The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs face off this Sunday in Super Bowl 54 in what looks like a fun matchup. The Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints were two teams that offered some fun football as well, but it’s hard not to like this 49ers-Chiefs matchup for an overall entertaining football game.
We get a host of great matchups this Sunday on both sides of the ball. Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan are two of the best offensive minds in the NFL right now. Patrick Mahomes is in competition with Lamar Jackson as the most dynamic quarterback in the NFL. The 49ers pass rush has turned years of first round picks into arguably the best unit in the NFL.
We could go on and on, but let’s cut to the chase. Numerous matchups will impact Super Bowl 54, but these are the two matchups that will play the biggest factor in determining who is raising the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday evening.
Dee Ford, Nick Bosa vs. Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz
Patrick Mahomes is on a roll in the playoffs. In two games, both requiring comebacks, he’s completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 615 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s shredded some impressive defenses in part because he’s been able to make plays under pressure. In the playoffs, his 28 dropbacks under pressure are third most, behind only DeShaun Watson and Russell Wilson. Per PFF, his 104.2 NFL passer rating is second only to Kirk Cousins.
The 49ers pass rush was second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, ranking second in adjusted sack rate. This came even as they were missing edge rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander for an extended period of time. This is notable because of a particularly interesting statistic noted by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell.
Instead, the defense has been the best part of this team. It’s even more surprising when you consider that the Niners have dealt with serious injuries at every level of their defense. Their three big additions this offseason were Kwon Alexander, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, and the three players combined for just 108 defensive snaps together before Alexander went down with a torn pec. (Opposing quarterbacks posted a QBR of 3.0 when those three players on the field together. That’s not a typo — 3 out of 100.)
Ford is not 100 percent due to his calf injury, and Alexander is not 100 percent due to his torn pec injury. Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins both put up decent QB ratings the past two playoff games, but neither was sufficiently impressive against the 49ers defense.
Mahomes and this offense are going to get numbers, but if the 49ers can even begin to contain them, they have a chance to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Mahomes is solid enough against pressure, but he takes a step back compared to when he is in a clean pocket. The 49ers will look for pressure all along their defensive line, but when Ford and Bosa are bringing the heat, they have considerable success.
This is an even bigger deal given the speed matchup. The Chiefs have an incredible group of playmakers, and they are particularly impressive when it comes to deep speed. Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman are the two guys that can burn any secondary. Richard Sherman has had a resurgent season and Emmanuel Moseley has been solid since replacing Ahkello Witherspoon in the starting lineup. Both are quality cornerbacks, but speed is not their game. The 49ers will likely provide some safety help in covering Hill in particular, but the best way to negate Hill’s speed for a zone coverage unit is to get to Mahomes and force quick throws. He can still get it deep and hope Hill makes a play, but if the Chiefs offense doesn’t have time to get their pass catchers in position, it could make life easier for the 49ers secondary. It won’t be the only thing that decides this game, but if the 49ers get consistent pressure, they would be in good position to spring the modest upset.
Kyle Shanahan vs. Steve Spagnuolo
We could talk about Jimmy Garoppolo vs. the Chiefs secondary or Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman vs. the Chiefs defensive front. However, as cliched as it might be, the 49ers offense vs. the Chiefs defense comes down to the matchup of coaches. The 49ers have plenty of talented players on defense, but Kyle Shanahan’s play design and play-calling are critical to the success of this group. When you can put up 37 points while passing the ball a mere eight times, you’re doing something right.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is an X-factor in this matchup. He’s got a host of talented players on his side of the ball, but the unit has been inconsistent all year long. They were atrocious against the run in the early going, but cleaned things up and impressed in the AFC title game when they held Derrick Henry to 69 rushing yards and he and Carlos Hyde to a combined 3.5 yards per carry.
The Chiefs pass defense has made some big plays all season long, but we saw some of the weaknesses in the early going the past two rounds. DeShaun Watson guided the Texans to a 24-0 lead and Ryan Tannehill made some big plays early to get the Titans out to 10-0 and 17-7 leads. The Chiefs promptly adjusted and came back in a big way in both games.
The 49ers offense has focused on the run the past two weeks, and many will point to Garoppolo’s interception against the Vikings as a turning point. At one point against Minnesota the 49ers rushed the ball 12 straight times. Against Green Bay, Raheem Mostert rushed 29 times and Garoppolo attempted only eight passes.
Garoppolo has gotten critical coverage quite a bit this season even as he has had to make some big plays in the passing game. Kyle Shanahan said after the Packers game that they adjusted the game plan because Green Bay was not able to stop the run. And it’s not difficult to see what he was talking about. The 49ers averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and if you remove Jimmy Garoppolo’s four carries (including kneel-downs), the team averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Why wouldn’t you keep doing that?
Spagnuolo faces a tall task against a dynamic play-caller like Shanahan. The Chiefs have struggled at times against the run, and you have to think Shanahan will look to continue what has worked. At the same time, he might change it up to catch the Chiefs off guard. Regardless, this will be a punch-counter punch matchup where we see how the two coaches adjust as the game moves along.
If the Chiefs are able to slow down Raheem Mostert and company, then it turns into what the 49ers can do with their passing game. Garoppolo has quickly become an underrated quarterback because of the lack of work during the playoffs. There is a discussion to be had about how good he is independent of Kyle Shanahan, but he’s been able to make big plays in big games of late. Although he’s been limited in two playoff games, the 49ers final six games featured four playoff teams, and were must-win in a lot of ways. Garoppolo was solid then, and in fact, has been impressive overall dating back to the acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders. Our friends at the Bet The Board podcast noted that since the October 22nd Sanders trade, Garoppolo has graded out as the eighth best quarterback in the NFL.
Garoppolo is good for one god-awful mistake per game, but the key will be how he rebounds when that happens. It’s possible the 49ers dominate on the ground and their defense will do enough to shut this thing down in a hurry. However, given how evenly matched these two teams are, it seems unlikely that we see that kind of game. Odds are pretty good Garoppolo will have to make some plays to win this game, and how Shanahan attempts to set him up for success will be critical for the 49ers.