The San Francisco 49ers are set to take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 4. After a chaotic first few rounds of the playoffs, both teams had convincing wins in the conference championships, and bought themselves tickets to the big game in Miami. In a matchup headed by the NFL’s brightest offensive minds, the league’s best player in the Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes, perhaps the most vaunted defense in the game, and of course lots of speed, this has all the ingredients to be a classic.
How did they get here
The Kansas City Chiefs began the season 4–0 and were instantly thrown into conversation for the American Football Conference’s best team after Mahomes’ historic MVP season in 2019. However, various key injuries, a struggling defense, and multiple rare home losses at Arrowhead left the Chiefs as somewhat of an afterthought in the AFC where they sat at 6–4 through Week 10. Mahomes broke his knee cap in Week 7 and despite only missing two games, it was evident he wasn’t 100 percent healthy until the final few games of the season where he was back to making his off-schedule incredible plays. Defense coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took over the Chiefs’ defensive unit this year switching the defense from a 3–4 to a 4–3 and although there were some early struggles, they have steadily improved throughout the second half of the year (10th in points allowed). The off-season additions of pass rusher Frank Clark — who has totaled 4 sacks this postseason — and safety Tyrann Mathieu have added much needed game changers to the defensive side of the ball. Both these issues coupled with the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson’s unprecedented season MVP year in Baltimore left the Chiefs almost forgotten in the AFC despite finishing the year 12–4. However, if the playoffs have shown anything, it’s that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, who was last here with the Eagles in 2004, has his club firing on all cylinders and he’s as hungry as ever to get his first Super Bowl.
The Chiefs have constructed maybe the fastest offense ever. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh recently referred to the trio as an “Olympic relay team” which features Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, all of whom have sub 4.40 speed. This combination of speed coupled with Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce and perhaps the most talented quarterback in NFL history in Mahomes makes it almost impossible for defenses to even slow down. The Chiefs scored 51 points on the Texans and racked up another 34 on the Titans this postseason. Their ability to score on any given play and make defenses cover every inch of the field is what makes them so dangerous.
The 2019 season for the 49ers, 13–3, exceeded all expectations anyone could’ve had for a team that was drafting second in the draft and finished 4–12 just a year ago. The 49ers have had a complete turnaround in part to additions of rookie superstar Nick Bosa, speed rusher Dee Ford, and the return of Jimmy G. Even with a 8–0 start to the year many coined this young San Francisco team as “pretenders” who were no real threat. Eleven weeks later, this same Niners team is playing for the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl and is fully battle tested. The final five games of the regular season for the red and gold were all decided on the final play which provided key experience for such a young roster. They are no “pretenders,” this team is the real deal.
Kyle Shanahan has had success everywhere he’s been as an offensive coordinator, however this season he has outdone himself, employing an unstoppable rush attack that utilizes inside and outside zones, traps, counter, power, and run-pass options. The variety of schemes has allowed players like NFL journeyman Raheem Mostert to breakout as he did versus the Packers for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns in the Conference Championship. Shanahan also uses pre-snap motion and play action at the highest rates in the league making it tough on defenses.
Rookie standout Deebo Samuel paired with newly acquired Emmanuel Sanders and All-Pro George Kittle has made the 49ers pass game legit, too. One of the more intriguing matchups in this game will be Kittle versus Kelce as both are undoubtedly the best two tight ends in the game.
Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo only attempted 8 passes in the NFC Championship but just because he didn’t pass the ball doesn’t mean he can’t pass. ‘Jimmy G’ led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks with 4 and in passer rating when playing from behind. Look for him to make a statement in Miami.
Keys for Victory
For the Chiefs, they must focus on slowing down the three-headed rushing attack that is Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida for the Niners while also staying disciplined on defense. The run game for the 49ers sets up the play action and jet sweeps, so staying home on defense and keeping the ball-carriers in front is key to suppressing any Kyle Shanahan trickery. On the offensive side, Mahomes and company need to control time of possession. With their vertical passing game, they often score quick, but doing so will allow the 49ers to control the clock with their ground and pound run game.
For the 49ers, they need to mix up their looks on defense and disguise coverages. The Niners blitz the least out of any team in the league so this may be a unique advantage that allows them to get to Mahomes quickly without blitzing. If this doesn’t work, Saleh must be prepared to change things up. Offensively, look for the Niners to gash a middle of the road Kansas City run defense, 4.35 yards per carry in the last eight games, and to have success throwing on first down as the Chiefs have been highly susceptible to first down passes across the middle of the field, a spot where SF ranks first in percentage of targets between the numbers per Warren Sharp.
49ers 31, Chiefs 27
Kyle Shanahan will bring the franchise its sixth Super Bowl and first since 1994. The two best teams in the league will be neck and neck the whole game until a late fourth quarter Emmanuel Sanders touchdown gives the 49ers a lead and a SB LIV victory.