Which data matters for Chiefs-Eagles a week away from Super Bowl: Sharp Edges

Warren Sharp

FOX Sports NFL Writer

We’re still over a week away from Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles, which means we’ve got plenty of time to break down the data.

I ran my models to give you my favorite betting edges a week ahead of the Super Bowl. My goal for this weekly column is to always provide you with nuggets you didn’t know before reading this piece.

Let’s take a look at my favorite edges so far, with odds courtesy of FOX Bet.

Zooming in on data that matters

When digging into matchups to predict game outcomes, and the Super Bowl is no different, a lot of analysts might look to season-long rankings for each team found on a variety of different websites.

Personally, my approach for years has been to obtain the play-by-play data myself and build my own models and tools to parse and analyze what is most important.

But in this Super Bowl, more than most, I would caution against using full-season statistics that are compiled using all four quarters of every game.

The reason?

One of the biggest topics you will hear discussed for this Super Bowl is, “who have they played?” and it applies for both teams. The Eagles played the easiest schedule of opponents this year. The Chiefs played the fourth-easiest schedule of opponents this year.

Because both of these teams were elite to begin with, as a result of the easy schedules, the Eagles led at halftime by 7.1 points on average (best in the NFL) and the Chiefs led by 4.5 points on average (fourth-best). The Eagles led by 8.7 points on average entering the fourth quarter (second) and the Chiefs by 7.4 points on average (fourth). These leads by the Eagles were even more pronounced if you remove the two games that Jalen Hurts didn’t play.

Teams tend to stick to an identity early when looking to build leads. But there can be a lot of variance with what a team does after getting that lead.

For the Eagles, the term “turtle up” can explain their second-half philosophy. Philadelphia was the fifth-most pass-heavy team on early downs in the first half of games. That dropped to the third-most run-heavy team on early downs in the second half of games.

Here is a graphical illustration:

They stand alone as one of the most conservative teams with a lead in the second half of games.

The Chiefs, as you can see, are the most pass-heavy team on early downs in the first half of games, but they dropped to about a league-average rate in the second half.

As it relates to the fourth quarter alone, let’s examine where the Chiefs rank there:

The Chiefs dip to the bottom 10 in pass rate (25th).  And the Eagles get even more conservative, dipping to 32nd, the least pass-heavy team in the NFL.

The reason that both teams switch their strategies late is one element and one element only – their leads in games.

Getting back to the Eagles, take a look at where they rank statistically in the first half of games vs. the second half:

  • First half: Fifth in third-down avoidance, second in EPA/play
  • Second half: 19th in third-down avoidance, 22nd in EPA/play

The Eagles literally dropped from second to 22nd in EPA/play between the first half and the second half. They were extremely fast to pack things up and try to end the game quickly. This was a regular occurrence well before Hurts’ shoulder injury in Week 15. In Weeks 2 and 3 for example, this team led 24-7 and 24-0 at halftime and didn’t score a single second-half point, and won each game by over 15 points.

But this is not just an offensive phenomenon. When teams are leading by large amounts at halftime, or into the fourth quarter, they play defense differently as well. 

For instance, the Eagles were the NFL’s best defense in the first half of games, but dropped to seventh in the second half. The Chiefs’ defense was slightly above average in the first half (15th) but when teams were trying to come from behind on them in the second half, they gave up more production and dropped to 20th.

The bottom line: This Super Bowl, more than most, analyzing where these teams rank and how they perform by situation and period of game will be far more valuable than looking at full game rankings or data.

Trench play is massive in a Super Bowl

Here is a listing of the offenses that gave up the most pressure in the Super Bowl since 2015 and the results:

  • 2021 – Bengals (43%) – lost to the Rams
  • 2020 – Chiefs (55%) – lost to the Buccaneers
  • 2019 – Chiefs (41%) – beat the 49ers
  • 2018 – Rams (44%) – lost to the Patriots
  • 2017 – Patriots (41%) – lost to the Eagles
  • 2016 – Falcons (56%) – lost to the Patriots
  • 2015 – Panthers (49%) – lost to the Broncos

That’s a 1-6 record. This is not the end-all, be-all for a Super Bowl. But a defensive line that can negatively affect passing attacks in the Super Bowl has gone a long way toward delivering success for a team in the Super Bowl.

Several factors impact pressure. How strong a quarterback’s offensive line is and how quickly the quarterback is throwing the ball are two of the most key elements.

While it might be surprising, on the season, Hurts is throwing just 23% of his passes when holding the ball for three-plus seconds. That’s the 25th-most in the NFL. And 58% of his passes are thrown within 2.5 seconds, which ranks the fifth-most.

Meanwhile, Patrick Mahomes is holding the ball for three-plus seconds on 34% of his passes (sixth-most) and 51% of his passes are thrown within 2.5 seconds (12th-most).

From a pressure perspective on offense, the Eagles offensive line allowed pressure on 30% of Hurts dropbacks (eighth-lowest) while Mahomes was pressured on 34% of his dropbacks (16th-most).

From a pressure perspective on defense, the Eagles recorded pressure at a 39% rate (second-most) while the Chiefs ranked seventh (36%). Only 21% of dropbacks against the Eagles did a QB hold the ball for three-plus seconds before passing (second-lowest rate) while that rate was 28% vs. the Chiefs (20th lowest).

Mahomes has shown his ability to overcome pressure and still win a Super Bowl (the only quarterback to be pressured more than his opponent and still win a Super Bowl since 2015). But it’s far from ideal circumstances and the Chiefs absolutely need to discover a way to apply more pressure on Hurts if they want to see success in the Super Bowl.

Is the Chiefs defensive improvement real?

There are peaks and valleys to every team in every season. Some periods of strong performance and other periods of weak performance. 

For both offenses, they have each been tremendous over the entire season. As we can see from the below graphic, both have ranked at the top of the NFL in EPA/play in the first nine weeks as well as since Week 10:

But one of the least discussed elements of the Chiefs down the stretch has been the improvement of their defense.

Over the first nine weeks of the season, the Chiefs’ defense ranked 26th in EPA/play allowed. However, since Week 10, they rank seventh. Compare a defense like the Eagles, which has remained consistently the best in the NFL, to the Chiefs:

So the question to ask is, is this improvement real or is it on account of their schedule?

A key element has been their improvement in pass defense, which has partially been due to their schedule and partially due to their philosophy.

In the first half of the season, the Chiefs’ defense ranked 25th in EPA/pass and 21st in EPA/rush. Over the second half of the season, they improved to 10th against pass and 10th against the run, showing the largest improvement in their pass defense (from 25th to 10th).

One thing that stands out defensively during this run is how they’ve played with lighter boxes in general.

In the first half of the season, the Chiefs played with seven-plus box defenders on 60% of early-down plays in the first half (10th-highest rate) and 59% in the first three quarters (19th-highest rate).

In the second half of the season, they played with seven-plus box defenders on only 48% of early-down plays in the first half (sixth-lowest rate) and 51% in the first three quarters (fifth-lowest rate).

Last week, against Joe Burrow’s Bengals, the Chiefs played with seven-plus box defenders on only 30% of the Bengals early downs in the first three quarters.

It will be interesting to see how this looks in the Super Bowl.

If the Chiefs inevitably play with heavier boxes more frequently against the Eagles, it undoubtedly will hurt their pass defense which had improved substantially thanks to playing more coverage. 

But if the Chiefs do try to stop the Eagles with lighter box counts, as they’ve been playing more frequently over the second half of the season, the Eagles must audible to runs and make them pay. And this could provide rushing upside for Miles Sanders, in particular, whose yardage prop is 58.5 yards. When Sanders is hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, he averages 2.4 yards per carry. But when he can cross the line of scrimmage without contact, he averages 6.7 yards per carry. And the Chiefs contact running backs at or behind the line on just 37% of carries, the NFL’s third-lowest rate.  That rate is unlikely to increase unless the Chiefs play with more men in the box.

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