The Eagles Played Their A-Game, But The Chiefs Had Patrick Mahomes
maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): Super Bowl LVII has just ended, and not a single part of the game disappointed. (We’ll get into *that* penalty call later.) In a long-awaited matchup between the conferences’ top seeds, it was the Kansas City Chiefs who emerged victorious, scoring on every possession in the second half en route to winning a 38-35 shootout. This game had pretty much everything we were promised: aggressive play-calling, deep shots along the sideline, Jalen Hurts’s teammates gently pushing him aloft on late downs, gutsy runs, funky blitzes and just enough open-field tackling to keep things interesting.
But to dwell on what went according to expectations is to miss how thrilling this game truly was. Hurts put on one of the best performances I’ve seen (I’m not using the adjective “quarterbacking” here because his performance transcended position), and the Eagles were every bit the muscular team we expected to see. So, given that, what was the difference in this — dare I say — all-timer?
ty (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor): This is exactly how I thought the game would go, except I thought the Chiefs would need 40-plus throws and 300-plus passing yards from Patrick Mahomes to make it happen. Instead, it was a brilliant game plan from Andy Reid, some clutch on-the-ground performances from Isiah Pacheco, Jerick McKinnon and (frankly, ill-advisedly) Mahomes.
josh (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It was a tight game like many predicted, and Hurts probably deserves to be the Super Bowl MVP despite losing (304 yards passing, 404 intended air yards, 70 rushing and four total TDs, versus 182-167-44-three for Mahomes). But there were amazing plays on both sides of the ball all game long. People are going to point to that holding call on defensive back James Bradberry as the moment Philly lost the Super Bowl, but McKinnon going to the turf at the 1-yard line when the Eagles were clearly going to let him score was the real turning point. What a heads-up play. I was giddy.
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): It was the kind of 1,000 IQ play we always love to see.
Overall, I’m still sort of stunned that K.C. was able to come back from down 10 at the half with Mahomes suffering such a painful recurrence of that ankle injury. We know what he’s capable of, but it never ceases to amaze. What a performance by the Chiefs’ offense in the second half — three TDs and a FG on four drives.
Moreover, they somehow won despite Philly executing its ball-control game plan nearly to perfection. Going back to 2000 (the earliest year in ESPN Stats & Information Group’s data), no team in the Super Bowl with a 100+ yard or 13+ minute time of possession advantage through three quarters had ever lost. The Eagles were the first, and K.C. just straight-up did that to them.
ty: Is there anything more quintessentially Chiefs than throwing time of possession out the window? Reid and Mahomes have made many an AFC opponent think they had them where they want them, before striking quickly and repeatedly.
maya: There were a couple of major matchups we were looking at coming into this game: the Eagles vaunted pass rush against a who-knows-how-injured Mahomes, the Eagles ground game against the Chiefs running defense, Travis Kelce against whoever the Eagles tried to put on him. Which of the three matchups was most important to the game?
neil: K.C.’s protection against the Eagles’ pass rush was stunning. Mahomes was not sacked a single time all game. That was only the second time this entire season Philly’s defense was held sackless. He was hit five times, re-injured the ankle late in the second quarter and ran six times for 44 yards — including the iconic 26-yard scramble that ended up being the game’s third-most important play by win probability added (+0.172 WPA) — but Philadelphia’s pressure was not nearly the factor we thought it might be going into the game.
josh: I was dumbfounded by the lack of Eagles sacks as well, Neil. The lack of pass rush was huge. I’ll go with Kelce being quite important. I’m not sure I would rank it the most important, but the Chiefs’ response to the Eagles opening drive featured Kelce twice for 38 yards and a touchdown. While it was early and I’m not a believer in positive momentum or the hot hand, that seemed important. Kelce ended the game as Kansas City’s leading receiver, and his gravity was felt in the second half, opening up underneath routes for players running quick outs and flat routes like the touchdown to Kadarius Toney with 12:04 left in the fourth quarter.
ty: On the other hand, the Chiefs effectively dared Hurts to throw downfield, and he more than rose to the occasion. Forty throws for 404 air yards? You could swap the names next to these two quarterbacks’ stat lines, and I’d be more inclined to believe them.
maya: Yeah, I think coming into the game, there was this sense that the Eagles needed Hurts to make some bigger throws than he had in the last month. He proved himself more than capable of that, finding his dynamic duo of DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown 13 times for a total of 196 yards.
Three of the four biggest plays of the game, in terms of expected points added, were Hurts throws — the 45-yard touchdown to Brown, the 45-yard pass to Smith on the team’s final drive and the 17-yard bobbled pass to Dallas Goedert on third-and-14 in the third. (The biggest play, by EPA, was Hurts’s 28-yard run on fourth-and-5 in the second quarter.)
neil: That was such a crazy thing, Maya. Hurts’s arm was totally fine — and then some. (Look again at those stats Josh and Ty posted above.) If you had told us Hurts would have that game, it would have been hard to imagine the Eagles losing. It’s yet another mind-boggling thing about the Chiefs winning this Super Bowl.
maya: Honestly, other than the fumble scoop and score and, uh, that penalty, this was solid, solid football. Philly had a great plan (that time of possession!), gamed it out perfectly (those up-the-middle runs on third-and-long to set up perfect fourth-down plays!!) and executed well.
neil: Philly was 13-for-20 on third and fourth downs in the game, although that success rate was higher earlier on. The Eagles might look back at that failed third-and-3 with 10:40 left — their only punt of the second half and one of just three non-scoring drives all game, excluding the final Hail Mary heave — as one of the biggest missed opportunities that ended up costing them the Super Bowl.
ty: Was anyone else sliiiiiightly disappointed we didn’t have more Kelce hook-and-laterals, etc.? I thought for sure we’d have some kind of ring-around-the-rosie flea-flicker.
josh: There were a couple times that Reid dipped into his bag, and the Chiefs did the pre-snap carousel thing, Ty. That and a Super Bowl win is enough, I guess.
maya: Yeah, I’m giving Reid credit for whatever pre-snap magic he worked to pop open Toney and Skyy Moore so they could waltz into the end zone untouched on back-to-back scores in the fourth quarter.
We knew Reid and Nick Sirianni would bring their best, so let’s turn to the defensive side of the game.
josh: C. J. Gardner-Johnson was the best defensive player in the game for a couple of snaps in the second half. He went full cocaine bear on Pacheco on back-to-back plays. It was crazy high-level open-field tackling by a deep safety. Chris Jones also got upfield a ton against the excellent Eagles offensive line — maybe too far in some cases. On a couple of occasions, his penetration left a wide open hole for Hurts to scramble through.
neil: Nick Bolton was making his case for defensive MVP for a little bit there. Not only did he produce that 36-yard scoop-and-score in the second quarter — the only defensive score of the game in a contest where any TD on that side of the ball represented a massive swing in net points — but he also led all players in the Super Bowl with nine tackles. That seems appropriate for K.C.’s leading tackler all season long.
ty: I thought Jones might be primed for an Aaron Donald-esque MVP performance, but the Eagles held him to just two solo tackles and one assist — almost as impressive as the Chiefs’ shutdown of the Eagles’ DL.
maya: I was pretty impressed with the second level of Philly’s defense. While the Chiefs were able to counter the pass rush with screens and quick releases, which led to Mahomes facing pressure on only 26 percent of his dropbacks, Philly held Kansas City to a season-low 3.9 yards after the catch.
But then there was that holding penalty at the end of the game … which we gotta talk about. Was that ticky-tacky?
neil: It’s a pretty rough call to make in that particular spot, since it effectively handed the Chiefs the Super Bowl (with some help from the aforementioned 1,000 IQ play by McKinnon). In a game like that, we all had the feeling that whoever had the ball last would win. That call ensured K.C. had the ball last. And they won.
maya: Here’s my thing: Penalties shouldn’t be situational. I get it was a high-leverage play, but I see the jersey get stretched and tend to give the refs the benefit of the doubt. Was it fun to see the game end like that? No. But I think you can make the case that the defender was holding JuJu Smith-Schuster because you can clearly see how his route breaks as a result.
josh: It was a pivotal play in the biggest game. But sometimes luck evens out, too. The Eagles made it to the end of the Super Bowl with a chance to win after facing a bunch of teams with injured QBs and Daniel Jones. So there’s that.
neil: And honestly, when Mahomes went down with that ankle near halftime, I think everyone thought that the Eagles had lucked into yet another QB injury to take advantage of. All credit to Mahomes for rising above that particular trend in a huge way.
ty: Speaking of, are we due for another round of Calvin Johnson/Dez Bryant what-is-a-catch debate? A few tight boundary catches tonight split the “50 drunks in a bar/5 million drunks on Twitter” electorate down the middle each time.
josh: I was wrong about every questionable play, so I’m on the side of the folks still wondering what the hell a catch is.
I also want to point out that the very obviously correct decision by the Eagles to go for 2, down 2 points and then succeeding, was worth 11.7 percentage points of WPA, the ninth-highest WPA swing in the game. It was tremendous decision-making and game management all night by Sirianni.
ty: Aggressive football is smart football is optimal football is fun football, Exhibit 897. We truly love to see it.
… although, Maya, your point about the second level of Philly’s defense makes a counter-argument for Sirianni’s aggressiveness. According to NFL NextGen Stats, the Eagles played man-to-man on a season-high 55.6 percent of pass plays, which played right into Reid’s screen-heavy game plan and Kelce’s big night.
maya: The secret, we have learned, to avoiding the Eagles fearsome pass rush is simply to call screens.
ty: I can’t stop thinking about what this means for the next few years. If Reid sonning Sirianni echoes Bill Belichick undressing Sean McVay four years ago, how much better can Sirianni and the Eagles get? And Reid took pains to shout out Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy in the post-game interview … how much longer can Reid and Mahomes keep this up if Bieniemy gets the head-coaching opportunity he’s long since earned?
maya: I will point out McVay came back last year and won a Super Bowl with a team full of mercenaries. Turns out that bartering your future for your present can work!
josh: I haven’t felt this excited for a young QB rivalry since Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick were going at it in the early 2010s at the peak of their teams’ powers. Mahomes winning both the league MVP and the Super Bowl MVP tonight has to add fuel to the fire. The Eagles are very talented and should be in contention with Mahomes and the Chiefs again next season. I’m very much here for a rematch.
neil: Sirianni is just 107 wins shy of that Reid guy as the winningest coach in Eagles history. Meanwhile, Reid needs eight wins next season to pass Hank Stram as the winningest K.C. coach ever. (He’s also one championship behind Stram if we count AFL titles, though Reid is now ahead on Super Bowls.)
ty: I’m old enough to remember when Reid allegedly couldn’t win the big one (as evidenced by the Duce Staley jersey I’m wearing tonight). I doubt future generations will believe he wore that label around his neck for a decade-plus!
neil: It’s a brand new Andy Reid. Now his team is the one playing 4D clock-management chess in the final minutes of a Super Bowl victory, with multiple kneeldowns to kill clock and give Philly almost no time to mount a counterattack after the go-ahead FG.
maya: Mahomes has two league MVP awards, two Super Bowl MVP awards and three conference championships. And this was only his fifth season starting. There’s so much talent at the quarterback position in the league right now, and a lot of it is being blotted out by the shadow of Mahomes’s accolades. It’s Bradyqesue in the sense that, well, football is a zero-sum sport, and the more Kansas City wins, the less winning there is in places like Buffalo, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, etc.
If this is what it’s going to be for the next five, 10 seasons, so be it. Just please don’t try to change Arrowhead’s name because Travis Kelce might actually lose it.