The Chiefs have the best quarterback around, but can the Eagles prevail with the better overall team?
Welcome to the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Super Bowl matchup between the Chiefs and Eagles.
So, which is it? Will the most well-rounded team prevail? Or will the best quarterback?
With a victory Sunday, the Eagles have a chance to be remembered as one of the most dominating teams in recent NFL lore. Under justifiably cocky 41-year-old coach Nick Sirianni, they went 14-3 in the regular season with a plus-133 point differential. They’ve won their two playoff games over the Giants and 49ers by a combined 69-14 score. Their pass rush nearly set an NFL record for sacks. Their running game is the best in the league, diverse and relentless, accumulating 2,509 yards at 4.6 yards per carry in the regular season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is one of the league’s most well-rounded young stars. Sure, they did not play a challenging regular-season schedule, but neither did, oh, the 2016 Patriots or the undefeated 1972 Dolphins. If the Eagles win, history will remember them as a force.
But the Chiefs, who also went 14-3 in the regular season, have Patrick Mahomes, and how fortunate are they? He’s 27 years old and six seasons into his career, and if he retired tomorrow to go run a beet farm with Aaron Rodgers, he’d probably still get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Chiefs are 64-16 in the regular season in his 80 career starts. He’s already thrown 192 touchdown passes — as many as Hall of Famer Bob Griese and more than Canton enshrines Troy Aikman and Joe Namath. In concert with his offensive genius of a coach, 64-year-old former Eagles boss Andy Reid, he’s made five Pro Bowls, won two Most Valuable Player awards, and has led the Chiefs to five conference title games, three Super Bowls, and one Super Bowl win. He has a chance to be the second-greatest quarterback of all time after you-know-who.
There is one crucial variable in all of this: Mahomes is dealing with a high ankle sprain suffered in their divisional-round win over the Jaguars. He played heroically in the sports sense against the Bengals in the AFC title game, but he was hobbled. He says he’s feeling better, and he’d better have some mobility against the Eagles’ swarming defense. The answer to the question — will the best team win in this compelling matchup, or the best quarterback? — depends on Mahomes’s health.
Kick it off, Butker, or perhaps you, Elliott, and let’s get this one started …
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
Jerick McKinnon: Travis Kelce is an extraordinary weapon, perhaps the second-best receiving tight end in NFL history. (Rob Gronkowski is, of course, No. 1, and he also was a menace as a blocker, whereas Kelce is more of a minor obstruction.) The Eagles could throw some combination of C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and, I don’t know, vintage Brian Dawkins and Eric Allen, at him, and Kelce is still going to accumulate his catches and yardage.
In the Chiefs’ playoff victories over the Jaguars and Bengals, Kelce totaled 21 catches on 25 targets for 176 yards and three touchdowns. He has a knack for getting open, and though the Eagles featured the NFL’s No. 1-ranked pass defense in the regular season (179.8 yards per game), Kelce should be able to find soft spots in their zone coverage.
Kelce will get his. But who else will? The Chiefs are dealing with attrition at receiver, with Mecole Hardman out and JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kadarius Toney battling through injuries.
The Super Bowl might be the first time all season where the Chiefs, who led the NFL in total offense (413.6 yards per game) and passing yardage (297.8 per game) in the regular season, regret trading Tyreek Hill.
Rookie running back Isiah Pacheco starred against the Jaguars (12 carries, 95 yards) but was more effective against the Bengals as a receiver (5 catches, 59 yards) than a runner (10 carries, 26 yards). So my pick to click is McKinnon.
No, he’s not much of a running threat — he has just 317 rushing yards this season, playoffs included — but he’s a major threat in the passing game, with 58 catches for 529 yards and nine touchdowns.
He’s a trustworthy outlet for Mahomes, and against the Eagles’ ferocious pass rush he is going to have opportunities to make big plays. Someone other than Kelce is going to have to come through. McKinnon could be the Chiefs’ version of James White.
Haason Reddick: The most important of all the subplots to this game is whether Mahomes is mobile enough on his ailing ankle to avoid the Eagles’ ferocious pass rush.
Here’s a localized stat that also confirms the Eagles’ quarterback-hunting expertise: The Patriots tied for third in the league in sacks with an impressive 54, which was one behind the Chiefs … and the Chiefs had 15 fewer than the Eagles, who racked up 70.
That was the most in the NFL this century and the third-most by a team since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Only the 1984 Bears, who tallied 72 sacks (eight more than their Super Bowl-shufflin’ ‘85 juggernaut, which Tony Eason will confirm was the best defense of all time), and the 1989 Vikings (71) had more in a season.
Reddick, who joined the Eagles from the Panthers when he signed a three-year, $45 million deal last March, led the way from his outside linebacker position with 16 sacks. Three other Eagles — tackle Javon Hargrave and ends Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham — each collected 11 sacks, the first time four players on one team had at least 10 sacks in a season.
Reddick has 3.5 of the Eagles’ eight sacks through two playoff games, including a pair in the NFC Championship game victory over the 49ers. Their pass rush often has looked like a tsunami overwhelming five dinghies during the postseason — it really is reminiscent of those vintage mid-’80s Bears attacks. It’s imperative that Chiefs tackles Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie hold off the Eagles’ outside rush. It also might be too much to ask.
A.J. Brown: The Eagles’ most electrifying receiver hasn’t done much in the postseason, with just seven catches on 14 targets for 50 yards. That’s somewhat understandable. The Eagles haven’t really needed to throw — they led the Giants in the divisional round, 21-0, midway through the second quarter en route to a 38-7 rout, and throttled the quarterback-less 49ers in the suspense-free conference title game, 38-14.
Hurts has taken occasional deep shots to Brown and fellow receiver DeVonta Smith in the playoffs that didn’t connect. The best chance occurred on the final offensive play of the first quarter against the 49ers, when Brown toasted cornerback Jimmie Ward. It would have gone for a 72-yard touchdown had Hurts not overthrown Brown by 3 yards.
But the Eagles haven’t forced it, and with Hurts dealing with a shoulder injury and the running game looking unstoppable, it was probably wise to minimize the air attack when they were rolling in other ways.
In the Super Bowl, however, it would be foolish not to take some shots with Brown, presuming Hurts’s shoulder isn’t a hindrance. The Chiefs are thin and inexperienced in the defensive backfield, and they’re not particularly effective, either. Third-year cornerback L’Jarius Sneed suffered a concussion in the AFC title game against the Bengals, and three rookies — Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, and Jaylen Watson — see significant time. The Chiefs allowed 220.9 passing yards per game, 18th during the regular season, but gave up 33 touchdown passes, the most in the league.
Grievance of the week
The AFC Championship game between the Bengals and Chiefs was the second of the two matchups on Jan. 29 that determined who would collide in the Super Bowl. The AFC game kicked off at 6:30 p.m., and lasted 3 hours 13 minutes, meaning the Chiefs’ 23-20 victory — and a showdown with the NFC champion Eagles — was officially secured at 9:43 p.m., at least if you believe that kickoff time is accurate. So, I’d say by 10:15 p.m., 10:30 at the latest, I was already tired of hearing about one particular story line: the matchup of the Kelce brothers — Chiefs tight end Travis, and Eagles center Jason — in the Super Bowl. It’s a neat sidebar, sure, but it got way too much attention even before the pre-Super Bowl hype machine really kicked in. Know what’s even more annoying? I found myself agreeing with the building sentiment that their mother, Donna, should have the honor of being part of the coin flip before the start of the game. “Cool thing,” I thought. “She seems nice. Do it, Goodell.” The Kelce bother story line was relentless and overwhelming, and it broke me. I’m broken.
Prediction, or we’d better not see another ‘Philly Special’ in this one …
In the months after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in February 2020, some of their players could not resist counting championships before they had hatched. Defensive tackle Chris Jones, sounding like Heat-era LeBron James, said, “We’re going to make sure we bring not one, not two, not three, not four, but five-plus rings to Kansas City.” Hill, apparently believing that Jones’s five-title prediction was not bold enough, suggested that summer that the Chiefs would win seven. It sounded ludicrous, of course, but it did confirm one thing: The Patriots’ six-title, 20-year dynasty made other teams believe matching and even surpassing them was actually possible.
Three years after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win, Hill is a Dolphin, and Kansas City is still waiting for another. It could come Sunday, if Mahomes is healthy and otherworldly, the Chiefs’ offensive line holds up against the Eagles’ mighty pass rush, the Chiefs somehow slow the Eagles running game, and … well, all of that probably is not happening. That’s a lot of ifs.
I’m going with the better team over the better quarterback in an instant classic of a game. The Eagles prevail, and the Chiefs realize, if they haven’t already, that it’s tough enough to win one Super Bowl, let alone two. Or six. Eagles 31, Chiefs 27.
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