49ers-Eagles Preview

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

East.”

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

lead.

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

against McNabb.

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

the West.

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

exploit.

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

replace Maclin.