The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After a game of what-ifs and second-guesses, Philadelphia and the Eagles party on

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick causes a fumble by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy during the first half of the NFC championship game. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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PHILADELPHIA — For those fans living in the communities by the Bay, there will be no trip to the Super Bowl. Only long, fretful days haunted by many versions of the same question.

What if San Francisco 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan had thrown the challenge flag after Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith hauled in that improbable fourth-and-three catch? Improbable — it’s a good way to describe that play because Smith didn’t actually catch the ball.

Or what if Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick hadn’t tattooed Brock Purdy’s right elbow on the quarterback’s third dropback? That sack-fumble effectively ended Purdy’s time in the NFC championship game and forced the 49ers to test the limits of the depth chart with their fourth and fifth quarterbacks of the season.

And what if Nick Bosa, San Francisco’s all-pro quarterback stalker, had been standing safely a yard or two away from a sideline collision that upended him? Maybe Bosa, who twice needed assistance from athletic staffers in the first quarter, would have been more of a threat in the 49ers’ pass rush. And maybe the defense surrounding him would have looked more like its fearsome self instead of an impostor in white, red and gold.

But for the city of Philadelphia, so many of their residents cheering and singing and luxuriating inside Lincoln Financial Field, there will be no doubt about what happened here Sunday.

The Eagles’ 31-7 win over San Francisco, which secured their appearance in Super Bowl LVII, will not be pockmarked with asterisks. It didn’t matter how Philadelphia benefited from a pivotal completion that wasn’t. Or that its defense largely went untested while facing the 49ers’ backups to the backup quarterback. Through green-tinted glasses, Philadelphia fans will see only a dominant performance and the Eagles proving they have no equal in the NFC.

“This is something we all dream about, and we get to do it because we did it better than anybody else in the NFC this year,” Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni said. “It’s pretty special.”

MVP candidate Jalen Hurts wasn’t all that special — he passed for just 121 yards and finished with a 72.3 quarterback rating. And he didn’t have to be. While not relying solely on Hurts, the Eagles leaned on their physicality.

For any indication of how this conference title bout would go, San Francisco needed only to look up at the scenes of “Rocky” and “Creed” flashing across the scoreboard during pregame. Then, moments after the opening kickoff, the first scrum broke out. By the second play of the game, 49ers linebacker Fred Warner was down and grabbing his shoulder. Though he rolled over to his back, Warner bounced his legs up and down to indicate the intensity of the pain he was feeling.

Then, when Reddick met Purdy, the pain only worsened for the 49ers and their legion of fans. Purdy, the rookie quarterback living a charmed NFL life with his mastermind coach and offensive weapons, had known only victory in his previous seven starts. However, during San Francisco’s opening offensive possession, Reddick blazed into the backfield and smashed into Purdy’s throwing arm.

Reddick said he knew right away he had caused a fumble, though the initial ruling on the field was an incomplete pass. “I was telling Coach Nick, ‘Man, throw the flag!’ ” Reddick said. “I knew that was a sack-fumble because I got my hand on the ball.”

Reddick caused Purdy’s first career fumble, but more importantly he knocked the quarterback out of action. San Francisco had to turn to Josh Johnson, its fourth quarterback this season. Then, in the third quarter, Johnson entered the concussion protocols and could not finish the game. And now we know: The talent of Christian McCaffrey does in fact have limits. Though McCaffrey, as a running back, controlled the second-quarter drive in which his team scored its only touchdown, he later took a snap as the 49ers’ fifth-string quarterback. San Francisco’s quarterback carousel worked out as expected: disastrously.

“We lost our last quarterback,” Shanahan said. “Then, after that, we were inspired watching our defense and stuff. We felt the whole time, down two scores, we felt we could run the ball well enough and hopefully generate some stuff and hopefully get a turnover on the other side or something like that to give us a chance to come back. But we didn’t move the chains enough.”

Against this Philadelphia defense, not even Shanahan’s wizardry could unlock opportunities for Deebo Samuel (six carries for a loss of nine yards) and George Kittle (three catches for 32). Coming into this game, Philadelphia owned the league’s best pass defense, surrendering an average of only 179.8 yards per game. On Sunday, the Eagles’ defense stunted San Francisco to just 83 passing yards. Conversely, the 49ers’ defense committed costly penalties (three on one scoring drive) and allowed four rushing touchdowns.

What if … what if … what if.

Take away the injuries and whistle-happy officiating, and this should have been a different game. And give Shanahan a pass for not being able to pull another rabbit out of the hat with Johnson, who was taking the first postseason snaps of his 15-year career. However, the second-guessing over Shanahan not challenging Smith’s catch might not be as forgiving.

In their opening drive, the Eagles elected to go for it from the San Francisco 35-yard line. Hurts needed just three yards but instead went deep to Smith down the sideline. Smith appeared to haul in the pass and, reacting as if a fire alarm had sounded, the Eagles rushed to the line of scrimmage to quickly get off the next play.

Without the benefit of a replay — of course, the scoreboard that had previously showed pro-Philadelphia fight movies was not going to help out the 49ers and rerun Smith’s catch — Shanahan did not challenge. But the field position — and the telling way in which the offense scrambled to the line and quickly ran the next play — should have encouraged Shanahan to throw the red flag.

“The replay we saw didn’t clearly show [an incomplete pass],” Shanahan said. “Actually . . . I was going to throw [a challenge flag] anyway and just hope to take your chances. But they showed one up on the scoreboard that didn’t have all the angles you guys saw. And that looked like a catch.”

Moments later, Miles Sanders rushed in for the touchdown, leading to Philadelphia’s 7-0 advantage and the first of many renditions of “Fly, Eagles, Fly.”

With the microphone in hand and the fight song in his heart, Hurts led the stadium in the final celebratory singalong. But hours before kickoff, the party had already started.

Cops rode around on dirt bikes; they must have been legalized on this day. Three women outside Lot K provided the answer to the age-old question: How many Eagles fans does it take to heave up a morning’s worth of alcohol? Three: one to do the vomiting, another to hold her hair back and a third to stand there, taking it all in, laughing at her poor, inebriated friend. Around the corner on 11th Street, a pair of men hired for crowd control abandoned the job they were paid to do and instead joined in with their brethren in heckling a 49ers fan spotted alone.

If the ticket buyers and tailgaters stalled in their cars on Darien Street had looked to the left, they would have seen Citizens Bank Park and been reminded of the World Series title that was in their grasp last fall. With the baseball team done for the winter, the stadium displayed a large “Go Birds” sign. And had the drivers stared directly ahead, they wouldn’t have missed the portable traffic message board. It didn’t display pertinent information such as the speed limit or estimated time in the congestion. It shared the only message that mattered on this street: