After an incredible season celebrating the past, present and future of the game, the National Football League will close out its first century under the bright lights of Miami, Florida when the American Football Conference champion Kansas City Chiefs take on the National Football Conference champion San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. Throughout much of the season both the 49ers and the Chiefs established themselves as two of the three teams in the league that were simply a step above everyone else (sorry Baltimore, better luck next year). It is only fitting that they will battle it out Sunday, February 2 at the Hard Rock Stadium. Whether you’ve been following along all season or just don’t want to embarrass yourself at a Super Bowl party, this preview will provide a refresher of how each team got to this stage and what they need to do if they want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
San Francisco 49ers
Following the disastrous one year runs of head coaches Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly, the 49ers needed a reset across the board if they wanted to restore one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises to its former glory. Enter Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. After serving as an assistant under his dad, legendary coach Mike Shanahan, for several years and helping lead the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl as their offensive coordinator, Kyle was hired as the 49ers coach in 2017 at the young age of 38 despite having zero head coaching experience. Joining Shanahan in the front office was former player and color commentator John Lynch. Although Lynch had an impressive resume as both a player and an announcer, he had never worked in an NFL front office. The 49ers gave both men five-year contracts with the task of completely rebuilding the entire organization from top to bottom. Although the hires were met with a great deal of skepticism at the time, it is safe to say they paid off in the biggest way.
The 49ers sit one win away from the franchise’s first Super Bowl win in 25 years thanks to the offensive innovation of Shanahan and brilliant personnel moves that Lynch has made over the past three years, including drafting George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, trading for Jimmy Garoppolo and Emmanuel Sanders and signing key players like Richard Sherman and emerging playoff star Raheem Mostert.
After looking back on the season in totality, it is clear that the 49ers are the most complete team in all of football. Their offense contains a slew of aforementioned weapons that allow them to beat teams multiple different ways. One stat that illustrates this point: Garoppolo has thrown the ball as many as 46 times, in a win against the Saints, but threw the ball just eight times in the NFC championship game against the Packers.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers defense is fast, athletic and relentless. One of Lynch’s first priorities was building a Super Bowl caliber defensive line, and he certainly accomplished that, as the 49ers boast the league’s best front four featuring several former first rounders including likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa. The pressure generated by the defensive front has allowed the Niners to drop seven men into coverage, which has caused headaches for opposing quarterbacks all season long. And to top it all off, the 49ers boast one of the best kickers in the NFL in Robbie Gould. With top-end talent all over the field and excellent schemes on both sides of the ball, San Francisco easily handled Minnesota and Green Bay, but they are a one-point underdog this Sunday because of one man.
Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes! Since becoming the full-time starter last season, Mahomes has been on a record-setting tear. After becoming the second quarterback ever to throw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns and the second youngest MVP in NFL history last season, the Chiefs suffered a heartbreaking loss in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots after defesnive end Dee Ford lined up offside on what would have been a game ending interception thrown by Tom Brady.
Coming into this year, the Chiefs had high expectations and anything less than avenging last year’s loss in the AFC Championship would be a disappointment. After starting the season 4-0, Mahomes suffered a dislocated knee and the Chiefs proceeded to lose their next three home games at Arrowhead Stadium. Mahomes miraculously returned after only three weeks but was clearly not at full health, evidenced by the his lack of mobility. Despite these setbacks, the Chiefs rolled to a fourth consecutive divisional crown and secured a first-round bye in the playoffs. Unlike the 49ers, the Chiefs took the hard road to the Super Bowl, overcoming a 24-point deficit against the Texans and a 10-point deficit against the red-hot Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship
While the 49ers have been the best team top-to-bottom all season, the Chiefs come into the Super Bowl with the best player in the league and a plethora of weapons surrounding him. Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins are the fastest trio of receivers in the NFL, and Travis Kelce is a premier tight end. This could pose a problem for the 49ers vaunted zone defense as Mahomes is the best quarterback in the NFL against zone coverage.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs defense has looked much improved as of late under Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Frank Clark and Chris Jones loom large on the defensive line, and new addition Tyrann Mathieu has been the playmaker the Chiefs desperately needed in the secondary. The Chiefs also have an edge in special teams with Mecole Hardman and possibly Tyreek Hill returning kicks, in addition to Harrison Butker handling the kicking duties.
Keys to the Game:
49ers Rushing Attack vs. Chiefs Run Defense:
Despite the talent the 49ers have at receiver and tight end, the key to their offense is the ability to effectively run the football and control time of possession. Run defense has historically been a weak spot for the Chiefs, but they had arguably their best game of the season against the Titans, holding NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry to just 69 yards on the ground. If the Chiefs are able to limit the 49ers rushing attack and grab an early lead, they can force Garoppolo to become a drop-back passer and give Mahomes more time to work on offense.
49ers Front Four vs. Mahomes:
The only way to stop Patrick Mahomes is by putting pressure on him, and nobody has done a better job when healthy pressuring the quarterback than the 49ers. With multiple starters on the defensive line, they are able to rotate players throughout the game, leaving them fresh for the fourth quarter. Mahomes presents a unique challenge though as his propensity to scramble and a make a big play either with his arms or his legs is second to none. In order to slow down this prolific Chiefs offense, the 49ers will need to constantly be pressuring Mahomes and force a couple sacks throughout the game.
Jimmy G Protecting the Ball:
The 49ers passing offense lives over the middle of the field, and while it has undoubtedly been successful this year, the likelihood of turnovers increase when throwing the ball in the middle of the field. Jimmy Garoppolo has been the perfect quarterback for Shanahan’s system throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. However, the big knock on him has been his tendency to throw interceptions; his 13 interceptions are tied for the eighth most in the NFL this season. The 49ers can ill-afford to give Mahomes any extra possessions, so it is critical that Garoppolo does not turn the ball over.
This game promises to be wildly entertaining featuring several prolific offensive talents and defensive game wreckers. Both teams can score points in bunches and the game will likely come down to which team can come up with a big stop on defense or a critical turnover. As hard as it is for me to pick against the Chiefs, the 49ers have too much depth and will emerge victorious in a high scoring affair. 49ers 35 – KC 31