With less than two minutes remaining in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback, was in trouble. His team was down 21–14 to the Philadelphia Eagles—a score that was closer than the first half had felt. The Chiefs were deep in their own territory, facing third-and-fifteen. The snap was low; the receivers were covered; the offensive line was beginning to crack. Mahomes danced, ducked, and then began to run. He was rounding into open space when the Eagles’ sprawling T. J. Edwards grabbed his foot and pulled him down. Mahomes, who had been dealing for weeks with a high ankle sprain, rocked from his back to his knees, hunched, and stood up, then began to hop on one foot, clearly in pain. The backup quarterback began to loosen.
This is how legends grow—they linger on the setup. The rest of the story, more or less, is better left to tell itself. Injuries are overcome. The hero triumphs. On Sunday night, that story wasn’t wrong, exactly. In the second half, Mahomes came out, magicked into health by the Chiefs’ trainers (and, perhaps, by the marvels of modern pharmaceuticals), and led the Chiefs to scores on all four of the team’s possessions, including a game-winning field goal with eight seconds left. There were a few of the breath-catching quick-slung sidearm throws that Mahomes is known for, and more than a few moments when he seemed to have a preternatural awareness of the unfolding field. Despite his bum ankle and the stadium’s slick turf—players kept slipping throughout the game—he even managed a few impressive long runs, including one, a twenty-six-yard scramble, with the score tied at 35, that brought the Chiefs inside the Eagles’ twenty-yard line with little more than two minutes to play.
But it wasn’t the whole story, of course. Leading up to the game, it was often repeated that the Eagles had the better team, but the Chiefs had Patrick Mahomes. In fact, for much of the game, it was Jalen Hurts, the Eagles quarterback, who was the more exciting one to watch. Mahomes spent large portions of the game on the sideline, as the Eagles dominated the possession of the ball—the Chiefs only ran fifty-three plays, a shockingly low number—while Hurts was busy spinning his own legend. Before this season, Hurts was best known for having been benched in the second half of the College Football Playoff championship, in 2018. And it wasn’t so long ago, hardly two years, that he was benched by the Eagles during a game in favor of the hapless Nate Sudfeld. This season, though, he was very good—an M.V.P. candidate—and, in the first half of this game, he was unstoppable. He completed seventeen of twenty-two pass attempts, for a hundred and eighty-three yards and a touchdown, while running for sixty-three yards and two more touchdowns. He was unhurried in the pocket and a revelation on the run.
Hurts is about the same weight as Mahomes, but he carries it differently. Mahomes can look almost top-heavy; Hurts never seems to be unbalanced, even when bouncing off linebackers. Several of those rushing yards came on quarterback sneaks, in which Hurts was basically used as a battering ram to push the ball through a teeming, flailing mass of men. Somehow, he managed to emerge from the awful scrum looking smooth and successful every time. Indeed, he controlled the football so totally that he seemed to be the only person capable of beating himself—which he did, fumbling a ball that the Chiefs returned for a touchdown. Nevertheless, the Eagles entered halftime up ten, in a game that usually favors the early leader.
For a while, the game just became fun. Two great quarterbacks were playing well. The coaching battle was interesting, too. In the first half, the Eagles’ hyper-aggressive coach, Nick Sirianni, held the clear advantage. In the second, it was Andy Reid’s turn to show off his playbook wizardry—particularly on two crucial plays. With the ball a few yards from the end zone, a Chiefs receiver motioned toward the slot, causing the Eagles’ defense to adjust—but then, as soon as the ball was snapped, the receiver turned around and ran back to his original position. Before the defense could undo the adjustment, the receiver had a wide-open path to walk into the end zone. The Chiefs pulled off that same trick for touchdowns two possessions in a row. There was a thrilling punt return, an iconic halftime show from Rihanna, and, with less than two minutes remaining in the game, a tied score. And Patrick Mahomes, the generational talent, the face of the game, held the ball.
In a more storybook version, Mahomes would have then completed some dazzling touchdown pass to win his second Super Bowl in four years. In the way it played out, there was a tetchy holding call that brought the Chiefs well within field-goal range. The game deflated; the mood soured. It wasn’t a bad call, exactly—even the Eagles cornerback James Bradberry admitted that he had tugged the jersey of the Chiefs receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. But, given the moment, it wasn’t a call that seemed like it had to be made. This was, as is so often the case in the N.F.L., a story of officials, of the sport’s apparatus, getting in the way of a good game. ♦