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Breaking down Super Bowl LIV: Previewing Chiefs-49ers

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About five months ago, the NFL regular season kicked off. All 32 teams – minus a wink-wink-not-tanking tanking team or three – set forth on a journey that only two could complete: a trip to the Super Bowl.

We’ve arrived at that place. The Kansas City Chiefs will face off against the San Francisco 49ers in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on February 2. The Chiefs – led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid – make their way back into the big game for the first time in half-a-century; the last time K.C. was here, the NFL/AFL merger hadn’t happened yet. Meanwhile, the 49ers have a storied Super Bowl history, but other than the Colin Kaepernick-led 2012 run, San Francisco hasn’t made it this far since 1994. That’s 25 years without a championship.

A significant drought is ending, one way or the other. But for who?

Let’s take a stroll through the teams and break down some of the positional matchups to get a sense of which squad stands superior. Of course, the most talented team doesn’t always win. The most prepared team doesn’t always win. The team we think will win doesn’t always win.

You get the picture. Anyone who tells you they KNOW what will happen is a charlatan who is almost certainly trying to sell you something. No one knows how this will all play out, but here’s my best guess – the best guess of a guy who only just snapped the four-season winning streak put up by his prognosticating dog.

Breakdown time.

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Quarterback

We’ve never really seen anything quite like Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs QB is the reigning NFL MVP after his staggering 2018 season; while his production regressed somewhat this year – how could it not? – he’s still un undeniably brilliant talent. There is not a throw on the field of which he is incapable; he’s spent the past two seasons proving that. No lead is safe with Patrick Mahomes on the field. Just ask the Texans or the Titans – both teams ran up big early edges before getting their doors blown off by Mahomes and company. Even against a strong defensive unit like what the 49ers run out there, it seems likely that Mahomes will find a way to go off. Throw in his not-inconsiderable ability to extend and make plays with his feet and, well … no one wants to face the NFL’s best QB, particularly in the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear that we know exactly what kind of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is. He’s shown flashes of excellence, but he’s also had his development undermined by injury. His biggest issue is a lack of consistency. Of course, the Niners don’t ask a whole lot of him; he might be paid like a superstar passer, but in San Francisco, they’re fine with him acting as a game manager. Never was that more apparent than in the NFC Championship game, where Jimmy G threw the ball a mere eight times as San Francisco ran all over the Packers in a game that wasn’t close. It seems unlikely that he’ll be able to get away with that against KC – they score too quickly and too often. Garoppolo might be capable of winning this game with his arm, but he’s just as capable of making a rash decision that loses it.

It’s as obvious a choice as we’ll see in this entire breakdown. Patrick Mahomes is the best QB in football. Jimmy Garoppolo is … a QB in football.

Advantage: Kansas City

Running Back

There were high hopes for the Kansas City running game coming into the season, but those hopes never really came to fruition. Part of it is schematic; when Patrick Mahomes is out there, running the ball becomes an afterthought. But they never really replaced Kareem Hunt, who was suspended and then cut last year for a domestic violence incident. However, Damien Williams seems to have risen to the top and performed admirably over the last two playoff games; he’s capable of big plays. If the Chefs play their game, we probably won’t see huge numbers out of the backfield, but their backs are explosive enough to bust a big one if given the opportunity.

The San Francisco running game is outstanding, a well-oiled machine. While Raheem Mostert is getting the attention right now – and with good reason, following his monster performance against Green Bay – the truth is that there are three Niners running backs who could be heavily involved in this game, with Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida also in the mix (assuming everyone is healthy). Coach Kyle Shanahan has built an exceptional scheme, ensuring that this team can run the ball often and efficiently. There might not be any breakout talents here, but all three are well-versed in the advantages granted them by the game plan.

One could try and argue that the Chiefs backs are a little more talented, but with Kyle Shanahan calling the plays, the Niners come out on top.

Advantage: San Francisco

Wide Receiver

There’s one word that describes the Kansas City wide receiving corps: FAST. These dudes can run, turning games into track meets and essentially being a threat to take it to the house every single time they touch the ball. The most productive of the bunch is Tyreek Hill; he’s the number one wideout and uses his blazing speed to his advantage. But a guy like Sammy Watkins is no slouch in terms of speed, either, while Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson can also flat-out fly. Add it all up and you’ve got a group that might be one of the league’s fastest-ever, one through four. Hill’s probably the sole legitimately elite wideout in the bunch, but when your fourth receiver runs a 4.3, you’re in pretty good shape.

San Francisco’s receiving corps doesn’t flash the top-to-bottom elite speed that KC brings to the table, but they’ve got some fine pass catchers nevertheless. Emmanuel Sanders is probably the number one guy, although the truth is that rookie Deebo Samuel is the de facto top guy. After those two, there’s a pretty steep drop-off; next on the list is probably Kendrick Bourne or perhaps Dante Pettis, though Pettis was largely a disappointment this season. As a unit, they simply don’t have the flash that KC’s crew does, but considering the nature of the offense, they don’t have to be. With sure-handed guys like Sanders and the fearless Samuel, they should be able to hang onto the ball when it does eventually come their way.

This is a pretty easy call. While the 49ers receivers have their talents, it’s tough to pick against the sheer speed of the Chiefs.

Advantage: Kansas City

Tight End

Kansas City’s Travis Kelce is one of the best tight ends in the sport; his offensive prowess as a catcher of the ball is almost unparalleled at his position. He has shown himself to be a reliable target for Mahomes and capable of staggering numbers. While his AFC Championship performance was meh – three catches for 30 yards – his Divisional Round was one for the ages (10 catches for 134 yards and three TDs). It should be noted that the quality of his blocking tends to top out at “serviceable,” he’s also a big-game player who could well step it up a notch. And again – his ability as a pass catcher can’t be overstated.

San Francisco’s George Kittle is ALSO one of the best tight ends in the sport. He’s a remarkable offensive weapon in his own right. Now, the playoff numbers thus far don’t show it – he’s totaled four catches for 35 yards this postseason – but a lot of that is due to game flow; when you only throw the ball eight times in a game, there are just so many receptions to go around. Even so, Kittle’s a legitimate threat to make a significant play at any moment. Kittle’s also a key part of the run-heavy scheme; he’s one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. He’s ferocious and capable of impacting the game even without the ball.

This is an incredibly close matchup. The margin between these two players is razor-thin; they’re literally the best at their position in the game. While Kelce is the better offensive player (though not by much), Kittle’s prowess as a blocker pushes him ever-so-slightly over the top.

Advantage: San Francisco (by a whisker)

Offensive Line

The Kansas City line has been tasked with protecting perhaps the most valuable asset in all of professional football. Even the most genius passer needs time to throw the ball; the Chiefs O-line has done a decent job of giving him that time. The Chiefs are particularly strong at the tackles – left tackle Eric Fisher and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz have both had good campaigns – but they’re solid up and down the line. They aren’t quite as good in handling the run game, but as long as they keep up the pass protection, they’ll be getting it done.

San Francisco’s offensive line has been very good all season. Any team that runs the ball as often and as effectively as the Niners has to have top-tier performance at the line of scrimmage. They’ve got a nice, veteran line that won’t be cowed by the bright lights; left tackle Joe Staley leads the way. It’s not all wily vets, though – Mike McGlinchey is the starting right tackle in this, just his second season. As a group, they’ve taken quite well to Shanahan’s run-heavy scheme, providing quality blocking; they’ve been opening holes practically at will in the playoffs so far.

These are two strong groups, each particularly good at the assignments most important to their respective offenses. This is another close one, but I think I’m going with the Niners.

Advantage: San Francisco

Defensive Line

Kansas City’s D-line isn’t the Chiefs unit you hear the most about, but they’ve been quietly strong all season long. The names aren’t as flashy – Chris Jones is probably the most famous of the bunch, or Frank Clark. Both quality players, but neither is a household name. Demone Harris and Derrick Nnadi are key contributors as well. This group proved particularly effective against the run – particularly when they went up against Titans running back Derrick Henry in the midst of his otherworldly run and basically shut him down. The Niners have talent at RB, but nothing to the level of Henry, so you have to like the Chiefs chances. It remains to be seen if they can get to the quarterback, however.

The 49ers have the best defensive lineman on either team in Joey Bosa, a force of nature-type player who has dominated since day one in this, his rookie season. He’s not the only guy who gets after the quarterback, though – edge rusher Dee Ford (who was a Chief last year) has proven to be tough to block. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has done good work clogging the middle. As a group, they are fast and strong; they’ve got the capability to harass the Chiefs and Mahomes into making mistakes if they can get into the backfield. They’re good run stuffers as well, though that sksill may not prove to be as important in this game.

Tough call between these two, as both groups have strengths that match up well with the opposition. And so, I’ll take the easy road and choose the side with the best player. That’s Bosa and San Francisco.

Advantage: San Francisco

Linebackers

The Kansas City linebacking corps has a fairly difficult task in front of it. This crew has to figure out how to shut down the innovative rushing attack of the 49ers while also making sure to find ways to handle tight end George Kittle. A lot of these guys – Reggie Ragland, Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens – are going to be spending a lot of time in the box in an effort to make sure San Francisco doesn’t run wild. It remains to be seen if they are athletic enough to do so.

San Francisco’s linebackers have plenty of challenges of their own. The reality is that they are going to find themselves at least occasionally in mismatches with receivers who are far faster than they are. They have to handle the offensive juggernaut that is Travis Kelce too, all while making sure to account for the rushing ability of Patrick Mahomes. They have to keep the running backs honest as well. Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw are hard-working, smart players, but they may struggle to keep up physically.

It’s funny – the linebackers are probably the most anonymous positional unit on both teams, yet their performance might also be the most crucial to the win.

Advantage: Push

Secondary

Discussion of the Kansas City secondary has to start with their safeties. Tyrann Mathieu – the Honey Badger himself – is the most well-known (and most talented) member of the group. He’s got all the skills you want from a safety – hard-hitting and good in coverage. But that goes for fellow safety Daniel Sorensen, who has seen this postseason become a coming-out party of sorts, allowing him to flash his considerable abilities on the big stage. Cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward and Morris Claiborne aren’t quite as impressive as the safeties, but they’ve proven capable enough to handle the likes of the 49ers passing game.

On the Niners side, the guy everyone knows is Richard Sherman. Most of us thought he was on his last legs when he left Seattle a couple of years ago, but the cornerback has bounced back to have an elite season. He’s as smart as they come on a football field. He’s far and away the best of the bunch as far as the defensive backfield is concerned; guys like Emmanuel Mosely, K’Waun Harris and Jimmy Ward are going to have a hell of a time trying to keep up with the speedy Chiefs receivers. Not to say that they won’t be able to hang in there, but Sherman is the only one with both the history and recent performance to look likely to succeed.

While Sherman might be the best player in either unit, in terms of overall ability, Kansas City looks like the slightly better pick.

Advantage: Kansas City

Special Teams

The Chiefs have a really good collection of special teams performers. Placekicker Harrison Butker has been excellent all season, missing just a handful of kicks. He’s got a big, accurate leg. They’ve got a trustworthy veteran at punter in Dustin Colquitt, though he did get a kick blocked against Houston. Still, as far as kicking units go, this is one of the league’s better ones. Mecole Hardman brings his game-breaking speed to the return game. He can get a little overeager, which can lead to ball control issues, but he’s just so. Freaking. Fast. Hill does the same with punt returns.

San Francisco has a solid veteran kicking the ball in Robbie Gould, who has been in the league for over a decade and has proven willing (if not always able) in some big moments. They’ve got a rookie punting the ball; it might be a bit much for young Mitch Wishnowsky, all things considered. Return man Richie James had a quietly productive season, but he simply can’t match the raw speed and big play potential of someone like Hardman. It’s a serviceable unit, but not much more than that – this isn’t a group you want the fate of the game hanging on.

This is a relatively easy call, with the specialists on the Chiefs side all coming out ahead of the 49ers crew. K.C. all the way.

Advantage: Kansas City

Coaching

By many measures, Kansas City’s Andy Reid is one of the best coaches in NFL history. This season, he became just the seventh coach in league history to pass the 200 regular season win mark – he’s currently at 207. He’s been acclaimed as an offensive genius, having brought great success to both his time in Philadelphia and this current Chiefs run. However, he has never won the big one and has a reputation for struggling with clock management during times of duress. However, he’s never led an offense with this much talent. His schemes will be tough to stop. He’ll have to be at his best to achieve his own Super Bowl ring as well as the first in 50 years for K.C.

Kyle Shanahan has done wonders for this 49ers team over the past three seasons. He took over a team that had been performing abysmally – and continued doing so in his first couple of years at the helm, winning a combined 10 games over two seasons. This year, however, the rebuild clicked; the team finally had the personnel to properly execute Shanahan’s offense and they rocketed to 13 regular season wins and an easy pair of victories in the postseason. He’ll be trying to chase away the ghost of 28-3, the lead he had as offensive coordinator for the Falcons before the legendary comeback by the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

It’s a fairly easy pick, honestly. While Kyle Shanahan certainly has a bright future, Andy Reid is one of the most accomplished coaches to ever wear a headset in the NFL.

Advantage: Kansas City

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And there we have it. The final tally is Kansas City 5 – San Francisco 4 with one push. Fitting that it would be so close, because this game has the potential to be one of the most closely-matched Super Bowls ever. A legitimate case can be made for either team; it all boils down to how the ball bounces on a few key plays. Expect the tide to be turned by just a handful of snaps.

I believe that while this Niners defense is an excellent unit, they aren’t quite up to the challenge of shutting down the humming machine of the Kansas City offense. It’ll be close for a stretch, but the Chiefs will eventually pull away and take care of business, bringing a championship to K.C. for the first time in a half-century.

It’s worth noting that this is yet another game where my incredibly smart and adorable dog Stella disagrees with me. She concedes that the Chiefs are superior on offense, but she likes the 49ers to find ways to control the ball and keep Mahomes and company off the field. She’s predicting a lower-scoring affair where the Niners come out on top.

Allen’s prediction: Kansas City 35 – San Francisco 17

Stella’s prediction: San Francisco 24 – Kansas City 21

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2020 13:51

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