We have arrived at Super Bowl LVII and for as dominant as other teams may have been for stretches, I think we ended up with the two best teams in the league facing off – not only in terms what they did all season long, but also the versions we get from them leading into this matchup. With both sides entering the tournament atop their conference, the Chiefs were able to overcome a high-ankle strain by Patrick Mahomes and got revenge on the team that kept them from going to the big game last year, while the Eagles were dominant in their two wins, with a point-margin of +55 in their two playoff matchups (with some help in the lattern one, where the 49ers ended up with basically no quarterback left).
You could also call this the “Storyline Bowl” because of all the different angles to this matchup off the field. For starters, you have Chiefs head coach Andy Reid facing his former team, which he could never quite get all the way over the hump with, along with DC Steve Spagnuolo spending his first eight years in the NFL with that organization as a defensive assistant. Meanwhile the head-man on the other side in Nick Sirianni actually started his NFL career as a quality control coach in Kansas City, a couple of years before Reid arrived there. We’ll see the first Super Bowl between brothers, with Travis and Jason Kelce on either side, who both already have a ring, but were still each the best players at their positions respectively this season. Depending on the results of NFL Honors, we may have the guys finish first and second in MVP at quarterback with Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, who might still both be dealing with injury, but have done a great job playing through those. And even for more of the football nerds – we’ve got KC and Philly with the number one offense vs. defense respectively in yards per play.
As I do every week, I wanted to dive into the tape and numbers, to give you comprehensive insight into who both these teams are, how they match up on both sides of the ball, some players who could be X-factors and finally I give you my prediction on what I think will happen.
Let’s get into it:
Chiefs offense vs. Eagles defense:
Kansas City obviously led the league with 29.2 points per game during the regular season and 2.71 points per drive, but they also averaged 0.3 yards more per play than any other team (6.4). Their offense was easily number one in DVOA (25.2%) and EPA per play (0.179). However, while many people still look at the Chiefs as this uber-explosive aerial attack, that constantly stresses defenses vertically, they’ve really become a much more efficient machine as a unit. Mahomes finished the regular season only 23rd in intended air yards per pass attempt (7.2) and he was actually second in YAC per completion (6.6). In part that has been due to teams feeling more comfortable blitzing and playing man against this group of receivers, but also Pat has shown so much maturity this season, of getting to his checkdown or outlet when the defense was falling off in deep zone coverages. With opponents bracketing Travis Kelce at a high rate, they’ve needed to find other solutions against the looks they’re presented with. KC is one of the best groups at utilizing stacks and bunches, in combination with rub-routes, to give their receivers advantages against man-coverage, while being unique in the way they create voids against zone, by letting guys push straight at safeties and forcing them to match, along with attacking the rules of coverages.
Where the KC offense has added another dimension this year, is their traditional run game, as altogether they finished the regular season sixth in rushing success rate (44.5%). That’s actually slightly lower than 2021, but their top two backs this year average 4.63 yards compared to 4.09 yards per rush. Isaiah Pacheco has given this group a physical presence, who they hand the ball off a lot more from under center this season. That young man runs with an aggression and violence that this team has been missing in past years, along with having legit burst to threaten the corner and clear the second level if the backside doesn’t cover enough ground laterally. While they do run some zone concepts, especially in combination with their RPO game, what Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy excel at is using angles and drawing up gap-schemes including multiple pullers, such a power and counter from different personnel sets. A key ingredient to that is their variety in usage of tight-ends. Their 13 personnel (three TEs) in particular is a weapon for them, as they can analyze how opposing defense match them, and depending on that, get Travis Kelce, Noah Gray and Jody Fortson in favorable matchups in the pass game, or take advantage of pulling smaller bodies into the box.
Examining the Chiefs offensive line, with Orlando Brown at left tackle, they can cover up guys on the front-side, to string out lateral plays. And between the interior three of Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith, they’re all more than comfortable being utilized as pullers, while Smith is the biggest mauler on down-blocks and the other two execute reach- and seal-blocks very effectively. Andrew Wylie at right tackle may be the weak-link of that group, but he’s the most experienced in that system, now in his fifth season with the Chiefs and 69 starts to his resume. As a team, they’ve averaged 3.4 yards before contact on the ground. As far as the pass game is concerned, the O-line was charged with the third-fewest sacks allowed (26) and while Mahomes is close to average in pressure rate (19.4%), if you take that number in relation to time spent in the pocket before the ball comes out (2.6 seconds), he’d be tied for the sixth-highest rate. Even though I would challenge the way ESPN calculates this, they have the Chiefs with by far the highest pass-block win rate in 2022 at 75%. And looking at their two playoff games, Mahomes has only been pressured on 18.8 and 10.2% respectively. The way this unit handles games up front, sorts out simulated pressure and passes off twists is very impressive.
Finally, for KC’s offense, since Mahomes was put under center, they’ve been one of the best situational offense, in particular finishing top-three in third down percentage each of the past five years. They finished the 2022 season second in third (48.7%), fourth down (75.0%) and red-zone percentage (69.4%) each. Over their five most recent games in particular, they’ve converted 82.3% of their red-zone trips into six points. That’s a result of Andy Reid’s willingness to delve into all kinds of creative play-designs, Patrick Mahomes’ magic off script and the mind-meld you see between him and Travis Kelce in those condensed spaces. Whether it’s some full-house sets, where anybody in the backfield could receive the snap, running “Ring around the Rosie” or any of their different shovel pass variations they throw out, they’re a unique group to prepare for. Plus, then of course you have the best QB-to-pass-catcher combinations in the game, where Pat and Kelce can make up stuff on the fly and see that condensed space very similarly, which allows them to cash in even when the defense seemingly does everything right.
Now, switching over to the Eagles defense, they’ve been one of the more consistent and at times dominant units in the league. On average, they’ve allowed just over 20 points per game, with seven each in their two playoff games – even though you can argue the Giants were certainly outmatched and the 49ers played large stretches with a quarterback who couldn’t actually throw the ball. Nevertheless, they finished the regular season number six in defensive DVOA (-9.7%) and forced the fifth-most takeaways in the league (27). Under defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, Philly has seen an overhaul of defensive principles to some degree, compared to 2021. While they still run a lot of zone-coverage, they do a much better job of squeezing down passing windows and letting their safeties attack forward in quarters, not nearly giving as much easy access to the middle of the field. And with the addition of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, they can change up the picture from when the ball is snapped, rotating him towards the deep middle – a role he hasn’t tasked with since his college days. As far as blitz rate is concerned, they’ve increased from 31st (17.4%) to 18th (22.1%), in large part due to Haason Reddick being on the field as a hybrid linebacker, who they rush along with the four down-linemen a lot of times.
Philadelphia has been particularly effective against the pass, being responsible for an NFL-low 4.9 net yards per dropback. Their two starting corners Darius Slay and James Bradberry have surrendered passer ratings of 83.9 and 51.6 respectively, with three picks each to their names. Both understand very well to play to their leverage and funnel vertical routes to the safeties inside of them. While Marcus Epps is better at driving on routes and buzzing down as a flat defender or robber, CGJ has really capitalized of those opportunities to make plays on the ball, being tied for the lead-league with six interceptions, despite missing five games. Meanwhile on the second level, T.J. Edwards has had the best season of his career, in terms of how quickly he IDs and triggers on run schemes, but also his usage on passing downs. That’s where pairing him up with Kyzir White has reaped major benefits, because now he’s the one who gets matched up with backs a lot of times in cover-four/-six on the weakside, as he’s right on par with Bradberry on the perimeter, holding opponents to just 4.4 yards per target.
Of course a major reason this group has been so much better on the back-end is thanks to the pressure they create up front. The Eagles recorded the third-most sacks in NFL history (70) behind only the ’85 and ’86 Bears respectively, and they were only 0.1% behind the Cowboys with a pressure rate of 25.5 percent. Looking at ESPN’s pass-rush win rate metric, Philly has the edge rusher with the second-best mark in Haason Reddick (28%) and an IDL in Javon Hargrave, who’s tied for second at his position (17%). They keep those guys fresh as well, as they have ten guys playing at least 16% of snaps, if you count Reddick, who led them at just under 74%. At times this season they’ve had some issues this season stopping the run, due to some of the front mechanics – which I’ll get to in a minute – but also some injuries along the D-line. Now, with some of the veteran additions, those have been largely ironed out and they can bring those guys in waves.
Since I just talked about the trenches, why not start by breaking down how these two sides match up. Looking at Brandon Thorn’s D-line rankings, the Eagles D-line was at the top of the league, but the Chiefs finished the season as the sixth-best O-line themselves, and their interior-three is as good as any out there right now. Their tackles are closer to average, with Haason Reddick having a significant advantage over right tackle Andrew Wylie, who was responsible for nine sacks and had seven accepted penalties in 2022. However, what Andy Reid can do in terms of mitigating any disadvantages on the edges is remarkable. I think back to the Chiefs’ trip to San Francisco and how much they slowed down Nick Bosa, in terms of not being allowed to attack and having to process too much information. And we’ve seen this group make the heads on linebackers spin on several occasions throughout the years, with misdirection, eye-candy and a diverse screen game. Philly also led the NFL with 97 tackles for loss during the regular season, but I have a tough seeing Kansas City go laterally a whole lot and allow those guys on the other side to defeat single-blocks. Rather I think they’ll use that aggressiveness against them on trap, wham and counter plays. The Eagles finished the regular season 23rd in rushing success rate (43.2%) and EPA per rush (-0.023). Especially when KC goes to 12 personnel, the tendencies for Philly would say that they’ll counter five-man surfaces, and when the 49ers put both tight-ends to one side, we saw Kyzir White actually move over the wing in more of “penny” front, where Edwards is the only linebacker behind it. That’s where Reid & company put a lot of pressure on the opposition, with being corrected in reading their keys.
Going back to that NFC title game, backup Josh Johnson – as long as he was available ran himself into trouble, getting wide against looping D-tackles and drifting too deep at times – that won’t happen with this version of Patrick Mahomes, who is one of the niftiest quarterbacks at pocket navigation in the NFL today. How much he can manipulate rush lanes and potentially deliver off-script with that banged-up ankle will be a major factor. From a coverage perspective, the most interesting will be if DC Jonathan Gannon can change up the picture enough post-snap to make Mahomes hold onto the field or if KC will be able to dictate what they’ll face, in particular considering I thought motions typically forced them to simplify things and use a lot of cover-four or -six. Because of how much the Chiefs want to attack between the numbers, with heavier tight-end usage and the addition of Juju Smith-Schuster as a “power slot”, which they haven’t had prior to his arrival, they can lessen the impact of those two great corners on the other side. And the second thing will be how they approach the usage of tight-ends and Travis Kelce especially. Could we see Chauncey Gardner-Johnson be more heavily deployed in the slot, similar to their most recent matchup, or does Gannon use the two weeks of preparation, to install some designer coverages, for designated passing situations?
Eagles offense vs. Chiefs defense:
Let’s switch over to when the Eagles have the football. In 2021, they became one of the most effective rushing attacks in the league, along with what Jalen Hurts could deliver as a scrambler and a lot of the deep crossing and post routes off play-action. The passing game has evolved in a major way this season, thanks in large part to the draft-day trade for A.J. Brown and how the presence affects defenses. In the 15 games played with Jalen Hurts under center, Philly has turned the ball over multiple times just three times, and they’ve scored at least 24 points in all but four of those. Once again, just looking at the 15 games with Hurts at QB, the Eagles would be one of only three teams to average just below one giveaway per contest. While the volume at which they run the ball – due to regularly bleeding out the clock with the lead – “only” has them tied for 12th in yards per rush, I’ll present a couple of the more advanced numbers in a second, and they’re tied for third in net yards per dropback (7.1). Altogether, they finished the regular season at number three in offensive DVOA (15.1%) and what I love about the way offensive coordinator Stane Steichen calls plays, is how he allows those great players they have all across that unit to be featured in rather simplistic fashion, with clear play-designs, that include multiple options, plus some of the little wrinkles they add regularly off those.
Everything of course starts up front for this group. Philadelphia has the best and most versatile O-line in the NFL – and I’m not sure if it’s particularly close. The physical ability of that group in combination with the tutelage of position Jeff Stoutland, allows Steichen to call up anything from a simple zone to long-developing passing concepts. As a unit, they finished 2022 at number one in pass-blocking and third in run-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. The advanced rushing numbers for Philly have been completely absurd, in comparison to the rest of the league. They are the only team with a rushing success rate of over 50% and their EPA per rush +0.72 is twice as high as the next-closest team (Ravens at 0.34). You see them attack the edges of a defense with outside zone, they can create vertical movement on duo, take advantage of angles by pulling bodies and then they match those things beautifully with easy alerts. Having Jalen Hurts as an extra body in the run game, to where you have to account for him pulling the ball at all times certainly helps. In particular, they’ve been pretty much unstoppable in short-yardage situations. Including the postseason, Philly has converted 31 of 35 QB sneaks into first downs or touchdowns, when they’ve had a yards or less to gain (88.6%). And the Eagles as a team have gone for fourth down 80% of times when the analytics would suggest that as the smart decision, according to RBSDM.com
However, Philly also ran an NFL-high 185 RPOs during this season – only eight teams reached the hundred-mark. They can put defenders in conflict, by having to commit downhill and leave a window to attack with glance routes, and they can afford to leave the backside contain player unblocked, because either he flattens down the line and allows Hurts to pull the ball or he stays home and then often they have the tight-end sifting across the formation and releasing into the flats. The outside receiver to that side if regularly tasked with picking off anybody trying to redirect against that slip route, plus as a change-up off that, the wideout will release as a threat behind that. That way, they simplify the job for the quarterback by being able to key on one read and then become a play-maker off that. Yet, they can also spread the field and create space by forcing the defense to get into lighter boxes. They love to run draw from out of their 11 personnel sets, especially when they go empty and run it towards the shade nose in an Over/Under four-man front, where the guard to that side can block down and Jason Kelce wraps around, to become the lead-blocker for Hurts.
For all of that to be as effective, the development of Jalen Hurts as a passer and the threat that he can attack all of levels of the field was imperative. In particular for defenses to respect the perimeter weapons, how he delivers beautiful, high-arcing balls down the sideline for A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, is a major ingredient. Compared to 2021, Hurts’ average yards per attempt increased from 7.2 to 8.8 yards. As a team, they Eagles finished top-four in third (45.9%), fourth down (68.8%) and red-zone TD percentage (67.8%) for the regular season. Hurts become a much better distributor and while he still doesn’t feel as comfortable working deep into progressions, if there’s a little bit of color in the backfield, the offensive infrastructure combined with his mental progress, allow him to find solutions to most problems defenses throw at him. That was apparent when facing overloaded fronts and some of the cover-zero rain that the Dolphins popularized over the last couple of years. Here’s an example against the Giants early on in their week 18 victory over the Giants, where Hurts decides to lock the left tackle on his man and slide the rest of the line, in order to make Landon Collins rush rather then drop out, and create a clear window to get this ball to Quez Watkins on a little hitch for the first down.
As far as the Chiefs defense is concerned, they were dead-average in defensive DVOA (17th), but they finished 12th in dropback and 10th in rushing success rate respectively. So the issue were more so the big plays they’ve given up, in large part due to relying on rookies way more than they’ve done in part years. On defense alone, first-year players have combined for over 3000(!) snaps this year. For comparison’s sake, last year Nick Bolton was the only rookie to log even 50 snaps. With that being said, those young players have grown a lot and the defensive numbers have been a lot better from week 16 on. Just looking at those five games, their EPA per play of -0.077, which would rank fourth league-wide behind only the 49ers, Cowboys and Patriots. And dissecting who they’ve faced across that stretch, only one of those offenses have ranked outside the top-15 in EPA per play themselves. One name that stands out here is Trent McDuffie, since in the 13 games without him, they didn’t allow a single 300-yard passer, while four of the six QBs they’ve faced without him have reached the mark. That’s not necessarily just the result of McDuffie playing, but the fact that they can deploy him in the slot and use L’Jarius Sneed in the boundary, now lot leaving two rookies on guys like Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins out wide, thinking back to the AFC Championship.
While Kansas City’s run defense was a weakness in years past, they rarely control opponents to dictate game-scripts, in part because of how effective their own offense is at converting possessions into points, when given fewer opportunities, but also what they’ve built in the front-seven. This season, they have held opponents to under 120 rushing yards in 13 of 19 games. Along with the trade for Frank Clark and Chris Jones ascending to the level of a Defensive Player of the Player candidate, they’ve found guys to play more of the strong-side defensive end role, typically with those longer body types, before spending a first-round pick on George Karlaftis this April. Meanwhile, rotating through a trio of Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Waron and Khalen Saunders at shade nose, has been working for them, to keep those linebackers clean. And that’s where those guys can shine. Nick Bolton already was a key player for them as a rookie, but how quickly he triggers on stuff and the speed to beat blockers to the spot is very impressive. And Willie Gay’s range alongside him is a major asset in both facets of the game. Plus, they frequently shift their D-line just before the snap and blitz the backside backer, to cover up an extra man from climbing up a lot of times. As a unit, they’ve been able to create negative plays on the ground at a higher rate, being tied for sixth with 89 tackles for loss during the regular season. Chris Jones has the short-area agility to back-door against zone schemes and he’s quick to go underneath down-block on the backside, before chasing down the puller and get to the ball-carrier. And opposing linemen better get on their horse, if they want to cut off the angles of those backers on toss/sweep plays, as well peel off combos earlier in time. Going back to the AFC title game, if you take away Joe Burrow’s four scrambles for 30 yards, the Chiefs were able to hold the Bengals to just 13 carries worth 41 yards.
What they do in the pass game is where they’ve seen a major transition. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a reputation for throwing out crazy blitzes and playing physical man-coverage behind. However, with three rookies starting the secondary for the most part and an offense on the other side, less built on quick-scoring drives, they’ve changed their approach, in order to play more complementary football. After being ninth and sixth in 2020 and ’21 respectively, the Chiefs actually ranked just 14th in blitz rate (24.2%) this season. That’s combined with playng split-safety coverages on an NFL-high 57% of coverage snaps. However, that doesn’t mean giving receivers easy access at all, as their corners are in press-alignment on 44% and those young guys can challenge opposing receivers off the line, with help over the top, so to speak. And it’s not just that, but thanks to having two veteran safeties in Juan Thornhill and Justin Reid, they’re excellent as disguising coverages without compromising themselves in where they can get to ultimately. That’s how they force quarterbacks to pull down the ball and find solutions post-snap. Kansas City sacked the Bengals’ Joe Burrow five times most recently, where all but one of those I would label as “coverage sacks”.
Despite a much lower blitz rate, they’ve actually finished the regular season fifth in pressure rate per dropback (24.9%) for the second year in a row. According to ESPN, Chris Jones easily led all interior D-linemen with a 21% pass-rush win rate this season (next-closest was at 17%), despite being double-team at a higher rate than anybody else, at a stupid 68% of dropbacks. That sets the table for guys around him to capitalize on winning one-on-one matchups. KC has four other D-linemen with at least four sacks and 16+ pressures. Yet, depending on who they use as the primary slot defender – Sneed, Reid or McDuffie – on some key downs, Spags still excels at creating free rushers by bringing guys from different angles and forcing the O-line to communicate mid-play. So there’s a lot of variety in the way they can force offenses to process information pre- and post-snap, to create errors, while at same time being very sound in their coverage distribution.
We’ll probably get an idea early on about how much the Eagles offense can dictate terms with their ground game. As I outlined and backed up with statistics, they have been dominant in the regard for most of the season and it’ll take a great performance on Kansas City’s side to slow that area down. Back when I previewed the regular season (week 13) matchup between the Chiefs and Bengals, I showed a few examples on how Chris Jones has improved as a run-defender at the point of attack. However, Philly has consistently been able to wash down the front-side on zone concepts and ride three-techniques into the lap of the backside backer on power. If he can split those combos and/or the second-level defenders scrape over the action quickly enough will be an element to track. Of course it’s also going to be a big game for Derrick Nnadi not getting sealed on the backside and holding his ground when the offense tries to go vertically. And he’ll need those other bodies to give him a breather a few times, to avoid getting physically tired out and overwhelmed as the game progresses. Maybe we’ll see recently-signed Brandon Williams be a bigger part of the game and look if he can give them 10-15 snaps of what he used to be in Baltimore. It’s certainly a product of the volume we saw, with 44(!) rush attempts against the 49ers, but those guys were able to hold Philly to 3.4 yards per carry in the NFC title game, largely thanks to how aggressive they were on the second and third level to fill. Particularly those backside LBs didn’t shuffle along much, but rather decided to shoot their gun and basically run-blitz from behind. Meanwhile, KC just executed a very effective plan to slow down Cincinnati’s attack, with those last-second shifts and blitzes from the second level, which can create that confusion against gap- or man-schemes, since altered responsibilities can’t be communicated in time. Even when opponents have gone heavy on 11 personnel, which the Eagles use on well over 70% of plays, and they catch Kansas City in dime personnel, Justin Reid does not shy away from filling the A-gap either.
Now, as much as the Niners were able to contain Philly’s run game in the NFC Championship game – which by the way San Francisco had the second-best EPA against defensively for the season (-0.174), compared to Kansas City being 16th – that vaunted pass-rush for the Niners could barely get a hand on Hurts, sacking him once and just getting two additional hits on. The O-line of the Birds had no issues picking up twists and games run by the defense. With that being said, I thought the 49ers back-seven actually did a very good job in designated dropback situations, passing off and falling underneath those deep crossers and post routes. And while I would say those ideas of how they structure coverages is in line with the new-found shifts for Kansas City, the challenging part in trying to break down this matchup on this side of the ball, is the fact that Steve Spagnuolo isn’t really as hung up with general schematic tendencies, but rather is willing to craft a gameplan specifically designed to attack the weaknesses or challenge teams to win in different ways than they usually do. We do know that he wants to bring pressure in high-leverage moments, but as I outlined earlier, they bring extra bodies at a much lower rate. While they might sprinkle in it every once in a while, they’ve liked to play quite a bit of two-man versus the better passing attacks in the AFC – that’s a death wish going up against Jalen Hurts and what he presents as a runner, if you have everybody in the back-seven with their backs to him. So I’d expect a lot more quarters, similar to what we saw in KC’s latter matchup with the Bengals, along with some late weak-side rotations, in order to cloud that passing lane they may have with A.J. Brown as the single receiver running a slant route away from his corner with outside leverage. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Justin Reid at big nickel, to alleviate some issues in their run fits, with one less defender in the box, if Philly spreads them out.
A common misconception about Jalen Hurts is what he provides as an off-schedule creator, because he’s been so deadly at making one guy miss in the backfield and breaks the spirits of defense by picking up third downs with legs. However, in fact he’s completing just 37% of his passes, for 4.2 yards per attempt and a QB rating of around 52, when throwing outside the pocket. And a layer that stands out in terms of pressure, he’s only 28th in success rate and 29th in EPA per dropback when the defense rushes five or more guys, according to Sports Info Solutions. I’m sure the Eagles will want to test those young corners on the other side with vertical shots on the perimeter – and I ultimately went with another name, but Jaylen Watson likely starting as one of the outside corners could have easily been an X-factor. Yet, they have not been able to cash in on those nearly as regularly since Hurts sprained his SC joint of his throwing arm. I think he attempted four of those go balls in the NFC title game and didn’t complete any, with more wobble and those being further off target than we’re used to. It’s obviously a very small sample size, but in those three games Hurts has played with the banged-up shoulder, his EPA + CPOE (completion percentage above expected) composite has taken a nose-dive from 0.155 (second among QBs behind only Mahomes) to just 0.054 (which would rank 23rd for the full season). And the Chiefs will need to create those stops between the twenties, by not giving that guy easy opportunities, because they were the second-worst defense in the red-zone during the regular season, allowing touchdowns on 67.3% of those trips.
Chiefs – Kadarius Toney & Mike Danna
Since being traded from the Giants, Toney has once again dealt with lower body injuries, which along with some of the interpersonal relationships, were the reason a New York team devoid of WR talent was ready to move on from a first-round pick just a year-and-a-half later. He has only played 133 total snaps for KC, but he’s caught 20 of 26 targets for 216 yards and he’s carried the ball six times for an additional 73 yards, with two combined touchdowns. For the regular season, Toney was the only wide receiver on the team who finished above 56th for his position in PFF’s rankings (WR20). Mecole Hardman is currently listed as doubtful for Sunday and the Chiefs need that one guy they can use as eye-candy on jet sweep fakes and orbit motions, but also to create some cheap offense at times on screen passes and at times as the outlet, if the defense doesn’t account for a guy like him – just as we saw in Toney’s debut with the Chiefs at Jacksonville, which I believe still is deemed the most wide-open touchdown of the season, when he was left all alone in the flats off a sweep fake. So his status for the game due to the ankle sprain and what he can provide, in terms of how jittery and explosive he is when given the ball, along with the effect he can have just as a presence once established to the defense, will be an important factor.
While Toney is a fairly well-known name, due to his draft status, some of the headlines he’s made off the field, but also some very impressive moments when suited up, I don’t think many casual NFL fans are familiar with the name Mike Danna. A fifth-round pick for the Chiefs in 2020, his role Spags’ defense has increased all three years and I’d say he’s one of the more underrated pass-rushers and overall players in football. Danna has missed four games this year, but when available, he’s played a career-high 54% of defensive snaps, And it has led to new personal top-marks in sacks (five) and additional pressures (16). He also had three tackles for loss and a couple of forced fumbles during the regular season. Even though first-rounder George Karlaftis has started every game, these last two weeks he and Danna have played basically the exact same amount of snaps. I could see the latter play a lot of strong-side defensive end on early downs, allowing Frank Clark to chase from the backside and be soloed up when the Eagles go to play-action, while Danna takes care of combo-blocks between the tackle and tight-end at the point of attack, fighting over down-blocks and funneling the ball back inside. The third-year man can be effective rushing off the edge, but mostly it’s what he can bring reducing inside and going against guards, which could make a difference.
Eagles – Landon Dickerson & Reed Blankenship
Unlike the other three names I brought to the table in this discussion, for anybody who has studied the Eagles offense to some degree this season, Landon Dickerson is far from a little-known commodity. However, how close he is to 100 percent on Sunday could be a key factor. We saw him rive in pain late in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, holding his arm and exiting the field. MRIs later revealed that he avoided any major structural damage, but was diagnosed with a hyperextended elbow, which could have lingering effects. Whether it’s punching with that arm or being able to keep in place to stymie charging pass-rushers or the torque he can create to move and shield defenders in the run game, there’s very little room to hide the injury at that position, other than maybe sliding him away from a defender that’s lined up in that gap next to him to some degree. How effective he can be will be a huge deal, because while we talk a lot of about the center and right tackle for this unit, Dickerson has arguably had as good as season either one of those two. Going back to the ESPN metrics I mentioned a couple of times by now, Philly’s left guard finished the regular season with the highest run-blocking (80%) and second-highest pass-blocking win rates (97%) respectively. I’m not sure how comfortable Philly can be with leaving him one-on-one right now with a Chris Jones, when the Chiefs maybe mug up both A-gaps.
And call me a sicko for picking an undrafted backup safety for my X-factor here, but going back to early May, I outlined Blankenship as one of my favorite UDFAs and I said he had a real chance to start for this team. On the eve of the NFL season, the Eagles of course traded for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson from the Saints, who ended up being tied for the lead-league with six interceptions. Still, due to some injuries, we saw Blankenship get extended playing time and I think he’s hung in very well. So if Philly decides to deploy CGJ in the slot more regularly, in order to counter what Travis Kelce presents, I could see my guy be a major part of the gameplan in three-safety sets. His ability to close down windows in two-high coverages and make plays on the ball when challenged vertically (one INT and two PBUs) could be huge, but more importantly maybe, they’ll need him to continue to excel as an open-field tackler, which was a huge buy-in point for me, thinking back to his collegiate evaluation, and he’s only missed two of 47 tackling attempts as a pro. Other than Jordan Nose at nose, Blankenship may be the only other Eagles rookie with significant playing time in this game.
So many of the numbers I’ve brought up in this breakdown favor the Eagles, and right now I’d say they feature a more complete all-around roster. If you take out the two games with Gardner Minshew starting at quarterback, the Eagles would be tied for number one with the 49ers in turnover differential (+13). And they’ve had the advantage up front in most of their matchups this season. However, all that be viewed in the lense of them having faced the 32nd-ranked schedule this season, according to Football Outsiders. Against teams that were close to their talent level, they’ve gotten challenged, and I don’t think they’ve faced an offense particularly in the stratosphere of Kansas City.
The Chiefs are more battle-tested, looking at this postseason run and in terms of the competition they’ve faced throughout the regular season. Patrick Mahomes has been pretty unflappable during his MVP campaign, and has shredded some of the best defenses in the NFL, such as the Buccaneers, 49ers and the Broncos twice. Obviously how much more comfortable he is now at moving around on the banged-up ankle will be a key element, but he already showed some really encouraging signs two weeks prior to Super Bowl LVII.
Philadelphia still has quite a few players left from that championship run five years ago, but a lot of guys that will be in the spotlight on February 12th for the Eagles haven’t been on that stage. That includes the head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator, the quarterback and no players in defensive back-seven. I just believe Andy Reid’s staff and Patrick Mahomes have more answers for what the Eagles defense presents, being able to attack certain areas and having the combination of O-line plus schematic ways to slow down the defensive front on other side from taking over the game. And Philly’s offense has been nearly unstoppable in large part thanks to how many great players they have, but at its core is fairly simplistic in the way they build plays off another, to where Spags can give them some unscouted looks, which throw off the plan and don’t allow the Eagles to stay ahead of the chains as regularly as they’re used to
This should be a highly entertaining game between the two best teams for most of the season and I believe it will be decided by a razor-thin margin, but I’m going with the championship pedigree of the Chiefs here and think Harrison Butker hits a game-winning field goal with time running out.
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