The World-Herald's Sam McKewon crunches the numbers and picks the winner for Super Bowl LIV.
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WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Three years ago, Kansas City changed the trajectory of its franchise from very good to elite by trading up in the NFL draft to pick quarterback Patrick Mahomes (above), who after an apprentice rookie season took the league by storm. In his second full year as a starter, he’s in the Super Bowl with his rocket arm and rock-n-roll playing style that makes just about any play possible. Mahomes missed a few games this season after a weird injury on a quarterback sneak, but since he’s returned, he’s been close to unstoppable, especially in the playoffs, where he’s thrown eight touchdowns against zero picks and has also run for 106 yards. He has the league’s best tight end — Travis Kelce, who caught 97 passes for 1,229 yards during the regular season — and a fantastic receiving corps that uses the NFL’s fastest man, Tyreek Hill, as a defense-stretching deep threat. Teams usually have to devote two defensive backs to Hill, or use a zone, or risk getting burned over the top. Coach Andy Reid’s offense is a dizzying delight of route combinations and play-action passes, everything made possible by Mahomes’ smarts, savvy and strong arm. The 49er defense (at top) will, however, be ready. It’s one of the better — not the best — units in the NFL, paced by an excellent front four that can get after the quarterback. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead — two monster-sized Oregon alumni — are good against the run and pass, while the hot-and-cold Nick Bosa, when he’s on, becomes a nightmare for offensive tackles and opposing quarterbacks. The Niners don’t win if they don’t win in the trenches. On San Francisco’s back end, Richard Sherman is the seasoned vet leading an otherwise young and talented secondary. Jimmie Ward and K’Waun Williams are quality players. Can they deal with Kansas City’s dynamic offense? Who covers Kelce? Rarely has a Super Bowl defense faced the dilemmas San Francisco’s does.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has fused the old-school run game perfected by his dad, Mike, to a passing game that looks, in scheme and multiplicity, a lot like the stuff the Chiefs and Rams like to do. When the run game with Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman works, it’s as good of an offense as there is in the NFL, as Green Bay learned in a lopsided NFC championship game loss. A good run game gives quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — an above-average passer whose aggressiveness can lead to interceptions — time to find open receivers on play-action fakes. Tight end George Kittle is, along with Kelce, one of the NFL’s best, especially after the catch. Deebo Samuel, just a rookie, has evolved into a receiving/jet sweep threat. H-back Kyle Juszczyk is a terrific lead blocker who can slip out of the backfield for a catch or two. Football junkies love San Francisco’s offense. They loved what the Rams did last year, too, until that fell apart in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ defense, underrated and fairly stingy, will be a tough test for Shanahan and his offense. Two offseason acquisitions — pass rusher Frank Clark and Swiss Army Badger Tyrann Mathieu — have toughened up Kansas City, particularly from a takeaway perspective. The Chiefs had 33 of them during the regular season. Mathieu, as good as he’s ever been, can play near the line of scrimmage or deep over the middle. He’s among the elite safeties in the game now, and helps Kansas City get stingy in the red zone. You may get the Chiefs early in a game — Houston and Tennessee sure did in the playoffs — but good luck getting them for four quarters.
Edge to the Chiefs here with Mecole Hardman becoming one of the league’s best punt and kickoff returners, taking the role from Hill, who has five punt/kick returns for touchdowns in his NFL career. Kicker Harrison Butker and punter Dustin Colquitt are excellent, too. The 49ers have kicker Robbie Gould — a veteran known for his accuracy — and a decent punter in Mitch Wishnowsky.
THE BIG QUESTION
Can San Francisco get enough stops on Kansas City’s offense to make its ball-control style pay off? It’s not merely about the 49ers scoring points; Houston and Tennessee, in playoff losses to the Chiefs, did that. Somehow, someway, they’ll have to slow down Mahomes. It seems, over the course of four quarters, a pretty tall task. If Kansas City comes in tight, and Mahomes is off the mark, San Francisco will have to take advantage. But the Chiefs can score fast and in bunches.
154.2: Rushing yards per game for the Niners, which in the NFL is a lot and ranks second in the league. San Francisco was second in the league in attempts, too. The commitment is there, and the better the Niners run the ball, the more they can keep the ball away from the Chiefs.
7.9: Yards per pass attempt for both teams. That means different things for each, though. For the Niners, it’s proof that, when the run game is good — and it often is — it creates chunk plays in the passing game. But Kansas City attempts roughly eight more passes per game than San Francisco. For KC to average the same yardage, over that large a sample size, tells you how explosive Mahomes and his skill players really are. The Chiefs don’t need a run game to throw for a lot of yards. They’re that good.
62.6: Penalty yards per game for the Chiefs. Kansas City is the fun bunch of the two teams, playing a looser, more undisciplined style on both sides on the ball. Kansas City has been one of the 10 most-penalized teams in the NFL for the past three seasons. If one team is more likely to make a costly, dumb penalty, it’s the Chiefs.
It’s been a half-century since the Chiefs made the Super Bowl, and they’re not likely to wait another 50 years with Mahomes as the franchise quarterback. What of this game between two evenly matched foes? Typically — not always — the better defense wins, but the Niners’ defense isn’t so much better than Kansas City’s, and, besides, KC’s offense has a lot of answers if the 49ers take away Plan A or even Plan B. A well-played, close game is likely. So, too, is a Super Bowl win for the Midwest, and the Chiefs.
Kansas City 28, San Francisco 21