I’ve been looking forward to the Super Bowl since the matchup was set back on Jan. 29. The Philadelphia Eagles vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, and I’m struggling to pick the winner.
That’s probably the way it should be. Including the postseason the Eagles are 16-3, the Chiefs are 16-3 and both teams have the identical number of points scored (546) this season. Both teams had exactly six players voted first-team All-Pro. How crazy is that?
In the quick-and-easy branding of the teams, Super 57 is viewed as a matchup between the NFL’s top offense (KC) and quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) and league’s most fearsome defense (PHIL.) And that seems right, though other factors will apply and influence the outcome.
I’m focusing on a few of the important aspects of this game.
Here are the basic questions:
1. As of mid-Sunday afternoon, the Eagles were the betting favorite by 1.5 points. Without getting into specific matchup considerations, what’s kind of game will work in Philadelphia’s favor? Easy: The Eagles need to do their usual thing — something we’ve seen from them all season — and get the early jump. The Iggles were the best first-half team in the league this season, a pattern that plays to their strengths. Get the lead. Go up by 10 points or so. That eases the pressure on their QB Jalen Hurts, enables Philly to plug in their hardcore running game, and will get Chiefs coach Andy Reid to go all-in on the pass. And that scenario is just what Philadelphia wants — to play this one on their terms, get their supreme pass rush activated, go super aggressive, and get after Mahomes. If the Chiefs race out to a two-score lead, the early trend would neutralize (at least to some extent) the Eagles’ advantages. Among other things, putting Philadelphia in a deficit scenario will place Hurts in the position of having to make more plays. The Eagles will have to depend on him more than they normally do. Let’s use a horse-racing analogy: an early-speed runner that gets to the rail and opens a fast lead is comfortable and confident, dictates the terms of the race, and doesn’t get bogged down in traffic and stressful conditions. But if a front-running speed horse gets jammed up taken out of its comfort zone — it can change everything. And the speed horses that can’t get out to the lead have a tendency to freak out.
2. Can the heat-seeking Philadelphia pass rush get to Mahomes and force him into hurried, off-target throws and make him uncomfortable on third downs? The Eagles have 78 sacks in their 19 games. They have the NFL’s best sack percentage (11.2%) and the highest pressure rate (25.5%.) The Eagles have allowed only 4.9 net yards per passing attempt, the stingiest rate among the league’s 32 defensive units. But the Chiefs will present a challenge that the Eagles aren’t used to dealing with. KC’s O-line allowed the league’s fourth-lowest sack percentage this season and were rated No. 1 (per ESPN) in the league in winning pass-rush battles. They’re a solid pass-protection unit.
3. What can Mahomes do to throttle Philly’s pass-rushing attack? After trading the mercurial playmaker Tyreek Hill to Miami last offseason, Chiefs coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes altered the team’s passing-game philosophy The modified version is dramatically different. The Chiefs aren’t obsessed with throwing the deep ball. Mahomes doesn’t try to force it. Kansas City has had immense success in cutting opposing defenses with short and intermediate passes.
The average pass by Mahomes has flown just 7.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which puts him No. 23 among the league’s 33 qualifying quarterbacks. Only 8.6% of his attempts traveled 20+ yards down the field; that by far is a career low for Mahomes. So this must reduce KC’s explosiveness, right? Nope. Not at all. During the regular season Mahomes had 73 completions of 20+ yards, the most by an NFL quarterback this season — and 15 more than he had last season with Hill as his most dangerous receiver. How is this even possible? Well, the Chiefs rolled up 2,850 yards after the catch in the regular season, the most by an NFL team during the last 15 seasons.
We can say that Mahomes’ most secure pass protection is probably quick release that neutralizes the pass rush. And his rapid release certainly can help him if his sprained ankle is still causing discomfort. The Eagles have a seemingly endless supply of defensive linemen that keeps the group fresh and able to chase down quarterbacks. But they can’t sack Mahomes if he’s beating them to the punch with quick-blow completions. The Eagles aren’t a heavy blitzing team, but that could change come Sunday. During the regular season seven of Mahomes’ 12 interceptions have come on blitzes.
Mahomes isn’t easy to put on the ground. Even with the ankle injury, he’s shown the skill to avoid sacks and negative plays. He’s been sacked on 3.9 percent of his dropbacks plays this season, the third-lowest rate among starting quarterbacks. And according to Pro Football Focus the number of QB pressures that turn into sacks against Mahomes is 10.5%, the lowest for any NFL starting quarterback. Don’t assume that the Eagles will rattle him. This isn’t like the Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay, when Mahomes had no chance behind an injured and horrendous offensive line. But the Eagles are likely to cause some problems.
4. Hurts is having a very good season, and was selected as the second-team All-Pro QB. But what (if any) are his vulnerabilities? The quick, on-point observation: Hurts will likely have shoulder surgery after the season. He hasn’t been the same thrower since hurting his right shoulder late in the season. He’s been tentative … as aggressive and confident about muscling downfield throw or pushing forward on hard runs. If this continues, Philly will be at a disadvantage.
5. What about Kansas City’s blitz? Hurts’ average yards per passing attempt has declined since the injury. According to the metrics, Hurts hasn’t been great against zone defenses, ranking 20th in DVOA among 39 quarterbacks that have at least 100 passing attempts when blitzed. And Hurts has been less effective when opponents blitz compared to his non-blitz pass attempts. It’s something to look out for, because KC defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is very clever in creating blitzes and in knowing when to use him. This season the Chiefs defense is ranked eighth when they blitz … and 24th when they don’t blitz.
One other note: blitz or no blitz, the Chiefs are ranked around 24th in the NFL in their ability to suppress running quarterbacks. Hurts will have some opportunities, and if he feels frisky and unencumbered by shoulder concerns, he can be dangerous on designed runs.
6. Can the Philly offense just do the smash-mouth thing, go low and slow, and punish the Chiefs on the ground? This would set up Hurts to burn a KC defense that’s crowding the line to stop the run. Can the Eagles can effectively run the ball on time-consuming drives that limit Kansas City’s offensive possessions? As mentioned, this will be more difficult to execute if the Eagles are playing from behind. That said, there is no offensive line better than Philadelphia’s. There is no offensive line coach better than Jeff Stoutland, who coordinates the PHIL run game.
The Eagles have been the best rushing team in the NFL (per DVOA) and it’s by a pretty large gap. If the Eagles and their fans had to pick one fantasy scenario for winning this Super Bowl, it would be the O-line gashing and pummeling the Chiefs into the turf. Kansas City’s run defense is ranked 18th (per Pro Football Focus) and might have to commit to crowding the box with more defenders up front. That, however, would give Hurts a better opportunity to target wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert on downfield throws. Will the Eagles change their usual scheme of passing early to set up the defense for the ground storm to come. And beware of Philly’s backs in the receiving game; the KC defense hasn’t been effective at covering RBs in pass patterns this season.
7. Kansas City wins if : (A) the Eagles start slow, fail to take control in the first half, lose the mojo and be forced to engage the Chiefs in KC’s preferred type of game. And (B) if Hurts is not close to 100% physically and comes up with a mediocre performance. And of course, Kansas City’s prospects for winning will be greatly enhanced if Mahomes is at (or close to) his peak. But if Mahomes reinjures his ankle, the Chiefs’ win probability goes down … or does it? Nothing seems to bother this man.
8. Philadelphia wins if: (A) their offensive line and defensive line dominate the Chiefs up front. And (B) Hurts is money, playing up to the level of the quarterback who has lost only one game that he’s started this season for the Eagles. Hurts wasn’t tested in Philly’s postseason wins over the NY Giants and San Francisco. We don’t know if he’s capable of throwing the deep ball with accuracy. This looms as his most strenuous test of the season. We know that Mahomes can lead a team to the Super Bowl conquest. Hurts? We can’t say that until we see him do it. KC fans will point to Hurts’ past and his benching in the NCAA national championship game when Alabama rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit to defeat Georgia in overtime (26-23) behind freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa.
9. Enough typing. Who will win Super Bowl 57? I’ve change my mind at least 100 times this week. I’m not betting in this one. Flip a coin. Nothing here would surprise me. As a fan I want KC to win.
In two previous Super Bowls, we’ve seen the No. 1 passing leader go up against the No. 1 pass defense, and the top pass defense prevailed both times. This will be the seventh Super Bowl matchup of a first-team All-Pro QB (Mahomes) against a second-team All-Pro QB (Hurts). The second-team QB went 6-0 in those matchups. No regular-season MVP (Mahomes) has won a Super Bowl this century. Kansas City is 7-11-1 against the spread. The past five teams to head to the Super Bowl with a losing record against the spread went down, and lost the game outright.
If the Eagles trail or take a narrow lead into the fourth quarter, the game will set up for a football-hero finish by Mahomes. But if the Eagles can do what they like to do, and if Hurts plays well, and the Eagles prevent Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce from going berserk … there will be parties (riots?) in Philadelphia. EAGLES, 27-26. I’d like to be wrong. Like I said, flip a coin. I’m putting my money on a couple of prop bets that have nothing to do with the winning or losing team.
Thanks for reading …
Have a great weekend and enjoy the game!
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.