Super Bowl Preview
The San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs will face off this Sunday in what many rightfully expect to be one of the best games of the year for Super Bowl LIV. It felt like 49ers Chiefs was one of, if not, the best potential Super Bowl matchup going into the playoffs and here we are. This is just the second time in the last twenty years that the point spread for the game has been below 2– the Chiefs are currently favored by 1 point after opening as a pick’em. The only other time was in 2014 for Super Bowl XLIX between the Patriots (-1) and Seahawks which was about as close as a game can get without actually going to over time, and one of the more entertaining Super Bowls in recent memory. I think this Sunday will be no different. Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Kansas City offense are coming in off of an impressive 8-game winning streak while the 49ers have won 5 out of their last 6 including two dominant wins in the divisional round and NFC championship game. In the end I think San Fran has what it takes to pull off the slight upset. Here’s why:
Kansas City comes in with the 3rd rated offense in the NFL and the 14th ranked defense in terms of efficiency as rated by pro football outsiders. This is a season long evaluation as of December 30, 2019 so those rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt– Kansas City has out-performed those numbers in recent weeks, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. San Fran meanwhile, has the 7th rated offense and 2nd ranked defense in the league. What’s important to note for the 49ers, though, is that they are healthier now than they have been for most of the season, especially on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. They were without Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander– two key pieces on their defense– for 5 and 8 games respectively. Linebacker Kwon Alexander, in particular, is huge for this defense and is considered by many to be the leader on that side of the ball for Shanhan’s niners team. The games he didn’t play this year were also some of the 49ers worst defensive performances– allowing 21, 31, 29, 46, 20, 8, 26, and 27 points in games he did not suit up. In games he did play, their defense allowed 25, 13, 0, 7, 3, 20, and 17 twice. To be fair, some of these games were against poorly rated offensive teams like the Bengals, Redskins, and Browns but still, his importance to this team can’t be overlooked. Outside of linebacker, the defensive unit that is going to have to show up for the 49ers is their defensive line. Part of the reason they’ve been so dominant in the playoffs thus far is their ability to rush the passer without having to blitz. Bosa and Ford are going to have get some key tackles/sacks in non-blitz packages to contain Mahomes. The chiefs have such fast skill guys and Andy Reid is such a great offensive mind (with two weeks to prepare, no less) that San Fran’s DB’s and Safety’s are going to need all the help they can get (important to note also, 16 of the 18 interceptions Mahomes has thrown in his career have come against 4 or fewer pass rushers). Not to mention, as we saw in the AFC championship game, Mahomes is a serious running threat if the play beaks down and he sees an opening. There’s a reason Bosa is the 7th player listed to win MVP, and I don’t think he’s a horrible bet at +1800 if you think the 49ers will win. Not only is he an impact player, but Jimmy G isn’t at all a lock to win MVP if the 49ers do in fact end up winning– despite a Quarterback winning Super Bowl MVP 29 times out of 53 games– given how much they tend to rely on their run game.
One thing that will be interesting to see is how the 49ers come out on defense. Throughout the year they ran predominantly cover 3 defense i.e. zone. They run a very similar defense as the Chargers who were able to limit Mahomes to just 19/32,182 yds passing, 1TD, and 1 INT in week 11 and 16/25, 174 yds passing, 1 TD, and 1 INT in week 17. The big difference, obviously, is that the 49ers have a better defensive group– both players and coaches. However, a lot of teams tried to run more man coverage on Mahomes because he seems to struggle against man compared to zone. The Colts went into KC in October and beat the Chiefs 19-13 running almost entirely man coverage despite the fact that before that game they ran over 70% zone coverages. In that game they held Mahomes to a 22% success rate and 4.7 YPA in man coverage and allowed an 86% success rate with 16.1 YPA in zone. Bill O’brien’s defense followed the same blueprint when they played in KC a week later and were able to win 31-24. Of course, we know how things ended up for the Texans in the divisional round matchup, but regardless, the 49ers will have an important decision to make this Sunday and I am excited to see how they decide to play things. In my opinion, the Texans would have won that game if they could’ve gotten any sort of pressure on Mahomes, but they finished the game with just one sack for five yards. Whether the lack of pressure was more a result of defensive line struggles, the Texans defense tiring out, a commanding performance by the chiefs offensive line, or Mahomes rushing ability I’m not entirely sure. It was definitely some sort of combination, but one thing is for sure, this 49ers defense is legit and I think they can do a much better job at containing this Chiefs offense. One more important thing to keep an eye on– Mahomes has been sacked 4 times in a game just once all season and the result was a 19-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The Chiefs offensive line allowed the 2nd fewest QB pressures (111) during the regular season. The 49ers defense on the other hand averaged 3 sacks per game in the regular season and 4.5 thus far in the playoffs. This game could very well be won and lost in this matchup up front.
On the other side of the ball we have the run-heavy San Fran offense matched up against a Kansas City defense that has struggled against the run this season– ranking 26th in the league in rush yards allowed and 29th in rush yards per attempt. Despite their season-long struggles against the run, Kansas City was able to hold Derrick Henry to just 69 yards rushing on 19 attempts for a mediocre 3.6 YPC. I see two main differences in this 49ers team compared to the Titans that make me believe KC won’t enjoy the same type of success in stopping the rush as they did in the AFC championship game. First, I have more faith in Jimmy Garoppolo’s ability as a passer than I do in Ryan Tannehill–therefore, I think KC won’t be able to gear up for runs in obvious running downs as easily or effectively. I know Tannehill had a great stretch through the second half of the season and into the playoffs, but in the end I think he was who a lot of people thought he was: a responsible game manager who was careful with the football but who relied heavily on his run game to keep defenses off-balance and create more room for his wide receivers. Secondly, I think Kyle Shanahan is right up there with Andy Reid in terms of premiere offensive minds of the game. With the Titans, Henry was predominantly in on running downs and they would bring Deion Lewis in for passing downs. I think Kyle Shanahan and San Fran has the personnel groupings to disguise some of their looks a little better and keep the KC defense off guard– not to mention, San Fran uses a ton of pre-snap motion which should help them create mismatches on offense.
Ultimately this game reminds me a little of the 2002 Super Bowl between the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf and the New England Patriots. Obviously the Patriots were much bigger underdogs than the 49ers, but I still see some similarities. The Chiefs have the greatest Quarterback in the game and flashy weapons on offense who seemingly have the ability to score at any time from anywhere on the field. The 49ers have a solid young Quarterback who isn’t necessarily asked to do a whole lot– mostly because San Fran relies primarily on their great running attack and solid defense– but can win a game for you if he has to. I think that’s what happens here. Chiefs go down early, then come storming back (sound familiar?) but in the end, Jimmy G leads the 49ers down the field for a game-winning touchdown. Prediction → 49ers: 31 Chiefs: 27