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The Chiefs And Eagles Made The Super Bowl With Grit, Talent, Heart And (Yes) Luck

maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): We have our Super Bowl! And just like we all predicted in last week’s chat, it’ll be the Philadelphia Eagles versus the Kansas City Chiefs. (My crow … it’s delicious.) The two teams advanced Sunday in games that, at least in the moment, felt as though they were defined as much by injuries as they were by the play itself.

As Tony Romo discovered while calling the AFC championship game on CBS last night, sometimes the best comparison for a football game in 2023 is an NBA game from the 1990s. So in the spirit of that, I ask: Are we looking at the 1996 NBA Finals, in terms of the inevitability of the two No. 1 seeds advancing?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Googles the NBA

I guess I would push back on inevitability, just because these games were coin flips in the betting markets heading in.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor):  I feel like the Eagles were more of a true No. 1 seed than the Chiefs, especially given the uncertainty of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, physically.

neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): To me, both K.C. and (especially) Philly were extremely lucky to advance. 

Not saying they are not deserving.

But practically any team in the league could have beaten San Francisco and their zero QBs yesterday. And the Chiefs benefited greatly from timely calls by the officials.

Salfino: I think it’s legit to question what, if anything, the Eagles have proved not just this postseason but down the stretch of the regular season, too, given the quality of their opponents/QBs faced.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil, that was NOT a 31-point offensive performance. Around 10 expected points added came from net penalty advantage, and 10 EPA came off turnovers, net. That was an 11-point offensive performance by Philly.

neil: I just don’t think we can take anything away from that game whatsoever.

It was basically the same as that Denver Broncos game during the COVID-19 season, when they had to start a WR at QB.

Salfino: Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts seemed to play very tight. That’s what I’m taking away from it. It was one of the worst throwing performances by a winning championship game that I’ve ever seen. Maybe the year Peyton Manning was playing on fumes compares. I can’t remember one good pass by Hurts, though I guess there had to be a couple.

neil: There was one Hurts pass that produced a great “catch”, Mike!

joshua.hermsmeyer: The rushing wasn’t great either, Mike — 3.36 YPA!

maya: Wait, guys, we’re still talking about a 14-3 team that has almost 80 sacks on the season and a quarterback who’s rushed for 15 TDs on the year.

That’s not nothing.

Salfino: Yes, Hurts has been so good so I think that NFC championship performance is more descriptive than predictive.

neil: Oh yeah, I don’t actually think we should doubt the Eagles based on that game. The script of the game very quickly became obvious — gain a lead and don’t turn the ball over, chew clock, and it will be impossible for the Niners to come back because they literally cannot throw.

The stats on either side of a game like that are going to be warped.

Salfino: Right, it was clear that the Eagles just had to avoid beating themselves and maybe it’s harder to play that way. Hurts seemed really tight and maybe that’s just always thinking of not making a mistake instead of just playing. Maybe he was aiming those throws too much.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There was hope, for one fleeting moment, that Christian McCaffrey could put the Niners on his back. But after his long, almost impossible touchdown run, the Niners never sniffed the goal line again. In fact they ran zero (0) plays in the red zone.

neil: That was never going to be sustainable.

Salfino: My thinking after the CMC TD was “Brock Purdy’s probably not even good and Josh Johnson can be just as good as he would have been, maybe.” But then, Johnson got concussed and it was Game Over.

neil: This is why they should have an emergency backup QB in the stadium at all times. You know how they have an emergency backup goalie in hockey? A random goalie off the street who can play for either team if needed? We need that in football, too. Because if a team has no functional QB, the game becomes a sham.

maya: Yeah. But credit where credit is due — the Eagles controlled the pace of the game, coach Nick Sirianni had some smart situational calls (including the hurry-up play after the fourth-and-3 “catch”) and I didn’t see a ton of mistakes in either the box score or the game itself.

Salfino: I’d argue the Eagles made their own QB luck with that pass rush. They legit got two KOs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not really giving the Eagles credit. They had one of the easier paths to the Super Bowl I can think of. They are a good team, but we still just don’t really know anything about Hurts and his shoulder and what a comeback push out of this team might look like.

Sorry, Eagles.

Salfino: Maya, I do not get Kyle Shanahan not challenging when the offense clearly is telling you they maybe got a good call by hurrying up. Plus that play had the threshold of down and distance to warrant a challenge that early.

maya: I can’t decide what I’m looking forward to less, two weeks of speculation on Hurts’s shoulder, Mahomes’s ankle or being inundated by the Kelce brothers storyline.

Salfino: The last team that had this easy a postseason draw was the 2007 Patriots, who beat David Garrard and then faced Philip Rivers with a torn ACL in the AFC championship game. I forget what happened next.

neil: Nothing historically notable.

maya: LOL

neil: So yeah, that’s a point well taken, Mike, that you do kind of make your own QB injury luck with a ferocious pass rush. But I would have liked to have seen a full game of the 49ers with Purdy against the Eagles. It’s a huge what-if, and we were robbed of what was supposed to be an NFC title game classic.

maya: Yeah, this was a matchup that, on paper, looked so promising. Strengths versus strengths, question marks versus question marks (with the exception of Purdy versus that pass rush, I guess 😬). But let’s take a step back. I know we’ve been pretty down on the NFC as the weaker conference throughout the season. Should we go as far as to read the Eagles’ overall season as a function of that? Or just their postseason?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles’ regular season was legit across the board. It wasn’t positive variance all over the place (though the Eagles were one of the least-injured teams). I just think the postseason casts doubt on our ability to know the true strength of this team at the moment.

Salfino: Josh, I’m curious about your view on whether the Eagles are showing that maybe building around pass rush (over pass coverage) is a smart defensive model. I know analytics says the opposite.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well “analytics” are not a monolith. I’m of the school that pass rush is more important, Eric Eager has done studies when he was at PFF that show pass coverage is more impactful, at least as a unit. The issue is pass rush is more individual and predictable, and pass coverage is a weak-link system where player performance varies wildly each season. So I lean pass rush as the better way to build a team, at least initially.

Salfino: The Eagles are truly great in net yards per attempt for minus allowed, my favorite predictive stat. They are 7.1 for and 4.9 allowed, for a plus-2.2 margin. That’s just massive. Win that stat by any margin since the merger, and you win about 75 percent of games, irrespective of anything else. And the Chiefs were plus-1.9, by the way. So these are two of the strongest teams in history facing off in the Super Bowl. 

It’s rare when both teams are around plus-2.0. This is just the second Super Bowl since the 1973 season with two teams that were at least 1.8 yards better in net YPA than their opponents. (The other was in 2019, Chiefs vs. Niners.) And including this year, only 86 teams have done it in the Super Bowl era.

neil: Yeah, I don’t want us to get to a place where we’re saying these teams are frauds to get to the Super Bowl or something.

They played like Super Bowl teams all year long.

maya: Oh thank goodness. Someone else sticking up for the Eagles. I cannot in good faith defend them any longer.

What am I, the Empire State Building?

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

neil: That was the saddest NYC moment in a long time.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sad when the social media account of a once-great building is hacked.

Salfino: I saw the lights and thought the New York Jets traded for Aaron Rodgers. 🙂

maya: Honestly, what bummed me out the most was knowing that the lights were definitely designed for the Jets, but the building has never needed to use them.

Salfino: As a Jets fan, I would have been happier with the Eagles colors last week. I think that whole thing is weird. It’s like the Empire State Building is trying to be a national building instead of a local one with sports, but just look at your own name.

And in terms of the NFC being weaker, it’s so weird when the conferences are this different. But that’s a function of the QB position.

maya: Ooh, say more, Mike.

Here’s my thing: I am fully confident that the mean quarterback in the AFC is better than the mean quarterback in the NFC. But the AFC is so top heavy that if we were to look at the median, I’m not sure we’d see as large a gap.

Salfino: Does the AFC have more terrible QBs? That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about it this way. I’m just thinking the top four in the AFC are all championship-caliber, plus the fifth is Trevor Lawrence probably. And we’re sort of forgetting about Lamar Jackson.

maya: The bottom of the AFC this year, in terms of Total QBR, was Davis Mills, Mac Jones, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan.

Salfino: Russell Wilson being down there is just mind-blowing, Maya.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, the NFC got all his best years, I guess?

neil: Matt Ryan’s, too.

But again, if we’re looking at QBR, we’re getting Nos. 1 and 4 in QBR across the whole season, in Mahomes and Hurts. 

(Pay no attention to Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa sandwiched in between them.)

So the Super Bowl really is the cream of the crop, even if the conference title games were decided by factors that you can’t always count on.

maya: I’m still kind of impressed that Kansas City had a quarterback with one working ankle and was missing four of its top five wide receivers (though not top five pass-catchers) by game’s end and still managed to move the ball enough to get the win.

Salfino: Barely enough and oddly not really at all on the winning “drive.” But yeah, Mahomes is just amazing. He is probably the GOAT, and what he did on that ankle with the receivers out was off-the-charts greatness. But he did not look healthy to me, at all. And I don’t see this ankle getting better. So if the Eagles win, people will say they were lucky in not facing the “real” Mahomes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chiefs had the only pass-catcher that matters. Our King Kelce. 

Salfino: The mayor of Cincinnati has to pipe down. That dude was way out of his lane. 

But I will say that I don’t think the Cincy trash-talking had any impact on the game. Mahomes is going to be just as motivated regardless. The man is dangerous. He’s a killer.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think motivation has to matter. It did for Michael Jordan.

neil: We’ve seen the Flu Game. This was the Taped-Up-Shoe Game.

Salfino: When was Jordan not motivated?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Insert “and I took that personally” meme.

maya: I didn’t think Mahomes was the only guy playing out of his mind. Chris Jones looked terrific. He got his first two career postseason sacks, and on his 38 defensive snaps as a pass-rusher, had a pressure rate of 21.1 percent.

Salfino: Chris Jones was the best player on the field. Massive impact on that game.

neil: Yes, Jones and the K.C. pass rush got to Joe Burrow five times after the Bills had only sacked him once. That especially played a big role early, and it made the Bengals adjust their scheme on the fly.

Salfino: They got four sacks while the first beer was still cold. That really mattered. It staggered the Bengals. Took them out of whatever their game plan was.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chiefs deserved to win, but the Bengals and their fans have a legit argument that penalties decided the game. K.C. lost 2.3 points to penalties, the Bengals 6.9. That’s more than the difference in the game.

neil: That was, uh, not a crisply officiated game.

Anytime the refs are declaring do-over plays, there might be some problems.

Salfino: My biggest problem with the officiating was the Marquez Valdes-Scantling reach. You don’t get to treat a yard marker like the goal line. He pulled the ball back. You don’t even get a re-spot on a review if you don’t get the first down, either. I just don’t understand that call. 

maya: Zac Taylor kept it together admirably.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Germaine Pratt did not keep it together after the game was over. 

Salfino: That flag on the hit out of bounds has to be called. People are saying, “You can’t decide the game.” But if you don’t call an obvious foul, you’re deciding the game.

neil: Yeah, it was the correct call.

I feel for Joseph Ossai. He was taking it HARD after the game. He literally made a Rookie Mistake.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think K.C. should honor Ossai. Name a hot sauce after him or something.

Salfino: This is the Bengals version of the Gastineau roughing call against Kosar. Only worse. That play will never be forgotten.

maya: I think this Cincy team is still in the early days of its championship window. There were so many small moments in the game yesterday where I found myself just sitting there, mouth open.

I keep going back to the 35-yard downfield pass to Ja’Marr Chase on fourth-and-6. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean I was agog, but the process seemed not so great to me?

Salfino: I’m not a big fan of “early in the championship window.” It closes fast. I think it’s closed for the Bills, who will never forget those 13 seconds last year. That was their window.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The down and distance, the coverage … 

Salfino: I liked the Chase play, Josh. They were a two-man passing offense with Tyler Boyd hurt. The pass rush didn’t give you a chance to go through progressions. Let your great player make a great play. I like those odds.

joshua.hermsmeyer: These types of plays are hard to reason through when you know the result. To be fair, at least one model liked the call to go for it, though it was of course silent on the actual play design. But I don’t think I want my team attempting that play.

Salfino: A play like that won the Super Bowl for Mahomes when it was to Tyreek Hill.

joshua.hermsmeyer: On the other hand, lots of TDs were scored on drives extended by fourth-down plays this weekend. So, huzzah. 

maya: Sure, there’s definitely an element of ex post facto here. If it had been a turnover on downs, we certainly wouldn’t be talking about it. On the other hand, I thought the late-down play-calling was pretty terrific, generally, in that game yesterday. Only the QB-less Niners had negative EPA on third- and fourth-down plays yesterday.

Neil: They may also have felt like it was necessary to strike right then and there after the Mahomes fumble.

You’re at their 41 and down by a TD. They just gifted you a chance to get back in. And you know neither Burrow nor Chase are afraid of that moment.

I can’t say I am 100 percent sure the better team won. But the heart both teams showed was great to watch.

Salfino: I think Burrow was too aggressive on the pick he threw on the third down deep to Tee Higgins. That was four-down territory. It was only third-and-3.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh, you don’t like the play that didn’t work, and you like the play that did work? I mean, we are really resulting now.

neil: Live by Burrow’s swagger, die by Burrow’s swagger.

Salfino: Burrow was outplayed pretty significantly by one-legged Mahomes. That was unexpected. This loss is on Burrow.

maya: There were both some aggressive play calls and some surprisingly non-aggressive ones. What about the K.C. punt with 2:36 left in the game? It was fourth-and-8 on the Cincy 37.

neil: Maya, I was somewhat surprised the Chiefs punted there, for the same reasons.

maya: Felt very un-Andy-Reid-like to me.

neil: This after multiple times trying a hook-and-lateral 20 yards downfield in the ordinary flow of the offense earlier in the game.

Salfino: I don’t think Reid had any confidence in his receivers on that fourth down after the Bengals first accepted and then declined (wisely) the penalty. If they fail to convert there, it’s likely game over given the short distance to get into field goal range. Or at least a lot more likely to lose than by punting.

maya: But speaking of Reid, we have a one-man Reid bowl! The winningest coach of the Eagles will be on the opposite sideline in two weeks. Any matchups you guys are particularly looking forward to?

neil:I don’t have the stat on this, but has a Super Bowl coach ever faced a team that he is the all-time coaching wins leader of?

Reid is Philly’s wins leader and it is not remotely close.

Salfino: Maybe Weeb Ewbank versus the Colts in Super Bowl III, Neil?

neil: Great pull, Mike! 

Salfino: Even if not, this certainly has the same vibe as that game, given that Weeb won two championships for the Colts.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chiefs had a 91 percent pass block win rate against the Bengals, according to ESPN. I don’t expect that to continue, but that battle in the trenches is the one I’ll be watching closely. 

maya: Yeah, Chris Jones vs. the world should be a good one. I also am curious to see how the Chiefs defend the Eagles’ two-tight end sets.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ll also be keeping tabs on the injury status of K.C.’s best coverage player, L’Jarius Sneed. Hopefully two weeks is enough time to recover from what looked like a concussion when he tried to tackle Samaje Perine in the first quarter.

maya: And I guess the next obvious factor is Mahomes’s ankle and mobility.

neil: Yes. And that matters a lot because, in many ways, this is also a battle of balance (Philly is good on offense and defense) versus one-dimensionality (K.C. is elite offensively and below-average on defense. Plus, K.C.’s special teams have been among the worst by EPA all season; Philly is solid there.)

In fact, you could really just distill down to the team that is good (if not great) at everything — the Eagles — against the team that is really only good at one thing (K.C. passing). But in that one thing, they are far and away the best.

maya: Gasps in Isiah Pacheco.

neil: K.C.’s rushing offense this season was merely average by EPA.

(Sorry, Isiah. And I know that unit’s personnel has morphed over the course of the season. But even after weighting recent games more heavily, they are basically average.)

Salfino: Is the Chiefs defense underrated, Neil? OK, the 33 TD passes they allowed in the regular season are out of control. But their yards allowed and net YPA were very good. TDs are lucky. I put way more stock into average gain including sack yards and sacks as plays.

maya: Also, given we’ve spent approximately 30 seconds discussing special teams this season (basically entirely the light razzing of Dallas’s kicker), how important will that be?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Who can ever say?

Salfino: Special teams may be randomly important.

neil: Special teams is always an afterthought … until it’s not.

Salfino: Harrison Butker is shaky on extra points, seriously. 

maya: I thought that was the biggest factor in why K.C. punted from the 37-yard line. But Butker looked solid on the game winner.

Salfino: That barely cleared from a distance perspective. It was weird.

Mahomes is still going to be very limited. This is not the team you want a stationary QB against. I think the Eagles are going to keep reminding Mahomes he’s hurt, whereas the Bengals didn’t. Hurts’s mobility will give the Chiefs a lot of problems where the Niners are so fast defensively, it wasn’t a factor.

Add in the WR injuries and I see this being a TD win at least by the Eagles. 

maya: OK, Mike on the record for the Eagles!

Salfino: (Only because of Mahomes’s ankle, which is bad.)

neil: I think that’s right, Mike. I think that Philly’s terrifying pass rush will cause particular problems for Mahomes because of the ankle, and I think the Eagles’ offensive balance is going to cause problems for a K.C. team that is weak defending the run in particular.

It seems like a bad matchup for K.C.

Salfino: If the Eagles win, are the Mahomes Chiefs the new 1990s Atlanta Braves? (Complete with the same annoying/inappropriate tomahawk chop.)

maya: Please give in basketball terms, Mike.

neil: LOL.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I like two weeks of rest for Mahomes. They were lucky to avoid overtime and not put more stress on the ankle. He’ll have some of his banged-up receivers back. Couple that with my uncertainty about what the Eagles even are at this moment, I’m going Chiefs.

Salfino: That two weeks isn’t going to mean anything. This is a months-long injury.

maya: We don’t know that!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dr. Salfino, please enlighten.

Salfino: We hear all the time that high ankle sprains limit a player for a season. It’s not getting better in two weeks, Josh. We’ve seen these injuries a million times. Mahomes looked like a different player out there and that ain’t changing.

neil: I will say, god knows what they injected in it seemed to at least get him through Sunday’s game enough for a solid performance.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He said he took no jabs!

neil: Then I have no idea what they did, but whatever it was, it made him functional!

Salfino: Oh, no, Neil. No “North Dallas Forty” situation here. We were ASSURED that Mahomes didn’t shoot up. (Who cares?)

neil: That’s between the Chiefs trainers and Mahomes’s ankle, none of my business.

Salfino: (I don’t believe it anyway; this is all LEGEND OF MAHOMES stuff.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Plus Mahomes has his brother and wife cheering for him up in the booth, and posting on TikTok. Chiefs by 21.

neil: The brother is cringe. That knocks at least a TD off.

maya: Does Mahomes need this ring for his legacy?

This is three Super Bowls in five seasons.

Salfino: Yes, Maya. You can’t go to five straight championship games and win one Super Bowl. We heard Tom Brady even get knocked for this for a while.

I mean, that’s going to be the narrative. I’d take one championship game as a Jets fan.

maya: When the Empire State Building is lit green and white for the right reasons …

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Maya Sweedler is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.


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