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 

NFC Championship Preview

This Sunday the 1 seeded 49ers and the 2 seeded Packers will faceoff in San Fran for a trip to the Super Bowl. Green Bay is coming off a tight 28-23 win against a banged up Seattle team. San Fran, on the other hand, is coming off an impressive 27-10 victory over a Minnesota Vikings club that went into New Orleans and upset the Saints a week earlier. 

The biggest difference for the 49ers here is their oppositions quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is a tier (or maybe two or three) above Kirk Cousins and he should have all the motivation he needs– the Packers got absolutely torched against this 49ers team on National TV in week 12 and Rodgers (a California native) has a particular vendetta against San Fran. He was asked on his draft night how disappointed he was that his hometown team didn’t take him. His response? “Not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.” Rodgers’ career record against San Fran is a mediocre 4-5 (2-5-2 ATS). However, I’d still say the 49ers ended up disappointed they didn’t draft him because, instead, with the number one overall pick they drafted Alex Smith who is no longer in the league. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘motivation’ edge considering guys on both sides have been thinking about getting to the league and then to the Super Bowl their whole lives, but it definitely can’t hurt Rodgers’ performance this Sunday. That’s something that potentially bodes well for a Packers team who will need their quarterback to put up one of the best performances of his playoff career this Sunday for them to advance. 

On the other side of the quarterback coin is Jimmy G, who had his highest passer rating of the season (145.8) when these teams faced off in the regular season. Despite the 37-8 drubbing in week 12, I think there are a few reasons to think this game could be closer than last time. First off, Green Bay went 1/15 on 3rd down in that regular season matchup. Lafleur is too good of a coach to let that happen again. Also, it’s hard to win a game when your opponent gets the ball to start both halves, which is essentially what happened last time because Rodgers fumbled the ball on his own 25 yard line on the opening drive of the game. San Fran returned the fumble to Green Bay’s 2 yard-line and it was 7-0 before the game even started. Beyond this game in particular, there is a relatively surprising trend that bodes well for Packers fans– there have been 20 instances when a team lost by 4+ touchdowns to a team in the regular season and then played that same team in the playoffs. The team that lost by 4+ touchdowns is 6-14 in the playoff rematch. This trend speaks to a couple things. First, it shows just how much teams can change throughout the course of a season (Green Bay has won 6 straight since their matchup with San Fran) and it shows how fickle the NFL can be. It is such a week-to-week league, that it’d be crazy to totally rule out the Pack in this game. 

On the other side of things, if you’re a 49ers fan you’re looking at the fact that Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander were both out in the regular season matchup. Ford and Alexander are two of the most important players on the 49ers defense who was as healthy last week as they had been all season– they held the Vikings to just 10 points. For the Packers to have any chance, they have to win the turnover battle and. again, Rodgers is going to have to put up a hall of fame performance in what could be his last chance to get to a second Super Bowl. Ultimately, I don’t think he’ll be able to do enough to get there. The 49ers will win this game and put the winner of the AFC championship game on notice. I’d put the final score in the 27-17 or 30-20 range. It could be lower scoring depending on how much Shanahan trusts Jimmy G here. In the game last week, after Jimmy G threw an interception, the 49ers ran the ball eleven straight times. The 49ers do have the luxury of relying more heavily on their run game because it is so effective (they rank 2nd in the league in rush yards), but if the Packers can put the pressure on by going ahead early, San Fran may no choice but to ride the Italian Stallion to Miami. If I had to pick a side I’d go with San Fran (-7.5) but I don’t love the idea of laying a touchdown and the hook in a conference championship game. If there’s anything in this game that I do like it would be the first quarter over 9.5. Both LaFleur and Shanahan are great offensive minds and will no doubt have solid scripts for this game. The 49ers scored on their first possession of the game in 65% of their drives compared to 44.3% score rate on average, while the Packers scored on 41% of their opening drives (all of them being touchdowns) compared to 37.1% average score rate. In two of the 10 opening drives the Packers didn’t score, it was because they lost a fumble. Don’t be surprised if there is scoring early that levels off as we get into the second half– not totally unlike last week in San Francisco.

NFL Divisional Preview: 49ers vs Vikings

After one of the best wild card weekends in recent history, it’s time to shift our focus to the divisional round. Opening up the weekend in the Saturday afternoon time slot is a showdown between the number one seeded San Francisco 49ers (-6.5) against the six seeded Minnesota Vikings. After pulling off the upset in New Orleans as 8 point road dogs on Sunday, do the Vikings have the ammo to come into Candlestick and upset a rested niners squad? Let’s get into it. 

Ultimately, it feels like this game will come down to two things for the Vikings: first, can their defense put up a stellar performance on the road against one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game for the second week in a row? Mike Zimmer’s defense was able to hold Sean Payton’s Saints to just 20 points– their lowest point total in the dome, this year, in a game Drew Brees started. A huge part of the defensive performance was their ability to get off the field on third down as they held the Saints to just a 4/11 conversion rate on Sunday. Third down success will be key again this weekend against a Kyle Shannahan led 49ers team that ranked 5th in the league in third down efficiency this year. 

Second, Kirk Cousins is going to have to be the effective game manager that he was for a lot of the year. He finished the season with 26 TD passes and 6 interceptions– a good season definitely. $28 million a year good? Not by a long shot but that’s a different conversation.  Regardless, Kirk isn’t going to come out slinging and win this game for the Vikings, nor will he be expected to. The Vikings are a fundamentally sound, defensive team who centers their offense around one of the top running backs in the league– Dalvin Cook. Last week against the Saints was the first time both Cook and Adam Thielen (WR) were on the field at the same time since week 6. Really, Cousins is going to have to get the ball out of his hands quickly (49ers are fifth in sacks and first in hurried %) and into the hands of his playmakers– if he doesn’t, Stefon Diggs will no doubt remind him. 

Despite a great performance last week though, I’m still not convinced Kirk Cousins and this Minnesota team can pull off another upset. My main concern with the Vikings is that they’re in such a tough spot. They played Sunday in New Orleans, got back to Minnesota Sunday night, and are going to have to fly to California for the early game Saturday. Not only do the 49ers have the bye week, but Minnesota’s on a short week that’s bookended by cross-country travel. Kirks inconsistencies in big games throughout his career coupled with the fact that Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers get an extra week of preparation makes me lean San Fran. Also, the 49ers are getting some key guys back from injury– notably linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive end Dee Ford, safety Jaquiski Tartt, and potentially right guard Mark Person. 

In the past 10 seasons, the road team in divisional round games that take place on Saturday are 2-18 SU and 5-14-1 ATS. (courtesy of @JTFOz)

Right now the line sits San Fran -6.5 with the O/U at 45 after opening at 46. Funny enough, the last time these two teams faced each other in a meaningful game was week 1 of last season in Minnesota and the home Vikings were favored by 6.5. The score? 24-16 Vikes. I think we get close to the opposite here. 49ers move onto the NFC Championship game to face the winner of Seattle Green Bay after winning→ 
Prediction: 49ers: 27 Vikings: 16