, in 2021, but Hurts entered this season with doubts that he could be the cornerstone of the franchise. He made a compelling argument, throwing for 3,701 yards and 22 touchdowns in the regular season while rushing for 760 yards and 13 scores despite missing two games with a shoulder injury.

“I think my character — I was raised to be who I am,” Hurts said at a postgame press conference. “When times change, character doesn’t. I always try to never reach too high and never too low and always give my best.

Hurts also benefited during the season from Roseman’s trade to Tennessee in April for receiver AJ Brown, who caught 11 touchdown passes and recorded 1,496 receiving yards. The Eagles exploded to an 8-0 start and finished 14-3, sharing the best record in the league with Kansas City.

Roseman’s roster building, coupled with Hurts’ growth, propelled the Eagles to the Super Bowl after a quick rebuild. The celebration became official after the two-minute notice, when the players started dancing and the crowd sang Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in unison. Green confetti fell, followed by the blare of rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” which has become an anthem for the city of Philadelphia.

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