The San Francisco 49ers have won four of their five games within
the NFC West, but they enter the final three weeks of the season
facing long odds to win the division.
With an identical record within the NFC East, the Philadelphia
Eagles are starting to pull away.
The Eagles look to win a fifth straight game for the first time
since 2006, and get a step closer to a division title Sunday when
they host the 49ers, who need to reverse their road woes to
maintain any realistic playoff hopes.
Philadelphia (9-4) had dropped two straight and three of five
after a 31-23 loss at San Diego on Nov. 15, falling into a
second-place tie with the New York Giants while Dallas held a
one-game division lead.
Four wins later, both the Giants and Cowboys are looking up at
the Eagles. Philadelphia has put up more points each week during
its streak – its longest since winning the final five games of 2006
– after earning a sweep of New York with a 45-38 win Sunday night
at Giants Stadium to move to 4-1 in the division.
A victory Sunday plus either a Giants loss or tie or a Cowboys
win or tie would put Philadelphia in the playoffs.
“We are in a great position,” said Donovan McNabb, who posted
his third passer rating over 100 in four weeks. “If we just take
care of business and do what we have to do, we kind of secure a
position and kind of get better as far as trying to win the NFC
Despite another fine game from McNabb in New York, the target of
one of his two touchdown passes was the biggest story.
DeSean Jackson caught six passes for a career-high 178 yards,
including a 60-yard score. He also found the end zone without
McNabb’s assistance one week after sitting out with a concussion.
The NFL’s leading punt returner (17.8-yard per average) took a
second-quarter punt back 72 yards to give the Eagles a 24-10
Jackson’s eight touchdowns of 50 yards or more this season tie
an NFL record achieved by Chicago’s Devin Hester in 2007, and the
Los Angeles Rams’ Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch in 1951.
“It was a blessing honestly to get out there and fly around,”
said Jackson, who also leads the league in yards per reception
(18.9). “Sitting at home last week was terrible and I just didn’t
feel like myself. I told my teammates and everybody that I (was)
going to come back strong and that’s what I had on my mind.”
Jackson’s punt return skills make the effectiveness of San
Francisco’s Andy Lee – the NFC’s leading punter at 47.8 yards per
kick – one key aspect of Sunday’s game, but the 49ers (6-7) also
need their secondary to perform better than it typically has
The five-time Pro Bowler has thrown for an average of 306.0
yards and posted a 121.9 passer rating during the Eagles’
three-game winning streak against San Francisco, tossing nine
touchdowns and one interception.
He threw for 280 yards and two scores as the Eagles totaled 23
fourth-quarter points to storm back from a nine-point deficit and
beat the 49ers 40-26 on the road Oct. 12, 2008. Jackson had six
catches for 98 yards but failed to reach the end zone.
While San Francisco hasn’t had much luck slowing down
Philadelphia in recent years, it kept its division title hopes
alive Monday night against another explosive offense. The 49ers
forced seven Arizona turnovers and Frank Gore ran for 167 yards and
a touchdown in a 24-9 win that kept the Cardinals from wrapping up
Though Arizona has a two-game edge in the standings, San
Francisco is 4-1 within the division and owns the head-to-head
tiebreaker by virtue of a season sweep. Still, even if the 49ers
win out, they’ll need Arizona to stumble twice against Detroit, St.
Louis and Green Bay.
“Once again, in all honesty, all I know is if we win out we have
a chance,” coach Mike Singletary said. “Maybe a smaller chance,
but we have a chance.”
The 49ers will likely need a big effort from Gore to avoid a
sixth consecutive road loss – none of the five have come by more
than six points – as they’re 5-1 over the past two seasons when he
tops 100 yards. The one loss came against Philadelphia last season,
when he carried 19 times for 101 yards.
San Francisco may have a better chance to challenge the Eagles
defense through the air. Philadelphia gave up 379 passing yards
against the Giants, and has the league’s 18th-rated pass defense –
something Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree may look to
Smith may have more time to throw if left tackle Joe Staley, out
since Nov. 1 with a knee injury, returns as expected.
Though McNabb and Jackson are healthy, the Eagles remain banged
up offensively. Running back Brian Westbrook, who hasn’t played
since Nov. 15 because of a concussion, is highly unlikely to play,
while rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin (foot) is out.
Tight end Brent Celek (back), whose seven TD receptions are tied
with Jackson for the team lead, will play, and receiver Kevin
Curtis – out since Week 2 with a knee injury – could return to