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Quarterback injuries finally catch up with 49ers in NFC title game loss to Eagles

PHILADELPHIA -- Every time the San Francisco 49ers were faced with adversity this season, they lowered their bucket into a well of resilience and came up with an answer.

Until Sunday.

This time, there were no answers. The bucket was empty. And now the season is over following a 31-7 loss to the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field.

The 49ers aren't going to the Super Bowl because, in part, they finally ran out of quarterbacks. They lost starter Brock Purdy midway through the first quarter to an elbow injury (a UCL sprain, pending an MRI), then saw his replacement, Josh Johnson, depart in the third quarter with a concussion.

In some respects, perhaps this was the way this 49ers campaign was meant to end. They had escaped danger twice this season after losing a starting quarterback to injury, first replacing Trey Lance (broken ankle in Week 2) with Jimmy Garoppolo, then turning to Purdy in Week 13 after Garoppolo broke his foot.

Most teams are fortunate if they have one capable backup. The 49ers were down to Level 3 of their depth chart when they found Purdy, a seventh-round rookie who was the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. But instead of struggling, as outsiders had a right to expect, the former Iowa State standout helped the offense rank No. 1 in scoring over his seven starts leading into Sunday. The performance was welcomed but not expected, Purdy showing the poise and playmaking that belied his inexperience. He was not the reason San Francisco advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in four seasons, but he was definitely a reason, and a significant one.

The injury occurred on Purdy's sixth play from scrimmage, with seven minutes remaining in the first quarter. He said he felt pain from his elbow to his wrist after his arm, on an attempted downfield pass, was hit by linebacker Haason Reddick, ultimately resulting in a fumble recovered by Philadelphia. At that point, it was hard not to question whether fate had finally caught up to the 49ers. But their players had been conditioned to expect the unexpected, to expect something positive. With a stellar roster that was built for complementary football, the Niners had confidence that Johnson, a journeyman drafted in 2008, could get the job done, even if he had only joined the team in December. And for a moment, their belief seemed warranted, as running back Christian McCaffrey picked up the slack and accounted for all but 2 yards on a 46-yard touchdown drive that tied the score at 7 halfway through the second quarter.

But on the opening series of the third quarter, with the 49ers trailing 21-7, Johnson left with a concussion after his head hit the turf when he was dropped by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Losing one quarterback in a season is bad. Losing two is awful. Losing three is essentially insurmountable. Losing four? Even for a team that had won 12 in a row, it's something for which there are no words.

"If you don't have a quarterback," left tackle Trent Williams said, "it's tough to win a regular-season game, let alone an NFC Championship."

Added linebacker Fred Warner: "When Brock went down and Josh was in, it was: It's all good. 7-7. Josh is a veteran. He's been here. But he goes down and we didn't know who was going in. We thought [fullback Kyle Juszczyk] was the third-string quarterback. On defense, it's not like we didn't believe. But it was like we had to get three pick-sixes or knock a ball loose two or three times to get us back in the game. It didn't happen."

Purdy returned to the field after Johnson's departure with an understanding that he was there solely for handoffs. He attempted two short passes, which went for 1 and 3 yards, but that was it as far as an aerial attack. In fact, the 49ers attempted only one other pass during that time, an incompletion by McCaffrey.

No one appeared more disappointed than Purdy, who said his greatest disappointment was for his veteran teammates who might not get another chance to reach or win a Super Bowl. He wanted to be there for them, but he knew something was wrong as he stood on the sideline after the Eagles challenged the ruling of an incomplete pass on the play where he was hit (the call was overturned to a recovered fumble for Philly).

"My arm felt like it stretched out. It felt like a lot of shocks all over, from my elbow down to my wrist. Front and back. Just pain all over," said Purdy, who immediately communicated the extent of his injury to coach Kyle Shanahan on the sideline. "I told him right there, 'If we run a play, I can't throw it deep. Just for this play at least, it's hurting really bad. If we're going to get a completion, have it be something short, if that's alright.' "

This is the point that requires the following acknowledgement: There is no guarantee San Francisco would have won even if Purdy was fully healthy the entire game. Philadelphia has been the league's most consistent team all season, if not its best team. The Eagles won their first eight games, finished 14-3 and suffered two of their losses when quarterback Jalen Hurts was sidelined with a shoulder injury. They are stout along the offensive line, have big-play threats on the perimeter, and ran the ball for 148 yards on 44 carries Sunday. Defensively, they have a talented secondary, and Reddick is among the league's more underappreciated pass rushers, finishing with two sacks, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against the 49ers.

That said, it also is true that the Niners were the equivalent of a boxer whose hands were tied behind his back.

"You dress two quarterbacks and neither one of them can throw, and neither one of them is really available, (it) kind of limits what you can do, kind of limits our playbook to like 15 plays," said tight end George Kittle. "(As) soon as Purdy came back in, they put six guys on the line of scrimmage. They loaded the box. It's not like we can do any play-action off of it, so we just had to kind of run into it."

Kittle said the attitude at that point was to have fun and "be violent."

"That was kind of just our message: F it," he said. "What else are you going to do? You just going to roll over and die, or you going to go out there and be violent, be physical and do everything you can to put something good on tape. We didn't really get to see all the 49er football that we wanted to put out there on tape, but life just kind of punches you in the face sometimes."

Kittle spoke for many in the locker room when he said it felt "s----y" to lose two quarterbacks and a game in the conference final. At the same time, San Francisco did not play a clean game. It had three lost fumbles and committed 11 penalties for 81 yards, though it contended some were dubious at best. Still ...

"Not having Brock be able to throw the football, then having Josh go out -- can't draw it up any worse than that," said Warner. "For us, on defense, we had to stop them and hold them to seven points, and we didn't do that. It's just unfortunate. Complementary football didn't work out for us today, in the biggest moment. And it sucks."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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