PHOENIX – With victory requiring 46 players spread across the offense, defense and special teams to perform as close to their best as possible and frequently contingent on telepathic understanding between players executing blocking schemes, route concepts, pass coverages and pressure packages, football is considered the ultimate team sport.

In that sense, it is a contradiction that the quarterback position, being the most important for any team, commands so much attention.

Most of the focus will be on the signal-callers in Super Bowl LVII, and rightly so. Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts are making history in becoming the first Black quarterbacks to face off in a Super Bowl in the Kansas City Chiefs’ mouth-watering clash with the Philadelphia Eagles and are both candidates to win the MVP award on Thursday at the NFL Honors ceremony in Phoenix.

While that pair of superstars will obviously have a mammoth part to play in deciding the winner of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, so often it is the game within the game in other areas that settles the NFL’s showpiece.

And there are several such granular contests that figure to have a substantial bearing on the outcome in Arizona. Let’s dig into the numbers and examine three matchups that could decide Super Bowl LVII.

Kansas City’s Chris Jones vs. Philadelphia’s Isaac Seumalo/Jordan Mailata

When the Chiefs have needed him most in the postseason, Jones has typically delivered. Jones is in the curious position of being established as one of the premier defensive linemen in the NFL, but still arguably being underrated.
While so much emphasis is placed on the offensive side of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LIV comeback four years ago, Jones was the man who ensured the San Francisco 49ers could not respond with the disruption he provided up front.

In the AFC championship game this season, it was Jones – deployed off the edge rather than his familiar interior spot – who easily beat Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Hakeem Adeniji and brought Joe Burrow down for the key fourth-quarter sack that ended a potential game-winning drive and gave the ball back to Mahomes to lead the Chiefs to a decisive field goal.

Jones, who ranks third among all defensive linemen in his aggregate pass rush and run-block win rate, is a versatile force who has the talent to disrupt the best-laid plans of the Eagles.

The Eagles rank first in pass-block win rate and second in run-block win rate, encapsulating the well-rounded nature of their ultra-impressive offensive line. However, there are weaknesses, with right guard Isaac Seumalo (61.5%) well below the 70.5% pass-block win rate average for his position and left tackle Jordan Mailata (74.3%) only just above the NFL baseline of 72.9% for his spot.

As such, Jones will almost certainly see snaps in the interior against Seumalo and others where he’s 1-on-1 with Mailata. Their ability to hold their own against the best defensive player on the field will go a long way to determining whether the Eagles can justify their status as slight favorites.

NFL playoff bracket

Kansas City’s Travis Kelce vs. Philadelphia’s Avonte Maddox

The trade of Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins ultimately did no damage to the Chiefs’ status as one of the NFL’s preeminent modern offenses, with Kansas City leading the league in offensive EVE (Efficiency Versus Expected) in 2022.

With Hill out of the picture, Kelce has unsurprisingly served as the focal point of the attack. Arguably no two players in the NFL enjoy the same level of symbiosis as Mahomes and Kelce consistently display. The future Hall of Fame tight end continues to confound defenses with his route running and ability to create yardage after the catch.

His domain while generating those headaches for defenders has primarily been the slot.

Of Kelce’s routes in the 2022 season, 300 have come from the slot, compared to 173 from the outside receiver position and 139 from a traditional tight-end alignment. His burn rate, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, ranks seventh (75.0%) among slot receivers with at least 25 targets. In other words, he has created separation from his defender on three-quarters of his slot targets in 2022.

Shutting down Kelce is a challenge, but the Eagles have a player who is statistically the best remedy to the threat he poses in Maddox.

Maddox’s combined open percentage allowed across man and zone coverage of 18.1% is the best of any cornerback in the NFL. By that measure, Maddox is the top slot and he’ll need to prove it for the Eagles to have any hope of containing Kelce and, in turn, the Chiefs.

head-to-head EVE rankings
(Final Regular Season Ranks)

Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts vs. Kansas City’s front seven

Two weeks removed from winning the AFC championship game on a sprained ankle, there is the question of how much of a running threat Mahomes can be in a game in which even a sporadic impact from him on the ground would make a significant difference in keeping the Eagles back on their heels.

While he has recently dealt with a sprained shoulder, there will be no such doubts surrounding Hurts. The Eagles will run the ball, and Hurts will be integral to their game plan in doing so.

Hurts and the Eagles have done an outstanding job of keeping defenses guessing with a diverse run game built around the zone-read and the read-option when the starting quarterback has been healthy this season. That presents a rather large problem for the Chiefs, whose primary weakness on defense is – you guessed it – stopping the run.

The Chiefs have fallen to 17th in run defense EVE since the start of the postseason, with their performance dropping to 24th against the rush in neutral situations – when the offense could realistically either run or throw the ball.

Philadelphia’s offense thrives by creating doubt in the defense over what is coming in neutral situations. The Eagles excelled at doing so in the NFC championship game to the point that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner – who represents the gold standard at his position – was left stationary for key plays as indecision superseded his usually outstanding instincts.

Kansas City’s linebackers are not of the same caliber as Warner, with starters Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. both below the average in run defense win rate (17.7%) for the position. Their fallibility in that regard is something the Eagles will endeavor to attack time and again.

It will take an intelligent and likely more measured approach from a defensive front known for its aggressiveness and an exceptional display of awareness for the Chiefs to avoid a long and very painful evening on the biggest stage.