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February 12, 2023

Final observations: Chiefs 38, Eagles 35

The Eagles lost in the worst possible way Sunday in Super Bowl LVII.

A holding call on Eagles corner James Bradberry goes into the NFL's book of infamy, with the late penalty helping the Chiefs to outlast the Eagles in a 38-35 shootout.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Long ago, we were able to conclusively determine that Jalen Hurts is the quarterback of the future. The result of this game had absolutely no impact on that idea, but Hurts coming out and playing a banger in the biggest game of his life was the cherry on top. This guy is going to be here for a long time, and he is going to give Philadelphia chances to win big games as long as he's in an Eagles uniform.

Calling Hurts a product of the system has always ignored how integral he is to this system working. There aren't many (if any) quarterbacks who you can call repeated designed runs for in the Super Bowl, confident he's going to gash the opponent. His strength in the center of the line is an enormous part of their short-yardage success. Hurts has worked with tons of time in the pocket for most of this season, but he has also pulled rabbits out of his hat when flushed out of the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield long enough to find open weapons in scramble drills.

Each time there was a moment in this game where it felt like their control on the game was slipping, Hurts managed to come up with a play or a throw that took your breath away. Whether you think Dallas Goedert's disputed third-quarter catch was valid or not, the placement of Hurts' throw was borderline immaculate, the QB dropping one into Goedert between two defenders as he drifted toward the sideline.

(While we're on the subject: Dallas Goedert has not gotten the same shine as Philadelphia's top two receivers this year, and he has not been as explosive as those guys for sure. But he is a unique talent at the position, a guy they can target in the middle of the field or down the sidelines, killing the opponent with power, finesse, or speed depending on the moment.)

Most of the Philadelphia area was ready to throw in the towel on this game when the Chiefs went up eight points midway through the fourth quarter, with Andy Reid putting on a second-half clinic on offense. Hurts stared down death and said, "Not today." When the Eagles needed it most, he found DeVonta Smith down the sidelines for a huge gainer that should have been a touchdown. Moments later, it was Hurts punching the ball in for six points, on yet another QB sneak that required him to burrow through a mountain of bodies in the middle of the line.

But the biggest play was still left to be made. Hurts' score would not have mattered as much if they failed to convert the two-point conversion, as the Chiefs simply could have run the clock down to win the game. And with the season and history on the line, the Eagles asked Hurts to be Superman once again. Running out of options, drifting toward the sideline, he put his head down and dared Kansas City to bring him down, a challenge they proved incapable of meeting.

Seriously, what more can you say about this dude? Three touchdowns on the ground, one touchdown through the air, 300+ yards passing, and highlight-reel play after highlight-reel play on the biggest stage of his damn life.

Think about the road he took to get here. Benched at a big-time college program. Rejected by the starter upon being drafted, who was threatened by his selection (and in hindsight, certainly should have been). Written off by many as a guy who would never make it as a top-tier QB after an up-and-down season under Nick Sirianni last season. All this guy does is find ways to dismiss the critics, the doubters, and the defenders trying to stop his team from scoring. He had an awesome year, punctuated by an awesome performance.

• Whatever you have to say about coaching and system in this game, I think basically everybody involved on offense for the Eagles can walk away from this game with their heads held high. A.J Brown came up with a spectacular touchdown catch and some huge yards after catch. Smith was Mr. Reliable, climbing over the century mark for yards while serving as Hurts' top target. Goedert came up with big play after big play on third down, even if one of those was up for debate after he came down with it. They put 30+ points on the board against the AFC's best team, and they didn't exactly struggle to make that happen.

I would have liked to see the Eagles play more aggressively in the second half, frankly, but their sense of balance is part of what allowed them to take (and succeed with) deep shots in this game, catching the Chiefs cheating in an effort to keep the run game down.

• Jake Elliott has been money in big moments for the entirety of his NFL career, and that did not stop in the Super Bowl.

• I felt C.J. Gardner-Johnson's hit from across the country. That is laying the goddamn wood.

He was just about the only guy on defense who was heard from in the second half, which is a damn shame. I wish there had been more plays like that from the Eagles throughout this game because that hit represented the physicality missing from the performance for most of the night. 

The Bad

• All the first-half success in the world doesn't matter if you come out flat in the second half, and Jonathan Gannon's group looked like hot garbage on the opening series in the second half. There were real concerns about Patrick Mahomes and his ability to move after he limped to the sideline on Kansas City's final series of the first half. Either they gave him the greatest drug cocktail of all time or there was divine intervention because the Eagles made him look like regular ol' Patrick Mahomes during that first series.

There's no shame in Mahomes beating you with absurd throws, but his long, meandering scramble through Philadelphia's secondary felt like a product of playing too cautious around the quarterback. Afraid to lay the wood on Mahomes and pick up a penalty, the defense probably gave up 5-to-7 extra yards before eventually bringing him down.

Way too easy, and the Chiefs were right back in the game with little effort exerted and little time taken off of the clock.

• A big Quez Watkins drop in a big game, drink. I guess you've all already been drinking, but one more can't hurt at this point.

• All season long, I wrote a variation of the sentence, "Philadelphia's poor special teams play has a chance to cost them a playoff game." It didn't matter in two NFC playoff games that they won going away. Turns out, when you're in a tight game and have little margin for error against an all-time talent at QB, special teams are going to matter a bit more.

Thrust back into the lineup after an injury layoff, Arryn Siposs' low punt early in the fourth quarter gave Kadarius Toney a chance to return the kick, but blaming everything on the punt alone would ignore the shambolic coverage once Toney brought the ball in. Seriously, he is basically surrounded by Eagles here, and no one even comes close to bringing him down before he reverses fields and nearly takes the return to the house.

This is simply not good enough in a playoff game of any kind, let alone the Super Bowl.

The little issues added up. Throughout the first half, concerns about Philadelphia's pace of play lit up social media, with fans and media alike worried the Eagles were in danger of delay of game penalties. The chickens came home to roost in the second half, with the Eagles forced to burn a timeout late in the third quarter because they'd run the play clock down.

(This is one of those things that's hard for me to dole out blame for on the outside looking in, so let's just pin it on a combination of the coaching staff and QB. The offense was great in many ways, but this was a glaring issue throughout the night.)

You could make the argument that this was an example of the difference in experience between the two teams, although I think that'd be disingenuous because the Chiefs had multiple unforced errors that extended Eagles drives in the first half. Super Bowls, though, are decided on the margins, with penalties and special teams and little mistakes that add up to kill you with 1,000 cuts. Between special teams, taking long to get up to the line of scrimmage, and a few costly penalties, the Eagles left enough meat on the bone to give the Chiefs a chance.

• Philadelphia's defense had not played a team as good as this one in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, and their defense was put to the test against the league's premier talent at QB. Allowing Mahomes to hurt you — even a banged-up Mahomes — is nothing to get too upset about. Where I thought the Eagles really lost the plot was in the run game, which was basically free money for the Chiefs all night long.

Through three quarters, rookie running back Isiah Pacheco was averaging nearly six yards per carry against the Eagles, inflicting serious pain on would-be tacklers every time he got a chance to tote the rock. I thought Kansas City played a much more physical brand of defense than Philadelphia all night, laying some serious hits on guys like Smith in the open field. Gannon's boys rarely even had a chance to do the same thing, unable to get to Mahomes and rarely lined up to make a play against his skill-position guys. There were flashes for Philadelphia on defense, certainly, though they mostly came in the second quarter. 

• What exactly was Vic Fangio consulting for leading into the Super Bowl if this was the final result? Kansas City's offense is awesome, but man, the Eagles offered little-to-no resistance most of the night.

Andy Reid gave the Eagles an atomic wedgie for most of the second half, the most glaring example coming on the score that put the Chiefs ahead early in the fourth. Whatever Darius Slay thought was coming never happened, and with their No. 1 corner scrambling toward the middle of the field, Mahomes threw an easy one toward the sideline, Kadarius Toney simply walking into the end zone for a critical six points:

How much do you criticize Gannon vs. how much do you credit the Chiefs? I suppose you could split the difference here, acknowledging that a huge task was in front of them in the Super Bowl while noting they looked totally unprepared to even slow the Chiefs down. Philadelphia's much-ballyhooed pass rush struggled to impact the game, leaving the secondary with plenty of work to do on the back end. And that group was duped by nothing more than pre-snap motion, the Chiefs disguising their intent well throughout the game.

For me, it's very difficult to heap praise on the Chiefs when all they needed to do to discombobulate the Eagles is use pre-snap motion. The Eagles being this bewildered by it cost them big time, and they found themselves unable to do anything to help the offense out.

• You could argue that Philadelphia's defensive line turned in the single most disappointing performance in Eagles history on Sunday, when you combine their pedigree, their success this year, the stage that this game happened on, and the expectations everyone had for them. Mahomes deserves his share of the credit for executing brilliantly behind the line of scrimmage. But the guys who are supposed to wreck shop up front — Reddick, Graham, Cox, Hargrave, Suh, Sweat, and on and on — did absolutely nothing for most of the game.

This group put together a historic season, and they were nowhere to be found when it mattered the most. Disappointing to say the least.

• The reason this loss stings is not because the Eagles are an aging team on the decline. Philadelphia is likely to lose a few high-impact veterans in the months and years to come, but the spine of the team is set up to compete for quite a long time.

But the Eagles are unlikely to have as clean of an opportunity again. They had their star quarterback on a rookie deal, and his soon-to-escalate salary will force them to make tough roster decisions (likely at cornerback, for starters). They have been remarkably healthy for most of this season, which is not something you typically have much control over. They absolutely earned the right to have an easy path through the NFC, but you figure that the conference will get better around them, shrinking their margin for error.

Look back through the last two decades of the NFL and the Patriots/Tom Brady are a gigantic outlier. There are plenty of elite, all-time QBs who put up crazy numbers year after year and struggled to merely make an appearance in the Super Bowl, let alone win one, let alone win more than one. Think about Aaron Rodgers’ career path — he had the world in front of him when he won his first Super Bowl at 26 years old, just two years older than Hurts is today. Rodgers has failed to reach the biggest game in football in the 13 years since.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of the organization. Sirianni is young, intelligent, and aggressive, a combination of traits that tend to give teams an advantage in the butt-clenching moments during the playoffs. Their quarterback is dynamic, a multi-threat player with absurd weaponry around him who has the leadership traits you covet in the face of your franchise. The architect of the roster has proven he can turn over talent and retool as necessary, even when it means making controversial selections like the Hurts pick. And they’re all backed by an owner who has overseen a tremendous couple of decades of Eagles football, the best in the franchise’s history.

All hope is not lost. I think this is the best Eagles team ever even with a loss in this game. But you only get so many cracks at the big game and the Lombardi Trophy.

The Ugly

• The penalty called on James Bradberry in the final two minutes of this game is one of the single softest penalties I have ever seen in a championship sporting event.

You let these guys play for most of the night, then call that nonsense at the most pivotal moment of the night. Wouldn't let whoever threw the flag officiate a Pop Warner game.

• There's an argument to be made that the playing surface for this game was the story of the night. Traction on the grass was a problem for both teams and players of all sizes. Big tight ends, small running backs, offensive linemen, retreating safeties, linebackers in coverage, and certainly the quarterbacks, too. Players falling to the turf untouched was basically inevitable, and while it didn't take away from the game's quality, it was frustrating to watch it have an impact on basically every play.

A few guys never seemed to adjust. It felt like TJ Edwards spent roughly 50 percent of this game unable to stay upright, which was a pretty big deal on a day where the Eagles needed to slow down Travis Kelce. But it's hard to fault any individual player for slipping when planting to accelerate was all but guaranteed to take you to the ground. 

If this is the best they can do in Arizona, they shouldn't be allowed to host this game or any other game of consequence. No reason for this absurdity. They developed a new breed of grass for this game? What was wrong with the grass that has been used for the rest of our lives? Sorry excuse for a Super Bowl playing surface.

• The officiating in this game also fell short of the moment. Andy Reid was asleep at the wheel on Dallas Goedert's third-down conversion early in the second half, and as a result of incompetence from the officials, he and his crew got to look at the controversial call for a couple of minutes while the refs made an attempt to explain what was going on.

The Eagles did everything right, immediately getting up to the line and trying to run a play, but their own actions didn't matter. I genuinely feel like replays and officiating make games worse (and slower) rather than better, which is not something I would have imagined as a kid watching games in 480p. Figure this mess out.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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