PHOENIX — The all-star cast of players in the trenches should decide the Super Bowl champion.
Sure, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts will make their share of plays. But Sunday’s game will come down to which team controls the line of scrimmage.
The Philadelphia Eagles (16-3) reached this point mainly because of a dominant offensive line that allowed Hurts to thrive. He developed into an AP NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year finalist playing behind a line that features All-Pro center Jason Kelce and All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson.
Kelce, Johnson, left tackle Jordan Mailata, Pro Bowl left guard Landon Dickerson and right guard Isaac Seumalo have excelled in the playoffs, helping the Eagles rack up 416 yards rushing in two lopsided wins. The Eagles outscored the Giants and 49ers by a combined margin of 69-14.
A defensive line featuring four players with at least 10 sacks roughed up opposing quarterbacks throughout the season. Haason Reddick was a game-wrecker against San Francisco, knocking Brock Purdy out of the game.
The Kansas City Chiefs (16-3) know what it’s like to face a fearsome pass rush in the Super Bowl. Behind a banged-up offensive line, Mahomes looked ordinary in a 31-9 loss to the Buccaneers in the big game two years ago.
They’re healthy this time around and have a pair of second-team All-Pros: left guard Joe Thuney and center Creed Humphrey.
On the opposite side, All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones was a nightmare for opponents this season. Jones had 15 1/2 sacks. If Philly’s O-line can’t slow him down, it could be a rough day for Hurts.
When the Chiefs have the ball:
Mahomes, the two-time AP NFL MVP, is a magician, even with an ankle injury that should feel better now than it did two weeks ago against Cincinnati. He’ll look often for All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, who had 110 catches in the regular season and 21 in two playoff games.
Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling had a big game against the Bengals, catching six passes for 116 yards and a TD. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kadarius Toney are ready to go after being injured in that game.
The Chiefs had the league’s 20th-ranked run offense mostly because Mahomes led the NFL in passing. Rookie seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco had 830 yards rushing in the regular season and 95 against Jacksonville but only 26 in the AFC title game. Running back Jerick McKinnon is more of a pass-catching threat. He had 56 receptions.
Protecting Mahomes will be critical to Kansas City’s success. The Eagles are five sacks away from breaking the NFL record for a season. Reddick, Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat and Javon Hargrave each had at least 10 sacks.
Cornerbacks James Bradberry and Darius Slay are among the top duos in the league so they’ll make it difficult for Mahomes to connect often with his receivers. Travis Kelce vs. Philly’s linebackers and safeties is a mismatch that the Chiefs will look to exploit.
When the Eagles have the ball:
The Eagles can beat teams on the ground or in the air. Hurts could run for 100 yards or throw for 300. This offense has plenty of versatility with Hurts leading the way. Miles Sanders had 1,268 yards rushing in the regular season. Kenny Gainwell leads the team with 160 yards rushing in the playoffs. Boston Scott is another option in a stacked backfield.
Hurts only has 275 yards passing in the playoffs but the Eagles haven’t had to throw. They’ve had success running, built big leads and kept it on the ground to chew the clock.
If they air it out, wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith are among the top tandems in the NFL and tight end Dallas Goedert is underrated. The Chiefs allowed a league-high 33 passing TDs this season so it could be a big day for Hurts and his receivers.
Everything starts for the Eagles on the O-line. They’ve protected Hurts, paved the way for running backs and imposed their will on defenses throughout the season.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a two-time Super Bowl champion who has a history of shutting down top offenses in the Super Bowl. Just ask Tom Brady. Spagnuolo is known for bringing the heat to knock QBs off rhythm. Considering Hurts has a major drop-off in production when blitzed, expect Spagnuolo to dial it up.
If Hurts has time, Kansas City’s four rookie defensive backs will be in for a long day.
Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker is perfect in two Super Bowls, making four extra points and four field goals. Punter Tommy Townsend had an All-Pro season with a net of 45.6 yards.
The Chiefs’ return teams were both in the top seven.
Eagles kicker Jake Elliott made all three of his field goals and two of three extra points in his only Super Bowl five years ago.
Punter Arryn Siposs may return for the first time since an ankle injury sidelined him in December. Veteran Brett Kern has been filling in and would make his first Super Bowl appearance of a 15-year career.
The Eagles have had some issues with their coverage units at times this season.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid is facing his former team. He won more games than any coach in Eagles history over a 14-year period. Reid is second behind Bill Belichick (31) with 21 playoff wins. He’s 1-2 in the Super Bowl, including a loss with the Eagles.
Sirianni is 25-12 in two seasons as a head coach, including 2-1 in the playoffs. Like Reid, he’s an excellent game planner. Sirianni is also aggressive and doesn’t lack any confidence.
Reid vs. his former team. Sirianni vs. a coach who fired him. No extra motivation needed for a Super Bowl. Both teams have loud, loyal fan bases who have flooded Phoenix for the game.
Story by Rob Maaddi, Associated Press