The last time the 49ers played the Eagles, Jim Harbaugh tabbed the win “as good a win as I can ever remember being apart of.”
It came in Week 4 of 2011, Harbaugh’s first year as coach, after he decided to keep his team in Youngstown, Ohio for the week of practice to save his team from traveling cross country twice in a seven-day span following a bruising win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
”I’m really proud of our players,” Harbaugh told reporters post game. “They never flinched in a tough environment here, and there was no moment or circumstance that made them nervous in this ballgame. We kept fighting, made adjustments -- a great team victory for us.”
Staying in Ohio worked. San Francisco overcame a 20-3 halftime deficit to beat the “dream team” Eagles 24-23 to improve to 3-1, inserting a whole lot of belief in a team that had been talented years prior, but consistently found ways to lose close games. That comeback was a big one.
The two wins and the stay allowed the 49ers to bond under their new leader. They went on to win their next six games before finishing the regular season 13-3.
"It helped us focus on football ... like a small training camp, spending a lot of time with teammates, and I think that means something," quarterback at the time Alex Smith said.
It’s serendipitous, then, San Francisco gets to play Philadelphia again in Week 4 Sunday with another chance at a pivotal win. Harbaugh’s team, sitting at 1-2, could use one.
A lot has happened since that springboard of a game, including three straight years of late-season heartbreak fueled by expectations. Harbaugh became the first coach in league history to reach the conference title game in his first three seasons as an NFL coach, but is still looking for that elusive championship. A handful of mistakes has been the difference between the “dynasty” discussion and whether or not Harbaugh will be back with San Francisco following this season, his fourth of his five-year deal.
In that game in 2011, San Francisco outscored the Eagles 21-3 in the second half. This year, they have been outscored 52-3 in second halves. Philadelphia (3-0) has outscored their opponents 74-24 in second halves.
Since that win, Harbaugh’s new car smell has worn off, and the 49ers are looking to avoid losing three-straight for the first time since he took over. Harbaugh’s enthusiasm - “unknown to mankind” - may be wearing thin on his players after years of grinding without the fruit of a Lombardi Trophy.
The ramifications of a win Sunday would be similar to that of four years ago, giving the 49ers wind in their sails with a chance to move over .500 against Kansas City, and former quarterback Mr. Smith, next week.
But the repercussions of a loss would have far more gravity.
San Francisco would fall to 2.5 games behind the idle Cardinals. After a trip to see Peyton Manning in Denver in three weeks, the remaining schedule includes two games with Seattle, one at New Orleans, one more with Arizona and the Chargers, in Week 16, who beat Seattle two weeks ago. There's no easy road to making up that kind of ground, even with NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith returning later in the year.
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On the surface, the Eagles have all the ingredients needed on offense to deal San Francisco’s undermanned defense a rough afternoon. Chip Kelly’s up-tempo crew has been explosive downfield. The 49ers allowed seven plays of at least 20 yards in last week’s loss to the Cardinals, including two touchdown passes to rookie John Brown, whose skill set is similar to Philadelphia’s speedster Jeremy Maclin.
Maclin is coming off a 154-yard performance last week that included a 27-yard score.
Philadelphia has a big receiver it likes to use in the slot, rookie Jordan Matthews, who scored twice in the red zone in last week’s win over Washington. San Francisco will likely have rookie Jimmie Ward in the slot Sunday, who allowed three touchdowns to a receiver of similar build, Brandon Marshall, in Week 2.
But all those weapons could be null and void if the 49ers can figure out ways to take advantage of an offensive line that will start backups at four of five positions.
The 49ers defense that’s been the league’s worst on third down, will need a bounce-back performance Sunday, and beating that patchwork offensive line might be its best chance.
Offensively, San Francisco is in a far better spot than it was this time last season when it was 1-2. Colin Kaepernick’s passing attack is suddenly dangerous with Michael Crabtree back healthy and the addition of Stevie Johnson, who did his part to quell the absence of tight end Vernon Davis last week with a 103-yard performance in the loss in Arizona. Davis will be a game-time decision Sunday, and his presence would go a long way toward helping out the running game.
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But scoring 14 points won’t likely be enough against Philadelphia, who has the league’s second-ranked scoring offense at 33.7 points per game. It might behoove San Francisco to re-assert its run-first identity that’s been a calling card of Harbaugh’s first three seasons. To this point, the 49ers have 660 passing yards and 336 on the ground. They’re averaging nearly five runs less this year from last year, and the Eagles will be without their inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks for the second straight week with a calf injury.
Sunday’s game is not a must-win for the 49ers, but it’s close. Week 4 in 2011 wasn’t a must-win, either, but it proved to be one of that season’s biggest.
Another win over the Eagles Sunday could have that same catapulting power.
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