After a few memorable upsets this postseason, in the end I think the NFL is getting the best matchup possible for Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers were the most complete team and best defense in the NFC, lost three games in the final seconds, won arguably the game of the year (48-46 in New Orleans), and now we get to see if they complete this remarkable turnaround from 4-12 a year ago. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have overcome so much this season from Tyreek Hill’s on-and-off-the-field problems, a scary dislocated kneecap for Patrick Mahomes, a 6-4 start, a surprise first-round bye gift from Miami, and they’ve erased deficits of 24-0 and 10-0 in the playoffs to earn their first trip to the Super Bowl since the merger.
We have the best player in football against the best defense he could face in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are favored by 1.5 points with a total of 54.5 points, so a classic thriller could be in the works here. This would actually be the fourth-smallest spread in Super Bowl history, and the other three games of 0-1 points were decided by 4-7 points. Don’t get too excited though because the 1983 Redskins were a 2-point favorite against the Raiders and lost 38-9. The under is 6-5 when the total exceeds 50, including last year’s 13-3 dud when the total was 55.5.
I doubt we’ll be calling this one a dud on Monday, but crazier things have happened.
The Last Time
You rarely get much recent history in these Super Bowl matchups. That’s why the most famous game between these teams was probably in 1994 when Joe Montana led his Chiefs to a win over Steve Young’s 49ers. San Francisco still went on to win the Super Bowl, the last time the 49ers were champions.
These teams actually met at Arrowhead in Week 3 last year. Mahomes led five straight touchdown drives to open up a 35-10 lead before winning 38-27. Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL late in that game and it remains the only time he’s lost a start by more than 8 points in his NFL career.
The game doesn’t have any real value for this Super Bowl, but it did provide us with an early highlight for Mahomes on this touchdown pass:
Slow Start Shouldn’t Lead to Blowout
I have seen some concerns that this could be a Seahawks-Broncos sized blowout with the 49ers’ physical defense attacking a “finesse” Kansas City offense, but I really don’t buy that narrative. Yes, pass-happy teams have a rather poor history in title games against tough defenses, but some teams are just different. I think we saw that in the college game this year with Joe Burrow and LSU still lighting up undefeated Clemson’s No. 1 scoring defense, and Mahomes and the Chiefs are certainly not your typical NFL offense. The strength of the San Francisco defense is also in the line’s pass rush rather than the secondary. Sure, Richard Sherman is on the field, but that’s not the Legion of Boom going up against this track-star collection of receivers for Kansas City.
I don’t think a slow start is a death sentence for either team in this game. The Chiefs fell behind 24-0 in the divisional round to Houston and still won 51-31. They were down 10-0 to the Titans in the AFC Championship Game and still won 35-24. Earlier this season, they trailed 10-0 to Oakland before scoring four touchdowns in the second quarter. They turned a 10-0 deficit in Detroit into a 34-30 win. It would not be ideal to fall behind to this San Francisco team like that, but the Chiefs can score in bunches, wouldn’t have to adjust much from a pass-heavy game plan, and they’re really never out of a game with Mahomes.
In fact, the Chiefs have now gone 44 straight games without losing by more than 7 points, the third-longest streak in NFL history. The team with the next-longest active streak is actually San Francisco for all 18 games this year. The 49ers were the league’s last unbeaten, dropping a 27-24 game in overtime to Seattle after missing a game-winning field goal. The 49ers also lost on a last-second field goal, 20-17, in Baltimore in Week 13. Their only other loss was blowing a 9-point fourth-quarter lead to Atlanta with five seconds left in a 29-22 finish.
Garoppolo led a 16-point comeback against Arizona, which was one of his four comeback wins in the fourth quarter this season. He’s actually 7-3 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities in his career, the best record among active starters (min. 10 opportunities). It’s the inverse of Mahomes’ record (3-7), but I made a thread back in November to show that he’s been great in those situations:
We haven’t seen another comeback opportunity for Mahomes since because Kansas City has trailed in the second half for a grand total of 16 seconds during this eight-game winning streak. There could be some interesting scoring runs in this game, but I think both teams are capable of a comeback should they need it.
The Game in a Nutshell
You’ve been fed some appetizer stats, but let’s not overanalyze this one. The 49ers are similar to the matchup the Chiefs just had with the Titans, except they’re better in essentially every area. Tennessee was a good warm-up for the Chiefs, but they’ll have to play even better in this game, which I think comes down to the following:
Can Kansas City overcome San Francisco’s pass rush to put up its usual scoring output, forcing the 49ers into a track meet that demands more from Jimmy Garoppolo, or can the 49ers just play strong defense and keep-away offense to limit Mahomes?
That’s the game to me. I don’t think Patrick Mahomes was put on this earth to play in a Super Bowl that ends 13-3. He’s lost one “defensive struggle” in his career (19-13 to Colts) and that was on a night where his health failed him multiple times. There are going to be several touchdown drives in this game. We know Mahomes basically walks into the building with 23 points on the board, but don’t forget that the 49ers finished second in points this year at 29.9 per game. They even finished ahead of the Chiefs, though not on a per-drive basis and Mahomes did miss about 2.75 games this season for injury. Still, the 49ers are very formidable with scoring and have done so this postseason despite Garoppolo throwing 27 passes in two games.
These offenses couldn’t be any more stylistically different in the playoffs with the run and the pass. Mahomes has even led his team in rushing in both playoff games. Kansas City’s offense remaining incredibly hot in the playoffs led to the Titans dumping the run game in the fourth quarter. I said in that AFC preview that Ryan Tannehill was going to need to play more like he did in the regular season to win that game. The same can be said about Garoppolo in this one, who will need to throw for 250 yards at the very least. I thought he looked like he was pressing in that big game against Seattle on Monday night, but he was also instantly sharp in the duel with Drew Brees in New Orleans. So we probably will get a good sense early how well he’s going to play as the 49ers will look to use play-action on early downs to get chunk plays. Garoppolo rarely throws deep, but when he does it’s usually successful and with purpose. The Chiefs do more improvising to get big plays while Kyle Shanahan has to really dial them up for his offense.
Another part of my AFC preview I wanted to stress was that it is actually very important to have a strong running performance to beat Mahomes. That allows you to wear down the clock and limit his possessions, making any mistakes by the Chiefs that more harmful. The 49ers just had the best rushing performance in a Conference Championship Game in NFL history against Packers. That’s not hyperbole; the 285 yards and 6.79 yards per carry are the highest among the 200 teams to play in that round since 1970. The 285 yards are also more than any of the 106 teams to play in a Super Bowl ever had.
I don’t think the Chiefs should stack the box to make Garoppolo beat them. They didn’t stack the box much to stop Derrick Henry and the Titans as Nate Weller showed here:
Overplaying the run could just make those play-action throws to Emmanuel Sanders and company even easier for Jimmy. I think the Chiefs should expect the 49ers to play a more honest game and get the passing game more involved. At least the Chiefs will hope it’s that kind of game, because their worst nightmare is for the 49ers to gash them with a speedy run game that is more varied than what the Titans had with Henry’s downhill running. Raheem Mostert is a great story and coming off that incredible game, but the 49ers also have had success with Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida this year. Also, check out these numbers from Next Gen Stats that show the 49ers as the best rushing offense from I-formation while the Chiefs are the worst defense against it (albeit only facing it on 12% of runs).
It’s easier to just line up in the I and run it if you’re ahead rather than trailing Mahomes by double digits like so many teams have. So if the 49ers are running at will and shrinking the game on Mahomes, then it’s going to be a very tough one for Kansas City to prevail. That’s why the offense cannot afford so many slip-ups as it’s had at times this year with dropped passes, fumbles and stupid penalties.
The 49ers had the third-best sack rate (9.25%) on defense this year and that was even despite a stretch of the season where they couldn’t get pressure. They’re healthy now and Nick Bosa probably wants that Trump White House visit more than any athlete in history, so he’s a handful for the Chiefs this week. Also, I’m not sure if this is a Dee Ford revenge game or a Chiefs revenge game for his costly offside penalty in last year’s title game. Either way these teams should have their key pass-rushers healthy with Chris Jones back for the Chiefs. It could come down to which one of those guys forces a strip-sack in this one.
Patrick Mahomes: No Weaknesses?
Let’s dig in a bit more on this Kansas City offense since Mahomes is the superstar with the most weight on his shoulders this week.
Mahomes has played in 35 NFL games, but try answering this: what is his weakness?
Mahomes runs out of time more than he actively loses games. I don’t think he has a weakness, and his biggest enemy is the clock or his own teammates. The latter has certainly been the case this postseason where almost every single Kansas City drive has resulted in a touchdown, a dropped third-down pass that would have extended the drive, or they were just trying to run out the clock. It’s been incredible to watch, but obviously the caliber of defense and stakes are higher this week.
Also, we have seen plenty of offenses and quarterbacks look amazing for two playoff games, but sustaining it for a third week is quite hard. Think of the 1990 Bills slowing down against the Giants since they couldn’t get 20 minutes with the ball. A non-Super Bowl example would be the 2003 Colts imploding in Foxboro when Peyton Manning had a terrible game after he demolished the Broncos and Chiefs. Another great example would be the 2016 Falcons where Matt Ryan continued his MVP season through Seattle and Green Bay, but let’s not forget that offense only scored 21 points in the Super Bowl before blowing a 28-3 lead. Oddly enough, all three examples I used involved a hot offense going against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. I don’t think defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is the next Belichick, but the 49ers are definitely better than the Texans and Titans were. Another fact to keep in mind: only the 1994 49ers have ever had three games in a single postseason with at least 35 points scored, and that wouldn’t have happened without a pick-six to start the scoring against Dallas.
But back to Mahomes, where is the weakness? He is a smart, accurate passer who can throw deep, intermediate and short while making very good decisions. The Chiefs are also one of the best teams in the league with the screen game. Mahomes doesn’t take many sacks and he still averages 28.9 PPG when he takes at least three sacks. Mahomes rarely turns the ball over. Even when he had five giveaways against the 2018 Rams, he threw six touchdowns and the Chiefs scored 51 points. Mahomes can improvise with the best of them. He has four games this year with more than 50 rushing yards as he’s been feeling healthy. Mahomes has played in four playoff games. He has zero turnovers and has led his team to at least 31 points in all of them. This will be his first playoff game away from Arrowhead, but the game is being played in Miami, not Middle-earth, so I think he’ll be fine. His career road splits are even better than his home splits.
Whether a defense plays primarily man or (like the 49ers) zone coverage, Mahomes eats up both. Blitzing Mahomes is very risky as you can see in this breakdown from NFL Research:
One thing Mahomes hasn’t done much of this postseason is throw deep. We know he’s great at getting the ball 20+ yards down the field, but the 49ers have had a great year at defending deep passes too:
As a defense, you basically have to hope for those third-down drops or a holding penalty or a RB fumble or Andy Reid calling two-to-three straight runs. Mahomes just finds a way to put up numbers in every situation as long as he’s healthy. I put together this table on his eight losses and what happened in those games:
You can really see how the clock and not getting the ball hurt here. In four of his last five failed comebacks, Mahomes only had one possession with a one-score deficit late in the game. Seattle and Indy were the only teams to deny Mahomes a fourth-quarter lead. That Indy loss sticks out like a sore thumb as it was the only non-playoff team to beat Mahomes so far. It’s also the only time a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) beat Mahomes without throwing for 270 yards or scoring at least 29 points. As I showed on Twitter, Mahomes’ stats in losses make him “The Best Loser” in NFL history:
It would be very surprising and disappointing to see Mahomes have a bad game on Sunday. As a counterpoint, the 49ers may be the best defense Mahomes has seen in the NFL, or at least the best front seven. A very pass-happy game plan against this front could be problematic if the protection is getting beat. The 49ers held five teams to 100 net passing yards this year, the first defense to do that since the 2000 Titans. The 49ers embarrassed Kirk Cousins and the Vikings in the divisional round and did the same to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay for a half in the playoffs. As a counter to the counter, Drew Brees and Kyler Murray had strong games against the 49ers, so they didn’t shut every QB down. Jared Goff and Russell Wilson also saw better results in their second matchup with them later in the season.
Mahomes is better than anyone right now, but he’s going to have to be great in this game.
Two Quarterbacks, Two Historic Starts: The Jimmy G Angle
Mahomes isn’t the only quarterback in this game off to a historic start in his career. I wrote for SF Weekly about Jimmy Garoppolo and how he stacks up to Mahomes (and Otto Graham). So please read that for more on Garoppolo, who can certainly put up enough points to win this one against Mahomes.
The 49ers and Chiefs led the league in YAC per reception this season. Super Bowl teams will often give the league something to think about as a trend going forward in an effort to emulate their success. We’ve seen it before with the 2011 Patriots’ offensive approach of using two tight ends, or the deep defensive line/edge rotations the 2013 Seahawks and 2017 Eagles utilized.
I think 2020’s trend will be about speed as the Chiefs and 49ers feature the two fastest offenses based on Next Gen Stats’ average top speed by ball carriers:
The Ravens and Vikings weren’t far behind either after successful seasons on offense. More speed sounds great, but you don’t want to find yourself in practice watching Darrius Heyward-Bey lined up against Fabian Washington. You need more than just a great 40 time to make this work. Tyreek Hill is super fast, but he can also cut on a dime and looks like a video game player on the field. Mecole Hardman isn’t far behind in that regard, so it was a smart move by the Chiefs to draft him. I also really like the Deebo Samuel pick for the 49ers, but beyond the individual talent I think the scheme plays a big part in these numbers too. These offenses can create a lot of spacing with play-action and boot-action and get players in the open field where they can turn on the jets.
Raheem Mostert just had perhaps the greatest rushing performance in playoff history and he was barely touched until he was several yards past the line of scrimmage most of his plays. Is he suddenly the best speed back in the NFL, or is this happening because of the system he’s running in right now? When it comes to running backs, I think we know the answer there.
Both of these offenses are among the top in using shifts/motions before the snap, which is where that speed can really come into use:
No pun intended, but this is slowly becoming a bigger trend in the NFL with the league average rate climbing from 38% in 2014 to 47% this past season. You can see from that graphic how Kyle Shanahan has been a huge proponent of this style while Andy Reid has added a lot more to it with the Mahomes-led track-star offense they have now.
One of the more interesting speed matchups in this game to me is if the Chiefs can get Hill or Hardman deep against the bigger, but older and slower Richard Sherman. We know Sherman isn’t likely to shadow anyone, but that’s where the motion can come in handy.
The speed on the field should help this be a higher-scoring game, but I think it would be naïve if NFL teams start thinking they could just find athletes like this and replicate what these teams do.
The Coaches: Redemption Arc
Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan are two of the game’s best offensive minds. They have both lost a Super Bowl before and are looking for their first championship win as a head coach. With the Eagles, Reid was criticized for his usual clock management issues and passing too much in Super Bowl 39 against the Patriots. As Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, Shanahan was part of the 28-3 collapse to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. The main points of contention were not calling a run on 3rd-and-1 with a 28-12 lead and not just calling runs to kick a field goal to go up 11 after Julio Jones’ great catch.
Have they learned from past mistakes? In Reid’s case, he was actually ahead of the curve on being pass happy, but he didn’t have a quarterback to justify that until he matched up with Mahomes. Having said that, if this is a game where Mahomes has 50-60 dropbacks and the running game has like 12 carries for 40 yards, there’s probably going to be a sixth trophy in San Francisco. You can ignore the run in home playoff games against defenses the caliber of Houston and Tennessee, but going that pass-happy against the 49ers on a neutral field is unlikely to pay off. So that will be interesting to watch.
For Shanahan, he’s continued to run the ball this postseason because it’s worked beautifully and the score hasn’t dictated a need to throw. Garoppolo has thrown just 12 passes since he was picked off in the Minnesota game. Maybe some see this as hiding a weakness, but I think the 49ers could use it to their benefit as the game tape from the postseason just doesn’t show much from their passing game.
Either way, this newest champion will adhere to my five-year rule about coaches and quarterbacks winning their first Super Bowl together. Reid and Shanahan linked up with their quarterbacks in 2017, so this is their third season together. But for Reid in particular, this would be a historic Super Bowl win.
Of the 32 head coaches to win at least one Super Bowl, 28 of them won their first championship within the first five seasons with that team. Only Chuck Noll (six years in Pittsburgh), John Madden (eight years in Oakland), Tom Landry (12 years in Dallas) and Bill Cowher (14 years in Pittsburgh) needed more than five years to capture that elusive first ring. Reid is in his seventh season with the Chiefs, but it’s his 21st season as a head coach in the NFL. That would beat Cowher’s record wait by seven years.
A win would all but make the Hall of Fame a lock for Reid. He might still get there with a loss too, but one shouldn’t assume he’ll have an opportunity better than this. Mahomes is a difference maker, but Reid is 61 and things change quickly in this league. I’m sure people said similar things about Don Shula and Dan Marino in Miami 35 years ago, but they never returned to another Super Bowl after losing to the 49ers. People tried to make a dynasty out of Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans after one Super Bowl, but they have never made it back. The same people jumped ship to the Packers and Aaron Rodgers a year later, but they too have never made it back. The AFC has been easier to sustain success, but you just never know.
Kittle vs. Kelce
George Kittle and Travis Kelce are the two best tight ends in this post-Gronk NFL. I’m not going to let what happens in this game decide who is the best, but you know some people will do that. Personally, I think both players are in the best offense for their skills. If you want a pass-happy offense where the tight end runs more vertical routes, Kelce is the guy to line up as a receiver. If you want a more balanced offense with a tight end to block and play on the line more, then Kittle is the guy. I also think Kittle is more dangerous after the catch, but Kelce is no slouch there either.
Both players are a treat to watch and I wouldn’t mind seeing a game where they both go off for over 100 yards. Just keep in mind that the 49ers allowed the fewest yards (552) to tight ends in the regular season while the Chiefs allowed the fifth most (961) according to Pro Football Reference.
Including the playoffs, the Chiefs (+8) and 49ers (+7) are in the top 10 in turnover differential for 2019, but neither is dominating the stat. Garoppolo is more likely to turn it over and take sacks than Mahomes. Garoppolo sometimes misses linebackers and that accounts for some of his worst interceptions. The running backs have a bad habit of fumbling for the Chiefs, which were crucial in the team’s losses this year.
Defensively, both teams are near the lower end of the top 10 in takeaways per drive. So they both can take the ball away, but the 49ers have relied more on fumble recoveries while the Chiefs are more likely to get interceptions. That plays into each offense’s ball security weakness. The only two turnovers in Kansas City’s postseason run were both on special teams in the Houston game.
I had to bring this up because you know practically every championship run is keyed by a turnover in the playoffs. These teams haven’t really had to play dramatic fourth quarters the last two games, but Sunday could be the time when someone becomes a hero for one of these teams.
We know anything can happen in one game, but season trends on third down also suggest this could be a track meet with two of the five best offenses in the league at extending drives. The Chiefs (47.6%) led the NFL in third-down conversion rate and the 49ers were fifth at 45.0%. The 49ers were the second-stingiest defense on third down, allowing a conversion one third of the time while the Chiefs were a respectable 12th (37.1%).
Garoppolo actually led the league this year with the highest rate of first downs (50%) on third-down passes. He wasn’t feasting on third-and-shorts either. Garoppolo was second on 3rd-and-8+ situations at 36.8%. Garoppolo famously converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 plays on a game-winning drive against the Rams in December. Meanwhile, Mahomes was obviously no slouch on third down. He ranked second at converting (57.8%) to only Garoppolo (63.5%) on third-and-medium passes (3-7 yards) this year. Mahomes had three of the league’s seven touchdown passes on 3rd-and-16+ in 2019.
Neither offense has been particularly good on third-and-short (1-2 yards), but the 49ers are one of the four offenses this year that will run the ball at least two-thirds of the time there. The Chiefs are 24-20 in favor of the run, but we’ll see if they are fine with a quarterback sneak in the biggest game of their career. That was the play Mahomes dislocated his kneecap on in Denver, but it’s generally a safe play and still the most effective play from scrimmage in the game.
Would it surprise you to learn that the Chiefs (54.0%) and 49ers (53.2%) are ranked 20th and 21st in offensive red zone touchdown percentage this year? It hasn’t been an area of strength, though it hasn’t always mattered since the teams found other ways to score. Mahomes averaged 28.5 yards per touchdown pass this year, the highest average in the league (min.10 touchdown passes). The 49ers weren’t very good in the red zone, but they were great at getting drives to reach the red zone. Their 62 red zone drives trailed only Baltimore (64). San Francisco’s average offensive touchdown was 18.3 yards, good for fifth in the NFL.
The San Francisco defense obviously has a lot of gaudy statistics, but the red zone is not one of them. They allowed a touchdown 60% of the time, tied for 22nd in the NFL. The Chiefs allowed a touchdown just over half the time, tied for ninth.
I’d certainly prefer if this game was totally uneventful on special teams. The 49ers haven’t had a great season there, but they were 12th in DVOA and had their highest EPA (source: Pro Football Reference) on special teams against the Packers last time out. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were 2nd in DVOA this year, but just had two of their worst games of the season on special teams by EPA in the playoffs. They obviously still won both games after some redemption plays against Houston, but they can be hit or miss with their explosive returners.
I don’t know if I’d risk my life on Harrison Butker (Chiefs) or Robbie Gould (49ers) making a game-winning field goal, but if I had to, I’d feel better than I would if Mike Vanderjagt or Nate Kaeding was swinging the leg.
No punts please.
After nearly 5,000 words I think it’s time to make my prediction. You rarely want to see a Super Bowl blowout, but this matchup especially is one I hope is very competitive and goes down to the wire. Neither team has really had a poor performance all year, so they’re always in the game. You can look at the 49ers and say they could easily be 17-1 if they made a field goal in overtime against Seattle and stopped Julio an inch shorter of the goal line. Conversely, they could have been 11-5 and the fifth seed in the regular season if they didn’t convert a fourth down in New Orleans and didn’t stop the Seahawks an inch short at the goal line in Week 17. The margin can be that thin in this game we obsess over every detail of.
There are a lot of areas that favor the 49ers, and I think historically the 49ers are the type of team more likely to win this game than a team like the Chiefs. There are just more ways for the 49ers to win while practically every positive outcome for Kansas City involves Mahomes playing really well. Then again, Mahomes is 9-0 in his career when his passer rating is under 90.0 because he’s the best at doing what the coach who succeeded Reid and preceded Shanahan used to say: f***ing score points.