PHILADELPHIA — This is what the Giants will be facing when they play the Eagles in an NFC divisional-round playoff showdown Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field: a natural born killer in quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Hurts, perhaps the NFL’s most improved player at the most important position on the field, possesses confidence, but not cockiness. That endears him to his teammates and strikes fear in his opponents.
“He’s humble on the outside and in what he says, but on the inside he’s a f–king killer,” Eagles center Jason Kelce told The Post on Wednesday. “The best guys that I’ve ever been around, all these guys have the confidence, but they’re humble enough to gain the respect of their peers around them … but in their head, they’re killers.”
Hurts has been killing it this season. He’s a legitimate league MVP candidate, and the Giants must overcome his right arm and his legs if they’re going to carry on with their unlikely magical postseason ride.
Hurts, in his third season after a roller-coaster college career that began at Alabama and ended at Oklahoma after he was essentially discarded by Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, has gone from a run-first quarterback to one of the best dual threats in the game.
He started four games in his rookie season, while the Carson Wentz saga was unfolding, winning one game. Overall that season, he completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,061 yards, six touchdowns, four interceptions and a rating of 77.6.
Last season, with Wentz finally jettisoned and new head coach Nick Sirianni having taken over, Hurts started 15 games, went 8-7 and completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,144 yards, 16 TDs and nine INTs and an 87.2 rating.
This season has been a revelation. Hurts is 14-1 as a starter, having missed two games with a shoulder injury that may or may not still be hampering him. He has completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,741 yards with 22 TDs and just six INTs for a 101.5 rating. He also has rushed for 760 yards and 13 TDs.
You may have noticed a pattern to those above numbers in that they’ve steadily improved in every category.
“He’s had great intangibles since the moment he got here,” Kelce said. “That’s one of the reasons he’s improved and gotten to this high caliber so quickly. He’s a coach’s son, his brother’s a coach, so he’s been very ingrained in football culture being a leader his whole life.
“The biggest difference I’ve seen this year is the level of comfort and confidence, and that’s come with experience, that’s come with retaining the same coaching staff and players. You see a much more composed player. You look at the comfort and confidence level he has and he’s taken to another level.”
Eagles running back Boston Scott used the same word Kelce used — “intangibles” — when asked about Hurts.
“We’ve always seen the intangibles with Jalen,” Scott told The Post. “But at the quarterback position, it takes time to learn the scheme, it takes time to develop, and you’ve seen the growth. It’s been cool to watch. He has all the characteristics of a great quarterback.”
Scott then echoed Kelce’s sentiment about the way Hurts conducts himself.
“He has confidence, but not arrogance,” Scott said. “He’s confident in his ability, and he’s been through the trenches in his football career. Everyone knows what happened in college. He’s had to go through some things. When you are overlooked and people sleep on you and you lose your job, you just have a different outlook. I can definitely appreciate that about him.
“He’s learned to clap for himself. He’s had to, because there have been points in his career when nobody was clapping for him. The criticism of him that’s been out there is nothing compared to the standard he has set for himself.”
Hurts, asked if he’s concerned about the Giants targeting his sore shoulder to test him, said: “It’s football. I got a bounty on me every week I go out there on the field, so I’m going to go out there and just play my game. Whatever happens, happens.”
Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale knows what his group faces in Hurts.
“Everybody’s saying he’s having an MVP season, and I agree because he can beat you with his legs,” Martindale said. “He can beat you with just being a drop-back quarterback. He can beat you with a sore shoulder. He can beat you a lot of different ways.
“That’s a great challenge, because there’s just a few quarterbacks that can do it that way. And you can have him dead to rights back there in the pocket, and he’s a magician. He’ll get out of it. Where he’s at today is, to me, two completely different quarterbacks. Out of respect of the game, you respect that.”