Lombardi: Previewing the Super Bowl LVII matchup

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One of my favorite movies is Hoosiers, starring Gene Hackman as Norman Dale, a rundown basketball coach with a hidden past who attempts to restart his life in Hickory, Indiana, a basketball-crazed town. Dale is an outsider, who doesn’t endear himself to the townsfolk at first; when the team begins to win, they rally behind him. Hickory reaches the State finals in Indianapolis, and Dale takes the team onto the court the day before the game. With a tape measure in hand, Dale has his players measure the distance from the backboard to the free throw line. Then he has them measure the height of the rim. After they take both measurements, he explains they are the same exact size as their home gym in Hickory. Dale wanted his players to understand the game isn’t changing because the venue is bigger, and the stakes are higher. The only thing that matters is how they play on that night—nothing else. This story might appear to be only for Hollywood or high school kids, yet the reality is omni-present for professional athletes. 

The Super Bowl is the largest stage of any event and comes with enormous pressure. Preparing players to deal with the situation is one of the head coach’s biggest challenges. Not only must Andy Reid and Nick Sirianni devise a championship game plan impacting the game on the field, but they also need another plan to help the players handle the “moment.”

 

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Fortunately, both teams have players and coaches who understand the Super Bowl “moment,” which will allow them to help their teammates and coaches understand how to stay calm and relaxed when the game starts. Panicking can become the biggest enemy in the game. How players and coaches keep their poise will be a critical part of our handicapping when predicting the outcome.  

So how will Reid and Sirianni approach the mental aspect? These five steps will be their focus, helping the entire team.   

Handling the Mental Challenge

 1. Keep your concentration in the “now.” In every NFL game, the most important play is the next play. The team that can go from one good or bad play to the next without losing focus will win the game. 

 2. Recognize when your focus “time travels” and bring yourself back. Remind the players not to focus on what lies down the road—time travel is for Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, not for Super Bowls. 

 3. Keep your focus on you,  your job and your play. The only thing that matters is how you handle yourself and trust your teammates to handle themselves. Do your job the best you can on this day. The rest will take care of themselves. 

 4. Leave your goals at home. There is no need for any individual goals in the game. The only goal is to play well one play at a time. Nothing is more important than winning, and all the players understand their numbers will not be as important as the W in the win column. For the fans, the prop bets are fun; for the players, winning is the only fun. 

5. Keep your focus of concentration away from the “uncontrollables.” Relax. When players and coaches start to worry about what doesn’t matter, then they lose focus and make mistakes. Before Super Bowl 16 game, Bill Walsh dressed as the bell captain handling the players’ bags as they got off the team bus. Then, in Super Bowl 19, he took a nap in the locker room before the game.

When teams like the Eagles and Chiefs are evenly matched, there are specific game situations that will determine the outcome. Understanding how to handle those situations will be the most important aspect of the game. 

Fourth Quarter

In all games, the fourth quarter is a standalone game, meaning who is in the lead doesn’t matter as much as who is in control. For example, each team recently won Super Bowls in close games with the fourth quarter deciding the winner. The Eagles’ defense, which didn’t force New England to punt all day, caused a turnover to win the game. Neither the Eagles nor the Patriots had control of the game. The lead went back and forth, and it wasn’t until Brandon Graham forced the fumble on Tom Brady that the game outcome was decided. The Chiefs, trailing by ten points in the fourth, rallied back for the win against the 49ers. Even though the 49ers appeared to be in control when looking at the scoreboard, they never were. On a 3rd and 17, the Chiefs were able to convert and eventually score, cutting the lead to three, thus putting pressure on the 49ers to move the ball—which they couldn’t. In those games, both teams were challenged, responded, and won. And based on the odds and handicapping both teams, this game should be a fourth quarter game with the mentally toughest team finding ways to win. 

Risk/Reward

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street expresses risk reward perfectly when comparing decision-making with high-level chess. Parrish writes: “When playing chess, a grandmaster chess player never makes a move without assessing the complete risk. To win, you have to avoid losing. Avoid stupidity before seeking brilliance.” We all know analytics will play a huge role in the game, and one team will take a chance—which could prove costly. To avoid losing doesn’t mean you play conservatively; it means you play smart, and winning a Super Bowl requires smart decisions. Making smart decisions requires having the right play call at the right time.

Special Teams

When teams are evenly matched like the Eagles and Chiefs, there are specific game situations that will determine the outcome. For example, neither team has a special teams advantage. In former Dallas Morning News pro football columnist Rick Gosselin’s special team rankings, (something he has compiled for over 20 years and is highly valued by all special teams coaches), the Eagles rank 31 overall and the Chiefs, 32. In Football Outsiders, the Eagles rank 13th in Special Teams DVOA and the Chiefs 19th. Whichever metric you prefer, neither team excels in this phase and in a game this tight, the unit that raises their level of play might help win the game. In the AFC Championship game, Skyy Moore’s 29-yard punt return, the longest return of the season for the Chiefs, helped the Chiefs win the game. Both kickers, Harrison Butker of the Chiefs and Jason Elliott for the Eagles, have missed extra points. Butker missed three on the season and Elliott missed two. When it comes to field goals, Elliott has been more reliable, missing only two kicks outside of 40 yards all year. Butker suffered an injury in the opening game which caused him to miss games, and since then, he has been inconsistent, missing five kicks over 40 yards. In close games, the extra points and field goals are critical.

The Red Zone

As with all NFL games, the Red Zone usually determines the outcome. Philadelphia is third in the NFL in red zone scoring, but 11th in red zone trips. Kansas City is second in scoring, but first in the amount of time they enter the red zone. On defense, the Eagles are 12th in overall red zone performance and 23rd in the number of times teams enter the red zone. The Chiefs are 32 in red zone defense, and 22 in red zone trips allowed. Both teams can score, and the winner will be which defense wins the red zone, which on paper favors the Eagles. 

Third and Short

The critical downs in these games are always the possession downs that appear to be the easiest to convert—third and fourth and less than two yards. The Eagles are one of the best teams in this situation, using their rugby-style formation to push the pile forward. They are almost unstoppable, and this allows them to keep the ball away from the Chiefs’ offense. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are one of the worst in this area. and the winner of the game will come down to which team wins this situation. The Chiefs cannot knock anyone off the ball. Their offensive line isn’t physical enough, so they rely on deception, misdirection or Mahomes being great to convert third and short. And often, Mahomes comes through.

Who Wins the Middle Eight?

Both teams thrive on playing from in front, and these are the two best teams in first-half scoring—Eagles average 18.2 per half and the Chiefs average 15.5. The variance occurs on defense where the Eagles allow 9.6 points per half for an 8.6-point differential, and the Chiefs allow 10.8 for a 4.7 net advantage. With the Birds having the advantage in first-half scoring, this will place added pressure on the Chiefs to correctly manage the middle eight and stay attached to the Eagles. 

Will Andy Run the Ball?

When facing the one-dimensional Tennessee Titans (the Titans started Malik Willis at QB) this season coming off their bye week, the Chiefs attempted 68 passes, because they couldn’t run the ball and lacked balance in their offense. Teams know Reid gets bored with the run—even when he has success running the ball. Last week against the Bengals, Lou Anarumo wasn’t going to allow the Chiefs to run the ball. The Bengals loaded their front, forcing the Chiefs and Mahomes to test his injured ankle. With Mahomes “almost” healthy, the Chiefs will need to have more balance attacking the Eagles and their suspect run defense. The last time they faced one another, the Chiefs ran the ball 32 times for 200 yards and 12 first downs. In that game, which doesn’t apply the Chiefs controlled the game and score—having seven possessions and scoring six touchdowns, going 9/10 on third down. Reid loves to become pass-happy, even if his line cannot protect—which is what happened in the Titans game this year. The Titans forced the Chiefs into 19 third downs during the game, and the longest play was a 33-yard pass from Mahomes to Mecole Hardmen. The Chiefs ran 91 plays in the game, needed two Patrick Mahomes scramble runs to tie the score, then overtime to win the game. Why is this game important in the handicap? Because the Eagles, like the Titans, can apply pressure when only rushing four. They also can dominate the third and short part of the game and hold the Chiefs to 2-4 in the red zone.

Pocket Control

The only way to handle great passers is never with coverage—it’s only with a precise pass rush plan. Both quarterbacks are escape artists. Hurts can make plays with his feet and arm, while Mahomes moves around and becomes a different player when the play becomes “schoolyard.”  How each team’s defensive line controls their rush will be the determining factor in who throws the ball most effectively. If the Chiefs coordinate their rush, forcing Jalen Hurts to be a pocket passer (which the 49ers did well), his impact on the passing game will be less effective. If they don’t, then the amount of man-to-man coverage Steve Spagnuolo can call becomes less. And forget the spy (spies only work in TV shows) when it comes to man-to-man. Hurts is able to break away from the spier, and with all the Chief defenders turning their backs to the field, the chances of a big play become greater. How each team coordinates the rush will be the deciding factor.

Winner

What makes this game so much fun to handicap and select is that they are evenly matched. And even though, on paper, the matchups favor the Eagles, the great equalizer, Patrick Mahomes, can alter the outcome.

Stay tuned for the picks on Sunday.