Your high school physics teacher should have given you this assignment: determine what will prevail in this battle of No. 1 seeds. Is it the immovable object, a.k.a. the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense or the irresistible force, which you know as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense, who advanced from the AFC Championship game.
The Chiefs and their league-leading 28.2-point-per-game offense runs into the Eagles and their NFL-best pass rush and pass defense.
This explains why the Chiefs led the league in scoring (28.2 points per game), yards per play (6.4) and yards per game (413.6). But can quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Co. find a way around and through an Eagles’ defense better than the one that won a Super Bowl five years ago? Oddsmakers don’t think so and have made them a 1.5-point underdog.
And can the Chiefs shore up a defense that allowed opposing offenses to find the end zone 67.3% of the time they entered the red zone? That was next-to-last in the NFL.
Here, we try answering those questions, looking at the AFC champions position-by-position.
Mahomes Employs Offensive Creativity
Patrick Mahomes is the Miles Davis of the NFL: an improvisational genius. Every time he steps on the field, it’s a Day or Evening at the Improv, because everything from shovel passes to shot-put screens to 60-yard bombs downfield is in his arsenal.
Mahomes led the NFL in passing this season (5,250 yards), more than 500 ahead of runner-up Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers. His 41 touchdowns and 105.7 quarterback rating also led the NFL.
The two-week break will help Mahomes’s tender ankle heal from the high ankle sprain he suffered in the divisional victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’ll need it against the fiercest pass rush and best pass defense in the NFL.
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Pacheco Running the Show
When the season began, Isiah Pacheco was stuck behind first-round draft pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire. By the bye week, Andy Reid made a change and the seventh-round draft pick changed his fortunes—and the Chiefs’. He’s already surpassed Edwards-Helaire’s career high in rushing yards (830) and he led the Chiefs’ running committee with five TDs. This came via a combination of a punishing running style and deceptive speed.
This committee has a second member: Jerick McKinnon. After battling injuries, he re-introduced himself during last year’s playoffs, surpassing his regular-season stats in just three playoff games. This year, he amassed 410 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs, including 56 catches (third on the Chiefs). His ability to get into space for Mahomes’ improvisational skills is crucial for the Chiefs’ offense.
Valdes-Scantling Stepping Up
This remains Kansas City’s offensive X-factor/question mark for two reasons: injuries to key contributors like Kadarius Toney (ankle), Mecole Hardman (pelvis) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and inconsistency.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s 6-116-1 outing against the Bengals came at exactly the right time, because he caught only 47 passes during the regular season. Smith-Schuster (78-933-3) needs to join the parade for Kansas City to win.
Of course, the parade’s drum major makes up for a lot of that inconsistency. You know him as tight end Travis Kelce (110-1,338-12). The best tight end in the game by a wide margin and one of the five best to ever play the game, Kelce is often unplayable because of his size, Velcro-like hands and instinctual ability to find open space. Along with Mahomes, he is the Eagles’ biggest defensive headache by a factor of five.
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Offensive Line has Cracks
Sharp Football Analysis ranked the Chiefs’ offensive line of Orlando Brown Jr. Joe Thune, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and Andrew Wylie as the No. 2 unit in football, grading them an 89.
The left side of that line: LT Brown, LG Thuney and C Humphrey are the strength. RT Wylie, who allowed nine sacks and 49 pressures, is the weak link. Expect the Eagles—they of the league-leading 70 sacks this season—to exploit this relentlessly with OLB Haason Reddick.
Pressure on Defensive Line to Produce
Here’s the best game-within-the-game. Pro Football Focus ranked the Eagles’ offensive line the No. 1 OL in the league. Facing that is a Chiefs’ defensive line with 55 sacks, which ranked second to Philadelphia. And assume the Eagles will know where DT Chris Jones is. The 6-6, 310-pound Jones is the likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year after racking up 15.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 29 QB hits. His clutch sack of Joe Burrow provided the second-to-last nail in the Bengals’ coffin.
Ends Frank Clark (five sacks, eight TFL) and Carlos Dunlap (four sacks, six TFL) are your edge rushers. Their ability to keep Eagles QB Jalen Hurts on the short leash will be crucial for the Chiefs.
Linebackers, Secondary Need to Play Strong
In only his second year, Nick Bolton became the linchpin of Kansas City’s defense. He led the Chiefs with 180 tackles (108 solo, nine for loss) to go with two interceptions and two sacks. As a rookie, he was the NFL’s only player to have more than 100 tackles and 10+ tackles for loss. With Bolton a focus, Willie Gay Jr. (88 tackles, nine TFL, 2.5 sacks) is key to slowing down the Eagles’ running game.
L’Jarius Sneed gets the assignment of sticking with Philadelphia’s standout receiver A.J. Brown if he gets out of concussion protocol. His credentials for this task include 108 tackles, 11 pass deflections, three interceptions and 3.5 sacks and his success or failure here will help write Kansas City’s story in Super Bowl LVII. Fellow corners Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson will need to write their own successful stories to keep both Brown and DeVonta Smith corralled.
Safeties Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill combined for 154 tackles, six tackles for loss, three interceptions (all by Thornhill) and six QB hits. Expect them to cheat up front to slow down the Eagles’ running game.
Special Teams can Kick-Start Chiefs
Kicker Harrison Butker was once ranked only behind Baltimore’s Justin Tucker among NFL kickers. Injuries chipped away at his once-metronomic consistency. Butker made only 75% of his field goal tries (18-24). He was 15-of-17 inside 50 yards, 3-of-7 beyond it, although Butker did drill two 50+-yard kicks against the Jaguars and did nail that 45-yarder to finish off the Bengals.
Punter Tommy Townsend averages 50.4 yards a punt with a healthy 45.6-yard net. He’s put 41.5% (22-of-53) of his punts inside the 20. This is a weapon the Chiefs need to slow down Hurts.
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