Analysis | Mind games, rookie CBs and coaching history: A look at the Super Bowl matchup


The moment the Kansas City Chiefs spilled onto the field in celebration Sunday night, the obvious storylines of Super Bowl LVII surfaced: Andy Reid against the Philadelphia Eagles, the franchise he led for 14 seasons; Travis and Jason Kelce reviving the backyard football games they played growing up in Ohio; Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes making history as the first Black quarterbacks to face off in the Super Bowl.

So much more will shape the game itself. Here is what to know.

The Chiefs took a harder path to the Super Bowl. The Eagles emerged from the weaker conference, and nothing underscores that like the roster of quarterbacks they beat this season: Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, Trevor Lawrence, Kyler Murray, Cooper Rush, Kenny Pickett, Davis Mills, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, Daniel Jones (twice), Justin Fields, Davis Webb and the combination of Brock Purdy, Josh Johnson and Purdy sans the ability to throw a football across a New York hotel room.

The Eagles owned the easiest regular season schedule in the league by Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA), the catchall metric uses to measure a team’s overall quality. They have destroyed their two playoff opponents, 69-14, but those opponents were an overachieving team expected to rebuild and a formidable roster down to its third and fourth quarterbacks before having none.

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It does not mean the Eagles cannot handle the Chiefs. The Eagles did not just manage the schedule put in front of them; they annihilated it. Their only losses happened when they turned the ball over four times, played with their backup quarterback or both. It’s also true that Hurts’s power running and flawless decision-making make it difficult for unfamiliar teams to face him. The Eagles’ schedule just makes it a little harder to know how they will fare against the current NFL standard-bearer and the best quarterback on the planet.

The Chiefs, by the way, had the league’s fourth-easiest schedule in the regular season, per Football Outsiders.

Quarterback health will matter. The bye week will allow Hurts and Mahomes to recover from ailments they have been playing through. Hurts missed two weeks late in the season with a sprained sternoclavicular joint in his right shoulder, and even after returning he has frequently declared himself less than 100 percent. Mahomes hobbled through the AFC championship game after suffering a high-ankle sprain in the divisional round.

Mahomes knew his ankle would be sore in the days after Sunday’s dramatic victory, but he expected the extra week of rest to allow him to return to near full strength. He will need every bit of mobility he regains. The Eagles have the best pass rush in the NFL — waves of powerful, fast linemen and linebackers who stay fresh by rotating all game. They will test Mahomes’s offensive line, and his ankle, like no other opponent this season.

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The Eagles have shown no hesitance to use Hurts as a runner, although he has wisely scampered out of bounds or slid more often. Hurts didn’t need to throw in the NFC championship game after the Eagles seized the lead and the 49ers lost their quarterbacks; he completed 15 of 25 passes for 121 yards. Whichever quarterback recovers best over these two weeks will have a major impact on which team plays the best on Super Bowl Sunday.

There will be a chess match along the lines. Remove the quarterbacks, and it is possible the two best players in the Super Bowl will be lined up within inches of each other on some plays. Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones and Eagles center Jason Kelce were first-team all-pro. Both owe their greatness, in part, to their intellects.

Eagles teammates uniformly describe Kelce as the smartest player on the team. “One of the smartest people I’ve ever been around,” offensive tackle Andre Dillard said. Jones has evolved into the most dominant interior defensive lineman in the NFL outside of Aaron Donald — “a defensive MVP-type player,” Cincinnati Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said. He is physically dominant, built like a run-stuffing interior lineman with the movement skills of an edge pass rusher. His mind is just as impressive.

In the AFC title game, Jones made a drive-killing sack on the Bengals’ final possession after he engineered a one-on-one against tackle Hakeem Adeniji. Jones read Cincinnati’s alignment, particularly how the tight end had lined up on the line, and shifted inside. Blocked by one lineman, he was unstoppable.

Against the Eagles’ excellent and deep offensive line, Jones will not be able to pick out any weak links, even if star right tackle Lane Johnson and starting guard Landon Dickerson are affected by injuries. The Eagles will still need to account for Jones with two blockers on all dropbacks. Kelce is a genius at deciphering the defense and calling protections. Jones is skilled at blowing up those plans. That collision will be one of the most important and most fascinating subplots of the Super Bowl.

A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith will see a lot of rookies. One of the crucial developments of the Chiefs’ season has been the ability of three rookie cornerbacks — first-round pick Trent McDuffie, fourth-rounder Joshua Williams and seventh-rounder Jaylen Watson — to turn into reliable players in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. They just played the best wide receiving corps in the NFL, and now they will face the best tandem in the NFC.

Watson has an interception in both of the Chiefs’ playoff victories, and Williams picked off Joe Burrow after a tip by safety Bryan Cook — another rookie, taken in the second round. In the Super Bowl, Brown and Smith will present a challenge similar to what the Chiefs faced against Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase in the AFC title game. They had six catches each, for 83 and 75 yards, and Higgins scored a touchdown.

If Hurts has given any hint that his shoulder has affected him in the playoffs, it may be in his inability to get the ball to Brown. A dominant force all season, Brown has just 50 yards on seven catches in the playoffs. In both Eagles victories, Hurts overthrew Brown on deep passes that would have been touchdowns after Brown had scorched a defensive back. Brown should have more opportunities against the Chiefs’ inexperienced secondary.

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Jonathan Gannon needs something extra against Patrick Mahomes. The Eagles’ defensive coordinator favors the two-safety style that prevents explosive plays. He prefers simplicity, which allows a unit loaded with stars to play fast. Mahomes struggled early last season against two deep safeties, but he evolved, and this season he mastered those looks and grew comfortable methodically moving the Chiefs down the field. His ankle injury forced him to use more short passes, but he already had shifted his game to exploit openings in defenses wary of giving up big plays.

“The best thing he’s done this year is actually get the ball back down to the checkdowns,” backup quarterback Chad Henne said late in the regular season. “Getting the ball out, not having to extend the play at all times.”

Against the Giants in the divisional round, Gannon changed his tendencies, bringing more pressure to disrupt New York’s rhythmic short passing game. He will have to be even more creative to solve, or at least stifle, Mahomes.

Andy Reid will enter rare coaching territory. Reid is already one of the best coaches in NFL history, but this Super Bowl will push him onto a higher plane. The AFC title game win put him alone in second place with 21 playoff victories; he moved out of a tie with Tom Landry and trails only Bill Belichick (31). After this matchup with the Eagles, the only coaches who will have appeared in more Super Bowls than Reid (four) will be Belichick (nine), Don Shula (six) and Landry (five). And Reid is one of eight coaches since the AFL-NFL merger to win four or more conference championships — more than Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh, to name two.

Reid can become the 14th coach to win multiple Super Bowls. A victory would of course make a third Super Bowl title more likely for Reid, who at 64 has shown no indication he plans to stop coaching anytime soon. Only Belichick, Joe Gibbs, Chuck Noll and Walsh have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy three or more times.

Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni, 41, may one day reach those heights, but he enters on the other end of the spectrum. He has made the playoffs in both of his seasons in Philadelphia, and he earned his first playoff victory two weeks ago. This week will be his first Super Bowl experience as a head coach or an assistant, but he won championships in college: three as a wide receiver at Division III Mount Union and one as Mount Union’s defensive backs coach.

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