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NFL Preview - San Francisco (6-7) at Philadelphia (9-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's all about location in the real estate business, but success is achieved in the NFL with fundamentals.
Tackling is a key element to the fundamentals of football, and the Philadelphia Eagles needed a crash course in that lesson following last Sunday night's 45-38 victory over the New York Giants. The Eagles still managed to win their fourth straight game and take sole possession of first place in the NFC East despite missing a series of tackles which cost them points, and even the lead at one point.
Philadelphia, which is a game ahead of Dallas in the standings, hopes to literally wrap up the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field.
Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown, who scored a defensive touchdown for a second consecutive week, said that no one was happy with the win at the Meadowlands and realizes he and his teammates have to tackle better. Brown also confided that the communication on the field and breakdowns in coverage must be addressed immediately, because teams rarely overcome poor defensive play on the field. That was the case for the Eagles at Giants Stadium, and the team hopes to correct the problem this week back in front of the home crowd. They have a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a win coupled by a Dallas victory or a Giants loss on Sunday.
The friendly faithful will be hoping to catch a glimpse of star wide receiver DeSean Jackson this weekend. The second-year speedster posted a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown, his second of the season and the third of his career, last Sunday to set a new team record, while also recording a 60-yard touchdown reception as part of a career-best 178 receiving yards. Jackson tied an NFL record with his eighth 50-plus-yard score this season, tying Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch (1951) and Devin Hester (2007).
Philadelphia has scored 20 or more points in five consecutive weeks and hopes to keep that trend going against a 49ers secondary which is allowing almost 250 passing yards a contest. Quarterback Donovan McNabb has vehemently stated in the past that this offense needs more playmakers, and so far his wish has been granted with Jackson and rookie wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who is expected to miss the next week or two with a foot problem. On a healthy spin, wideout Kevin Curtis was back at practice for the first time in almost two months and could see action against the Niners.
San Francisco is still in the hunt for the conference's last Wild Card berth with a 6-7 record. It forced the Arizona Cardinals to put their NFC West title plans on hold with a 24-9 victory on Monday Night Football, thanks to seven forced turnovers (five fumbles and two interceptions) and four sacks from the defense. Running back Frank Gore led the Niners' offense with 167 yards on 25 carries and one touchdown.
San Francisco still has an outside shot at a division title because of a 4-1 mark within the division and the head-to-head tiebreaker over Arizona by virtue of a season sweep. Of course, the Cardinals would have to stumble down the stretch in order for that to happen.
The 49ers were able to complete the season sweep of the Cardinals, who have a two-game lead over San Francisco in the NFC West with three left on the schedule. Head coach Mike Singletary was impressed with his defense following the win, but understands his unit must keep working together in order to get better during this stretch run. All of the Niners' 24 points came off turnovers, as they cut off Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner's go-to guys in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The two strong workhorse wideouts combined for seven catches for 62 yards and no touchdowns. This week the 49ers will have to do the same to keep Jackson and the rest of the Philadelphia offense under control.
Singletary is hoping his defense can stop San Francisco stop a franchise-worst streak of six straight losing seasons. The 49ers haven't won more than seven games in a season since going 10-6 with a playoff berth in 2002. The team has an easy schedule after this weekend, with Detroit and St. Louis on deck, but must get the job done first in the City of Brotherly Love.
San Francisco holds a 16-10-1 lead in the all-time regular season series with Philadelphia, but is 0-3 against the Eagles since beating them at Lincoln Financial Field in 2003. Philadelphia was a 40-26 road winner when the clubs met in Week 6 of last season, and notched a 42-3 rout in the most recent meeting in Philadelphia, in 2005.
In addition to the regular season series, the clubs have met once in the postseason, with San Francisco earning a 14-0 victory in a 1996 NFC First- Round Playoff.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 4-2 against San Francisco in his career as a head coach, while Singletary will be meeting both Reid and the Eagles for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Niners quarterback Alex Smith (1,721 passing yards, 15 TD, 9 INT) has done well in the team's spread offense, but didn't have to do much in Monday's win over Arizona, passing for 144 yards with a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions. He has thrown at least two scoring passes in four straight games, with nine over that span. Smith's top target has been breakout tight end Vernon Davis (66 receptions, 815 yards), who leads all NFL receivers with 11 touchdown receptions. Davis, just the ninth tight end in NFL history to record at least 11 touchdown catches in a season, needs three more to break Antonio Gates' record of 13 scoring grabs by a tight end, set in 2004. Davis has at least one touchdown reception in four consecutive games and leads the 'Niners in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree (37 receptions, 2 TD) has shown that he can hang at this level in just eight games played. He hauled in five passes for 67 yards and a score on Monday. Gore is another able-handed receiver out of the backfield and owns 43 catches for 281 yards and three touchdowns.
The Eagles are 18th in the NFL against the pass, but poor tackling and a solid game by New York quarterback Eli Manning made them look even worse last week. Philly surrendered three passing scores from Manning, who scorched the defensive backfield field for 391 yards and no interceptions. Shutdown corner and interception leader Asante Samuel (31 tackles, 7 INT) had two passes defensed at Giants Stadium and was able to force Manning to throw to Brown's side. That many times can be a big mistake for opponents, since Brown can force turnovers and change them into points. Leading tackler and safety Quintin Mikell (73 tackles, 1 INT) was one culprit for last Sunday's poor display of tackling, and was called for a key illegal contact penalty as well. Philadelphia will be in for a long day against Crabtree, Gore and Davis if they fail to provide a push up front.
Gore (835 rushing yards, 7 TD) went over the 100-yard rushing mark for the third time this season with his performance versus the Cardinals, and needs just 165 yards for his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season. He already set the team record with three straight such campaigns. Gore, who ranks seventh in team history with 6,982 yards from scrimmage, may not have the luxury of running behind mammoth offensive tackle Joe Staley, who is listed as questionable for Sunday because of a knee problem. Barry Sims would most likely step in if needed. The 49ers could be a little better running the football, as they sit 24th in the NFL with just 98.8 rushing yards a contest.
Philadelphia has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last 20 regular season games, but that could come to an end with Gore entering Lincoln Financial Field on a hot streak. New York racked up 133 total yards on the ground last week, with Brandon Jacobs pounding the rock for 60 yards and a score on 15 touches. Veteran linebacker Jeremiah Trotter (23 tackles) and safety Sean Jones (54 tackles, sack, 2 INT) combined for 19 stops last week. Those two rarely lead the Eagles in tackles, since that job belongs to linebackers Will Witherspoon (44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Chris Gocong (43 tackles, 1 sack). The Eagles can not focus on Davis all day, although they've had trouble in the past stopping opposing tight ends, otherwise Gore will have his name called one too many times by the P.A. announcer. Ends Trent Cole (48 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Juqua Parker (28 tackles, 6.5 sacks) lead the team in sacks and are hoping for a field day against Smith and San Francisco's banged-up offensive line. Cole has posted at least a half-sack in nine of 13 contests this season.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
McNabb (2,702 yards, 18 TD, 7 INT) threw for 275 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a 110.3 passer rating last Sunday against the Giants. The veteran has recorded a quarterback rating of 100 or better in three of his last four games, and has won his last three matchups with the 49ers. The Eagles are 45-1 when McNabb's rating exceeds 100, including a 5-0 mark in 2009. McNabb hasn't enjoyed a potent offense such as this year's since the 2004 campaign, when Terrell Owens was lighting up scoreboards wearing midnight green. Now that Jackson is emerging on the scene in just his second year at the NFL ranks, McNabb may have the supporting cast to deliver another Super Bowl run. Jackson (50 receptions, 947 yards, 7 TD) is coming off the sixth 100-yard receiving game of his career, and his fourth in 2009. The slender wideout had the most yards by an Eagles receiver since Curtis recorded 221 in a big win over Detroit on September 23, 2007. With Maclin slated to miss at least two weeks, Jackson and tight end Brent Celek (61 receptions, 7 TD) are expected to carry the pass attack again. Celek leads the team with 61 catches, while Jason Avant (35 receptions, 2 TD) is McNabb's possession target.
The Eagles have to be aware of San Francisco's ability to force turnovers, as the 49ers are tied for seventh in the league with 25 takeaways. San Francisco posted seven on Monday, with free safety Dashon Goldson (84 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) finished with an interception, two passes defensed and a pair of fumble recoveries. Corner Tarell Brown (33 tackles, 2 INTs) had the other interception on Monday. Cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer (46 tackles, 1 INT) and Dre' Bly (22 tackles, 1 INT) will have their hands full with Philadelphia's potent offense, and will need help up top from Goldson and former Eagles safety Michael Lewis (64 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). Celek can hurt San Francisco's secondary as well if he gets a chance to break free. The 49ers are tied for 1st in the NFL with 15 takeaways in the past five games, while Monday's win marked the third straight week in which the 49ers defense had posted at least four sacks in a game. Singletary hopes he can get a strong push up front from ends Justin Smith (45 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Isaac Sopoaga (23 tackles, 1 sack) in order to disrupt McNabb's timing in the pocket.
With Eagles running back Brian Westbrook (225 rushing yards, 1 TD) listed as questionable due to concussion-related symptoms, rookie LeSean McCoy will shoulder the brunt of the ground game once again. McCoy (558 rushing yards, 3 TD) was held to 28 yards on 10 carries against the Giants, but fullback Leonard Weaver (249 rushing yards, 2 TDs) has been getting a lot of attention from Reid. The bulky fullback is averaging 38 rushing yards and six carries over his last three games, and his contributions have put defenses on its heels in anticipation of what's to come. Philadelphia's offensive line is starting to play cohesive football since a myriad of injuries hampered the unit early on. McNabb was sacked once Sunday after going down at least twice in each of the previous nine games.
Singletary's defense knows that Westbrook will most likely not play or be in a limited role on Sunday, and McCoy probably doesn't scare the Niners. Arizona was held to just 85 yards rushing on Monday against a San Francisco stop unit rated third in the NFC and fifth in the league with an average of 95.0 rushing yards allowed per game in 2009. Much of that success goes to inside linebacker and tackling machine Patrick Willis (132 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT), who had nine stops, a sack and a forced fumble in the win over the Cardinals and is on pace to break last year's tackle total of 141. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks (17 tackles, 5 sacks) is second on the team in sacks and had three with a pair of forced fumbles in the recent triumph. Linebackers Takeo Spikes (60 tackles, 2 sacks), Manny Lawson (57 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Parys Haralson (34 tackles, 4.5 sacks) have helped the 49ers record 18 forced fumbles, which is tied with the Chicago Bears for first in the NFL.
The Eagles match up well fantasy-wise on Sunday with the obvious playmakers in McNabb, Jackson, Celek, McCoy, kicker David Akers and the defense. McNabb should have a decent day despite how well the 49ers played against Kurt Warner and the Arizona offense last week. Akers has made 27 field goals this season, tying his fourth-highest single-year total (27 in 2004). He also played in his 169th game as an Eagle last week, tying Chuck Bednarik for the third-most in team history. Philadelphia's defense is at home, and that makes them an even better option for Sunday. As for San Francisco, Gore, Davis and Crabtree are all significant pieces to the fantasy puzzle. Gore will get his fair share of points and Davis is primed for a big day, since the Eagles commonly have trouble in coverage on tight ends.
The 49ers are fighting to stay alive in the race for one of the two final playoff berths in the NFC, while Philadelphia is closing in on its first NFC East title since the 2006 campaign. The Eagles, whose offense has been potent the past few weeks thanks to Jackson, know that a loss would hamper their division title plans, but the defense will redeem itself after getting criticized the entire week for poor tackling and communication lapses. Gore and the 49ers will be searching for answers following the conclusion of Sunday afternoon's contest, and the Eagles will begin plans on trying to host at least one playoff game in January. Perhaps another strong effort by McNabb will result in a contract extension like the one his head coach just last week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 29, 49ers 24
12/17 18:48:04 ET