Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Patrick Mahomes
At the end of his fifth season as an NFL starter, Patrick Mahomes already has the résumé of an NFL Hall of Famer. He won his second MVP on Thursday night after leading the NFL in passing yardage and passing touchdowns this season, and topped it off with a second Super Bowl championship and a second Super Bowl MVP on Sunday against the Eagles.
Mahomes threw three passing touchdowns in Kansas City’s 38-35 win, but his most important play might have been a gutty scramble. Just three weeks after suffering an ankle injury against the Jaguars and after re-aggravating that injury in the second quarter, he broke off a 26-yard run—his longest of the entire season—to get Kansas City into the red zone in a tie game with three minutes to go, helping setting up an easy game-winning field goal:
It’s the second Super Bowl in which Mahomes has led a double-digit second-half comeback: In 2020, the Chiefs trailed 20-10 at the end of the third quarter; on Sunday, they trailed 24-14 at halftime. In the fourth quarter of those two games, he’s thrown four touchdowns and one interception.
Mahomes had only 182 passing yards and averaged fewer than 7 yards per attempt. He didn’t have any of his signature miracle throws; Eagles QB Jalen Hurts had more passing yards and more highlights. But in four hours of football, Mahomes made no mistakes. He had no turnovers and despite being pressured on 25.9 percent of his dropbacks, he was never sacked. He completed 21 of 27 passes, and two of his incompletions were throwaways, so he essentially hit on 84 percent of his throws. He completed the Chiefs’ entire postseason run with zero interceptions. Mahomes is usually spectacular; in the Super Bowl, he was dependable—and that was what the Chiefs needed as they roared back to win their second title in four years.
Loser: Ball Security
The best player in the Super Bowl wasn’t a hobbled Mahomes. It was Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, who played the best game of his fascinating football career. He threw for 304 yards and ran for three touchdowns; he threw inch-perfect needle threaders between Kansas City cornerbacks; he scored the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth quarter.
But Hurts made one game-changing mistake. With the Eagles up 14-7 in the first half, Philadelphia called a QB draw for Hurts. The Chiefs read it perfectly, requiring Hurts to make a move to beat Kansas City linebacker Nick Bolton. As he did, Hurts clumsily jarred the ball loose from his own hands. It was an unforced fumble, and Bolton returned it 36 yards for a touchdown:
It was a life preserver when the Chiefs were floundering. The Eagles were up by a touchdown and moved the ball at will for the entirety of the first half; all of a sudden the game was tied. It would be foolish to think this play alone was responsible for the Eagles’ loss—they gave up points on every second-half drive by Kansas City—but it was a huge momentum shift and led to the largest shift in win probability (by far) on any play all night.
Sunday night was proof of concept that Hurts is a good enough QB to win a Super Bowl. He’s a great passer, a sensational runner, and a fantastic leader. When he was younger, he folded in big moments—he played terribly in the national championship game as a freshman and was famously benched as a sophomore—but Sunday night, he was up to the task on the biggest stage … except for the time he forgot to hold on to a football.
Winner: Kadarius Toney
We love an out-of-nowhere performance in the freakin’ Super Bowl! Who can forget former Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews (176 career receiving yards) going for 109 yards and a TD against the Patriots in 2015, or former Washington running back Timmy Smith (602 career rushing yards) being the only player with a 200-yard rushing game in the Super Bowl?
This year’s candidate is Kadarius Toney. A standout at the 2021 combine, he never scored a touchdown for the Giants, who picked him 20th in that year’s draft. Toney always seemed to have some unexplained nagging injury; even though the Giants struggled to find enough receivers to put on the field this season, he barely played. New York’s new coaching staff wasn’t particularly invested in a player drafted by their fired predecessors, so they dealt Toney to the Chiefs in October. He was listed as a starter for the Chiefs, but recorded only 14 catches in the regular season.
But in the fourth quarter Sunday night, he made a pair of plays that will cement him in Chiefs lore. First, he lost an Eagles defender on a nasty release to get himself wide open for an easy touchdown on a swing pass by Mahomes; I’m not sure the Eagles realized where Toney was until after the pass was in the air.
That gave the Chiefs a 28-27 lead; a few minutes later, Toney helped extend that. On a short punt, Toney broke a tackle, reversed field, and found himself behind a wall of Chiefs blockers. He flashed his 4.38-second 40-yard-dash speed and brought the ball all the way to the Eagles’ 5-yard line. At 65 yards, it’s the longest punt return in Super Bowl history.
Toney was a great addition for the Chiefs, who started the year with Skyy Moore trying (and generally failing) to return punts. He’s just as fast and talented as he was when the Giants drafted him, and now he’s got Patrick Mahomes throwing to him. Maybe Toney will be another flash-in-the-pan Super Bowl hero—or maybe Sunday was the night that the guy so quickly labeled a bust started to turn his career around.
Loser: Defensive Holding
I don’t believe that there’s a vast conspiracy by NFL referees to hand championships to certain teams—but if there were, it would feature 50-50 calls in the pivotal minutes of close games, something that’s happened in the closing moments of the past two Super Bowls.
Super Bowl LVII was a thriller: The Chiefs and Eagles combined for nine touchdowns, 757 yards of offense, plus highlight plays on defense and special teams. The Chiefs erased a 10-point lead, then the Eagles scored a late touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the score at 35 with five minutes left. But the game ended with an anticlimactic fart.
With just under two minutes left, officials called Eagles defensive back James Bradberry for a hold on Chiefs receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, giving the Chiefs a first down at the 11-yard line. In an extremely rare instance of officiating-related honesty by an athlete, Bradberry admitted that he grabbed Smith-Schuster’s jersey—but it’s the sort of ticky-tacky hold that didn’t seem to significantly affect the play. Officiating blog Football Zebras called it “one to pass on”:
The flag gave Kansas City a fresh set of downs, a backbreaker for the Eagles as they ran out of timeouts. It was possible for the Chiefs to effectively end the game without scoring a touchdown. Running back Jerick McKinnon passed up the opportunity to score a touchdown by sliding inbounds to keep the clock running—I don’t know how he resisted the urge to score the go-ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl; he deserves some sort of trophy for this—then Mahomes kneeled twice to drain the clock to eight seconds. Kicker Harrison Butker hit a chip-shot 27-yard field goal with less than 10 seconds remaining—the least-exciting Super Bowl–winning play imaginable. (It wasn’t all that different from how the Chiefs won the AFC championship game two weeks ago, with a game-winning field goal after an unnecessary-roughness call on the Bengals put the Chiefs in field goal range.)
It was also stunningly similar to the end of last year’s Super Bowl, when Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson was flagged for a questionable hold on Rams receiver Cooper Kupp with less than two minutes to go, setting up a game-winning Rams touchdown. That situation was slightly different, since the Rams still needed to score a TD while the Chiefs were already in position to kick a go-ahead field goal. But both were iffy calls that turned third-down stops into first downs in the red zone.
The refs were pretty decent for most of the game, and several of the biggest calls went Philadelphia’s way (notably an overturned touchdown by Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton on a catch-fumble and a non-holding call on Bradberry early in the game), but in the end, a call that didn’t need to be made caused a massive shift in determining who won the NFL’s championship. Again.
The Super Bowl is the time for you to bet on the dumbest things imaginable: the first song Rihanna will sing at halftime; the uniform number of the first TD scorer; and, of course, whether the coin toss is heads or tails. (Tails, as you may have heard, never fails, and did not on Sunday night.)
This year, the hottest bet was on doinks—field goals or extra points that bang into uprights, making the beautiful metallic sound of failure. And virtually every bettor believed in the Super Bowl doink:
The stats on this were not good. There were 223 missed field goals or extra points in the NFL this season; only 27 of them have a description of “hit upright” or “hit crossbar.” It’s possible not every doink was described in official play-by-play by the scorekeepers, so this could be an undercount—but if there were 27 doinks in 272 games in the regular season, that’s roughly one in every 10 games, but at +450, the implied odds were as if it happened once in every five games.
But wouldn’t you know, we got a Super Doink. For some reason, the Chiefs attempted a field goal on fourth-and-3 at a point when their offense was averaging over 9 yards per play. Harrison Butker generously took one for Team Doink and blasted the ball into the left upright:
With over 90 percent of gamblers banking on this long shot, sportsbooks must have taken a beating on this prop—but it also could have convinced millions of novice gamblers that wagering on sports can be fun and whimsical, the first step to eventually convincing them to bet on the English third-tier relegation battle. (Just a random example that I might know something about.)
Loser: Expensive Grass
Ahead of this year’s Super Bowl, much was made about the new grass field grown specifically for the big game. The turf at Arizona’s stadium has often been subpar—in December at the Fiesta Bowl, a number of Michigan and TCU players had issues with footing—but supposedly, the NFL had put in the time, money, and research to guarantee a better playing surface. Media outlets wrote glowing articles about a durable, new Bermuda blend created by grass scientists at Oklahoma State with an investment from the U.S. Golf Association; turf masters spent two years lovingly growing the grass for the game.
But almost from the moment the game kicked off, the grass was disastrous. Patches of turf flew up whenever players changed directions, so much so that Fox reported at least six Eagles players swapped out their cleats for shoes with better traction at halftime.
But the slippage persisted throughout the game, on all sorts of plays. Here’s Eagles kicker Jake Elliott landing on his ass after slipping on the grass during a kickoff:
Running back Isiah Pacheco slipped as he was attempting to celebrate a touchdown:
My instinct would be to roast the NFL for being careless enough to host a billion-dollar football game without considering improving the playing surface. But it seems like the NFL did put a lot of effort into improving the surface … and the turf guys just did a bad job? I’m not sure whether incompetence is worse than carelessness—let’s find someone who can grow some grass!
Winner: Chris Stapleton
Every performance at the Super Bowl was great! No cynicism here! Sheryl Lee Ralph delivered a resounding performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; they got Babyface to sing “America the Beautiful”; and YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SAY ANYTHING BAD ABOUT RIHANNA SHE DID THE SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW WHILE PREGNANT.
But only one performer made a coach cry: Chris Stapleton’s smooth-as-Tennessee-whiskey rendition of the national anthem. Cameras caught Eagles coach Nick Sirianni with blueberry-sized teardrops streaming off his face:
It’s possible that it was just the emotion of the moment as opposed to the actual quality of the singing, and that Sirianni would’ve wept even if DJ Khaled had done the national anthem. Regardless, it was the most impressive crying we’ve seen on an NFL field since Knowshon Moreno.