KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Of all the potential matchups for Super Bowl LVII, this was the one that was always the most intriguing.
We have the Kansas City Chiefs chasing their second championship in the last four years and the Philadelphia Eagles pursuing their second title in the last six years. We're going to see the top seeds in the AFC and NFC square off. Of course, we also have familiarity. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid is taking on the same franchise that he spent 14 years leading, while the Kelce brothers (Eagles center Jason and Chiefs tight end Travis) will tangle for family bragging rights.
What makes this game more fun is the way both teams arrived here. The Chiefs were supposed to take a step back after trading away star receiver Tyreek Hill. Instead, they became more balanced, developed a young defense and watched quarterback Patrick Mahomes produce a season that should end with him being named Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player for the second time in his career. Just as interesting is the fact that no league MVP has won a Super Bowl in the same season since Kurt Warner accomplished that feat with the Rams in 1999.
The Eagles operated in a similarly impressive fashion. The same squad that finished 9-8 and earned a wild-card appearance in 2021 blossomed into the darling of the NFC with a 14-3 regular-season record. Philadelphia relied on a strong defense, a dominant running game, dynamic receivers and a third-year quarterback who grew up at just the right time. Mahomes may have been the best player in the league this season, but it's hard to argue that the Eagles' Jalen Hurts wasn't the runner-up.
Now we'll see how these teams measure up against one another. They each faced their share of obstacles to reach this point, and it should be a great contest based off their strengths. This week's First Read will provide our first glimpse on the factors that will impact the outcome of Super Bowl LVII. These are the most significant ones worth noting …
1) Patrick Mahomes needs to keep blowing us away. Anybody who watched Mahomes limp his way through most of Kansas City's Divisional Round win over Jacksonville had to be skeptical of how much he could move around against Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game. Mahomes was dealing with a high ankle sprain, one that was so problematic he hardly did any running at practice all week. It turns out an injury that can sideline mere mortals for four-to-six weeks doesn't pose the same issues for somebody like Mahomes. He threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals and only turned the ball over once (on a third quarter fumble when the ball slipped out of his hand on a pass play). It's hard to know how healthy Mahomes will be in a couple of weeks against Philadelphia, but he proved those questions don't matter that much today. He made critical plays at key junctures and put his body on the line time and again to generate points for his team Sunday. Mahomes now gets to face an Eagles team that boasts the best pass defense in the league. Judging by how he handled himself against a Bengals defense that had given him problems in three previous losses, he'll probably be just fine.
2) Jalen Hurts needs to make history. The one thing we've never seen happen in the NFL is a team winning a championship with a true dual-threat quarterback. Hurts has an opportunity to change all that, and he's easily the best prepared to do so. The Eagles arguably have the league's best offensive line, a bevy of talented running backs and dangerous pass catchers in A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert. However, most of those players were in Philadelphia last season. The biggest difference with this team is Hurts and his ability to impact games with his legs and his improved passing. Hurts didn't have to do a ton in Philadelphia's 31-7 win over San Francisco in the NFC championship -- he only threw for 121 yards and ran for 39 yards -- but there's no denying what his presence means to this team. The Eagles lost both games that Hurts missed with a sprained right shoulder toward the end of the regular season. They're 16-1 this season when he's on the field.
3) The Eagles' pass rush must dominate. No team in the league had a more ferocious pass rush than Philadelphia this season. It produced 70 sacks and four defensive linemen finished with at least 10 quarterback takedowns. That unit blew up the 49ers' game plan in the NFC championship, as the Eagles injured both starting quarterback Brock Purdy and backup Josh Johnson. To understand how feeble the San Francisco passing attack became in that contest, all you need to know is one stat: The 49ers finished with 83 passing yards. The scary part about the Eagles is they accomplished that level of success against a San Francisco offensive line that is one of the best in the league. There will be some obvious advantages on the edge against the Chiefs, who've received inconsistent play from offensive tackles Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie. It will be critical for the Eagles to exploit those matchups whenever possible. If they can't pressure Mahomes, they won't win this game.
4) The Chiefs' defense must continue to deliver. The Chiefs knew this season would be about growing pains on their defense, especially because they relied on so many rookies playing key roles. What nobody could've predicted was how well those young players would perform on such a big stage. Joe Burrow threw two huge interceptions in the AFC title bout and both wound up in the hands of first-year cornerbacks (Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams). Rookie defensive end George Karlaftis also added a sack, while rookie safety Bryan Cook tipped the pass Williams wound up picking off. It also didn't hurt that the Chiefs' pass rush capitalized on a Bengals offensive line that was missing three starters. Kansas City amassed four of its five sacks in the first half, with All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones picking up the first two playoff sacks of his career. The Eagles' offensive line -- as well as Hurts and his weapons -- will present a much different challenge for the Chiefs. This will be the best running team Kanas City will have faced this season, and Hurts isn't afraid to go after teams with his arm. The Chiefs played a large part of the second half with five rookie defenders on the field at key moments. They'll have to keep growing up in a hurry.
5) The Eagles' running game can't slow down. The Eagles didn't have the best rushing attack in the league in terms of statistics, but they easily had the most diversified. Everybody gets a taste in this offense, from Miles Sanders to Kenneth Gainwell to Boston Scott and Hurts. This offense ran for 148 yards against the NFL's best defense. Philadelphia has rushed for at least 135 yards in 12 games this season and eclipsed the 200-yard mark five times. The more Philly can establish that presence on the ground, the more it can put opposing defenses in a precarious position. The Eagles are so loaded on the outside with Smith and Brown at receiver that deep play-action shots invariably become available for Hurts to seize. The Chiefs actually ranked eighth in the league in rushing yards allowed, so don't expect them to get rolled in this aspect of the game. Middle linebacker Nick Bolton is a gifted run stopper, and K.C. is much faster on defense because of that youth movement. So, you can bet Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni desperately wants to win this matchup. The more he can control the football on the ground, the less chance Mahomes has to do something special with it.
6) The Chiefs' receivers need to be healthy. One of the more impressive aspects of the Chiefs' AFC championship win was their ability to deal with so many injuries to their receiving corps. Kadarius Toney went down with an ankle sprain. Mecole Hardman aggravated a pelvic injury that had sidelined him for weeks. JuJu Smith-Schuster sustained a knee injury that forced him out of action. It's fair to say the Chiefs don't win this game if wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling doesn't turn in his best performance of the year: six receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown. It's also realistic to think the Chiefs aren't going to be nearly as successful throwing the football in Super Bowl LVII without some of these players being available. As good as the Eagles are up front, they're equally impressive on the back end. That's where talented cover cornerbacks like Darius Slay and James Bradberry operate and ball-hawking safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson makes momentum-changing plays (he tied for the league-high with six interceptions despite missing five games due to injury). Mahomes has proven that he doesn't need a stud wide receiver like Hill to win games in this league. However, it would help immensely to have a few more of the guys he's relied upon all season ready in this contest.