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What Kyle Shanahan views as ‘ridiculous’ talk could be the difference in 49ers overpowering Eagles this season

If Kyle Shanahan is being honest — and this Thanksgiving, he was — he thinks the talk is “ridiculous.”

The San Francisco 49ers head coach doesn’t value categorizing quarterbacks as “elite” or “Super Bowl-caliber,” he explained after a 31-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks improved his team to 8-3.

He doesn’t view playoff success nor quarterback talent in such black-and-white terms, and he doesn’t recommend you do either.

“There [have] been a lot of great quarterbacks who haven’t won Super Bowls,” Shanahan said Thursday night. “And the ones who do, don’t win them on their own. They’ve got to be on a good team and they’ve got to have good defenses and there’s so many things that go into it. So I always kind of hate that conversation.”

The conversation will nonetheless follow the 49ers in the leadup to their next game, a Dec. 3 NFC championship rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles. Because it’s obvious to any NFL fan that San Francisco fields a very good, very successful team this season. It was obvious, too, that the 49ers carried a very good, very successful team to the conference championship game last season.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 23: Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers is tackled by Jordyn Brooks #56 of the Seattle Seahawks during the first quarter at Lumen Field on November 23, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Jane Gershovich/Getty Images)

Then starting quarterback Brock Purdy tore the UCL in his throwing elbow and backup quarterback Josh Johnson suffered a concussion, and rapidly the Eagles overpowered an otherwise powerful 49ers team. Which brings us back to Shanahan’s sermon.

“You’ve got to have a really good football team to talk about even having a chance to get there,” Shanahan said. “And when you have a really good football team, you better have a really good quarterback. And when you do that, you still better have luck with injuries. You’ve still got to play good defense. You’ve got to play better with everything.”

Against the Seahawks on Thursday, the 49ers checked each of those boxes. They exploited schematic mismatches to an early lead they’d never lose; complemented a six-sack nasty defensive line effort with a lockdown day from cornerback Charvarius Ward; and rebounded from a rocky third-quarter stretch in which Purdy surrendered a pick 6.

Purdy certainly wasn’t perfect or even as clean as in the 49ers’ prior game, when the second-year quarterback did indeed net a perfect 158.3 passer rating. But his impact was greater than his box score suggests. And Purdy’s under-the-radar contributions can change the 49ers’ calculus against the Eagles.

Shanahan on Purdy’s decision: ‘I couldn’t believe it’

At night’s end, Purdy had completed 21 of 30 passes for 209 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He’d also demonstrated sharp football IQ on multiple plays, two of which show the covert ways his decision-making impact his team.

On the final play of the first quarter, the 49ers faced second-and-8, up 7-3. Purdy dropped back to scan the field, but before he could release to a reliable target, six-time All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner began to wrap him up. Wagner enveloped Purdy’s waist in his arms, spinning the quarterback around as Purdy somehow stayed on his feet. Then, just before Purdy succumbed to Wagner’s strength, he shoveled a low ball to waiting tight end George Kittle.

Kittle pivoted 180 degrees and muscled the ball 8 yards upfield.

The 49ers now faced third-and-7 instead of third-and-15. A defensive penalty and three Christian McCaffrey touches later, San Francisco had extended its lead to 14-3 early in the second quarter.

The Seahawks would not score 14 points all night. And a play that the box score accurately but narrowly records as a 1-yard pass kept the drive alive to give the Niners needed production and momentum.

“He’s playing at a high level right now,” 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel said after collecting 94 yards and a touchdown from scrimmage. “For what we do and all the plays we threw at him this week … he played amazing.”

Purdy’s awareness again flashed midway through the fourth quarter when San Francisco faced second-and-7 from the Seattle 28-yard line, this time up 31-13. Their lead was meaningful but slimmer than it had been at halftime, before a Seahawks disguise had fooled Purdy on a checkdown that Seattle linebacker Jordyn Brooks returned for a pick 6 in the third quarter.

Would Purdy be more conservative afterward?

His mid-fourth quarter play answered the question resoundingly.

Purdy faked a handoff to running back Elijah Mitchell, then dropped back quickly to examine Seattle’s deep zone coverage that gave him an option to decide between his high and low targets. A checkdown option past the chains was, indeed, open. But Purdy felt Seattle safety Quandre Diggs inch down beneath receiver Brandon Aiyuk’s route depth. So he trusted his progression, trusted Aiyuk to fend off any traffic, and dropped what Aiyuk would call “a dot” and Shanahan a “hell of a throw” that Aiyuk took the final 4 yards to the end zone for a 28-yard, game-icing touchdown.

“I couldn’t believe he was throwing it [there],” Shanahan said. “We’re all holding our breath as soon as he lets it go because the ball was so deep, but Brock’s got some touch.

“Very rarely does he check it down and you tell him he missed the deep one. He looks at it that way. He proved to us while the ball was in the air that it was the right decision.”

And Purdy has proved this season, as he was beginning to prove in the lead up to last season’s conference championship, that he’s the quarterback the 49ers need to outlast the Eagles.

How equipped are 49ers to beat Eagles?

Shanahan downplayed the significance of the looming Eagles game when asked Thursday night.

Sure, 9-1 Philadelphia has the best record in the NFL. And sure, the Eagles eliminated the 49ers from the postseason in January and threaten to again this season.

But Shanahan pointed to the 49ers’ dominating 34-3 road victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 13 as a game in which his players showed their potential. A Nov. 19 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began the 49ers’ latest three-game win streak that should dissolve most fears that cropped up during San Francisco’s three-game October losing streak.

The 49ers need a threshold of health and injury luck to chase the goals they want. Their three-game losing streak — their only losses of the season — came in a period when Samuel missed all but nine snaps in the first game, left tackle Trent Williams missing more than two full games as well. Purdy struggled without a key target and key blocker, as (caution: moderation and reason ahead) many quarterbacks do. While he’ll continue to learn from decisions like the pick 6 he threw Thursday, he nonetheless entered this week leading the league with a 115.1 passer rating that paces second-place Tua Tagovailoa by more than nine points.

And the 49ers are more than just the offensive machine that Shanahan has built. The franchise’s heavy defensive line investments helped power its last Super Bowl appearance four years ago and again is paying off.

Premier draft pick Nick Bosa sacked the Seahawks’ Geno Smith twice Thursday and hit him five times in total. Offseason free agency pickup Javon Hargrave (who priced himself out of an Eagles return) contributed his own 1.5 sacks and seven total tackles. Midseason acquisition Randy Gregory recorded a tackle for loss, while trade deadline addition Chase Young didn’t crack the stat sheet but did disrupt sufficiently to earn teammates’ praise. This is all before the back seven’s role in holding Seattle to 220 net yards and just 3-of-11 (27.3%) on third down. (Shanahan challenged Ward to shut down receiver DK Metcalf, who managed just three catches for 32 yards on nine targets.)

“The D line is so relentless [that] as long as we’re sticking our covers, they’re going to go out there, they’re going to eat every time,” All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said. “So kind of spending extra time going over the route concepts, especially on third down, and working in unison rush and coverage, I think that’s why you see the results.

“I always talk about getting back to playing our style. I guess ever since we got Chase Young, things kind of flipped around, didn’t they?”

The 49ers hope they can keep riding this side of their fortunes, including next week against the Eagles.

“We’ll enjoy this one, but yeah, obviously a big game coming up,” Warner said. “We’ll be ready when the time comes.”

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