For the first time in four years, Tom Brady is not preparing for an opportunity to enhance his legacy in the Super Bowl. For only the second time in the last 17 seasons, a quarterback not named Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger (shoutout to Joe Flacco) will be starting the Super Bowl for the AFC team. This Super Bowl not only brings a fresh matchup, but also a unique combination of prolific personalities and rising stars.
Both Chiefs' head coach Andy Reid and 49ers' cornerback Richard Sherman have been on this stage before and are cemented as household names. Patrick Mahomes, though only finishing up his second season as a starter, already has an MVP to his name. His top weapons, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, are known commodities hitting their peak at just the right time. Also in the headlines is rookie pass-rusher Nick Bosa, who entered the league with name recognition thanks to his brother Joey, a standout with the Chargers.
The big game will also give us a chance to better recognize some impact players who deserve more attention. 49ers' tight end George Kittle might be the best at his position at the moment - his only competition being his opponent, Kelce - while the terrific efforts of Chiefs' defensive linemen Frank Clark and Chris Jones have been largely overshadowed by the work of the offense. San Francisco has seen success through the run game all season, but it wasn't until the NFC Championship Game that breakthrough back Raheem Mostert forced his way into the national spotlight. On the defensive side, fourth-year pass-rusher DeForest Buckner has been outstanding all season and should get some more attention in the Super Bowl.
There is reason to be thrilled about these two teams going at it. The greatest reason can't be found above: it took me more than a week to settle on a prediction. Both teams are exciting, but more importantly, both teams match up well with each other. We could be in for some fun on Sunday.
The discussion must begin with Patrick Mahomes. Because of Mahomes, the Chiefs head into the Super Bowl with the distinct quarterback advantage, an advantage they may have in most or all of their games for the next decade. Mahomes did not match the prolific numbers he posted in 2018 this season, but his marks were still excellent despite some midseason turbulence that included two games missed due to a knee injury on top of a lingering ankle issue. Fortunately for Kansas City, the 2018 MVP seems to be back on his game. Mahomes has been excellent through two playoff games, completing 65.7% of passes for a total of 615 yards, eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Mahomes has also rushed for a combined 106 yards and a touchdown, propelling the Chiefs' offense back into the electrifying unit the league had expected.
Interestingly enough, It has not been uncommon for Mahomes to start slow - he was forced to come back from deficits in a few prime-time games in 2018, including after a scoreless first half in last year's AFC Championship Game, and Kansas City trailed by multiple possessions in the first half of both playoff games this month. The 24-year old has the talent to make up lost ground - he did so fairly easily in these last two games - but it would be more challenging to storm back from an early deficit in the Super Bowl, against an extremely balanced and well-coached team. The key for Mahomes will be to start strong.
Once the offense gets going — and it will get going — it could be difficult to stop. Much like the world saw a well-coached, balanced Clemson team be overcome by a slew of LSU offensive weapons in the national championship game, the 49ers might have difficulty limiting the Chiefs' offense for four quarters. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are two of the best at their respective positions, but Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, Damien Williams, and Demarcus Robinson all have big-play potential as well, particularly if San Francisco focuses too much on one or two players.
The 49ers have struggled to find reliable options at cornerback outside of Richard Sherman, as we saw on full display when Ahkello Witherspoon was benched in the divisional round, and Sherman cannot cover everyone. The 49ers' run defense, meanwhile, has been largely middle-of-the-pack this season, but it limited Dalvin Cook all day three weeks ago and did not let Aaron Jones take over in the NFC Title Game, though the Packers were forced to pass the ball frequently with a deficit. The Chiefs, at least in the playoffs, have predominantly passed aside from allowing Damien Williams to take some handoffs with a comfortable lead, though Williams has been used often in the red zone. It could be interesting to see whether the Chiefs surprise San Francisco's less-than-stellar unit and run the ball a bit more than usual.
San Francisco's defense excels in the area that has yet to be mentioned: the pass-rush. DeForest Buckner and Nick Bosa make up one of the NFL's deadliest pass-rush duos, and they could represent a unique challenge for a Chiefs offensive line that has held strong through two playoff games but did not face a vaunted pass-rushing unit in either one. Kansas City allowed the seventh-fewest quarterback hits this past season, but San Francisco's adjusted sack rate of 9.1% was second in the league, according to Football Outsiders. This could be the key matchup on Sunday; teams have yet to make Mahomes uncomfortable in the pocket in these playoffs, and the 49ers bucking that trend, which Buckner and Bosa make a distinct possibility, would be a difference-maker.
You don't need me to tell you pressure negatively affects a quarterback, but the LSU/Chiefs comparison mentioned earlier changes if Mahomes is pressured consistently. LSU only began to come alive when pressure on Joe Burrow subsided; if the 49ers keep the pressure on, anything is possible.
This game has been presented by many as an offense vs. defense battle: a high-flying Chiefs offense against a stout 49ers defense. That characterization leaves out the fact that Kansas City's defense has made huge strides as this season has progressed, and the team likely wouldn't be in this position without its efforts. On the other hand, Jimmy Garoppolo has been more impressive in big moments than he receives credit for, and San Francisco's balanced offensive attack placed the team second in points scored this season - ahead of the Chiefs.
The 49ers' best offensive trait might be its ability to dominate time of possession, a skill that will be critical against Mahomes. San Francisco finished fourth overall in average time of possession this past season, while Kansas City ranked 21st. The 49ers' ability to run the ball, and run it well, keeps opposing offenses off the field and contributed to the team allowing the fewest passing yards per game this past season despite some questions in the secondary. The best way to defend against someone as talented as Patrick Mahomes is to keep him off the field - that, along with making him uncomfortable, will be the main objectives of the 49ers' game plan, rather than banking on covering every Chiefs weapon effectively. The question will be, obviously, whether either strategy works well enough to limit how many points Kansas City puts on the board - unlike a year ago, the losing team will score more than three points.
Though their weapons might not quite match the Chiefs' collection in terms of talent, the 49ers have reached Miami due in part to their wide array of offensive options. George Kittle has cemented himself as an elite tight end and the focal point of the offense, but surrounding him is standout rookie receiver Deebo Samuel, reliable veteran Emmanuel Sanders, red-zone favorite Kendrick Bourne, and three capable running backs who can make an impact in the passing game in Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida (Coleman has been limited in practice this week but is likely to play).
Kyle Shanahan, who has done a phenomenal job in his third season in San Francisco, sees the most success when all of these weapons get involved, but Kittle will be the key. One of the most unstoppable forces in the game, Kittle will force the Chiefs to find someone who can cover him effectively, and the answer at this point isn't clear. Kansas City will need to find the solution quickly, considering Kittle's ability to transform entire drives; if they cannot, the complexion of the game changes.
The Chiefs' defense should not be slept on, however. Kansas City allowed an average of 11.5 points per game across their last six regular season games, forcing 11 turnovers in that span. In the divisional round, much of the Texans' early lead could be attributed to special teams failures, and the Chiefs did what so many other teams couldn't by limiting Derrick Henry in the AFC Title Game. In many respects, this matchup that has been billed as a Chiefs offense vs. 49ers defense battle actually goes both ways - a potent 49ers offense against a peaking Chiefs defense. It's worth noting, though, that Kansas City's run defense struggled earlier in the season, and Shanahan will surely be searching for ways to exploit those weaknesses with Mostert and Coleman at his disposal.
Unlike some past years, the keys to the Super Bowl for each team don't jump right off the page. These are not teams with glaring weaknesses, and their many strengths can largely be countered by strengths. At the end of the day, however, the goal for the 49ers will need to be limiting Patrick Mahomes, and whether that is possible rests on how well their strong pass-rush fares against a solid offensive line and whether their offense can run the ball effectively enough to keep Mahomes off the field. On the Chiefs' end, the game plan should be to spread the ball around to their many weapons early and often, making it difficult for San Francisco to cover everyone, while displaying the same defensive prowess as the last eight games.
This is a quarterback-driven league, and while Jimmy Garoppolo, who had a 2:1 TD:INT ratio this season and seems to only improve when the lights get brighter, is not someone to overlook, it's the Chiefs who have the decisive advantage with Mahomes. The 49ers might be the most balanced team in the league, but it feels like Mahomes won't be denied this year. I'll be surprised if it's a blowout in either direction, but the way I see it, Andy Reid will finally be hoisting the Lombardi on Sunday. Kansas City, 34-30.
Past Predictions (4-3)
SB 47: 49ers (L)
SB 48: Broncos (L)
SB 49: Patriots (W)
SB 50: Broncos (W)
SB 51: Patriots (W)
SB 52: Patriots (L)
SB 53: Patriots (W)