NFC title game: Eagles-49ers winner will be the team that holds the line
With four NFL teams vying Sunday for two spots in the Super Bowl, most everyone is focused on the quartet of young quarterbacks. That’s fair. They touch the football on just about every play.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a ton of other critical assets.
Well, make that 1,620 pounds of them.
That’s the collective listed weight of the Eagles offensive line, the best in football and an overlooked factor in the team’s success. The biggest challenge those five men face figures to come in the NFC championship game against the formidable defensive front of the San Francisco 49ers.
“That’s strength on strength, maybe the best positional battle we’ve seen all year,” said Mitchell Schwartz.
Schwartz should know. He was an All-Pro right tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs who retired last summer after nine NFL seasons. He’ll be watching Sunday’s conference title games from the comfort of his recliner — 49ers at Eagles followed by Cincinnati at Kansas City — and especially the drama along the offensive lines that often goes unnoticed by the unpracticed eye.
“This is an offensive lineman’s dream to watch these two games,” Schwartz said. “I’ll enjoy watching it at home. I’ll go down to my basement. I got my La-Z-Boy for a reason.”
A lineman of particular interest is exceptional Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, who opted to put off surgery on an injured groin so that he might play in the postseason.
“The key is going to be, can Lane really lock in for all four quarters and battle through that injury,” said offensive line expert Duke Manyweather, who co-hosts the “Trench Warfare” podcast. “As we’ve seen, as Lane goes so go the Eagles. You could make the argument that he’s their team MVP.”
The key to good line play? Communication and repetition.
“If all five guys up front are doing the same thing, even if it’s wrong, the quarterback and the back can fix it,” said legendary Philadelphia tackle Jon Runyan, who retired in 2009 and was named to the Eagles’ 75th anniversary team. “But if three guys are doing one thing, and two guys are doing another, the quarterback’s on his back.”
Another matchup to watch is how Cincinnati’s patchwork offensive line — which relied on three backups in the divisional round win at Buffalo — will fare against Kansas City’s defensive front, and in particular the dominant and disruptive tackle Chris Jones.
“Chris Jones is going to be a problem,” Manyweather said. “I think that advantage goes to Kansas City’s defensive line. I think it’s a great story that Cincinnati has brought in backups and battled through adversity. But sometimes the cream of the crop is going to rise.”
The Bengals benefit from quarterback Joe Burrow’s quick release. Still, he was sacked at least once in every game this season, including seven times in the opener against Pittsburgh, six times the next week against Dallas, and four times by Baltimore in a wild-card game. That sets the stage for Kansas City.
When the Chiefs are on offense, it doesn’t make the task easier for the blockers that typically mobile quarterback Patrick Mahomes will be playing with a high-ankle sprain that last week had him throwing off one foot, or sometimes leaving his feet entirely to release the ball.
“We saw last week that he had the ability to put mind over matter and just say, `It doesn’t matter if I’m injured. I’m going to go out there and do my thing,’” Schwartz said. “You don’t see that from a quarterback that often.”
Rookie sensation Brock Purdy is starting at quarterback for San Francisco. He was the last player selected in the 2022 draft and began the season as a third-stringer before moving up starting because of injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers are 7-0 with Purdy at quarterback, with two playoff wins.
Schwartz said that although he loved his years with the Chiefs, San Francisco’s scheme is especially friendly to offensive linemen.
“Kyle Shanahan’s offense is much less about the drop-back passing game and so much more about play-action and making things look like run,” he said. “That makes things a little bit easier on linemen. So you’re tending to be more aggressive and less tentative more often. You can play a full game and have only eight true drop-backs because even on, say, third-and-12 you’re throwing a screen to Deebo Samuel or Christian McCaffrey. As an offensive lineman, you like that.”
When an offensive line is playing well, it typically doesn’t garner much attention. It’s when things are going wrong that fans tend to notice.
“It’s the most skilled position in football,” said longtime offensive lineman Mark Schlereth, who played guard for 12 seasons and won three Super Bowl rings — one with Washington, two with Denver. “We’re the worst athletes collectively by far, yet we’re supposed to win 100% of the battles. If we don’t, we suck and the other guy goes to the Pro Bowl. That’s the life we all live.”