I’ve been analyzing this game for over a week. And yes, these are the two teams supposed to be here. We’re lucky enough to get a Super Bowl featuring the best team from the NFC and the best team from the AFC.
They’ve both been under scrutiny all season. When a team starts out 8-0 like the Eagles, and every other team has lost at least once, they get a ton of praise and discussion. The Chiefs shifted into first place in the AFC starting in Week 10 and kept rolling. They also have the best quarterback in football.
It feels like we’ve been talking up these teams for months.
And yet, when given the opportunity to really set aside all preconceived notions that get hammered into my brain through months of storylines praising these teams, there are issues with both teams.
There were elements to this analysis that surprised me.
Not everything, of course.
The week-long unpeeling of the layers to the Eagles offense left me further convicted that this Philadelphia run game is truly, truly elite.
They’ve been tested, with 10 games against top-15 run defenses, and rank so far above the No. 2 team in rankings it’s uncanny:
- No. 1 in expected points added per play at +0.12. The NFL average is -0.07. The league’s second-ranked team: +0.03
- No. 1 in success rate at 50%. The NFL average is 37. The second-ranked team: 43%
The Chiefs, with their light boxes, can be exploited by this Eagles ground game. The Chiefs could alter their defensive strategy, but at what cost in terms of giving up production through the air?
Every game the Chiefs played against a team with a decent RB-run offense which wasn’t playing a backup QB saw that opponent put up points.
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As good as I feel about the Eagles run game, I do have questions about their pass game.
The Chiefs defense showed massive improvement down the stretch against the pass, from 25th in Weeks 1-11 to 10th since Week 12. But I think this was largely on account of worse QBs faced and playing with lighter boxes (more 2-high), which is dangerous to do against this Eagles run offense.
I’m also aware that the Chiefs were terrible at defending passes to WRs from 11 personnel. They literally ranked 31st in EPA/att (+0.44 EPA/att), 31st in success rate (60%) and 28th in YPA (8.8). And the Eagles use 11 personnel this year at the third-highest rate of any team in the NFL.
But my worry from the Eagles’ perspective is the Chiefs are elite on third downs against the pass (fourth-best), and they have the ability to play a lot of zone, which causes Hurts a ton of problems, particularly as it relates to holding on to the ball slightly longer, taking more pressure and not converting on third down (40% vs zone compared to 54% vs man).
Not to mention the fact he’s struggled since the shoulder injury, particularly on throws to his right.
I’m upgrading the Eagles run game, and cautiously downgrading their pass offense.
Ironically, it’s exactly the opposite for the Chiefs offense. From what I’ve uncovered, downgrade the Chiefs run game and aggressively upgrade their pass offense.
First, let’s talk about the KC ground game. The biggest narrative of a team’s “weakness” in this game centers around the Eagles run defense. But they’ve improved by leaps and bounds down the stretch. Since signing Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh, a run defense which ranked dead-last in Weeks 1-10 improved to above-average down the stretch — and has been the No. 1 run defense in the playoffs.
They’re also really good at stopping the types of runs the Chiefs like to call. Against inside zone, outside zone and counters from 11 personnel, which are staples of the Chiefs rushing attack, the Eagles rank sixth on the season as a whole.
And since Week 13, they rank third-best at limiting RB runs of three or more yards before contact, allowing them on just 13% of early-down RB runs. Isiah Pacheco has massive splits with and without three or more yards before contact per rush, and if he doesn’t get that unfettered running room, he’s gaining just 3.4 yards per carry, -0.27 EPA/att and 26% success.
At this time last week, I initially believed Pacheco might have a fair amount of success vs the Eagles on the ground. Now? I’m not so convinced.
For the Chiefs to win, Patrick Mahomes will need to dominate the game. And frankly, while I always knew he was having an incredible season, I underestimated what he did this year.
Give him the MVP and the runner-up award as well. He’s morphed his game more than most people realize and has become undeniable. This offense improved after losing Tyreek Hill, and as hard as that is to believe, it is reality.
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Like the Eagles rushing offense, but then some, the Chiefs passing offense has been tested. They’ve played the seventh-toughest schedule of defenses and Mahomes has played nine games against top-15 pass defenses, most of any QB in the NFL.
He’s played five games against top-10 pass defenses, like he’s about to face in the Eagles. He’s been incredible even in those games, ranking first in the most valuable metrics against top-10 defenses. It’s just not that he ranks No. 1, it’s that No. 2 isn’t even close.
- No. 1 in EPA/att: +0.27. The NFL average is -0.08. The No. 2 QB was +at 0.12
- No. 1 in third-down conversion rate: 58%. The NFL average is 29%, The No. 2 QB managed a 47% rate.
And there are simply too many aspects of this Eagles pass defense that rank really poorly, even without adjusting for the absurdly easy schedule of QBs they played (second-easiest).
A few that stood out in my research:
- On passes thrown 1-9 air yards, the Eagles rank 17th in EPA/att, 17th in success rate, 24th in first-down rate and 26th in third-down conversion rate. On the other hand, they are elite at defending passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield.
- Since Week 11, facing passes from shotgun without play action, the Eagles rank 24th in EPA/att, 23nd in success rate, 28th in YPA, 31st in completion rate and 31st in passer rating (they are the No. 1 defense if the QB uses play action)
- On passes thrown in fewer than 2.6 seconds, the Eagles pass defense ranks 15th (they are the No. 1 defense if the QB holds the ball for over 2.6 seconds)
- They rank 18th in rate of trips to their red zone and 21st in touchdown rate when offenses are inside the red zone. They also ranked 24th in success rate inside the red zone, including 29th vs RB runs. And against multiple-tight-end sets, they ranked 28th vs the pass.
Keep in mind that none of those rankings are schedule-adjusted. And the Eagles defense has played a troubling list of opposing passing attacks.
The Chiefs specialize in all the areas I called out as Eagles weaknesses. They throw 1-9 air yards at a top-10 rate, they throw from shotgun without play action at one of the highest rates in the NFL, Mahomes throws frequently in 1.5-2.5 seconds (though he should emphasize that even more in this game) and they use a ton of multi-TE sets in the red zone.
I wasn’t expecting to see quite so many holes in the Eagles defense without incorporating adjustments for their easy schedule. And I wasn’t expecting so many of these holes to align perfectly with the core tenets of the Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes offense.
If the Eagles do what I think they could on the ground and the Chiefs do what I think they could through the air, we’ve got an incredibly competitive and entertaining game on our hands.
But I return to the uncomfortable narrative question for each team: “what happens if it all goes sideways?”
I’ve found edges. I’ve laid them out. The teams might employ some of these edges offensively. And they might work really, really well.
However, what happens if the strategy they implement on both sides of the ball, that they’ve been working on for two weeks, fails to leave a mark on their opponent in the first half of the game like they think it will?
Maybe the plan wasn’t perfect. Maybe there were execution errors. Maybe someone got injured. Maybe there was a key turnover in the red zone that took away points. We could go on and on.
In one corner, you have Jalen Hurts. If he’s trailing in the second half and needs to come from behind, boy will that be an unfamiliar situation for the Eagles.
They’ve led at halftime by more points on average than any team in the NFL. All good teams with 14 wins are in similar situations to some extent.
The Eagles have been so dominant this season that they’re the No. 3 most run-heavy team in the second half of games thanks to their leads. They don’t ask Hurts to do much late in games. He’s not in the habit of throwing the ball in the fourth quarter of close games. And he’s certainly not in the habit of bringing his team back from a deficit.
Of the 47 QBs with 100+ attempts on the season, only Lamar Jackson (hurt in the back half of the season) and Brock Purdy (didn’t play until the end of the season) have fewer attempts in the second half when losing than Jalen Hurts.
Hurts had the 45th-most dropbacks when losing in the second half.
When he passed the ball in these situations, he went 16-of-22, was sacked three times, and averaged -0.81 EPA/att and 36% success. Those last two efficiency metrics ranked dead last (47th) and 41st respectively out of 47 QBs.
Patrick Mahomes, on the other hand? He ranked second in EPA/attempt and second in success rate out of 47 QBs when trailing in the second half of games.
Mahomes had nearly four times the number of dropbacks as Hurts (96) and when he passed the ball, he averaged +0.36 EPA/att, 56% success and 9.0 YPA.
If you want to expand this to 2021 as well, Mahomes had 261 combined dropbacks and Hurts (on a worse Eagles team) had a lot more too (181). Still, Mahomes ranked third-best in EPA/attempt (+0.24) in the last two years combined when trailing in the second half of games, whereas Hurts ranked 45th, with -0.14 EPA/att.
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Mahomes is built for overcoming deficits. The Chiefs are built for it as well. They throw the ball at a ridiculous rate late in games, even if leading.
Case in point: In the second half of games, when leading by less than double digits (1-9 points) the Chiefs pass the ball at a 62% rate, which is No. 1 in the NFL.
The Eagles? 44%, which is No. 24 in the NFL.
There isn’t anything wrong with that approach. It’s smart to end games as quickly as possible, smother the clock and run on your opponent with your No. 1-ranked run offense. That’s absolutely fine. But it simply means there haven’t been many situations, late in games, that Jalen Hurts had the ball in hands to throw and win for the Eagles.
Simply put, if this game is as tight as the line indicates it might be in the second half, I’d rather have the more experienced QB — who also has performed substantially better in these spots.
I cannot wait to watch this game and all the nuance as it plays out. These two teams aren’t perfect. But if each of them did their homework and expose one another’s weaknesses for all four quarters, we might have a classic game on our hands.
Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.
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