The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs have plenty in common. They're both built in the image of brilliant offensive minds in Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid. Their offensive philosophies in 2019, at their core, are identical: speed kills. They force defenses to guard every blade of grass on the field and punish them in seconds when they try to get away with taking a play off. At their best, it seems absurd that anybody could stop them. For most of this postseason, nobody has.
Of course, these teams serve up the same problems in two totally different ways. The Chiefs have to set an alarm on their phone to remind themselves to run the ball; this is the offense that called 31 pass plays against just six runs while scoring seven consecutive touchdowns in a furious onslaught of a comeback against the Texans in the divisional round. The 49ers, meanwhile, have dialed up runs on 71 of their past 88 plays. The Chiefs are often the entry point for new ideas into the NFL. Reid has been ahead of the curve for nearly two full decades as a head coach. The 49ers just set the tone in their NFC Championship Game win by running something Vince Lombardi would have had in his playbook for the opening score.
You can make a credible case for each side using the weapon the other doesn't have to win in Miami. The 49ers have a dominant front four and the league's second-best defense by DVOA. Nick Bosa& Co. took over in dominant regular-season performances against the Rams and Packers and squeezed the hope out of the Vikings during the second half of their divisional round playoff game. The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, and that seems to grant them access to a previously unimaginable realm of football at his best.
With both the Chiefs' offense and 49ers' defense capable of overrunning the competition for stretches of time, I wonder whether how each team performs on the other side of the ball will end up deciding this game. Let's start by examining what the 49ers can do with the football and how the Chiefs can try to stop them:
Jump to a section:
Predicting Kyle Shanahan's plan of attack
Where the 49ers excel, and what the Chiefs have to tweak
The Chiefs have a big defensive weakness
The safeties who can win (or lose) the game
Where the Chiefs can exploit the Niners
Where San Francisco has one huge mismatch
Six mini storylines that will influence the outcome
Wait, shouldn't the Chiefs win just because of Mahomes?
Will either of these teams stop scoring?
All the other stuff that could decide the game
My final score prediction
How the 49ers will attack the Chiefs
I'm hoping we get a few memorable moments in Super Bowl LIV, but the play of the postseason so far came in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game. With the Niners facing a third-and-8 on the edge of field goal range, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine dialed up an exotic front, with just one defender placing his hand on the ground. Prized free-agent addition Za'Darius Smith stood in the A-gap, while fellow new arrival Preston Smith lined up as a wide-nine end far outside left tackle Joe Staley. Pettine naturally hoped that the two Smiths would meet in the backfield for a drive-stalling sack ofJimmy Garoppolo.
Preston Smith (91) ended up in the backfield, but by the time he got there the ball -- and any sense of Packers invincibility -- was gone. Coach Kyle Shanahan had called a trap -- the same trap you ran with your junior high team -- on third-and-8. Preston Smith and Blake Martinez (50), both nominally playing defensive end, shot into the backfield. Linebacker Kyler Fackrell (51) followed suit after left tackle Staley (71) pushed him down, but both Smith and Fackrell were taken out of the play by pulling guard Mike Person (68). Staley climbed to the second level and sealed off Adrian Amos (31), Darnell Savage (26) took a poor angle to the ball carrier and Raheem Mostert (31) was off to one of the biggest games in playoff history. All that off a third-and-8 trap. Check it out, courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats:
The 49ers beat up the Packers for four quarters with virtually no defensive reply, overwhelming a defense that ranked 23rd in the league in rushing DVOA for 285 yards on 42 carries. On Sunday, Shanahan and his offense will face a Chiefs team that finished the season 29th in rush defense DVOA. Kansas City just did an effective job of slowing down Derrick Henry to make it to the Super Bowl, but there are reasons to worry whether it will be as effective on Sunday.
If you're a baseball fan, you've heard the adage about how great teams need to be stout up the middle. I think Shanahan's game plan on Sunday will be to try to exploit the middle of the Kansas City defense at all three levels. Let's start in the trenches and work our way into the secondary, beginning with one of the many players whose health could help swing this game.
Where the 49ers excel, and what the Chiefs have to tweak
The Chiefs will have to change one of the key components of the defensive game plan they used against the Titans. Steve Spagnuolo was able to bring back star defensive tackle Chris Jones from a calf injury, but with Jones still not close to 100%, Jones' snaps were limited. The pending free agent is an excellent gap-shooter and capable of making plays in the backfield against both the pass and the run, but fellow tackle Mike Pennel is much stouter at the point of attack and was likely a better fit against the Tennessee rushing attack.
Spagnuolo's solution was to use the two in a rotation, with Jones and Pennel never seeing the field together. Pennel was on the field when the Titans came out on early downs with rush personnel packages, and Spagnuolo subbed in Jones in obvious passing situations. It worked brilliantly; Pennel did a great job and came up with consecutive short-yardage stops against Henry, while Jones harassed Ryan Tannehill throughout the game on third downs.
That will change for the Chiefs on Sunday because Shanahan doesn't offer many tells with his personnel groupings. While the 49ers' most common package during the season was 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs), Shanahan's offense was far more effective out of 21 personnel (two RBs, one TE, two WRs). It should be San Francisco's base package, getting both Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle on the field together.
The 49ers ran 21 personnel more frequently than any team in football during the regular season, using it 26.7% of the time. During the playoffs, with their run game dominating, they have upped the ante and gone with their favorite grouping on just under 40% of the offensive snaps, including 11 of Garoppolo's 27 pass attempts.
The problems that personnel package brings up for the opposition are similar to the issues James Develin and Rob Gronkowski brought up for the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII--which I addressed in my preview--dominating the only touchdown drive of the game for the Patriots. The Patriots did that out of 22 personnel (two RBs, two TEs, one WR), which the 49ers have used nearly 33% of the time during the postseason.
The 49ers thrive on their ability to use Kittle and Juszczyk as weapons in the running and passing games. We'll get to what Kittle can do as a receiver later on, but his blocking has become the stuff of internet legend; he's such an honorary Gronk at this point that I expect the All-Pro to throw a cruise for himself this offseason. Kittle essentially gives the 49ers a sixth offensive lineman when they want him to block; he can help out right tackle Mike McGlincheywith Frank Clark, come across the formation to wham defensive linemen and get upfield to engulf and overwhelm second-level defenders.
I've written about Juszczyk's contract a lot in recent years, but when you put the money aside, it was always easy to understand why Shanahan saw Juszczyk as an ideal fit for his offense. He's a reliable, consistent blocker who can move all around the formation to create ideal angles within the running game. Juszczyk isn't often going to line up outside and beat a linebacker one-on-one off the line of scrimmage, but he's athletic enough to run for a big play when Shanahan schemes him open. And while advanced metrics suggested that Juszczyk didn't make an impact on the offense in 2017 or 2018, the 49ers have been much better with him on the field in 2019. (He also drew the most absurd pass interference call of the season with some post-play complaining, which is just hustling.)
Former Shanahan assistant Rich Scangarello didn't have much success against the Chiefs in his one-and-done season as Broncos offensive coordinator, but I wouldn't be surprised if Shanahan went back to something Scangarello used to free up fullback Andy Janovich for a big play by faking outside zone one way and having the fullback twist to run across the formation the other way. The Broncos left Clark unblocked and lofted the throw over him to a totally uncovered Janovich, who ran for 22 yards. Shanahan might not run the same exact play, but he could try to get to that same concept at least once during the game.
One thing the 49ers do well with both Juszczyk and Kittle is get them in motion just before the snap and create leverage on the defense before they can adjust. As Warren Sharp noted, the 49ers use motion in the running game more than anybody else in football, while the Chiefs are the NFL's worst run defense when teams use motion.
Here's an example of the 49ers playing off that, with Kittle motioning to the right. The defense adjusts, and then Juszczyk motions at the last second to the right like they're about to run outside zone in that direction ... only for it to be an end around the other way. After taking his first step like he's going to block at the presumed point of attack, Juszczyk reverses field and even goes to cut-block Za'Darius Smith (55) on the opposite edge. With Smith distracted and desperately trying to find the football, Juszczyk sees that Smith isn't going to be involved in the play and bypasses him to head upfield. This isn't a huge play, but it's an example of how Shanahan uses Juszczyk to mess with defenders' heads:
All of that brings us back, for now, to Jones. The Chiefs had clear indicators for when to insert him against the Titans. When Dion Lewis entered the game, Pennel came off the field for Jones every time. With Henry in the game, Pennel (21 snaps) and Derrick Nnadi(nine) played more frequently than Jones (seven). Shanahan's offensive philosophy is built around not giving those sorts of tells and then using the flexibility afforded by his personnel to take advantage of whoever is on the field.
Jones has said he feels much better after the AFC Championship Game, and while I would imagine that's true, the Chiefs still have a question on their hands. They absolutely need Jones as an interior disruptor on passing downs. He's also their best shot at shooting into the backfield and taking down Mostert or the other 49ers backs for a loss, but just as they did with the Packers' ends, Shanahan likely will try to weaponize Jones' aggressiveness by trapping him and running into the hole he just vacated. If Pennel or Nnadi are in the game, Kansas City will have a stouter run defense, but it won't have much in the way of interior penetration against the San Francisco passing game. Outside of obvious running or passing downs, the Chiefs won't be able to use the Niners' personnel packages to get their best players for a particular type of play in the game. That's going to hurt them against both the pass and the run.
The down and distance where a defense has the least information about what the offense is going to do is first-and-10. Unsurprisingly, nobody does better on first-and-10 than Shanahan-led offenses. I've written about this in the past, but even when his teams weren't very good overall, they're much better on first down. And when the offense is great, well, you end up with the 2016 Falcons, whose 7.5-yard average on first down was among the best in NFL history. Here's where Shanahan-led offenses ranked in yards per play on first down and who their primary quarterback was in each of those seasons:
The 49ers averaged a league-best 6.8 yards per play on first downs this season. They ranked second in yards per pass attempt and seventh in yards per rush and ran the ball more than 62% of the time, the second-highest mark in football. Some of that run frequency is influenced by game script with the 49ers often leading by a significant chunk in the fourth quarter, but we have more than a decade of evidence that a Shanahan-led offense is going to be a problem on first downs.
Of course, Mahomes and the Chiefs offense are averaging 8.3 yards per play on first downs in the playoffs. Those guys are pretty good, too.
How Shanahan could exploit the Kansas City linebackers
One of the other big questions for the Chiefs, at least on paper, is how they try to line up against the 49ers in 21 personnel. During the regular season, Kansas City faced 21 personnel on 102 snaps and played five or more defensive backs 48 times. This wasn't typically the case for the 49ers, as opposing defenses tended to match up against those 21 sets with their base defense and four defensive backs. Opposing coordinators stayed in their base defenses 80% of the time against the Niners and moved to their sub-packages with five or more defensive backs just 20% of the time. San Francisco was about as effective regardless of the defensive package, as it was successful (by the NFL Next Gen Stats' definition) 55% of the time against both base and sub-packages.
If the Chiefs still had safety Juan Thornhill, who tore his left ACL in the regular-season finale against the Chargers, they might consider trying to approach the Niners in 21 personnel with a nickel (five defensive back) set. Without Thornhill, though, they are already stretched at safety. They have played their base defense on 11 of 16 snaps against 21 personnel during the playoffs, and they could continue with that sort of ratio in this game. The Chiefs also responded to 22 personnel with their base defense every time during the regular season, so when Juszczyk comes onto the field, Spagnuolo is likely to respond by sending in a linebacker.
Kansas City's primary linebackers are going to be former Cowboys Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson. Let's start with Wilson, who typically played about 30% of the defensive snaps for the Cowboys before jumping to 64% of the snaps in his first season with the Chiefs in 2019. The former special-teamer allowed a passer rating of 115.5 in coverage, the eighth-worst mark in the league for linebackers with at least 200 coverage snaps.
Wilson wasn't egregiously bad on tape, but teams were able to take advantage of his inexperience. In late October, the Packers picked on him with a two-man route combination that is clearly designed to exploit Wilson in zone coverage; the linebacker overcommits to Jimmy Graham's downfield route, leaving a huge swath of space for Aaron Jones coming out of the backfield for a big gain in the red zone. The Texans, another team that thrives on play-action, suckered Wilson with a combination play-fake and fake screen/swing pass before leaking Daniel Fells out behind him for a huge gain. Wilson has gotten better in coverage as the season has gone along, but Shanahan is still going to consider Wilson a target in pass coverage.
Likewise, even though Hitchens was given a big-money deal by the Chiefs in free agency, he's considered a target in pass coverage. The Packers went after Hitchens, too, isolating him against Jones on a mesh variant. This went for 50 yards and would have been a 60-yard touchdown if Jones hadn't stepped out of bounds. The Chargers have had success isolating Austin Ekeler against Hitchens over the past two years. When the Chiefs bring third linebacker Reggie Ragland in the game, it's for his run support; the Vikings were able to manufacture a 32-yard completion to fullback C.J. Ham after he faked a block attempt on Ragland before releasing upfield.
If you thought the Packers liked picking on Wilson and Hitchens, well, you'll never guess what they did when the two linebackers were on the same side of the field. This is a screen that NFL linebackers simply need to beat and a matchup the Chiefs can't let happen on Sunday. Kansas City is 2-on-2 on the outside, with Hitchens and Wilson matched up against Jones and Graham. Clearly targeting the matchup, Rodgers throws an immediate screen to Jones. Graham, almost surely the worst blocking tight end in football, successfully seals off Hitchens. Wilson is too slow to get upfield before the cavalry arrives, and Jones runs untouched for an (undepicted) 67-yard touchdown:
Imagine the 49ers running that play with Mostert and Kittle, who is the polar opposite of Graham when it comes to blocking.
OK. The Chiefs' linebackers aren't great in pass coverage. How are they against the run? As you might suspect from the defense's performance by DVOA, not so great. They allowed 1.84 yards after contact in the run game this season, the fourth-worst rate in football. It isn't a one-year thing, either; they were at a league-worst 2.11 yards after first contact against runners in 2018.
Watch the Chiefs' run defense from the regular season on film and you'll see missed tackles, abandoned gapsand erased linebackers. Combine everything and you end up with failures such as the 68-yard touchdown the Chiefs allowed to Henry in the regular season.
In the AFC Championship Game, though, the Chiefs held Henry to 69 yards on 19 carries, a much-improved performance against the run when the Chiefs needed one most. The defensive line was the key here. Clark was excellent against Jack Conklin and chased down a Henry run from behind. Nnadi and Pennel held up in the middle. There were still troublesome moments -- Terrell Suggs tried to cheat his way into another gap and nobody replaced him on one Henry run, while Hitchens was visibly frustrated after missing a tackle on Henry behind the line of scrimmage and wasn't able to stop Henry as part of a scrape-exchange near the end zone on a 4-yard touchdown run -- but the Chiefs allowed only 1.4 yards after first contact.
Henry's longest run of the day was 13 yards, and while it could have gone for more,Daniel Sorensenwas able to bring Henry down as the last line of defense. His role in this game also will be key.
The safeties who can win (or lose) the game
Sorensen has already had a conspicuous postseason. The 29-year-old forced DeAndre Carter to fumble away a kickoff in the first half of the Texans game, setting up a short field to help get the Chiefs back in the contest. In the win over the Titans, he laid a huge hit on Tannehill and then single-handedly sniffed out a screen to Henry for a loss of 6 yards on what was the star back's final touch of the season.
You can understand why the Chiefs like having Sorensen around. He's a very good special-teamer. His teammates seem to love him. Sorensen exhibited incredible agility at the combine.
They also made investments at safety this offseason by giving Tyrann Mathieu a record deal and drafting Thornhill in the second round for a reason. Several key moments for the Chiefs last season came down to teams picking on Sorensen in coverage. In that now-legendary 54-51 game against the Rams during the 2018 regular season, Jared Goff won the game with two late touchdown passes to Gerald Everett. Both the 7-yard touchdown that gave the Rams the lead and the 40-yard game winner on the ensuing drive came with Sorensen in coverage.
Against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game a year ago, Sorensen played a significant role. He came up with a huge interception when a ball bounced off Julian Edelman's hands in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots were able to pick on him when he was in zone coverage with throws to Edelman over the middle of the field. Sorensen also ended up in man coverage versus Rob Gronkowski on a number of occasions, and while there are few safeties on the planet who can cover Gronk one-on-one, Sorensen did not add his name to the list. When the Chiefs instead stuck Eric Berry on Gronk and had Sorensen playing the deep role as a single-high or two-high safety, he wasn't able to read Tom Brady and get into the future Hall of Famer's throwing lanes or do enough to interfere with Gronkowski making key catches down the stretch.
To be fair, asking Sorensen to compete with arguably the two best players at their respective positions in NFL history is unreasonable. Sorensen shouldn't be able to cover Gronk man-to-man or figure out Brady. At the same time, though, there are likely going to be moments in this game where Sorensen ends up in man coverage against Kittle or as the last line of defense against a big run from Mostert. While he played half of the defensive snaps this season, I saw at least one Sorensen run in whichhe was fooled and actively sprinting in the opposite direction from the ball carrier to create a huge gain for Josh Jacobs. I suspect Shanahan regards Sorensen as a liability. On Sunday, we'll find out whether he's right.
The key player for the Chiefs beyond the defensive line, of course, is Mathieu. It's almost impossible to imagine the Chiefs having a great game on defense against the 49ers without a significant contribution from the former LSU star. Mathieu's instincts and speed make him the sort of player who can discourage or downright blow up the jet sweeps and wide runs the 49ers love to use with Deebo Samuel. As a playmaker who moves all around the defense from snap to snap, there has to be a moment in this game in which Mathieu is in a spot Garoppolo isn't expecting and gets a fingertip or a hand on the football. If that's enough to force a takeaway, Mathieu will have done his job.
Mathieu and Hitchens will need to play a significant role in identifying what San Francisco is running and beating its blockers to the punch. While the Titans were extremely effective running the football against the Patriots and Ravens, they were hardly subtle. They didn't do much to mask their core rushing and play-action concepts or get to them in a different way, in part because you don't really need to with that offensive line and Derrick Henry. Shanahan is going to dress up the handful of zone and gap concepts the 49ers run with motion, pitches and misdirection to an extent few teams in the NFL can match.
The weak spot for the Chiefs to exploit on offense
The Chiefs' game plan starts with how they attempt to attack the weakest part of the San Francisco defense. The 49ers have the league's eighth-best passer rating allowed on throws to the right side of the offense, which is where Richard Sherman lines up. While Sherman traveled to the other side of the field early in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, he's going to line up at left cornerback about 99% of the time.
On throws to the left side of the offense, though, San Francisco is 16th in passer rating allowed. That's where it will start Emmanuel Moseley. And while the undrafted free-agent cornerback has had a good postseason, the Chiefs will see Moseley as the defensive back they want to target in the passing game when the 49ers play their classic Cover 3 defense.
There is one specific trips look the Chiefs love to use that comes to mind. For years, Andy Reid has lined up his three top wide receivers to one side of the field and split star tight end Travis Kelce to the backside. It places defenses in an impossible position. Flood the trips side with help and Kelce ends up one-on-one against what is typically a smaller cornerback. Ask the Texans and Lonnie Johnson how that went in the divisional round.
So, then, maybe the defense doubles Kelce or gives its corner help with a linebacker to the inside or a safety over the top? That makes sense, but now the defense has one fewer player to handle a set with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkinsand Mecole Hardman all together on the other side. When Kelce outmuscles the cornerback on a slant, it goes for 10 or 15 yards. When a defense blows a coverage against Hill or Hardman, defenders have to watch the league's fastest receiving corps race each other to the end zone.
Here's the question for Reid: On which side will he align Kelce in those 3x1 sets when the 49ers are in Cover 3? Put Kelce against Sherman and there will likely be a one-on-one matchup, although the 6-foot-3 Sherman has the size and physicality to at least mix it up with Kelce at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps more importantly, the Chiefs end up with their three top wideouts on Moseley's side, placing extra stress on a guy who is really in his rookie season at corner (he played three special-teams snaps in 2018).
Flipping the offensive script is more compelling for the Chiefs. Isolating Kelce vs. Moseley is almost definitely a mismatch for size reasons alone. Kelce is 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. Moseley is 5-foot-11, 190 pounds. There will be Cover 3 or Cover 6 variations the 49ers typically run that ask Moseley to either play man coverage as the backside corner against Kelce or to attempt to win at the line of scrimmage and reroute Kelce toward help on the inside at linebacker, and it's asking an awful lot of Moseley to do that on a regular basis in this game.
The 49ers have a cornerback with size on their bench in Ahkello Witherspoon, who is 6-foot-3 and has Sherman-esque arms. The Niners preferred Witherspoon to Moseley; Witherspoon began the season as a starter, and while Moseley filled in after Witherspoon went down with a sprained foot, the 49ers reinserted Witherspoon back into the starting lineup as an every-down player upon his return.
The problem is that teams simply kept picking on Witherspoon with success. According to Pro Football Reference, Witherspoon has given up a passer rating of 109.2 in coverage, far worse than the figures allowed by Moseley or Sherman. The 49ers were forced to bench him in the fourth quarter of their Week 17 victory over the Seahawks after the Colorado product gave up a pair of touchdown passes. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh reinserted him into the starting lineup for the divisional round game against the Vikings, but after Witherspoon got lost on a 41-yard touchdown catch by Stefon Diggs, he was benched again and hasn't played a defensive snap since.
If Kelce physically dominates Moseley early in this game, Saleh is in a lose-lose situation. Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel had to stick with Johnson against Kelce for most of the game because he had no alternative. If Saleh brings in Witherspoon, the Chiefs will be delighted. Witherspoon has the size to compete with Kelce, but he probably doesn't have the physicality. Even more worrisome is the reality that the Chiefs can flip their offense and start running the Hill-led trips side of the attack at Witherspoon, which should be terrifying for 49ers fans.
There are ways to try to combat the Moseley-Kelce matchup. The 49ers have smart, rangy linebackers, especially now with Kwon Alexander back in the lineup on a part-time basis after returning from his torn pectoral muscle. Alexander could take on a larger role with two more weeks of healing before the Super Bowl, and having Alexander and Fred Warner gives San Francisco a pair of linebackers who are great at diagnosing play fakes, getting into throwing lanes and occasionally forcing the ball out after a catch is made.
Just as the Niners do on offense with George Kittle, expect the Chiefs to use play-action and the occasional run-pass option (RPO) to create easy completions to Kelce and other Chiefs receivers. Kelce is a unique weapon; there are only a handful of receivers in the league with his combination of size and speed, and the 49ers only have to face one of those precious few during practice.
The 49ers also should be worried about the Chiefs isolating Hill against Sherman when he's on that side of the field. When these two teams played in September 2018, Reid was able to do just that by inserting Kelce on Hill's side and having him run a stick route, while the two wideouts on the opposite side ran post routes. The free safety got occupied by the underneath routes and Sherman had to carry Hill's deep post. It takes a hanging pass from Patrick Mahomes and a spectacular job of catching up from Sherman to save a touchdown:
One solution would be for the 49ers to play Cover 3 less frequently. Any defensive coach who comes from Seattle will have the reputation of playing the Cover 3 Buzz that Pete Carroll loves to teach, but Saleh's 49ers play more two-deep safety looks than their reputation suggests. NFL Next Gen Stats suggest that they play with two deep safeties about 20% of the time, and as our Matt Bowen suggested, it wouldn't be shocking to see them show more two-deep looks in the Super Bowl.
Playing with two deep safeties can offer Moseley more protection against Kelce while simultaneously making it easier to defend downfield routes on the opposite side of the field. Taking a safety out of the box naturally makes it easier to run the ball and complete shorter passes, but as The Athletic's Mike Sando has noted, the Chiefs are the most pass-happy team in the league. The 49ers would likely love Kansas City to try to win with its ground game.
Going to Cover 2 or quarters coverage isn't going to suddenly stop the Chiefs. The Chargers, who run a similar scheme to the 49ers under former Seahawks coach Gus Bradley and had some success slowing down Mahomes with single-high safety looks, got beat by the Chiefs attacking with four verts (a common Cover 1 or Cover 3 beater) when they tried to rotate late to two-deep coverages.
On one such play, Kelce bent his route toward the sideline and Mahomes dropped a perfect pass in for a touchdown. That's just getting beat by a superstar quarterback. On another play in which they rotated to two-deep at the snap, though, the Chargers were left with linebacker Drue Tranquill carrying Hill's go route upfield as it split the two safeties. It didn't go well. As much as the 49ers love their linebackers, they don't want to see Warner, Alexander or rookie Dre Greenlaw running downfield with Hill.
When these two teams played in 2018, Reid abused Saleh's defense with four verts. The Chiefsran it out of a twin tight end set. They ran it out of trips. Quite frankly, they should have had two long touchdowns off it, but Mahomes didn't have his best game and missed both throws.
Saleh got frustrated enough with Kansas City exploiting his defense up the seams to respond in almost a comical manner: He lined up a pair of safeties 15 yards downfield on either hashmark. It was like a basketball coach who was sick of seeing his team get dunked on having his two tallest players start a defensive possession by standing directly in front of the rim. Of course, Reid responded by splitting out Kelce and isolating him against Reuben Foster on another four verts concept for a first down (animation from NFL Next Gen Stats):
Mentioning Foster invokes a reasonable argument as to why this game won't be the same as the one we saw from the Chiefs and 49ers in 2018. The 49ers have dramatically improved their personnel on defense. Six of the 14 players who lined up for at least 40% of the defensive snaps against the Chiefs either aren't on the roster or wouldn't expect to get that sort of usage in the Super Bowl. Alexander, Moseley, Jaquiski Tartt, Nick Bosaand Dee Ford weren't playing defense for the 49ers in 2018, while Sherman took only 47% of the defensive snaps after leaving the game with a calf injury.
There's no doubting the Niners have much better personnel now than they did then, and they should have more success here. Given that Kansas City scored touchdowns on all five of its first-half possessions in a game in which Mahomes missed multiple would-be touchdown throws, though, there's a lot of room for improvement. The Chiefs are still going to challenge the 49ers vertically, and the matchup problems they present for opposing defenses have flummoxed even the best and brightest defensive talents in the league over the past couple of seasons.
If San Francisco drastically improves its defensive performance from last season and slows down the Chiefs' offense, it's not likely to primarily be driven by its coverage. Everything is intertwined in pass defense, but if the 49ers aren't able to mount much pressure on Mahomes, the coverage isn't going to matter. The Niners can lose this game with poor coverage, but to win it, they're going to need a big day from their pass rush.
Punching a hole in Andy Reid's offense
Here's where the mismatch goes in the other direction. Kelce vs. Moseley is a problem for the 49ers. The Chiefs' version of this matchup is at left guard, where 30-year-old journeyman Stefen Wisniewski is the fifth left guard to have started over the past two seasons. He only signed with the team in October, but when starter Andrew Wylie went down with an ankle injury, they inserted Wisniewski into the lineup ahead of 2018 starter Cam Erving. Wylie expected to return for the playoffs, but Kansas City has instead stuck with Wisniewski.
Like Moseley, Wisniewski has played well during the postseason. The league has valued him as a backup lineman over the past few years, and while the Chiefs have traditionally done a good job of getting by with midround picks and castoffs at guard under Reid and offensive line coach Andy Heck, Wisniewski is about to line up against 49ers star DeForest Buckner. The former first-round pick has 19.5 sacks and 34 knockdowns over the past two seasons, which ranks third and fifth, respectively, among NFL defensive tackles. Buckner vs. Wisniewski has the potential to be the biggest mismatch on the field Sunday.
The Chiefs will likely help Wisniewski in blocking Buckner with centerAustin Reiter, but the last time these two teams played, their center was Mitch Morse, who left for the Bills after signing a four-year, $44.5 million deal in free agency. With all due respect to the former seventh-round pick Reiter, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million extension last December, he's not quite on Morse's level.
The Chiefs' offensive line is coming off one of its best two-game stretches of the season, though we need to consider the competition. The Texans ranked 25th in pressure rate during the regular season, and while they had J.J. Watt back for the playoffs, the star Texans end was not his usual self after making an early return from a torn pec. The Titans ranked 18th in pressure rate. The 49ers? They ranked seventh overall at 30.4%, but they were a dramatically different pass defense with Ford in the lineup, as you can see from their on/off splits with and without the former Chiefs edge rusher:
A 15.2% sack rate seems pretty good! One of the wildest stats of the season is a Bosa fun fact I've mentioned before. Just under 25% of his snaps have come with Ford on the field, but 75% of Bosa's sacks have been alongside his partner on the edge in 2019. Ford isn't single-handedly the reason why the 49ers have nearly tripled their sack rate with him on the field, but it allows them to present a front four that most offensive lines simply can't handle.
Ford only made it back to the lineup for the playoffs after missing most of the second half with a hamstring injury, but San Francisco hasn't used him as much more than a part-time player this season. He played 58% of the defensive snaps in Week 1 and then didn't top 50% in a single game again until the NFC Championship Game, when he lined up for 54% of the snaps against the Packers. Like Alexander, I would expect Ford to be healthier come Sunday than he was two weeks ago, and given how pass-happy the Chiefs are, it wouldn't be surprising to see Ford play somewhere north of 60% of the defensive snaps.
With Ford around, the 49ers have essentially played three sets of defensive lines for the vast majority of their snaps during the playoffs. Line 1 is the starting four, with Bosa at right defensive end, Arik Armstead at left defensive end and Buckner lining up next to one of the defensive tackles (usually Sheldon Day) on the interior. Buckner usually plays right defensive tackle, although he and Day occasionally switch. Line 2 is the backup unit: Ford plays left defensive end, Anthony Zettel plays opposite him at right defensive end, and Earl Mitchell teams up with former third overall pick Solomon Thomas on the interior. Some teams will rotate individual linemen in for a play or a series, but the 49ers are comfortable making wholesale changes up front.
Line 3 is the pass-rushing foursome. This is where Armstead kicks inside to tackle, Day goes to the bench, and Ford steps in as left defensive end. Given how frequently the Chiefs pass and the improving condition of Ford's hamstring, this could very well be the 49ers' most-used line combination on Sunday. All this line has done during the season is sack opposing quarterbacks on 17% of their dropbacks.
The Chiefs will feel comfortable with superstar right tackle Mitchell Schwartz going up against Ford one-on-one. They'll have to feel uneasy everywhere else against that package. The duo of Buckner and Armstead aren't going to be overwhelmed working against Wisniewski, Reiter and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. Eric Fisher is a league-average starting left tackle, and Kansas City needs to worry about his ability to hold up on an island against Bosa's athleticism. The 49ers should be able to win with this front four and create steady pressure on Mahomes.
Saleh also has the option of moving around his linemen to try to target the weaker pass-protection links for the Chiefs on the interior. While the 49ers moved their defensive linemen to try to create mismatches during the regular season, outside of Armstead, Saleh hasn't really moved the front four around much during the postseason. Take Bosa's heat maps from NFL Next Gen Stats; while he bounced between both defensive end spots during the regular season, he has almost exclusively been at right end during the playoffs:
During the Packers game, there were a couple of snaps in obvious passing situations (first-and-15 and fourth-and-12) in which the 49ers did move things around by bumping Ford inside next to Bosa on the right side of the defense, with Buckner moving to defensive end. You could see the 49ers go back to that look on third-and-long in the hopes of beating Wisniewski with the faster Ford. They would likely try to use Buckner's size in this scenario to push Schwartz back in the hopes of keeping Mahomes from getting outside of the pocket.
Even if the 49ers line up in relatively familiar places before the snap, they'll use stunts and line games to try to create confusion among the offensive linemen and isolate mismatches. Even if Bosa lines up outside Fisher before the snap, we're almost certainly going to see plays in which the 49ers twist him inside to get him against Wisniewski.
The 49ers don't blitz a ton, but I would expect them to dial up something exotic once in a while using Warner to try to slow Mahomes going through his progression while possibly generating a free rusher. Take the strip sack they forced against Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game off a zone blitz, where Ford comes off the line and drops into coverage as the "rat" or "robber" and the 49ers blitz Warner directly into the center to isolate two blitzers against Billy Turner, the weakest link on the line. Aaron Jones picks up one of the rushers, but K'Waun Williams runs by Turner for the finish:
Expect the Niners to target Wisniewski in similar ways Sunday. If the 49ers repeatedly twist their defensive ends to get Bosa and Ford matched up against Wisniewski and Duvernay-Tardif, the Chiefs could respond with an early blast of their quick game to get the ball out before those rushers can get home. That in itself might be a victory for the 49ers, though, since Mahomes ranks 12th in passer rating and 14th in QBR when he gets the ball out within two seconds of the snap. (He ranks in the top seven in both categories if he holds onto the ball for at least two seconds.)
And then, after all that, the game could be decided by what separates Mahomes from the vast majority of quarterbacks who have ever played the game: his ability to erase a free rusher with his legs, escape the pocket, quickly reset and fire to an open receiver virtually anywhere on the field. There's no defense on the planet built to stop that. Super Bowl LIV could be decided by those moments in which Mahomes is trying to shuffle away from Bosa while Hill abandons his route and runs toward open grass. Neither side is going to win every one of those battles, but the 49ers can't afford to lose many.
Six more storylines that will influence the outcome
Here are a few other players who come to mind as meaningful discussion topics in advance of this matchup ...
Frank Clark is the most important player in the game who didn't get discussed at length above. While he flipped sides during the regular season, he has mostly lined up at left defensive end during the playoffs, which means he would be matched up against 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey for most of the game. Clark has huge responsibilities against both the run and the pass. With the 49ers running so much outside zone, he has to be able to hold the point of attack and either make a play himself or force the 49ers' backs to slow down while waiting for a hole to open. When he's the backside defender, Clark needs to both deny cutback lanes and keep pressure on Garoppolo when the 49ers inevitably have their quarterback keep the ball and work to the other side of the field off of play-action. The 49ers will motion Kittle and Juszczyk to Clark's side and manipulate him with spacing to create cutback lanes. Clark has to fight off all of that.
As a pass-rusher, if he can give McGlinchey trouble early, it'll force the 49ers to use Kittle as a chipper or straight-up second blocker, which simultaneously solves the biggest matchup problem for the Chiefs in the secondary.
Ben Garland is the closest thing the 49ers have to Wisniewski. The former Falcons backup took over as the starting center after Weston Richburg tore his patella, but the 49ers really haven't missed a beat over Garland's five starts. I suspect part of the Packers' emphasis on exotic fronts in passing situations early in the NFC Championship Game was to try to confuse Garland in pass protection, but since the 49ers just ran the ball in those situations anyway, it didn't really matter. Garland is at his best in open space chopping down linebackers and defensive backs, so I wonder if the Chiefs will try to physically overwhelm the Air Force product with the 330-pound Pennel.
Raheem Mostert had an incredible day in the NFC Championship Game and seems likely to be the lead back on Sunday, but what happens next is more up in the air than it might seem. Tevin Coleman, who has a shoulder injury,has simultaneously said that he expects to play in the Super Bowl but doesn't want to play in a harness; he has started practicing without one, but it's difficult to imagine him playing significant snaps just two weeks after his shoulder was dislocated for more than 20 minutes. He would also be at risk of re-injuring the shoulder during the game. We know Shanahan is comfortable playing the hot hand, given that Coleman basically took the starting job over from Mostert because the former Falcons standout had a good series while Mostert was dealing with a cramp in his calf. If Coleman can't take meaningful snaps on Sunday, it would open up the door for Matt Breida to take his share of the reps on offense.
Breida is a forgotten man in this offense -- he has 13 carries for just 35 yards since fumbling twice in the Falcons game -- but the Chiefs are one of the worst teams in the league in terms of allowing long runs, and he is one of the most extreme boom-or-bust backs in the league. His most likely outcome for this game is probably something like two carries for 7 yards, but the chances he breaks a 60-yard run are higher than they seem at the moment.
Deebo Samuel, meanwhile, has turned into a regular part of the San Francisco rushing attack. The rookie wideout has at least one carry in each of his past seven games, turning 12 carries into 171 yards and two rushing scores. The Chiefs have been able to stop opposing wideouts from running on them -- no receiver has run for more than 16 yards in a game against Kansas City this season -- but I would expect Samuel to get at least one carry on Sunday.
Damien Williams has turned into an every-down back for the Chiefs, whose announced plan of making LeSean McCoy a healthy scratch so he could be ready for the playoffs appears to have been a ruse. McCoy hasn't touched the ball since Week 15 and is likely to be inactive for the Super Bowl. Williams has given the Chiefs some stability, but outside of one 91-yard touchdown, he has carried the ball 56 times for 190 yards (3.4 yards per rush). The Chiefs are basically running Williams in short-yardage situations and in the red zone, so while he has 18 first downs over that time frame, just four of them came with more than 5 yards to go for a first down.
After a drop-filled performance against the Texans, the Chiefs seemed to move Demarcus Robinson down their depth chart in favor of speedy rookie Mecole Hardman. The rookie out-snapped Robinson against the Titans on offense, 27 to 25, and I would expect something close to a 50-50 split again. The 49ers have very good-to-great speed in their secondary with guys such as Moseley and Jimmie Ward, but when the Chiefs do go back to four verts, I suspect they'll want Hardman as one of the receivers streaking up the seam.
If Kwon Alexander isn't ready to play a full complement of snaps, the 49ers will go with rookie Dre Greenlaw as their starting inside linebacker next to Fred Warner. Alexander played 54% of the defensive snaps against the Vikings, but with the 49ers blowing out the Packers, the former Bucs standout lined up for just 32% of the defensive snaps in the NFC Championship Game. His ability to work in lockstep with Warner defending crossing routes and screens would make him the more desirable option in the Super Bowl.
Does the best quarterback always win in Super Bowls?
Maybe all this is overcomplicating things. The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes. The 49ers have Jimmy Garoppolo. Unless you have a closet full of vintage 49ers jackets or are a frustrated Patriots fan, chances are you think Mahomes is the better quarterback. I agree, and maybe it should be that simple. If the Chiefs have an advantage at quarterback, is that enough to say they should be favored to win this game? How often does the team with the better quarterback actually win in the Super Bowl?
Would you believe that the team with the better quarterback in the Super Bowl actually has a losing record? I went back to Super Bowl I and measured each starting quarterback's adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) during the regular season, and the passer with the better AY/A of the two has won just 20 of the 53 Super Bowls, which is just below 38%.(Adjusted yards per attempt is a better version of passer rating, with touchdowns and interceptions weighted more appropriately.)
Amazingly, the inferior quarterback by AY/A has won each of the past nine Super Bowl matchups. The last quarterback to win a Super Bowl as the superior passer was Drew Brees over Peyton Manning in 2009. The ensuing nine-year run includes paper mismatches such asJoe Flacco vs. Colin Kaepernick, the last embers of Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton,and Nick Foles vs. Tom Brady, and I mentioned the biggest quarterback mismatches in Super Bowl history as part of my preview.
Garoppolo vs. Mahomes isn't really a mismatch by AY/A. Mahomes averaged 8.9 AY/A this season, while Garoppolo was at 8.3 AY/A in his first full season starting for Shanahan. Garoppolo's AY/A is 92.5% of Mahomes' mark, which is the 14th-closest figure of the 53 Super Bowl matchups. The biggest mismatch was Eli Manning vs. Tom Brady in 2007, and you know how that went.
With a sample of just 53 championship games, we can't really draw many conclusions into why we see this trend. I certainly don't believe teamslosebecause their quarterback in the Super Bowl is good. At the very least, though, we can say that having the better quarterback on the biggest stage hasn't been enough to single-handedly swing games in their teams' direction.
Strangely for a quarterback in the Super Bowl, I find myself having very little to say about Garoppolo and how he figures into this matchup. The players and situations around him will dictate how he plays. It's not realistic to expect another game in which he throws eight passes again, but if the 49ers are running the ball effectively and maintaining their lead, he will look just fine in a game in which he throws about 25 passes.
If the 49ers trail and the game turns into a shootout where San Francisco needs Garoppolo to throw the ball to keep them in the contest, things could get messy. We've seen quarterbacks in a similar tier to Garoppolo like Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill excel during this postseason when their teams were running the ball effectively. Once those passers were trailing and facing pass rushers with their ears pinned back, though, they weren't able to bring their teams back into the game.
Garoppolo has brought the 49ers back in the past. He pieced together four fourth-quarter comeback victories in 2019, including a 34-31 victory over the Rams and that famous 48-46 shootout with the Saints in the Superdome. Garoppolo threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns in that game! As easy as it has become to suggest that Shanahan doesn't trust Garoppolo to throw the ball in big moments, the 49ers wouldn't have been the top seed in the NFC without Garoppolo's late-season play in victories over the Saints, Rams and Seahawks.
At the same time, just because he has done something in the past doesn't mean that the 49ers will want to count on him to repeat that feat in the future. The Chiefs finished the season sixth in pass defense DVOA, sixth in interception rate and 11th in sack rate. Garoppolo has won a shootout in the past, but if he does it again in the Super Bowl, it will be out of necessity, not design.
Will either of these teams stop scoring?
It's fair to say the vast majority of people expect this game to be high-scoring. During the NFC Championship Game, Vegas sportsbooks started to post an over/under for a Chiefs-49ers matchup at either 51 or 52 points. The total immediately rose and has made it all the way to 55 in some places, with 12 times as much action on the over as the under in one book. With the four previous games this postseason involving one of these teams producing an average of nearly 59 points, you can understand why bettors were desperate to back a shootout in Miami.
I certainly wouldn't be shocked to see a high-scoring game, but there are reasons to think each team might not leap into the 30s. As good as both of these offenses are, they have been remarkably efficient in terms of turning drives into touchdowns during the postseason, especially Kansas City. The Chiefs ranked second in the regular season in touchdowns-per-possession percentage at 30.7.If we leave out the three games Mahomes mostly or entirely missed due to injury, that moves up to 32.1%.
During the playoffs, they have scored touchdowns on 60% of their drives, nearly double their regular-season mark. They have been absurdly efficient, even by their lofty standards. The 49ers aren't quite as outlandish, but after finishing fourth by converting for touchdowns on 30.2% of their drives during the regular season, they have managed touchdowns on seven of their 20 postseason drives for a 35% conversion rate.
The natural place to look here is toward the red zone, and unsurprisingly, both offenses were fantastic in January. The Chiefs scored nine touchdowns and a field goal on their 10 red zone possessions, good for a conversion rate of 90%. The Niners weren't far behind, as they converted eight trips into three field goals and five touchdowns for a conversion rate of 62.5%.
What's interesting, though, is that neither of these teams was good in the red zone during the regular season. Again, they were right near one another in the rankings. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on 54% of their red zone possessions, which was 20th in the NFL. The 49ers finished 21st at 53.2%. Even if you want to remove the games in which Mahomes was missing and leave out the drives in which these teams were up by multiple touchdowns and weren't trying their hardest to score touchdowns, the reality is that these weren't great regular-season red zone offenses.
Red zone performance is noisy and wildly inconsistent from year to year. With a small sample in the playoffs, I wouldn't count on these teams continuing to be as effective during the Super Bowl as they were in January. Regression toward the mean here can be fatal. Take the 2017 Patriots, who scored eight touchdowns on their nine red zone trips in wins over the Titans and Jaguars. In the Super Bowl against the Eagles, they scored touchdowns on two out of four red zone tries and even saw Stephen Gostkowski miss a 26-yard field goal in the first quarter. Those missing points mattered dearly in the fourth quarter of a 41-33 loss.
All the other stuff that could decide the game
The Chiefs have an advantage on special teams, given that they ranked second in Football Outsiders' special teams statisticin the regular season. The 49ers were closer to the middle of the pack at 12th.
In the divisional round, though, Kansas City had about as wild of a special-teams game as a team can have. Dave Toub's unit allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown, while Tyreek Hill muffed a punt and gave Houston a short field for a touchdown. Naturally, the Chiefs immediately followed those transgressions with a long Mecole Hardman kick return. Sorensen then forced a fumble on a Texans kickoff to hand the Chiefs a short field of their own. All of this happened before halftime. Harrison Butker missed an extra point after halftime, but given that he attempted extra points and kicked off at the end of seven consecutive touchdown drives, you can't really fault him for having a sore leg.
I'm inclined to write off that game as a bizarre aberration for the Chiefs' special teams; they were fine against the Titans. My biggest special-teams concern for this matchup would be 49ers veteran Robbie Gould, who was quietly the sixth-worst kicker in the league in 2019. After converting 97.1% of his field goal tries during a banner 2018 season, the former Bears standout hit on 74.2% of his attempts in 2019, including an 0-for-4 mark on kicks from 50-plus yards. Gould is 5-of-5 during the postseason and hit a 54-yarder at home against the Packers, but I would be a little concerned about sending him out for anything past 50 yards in Miami.
Shanahan didn't have much of a choice with Gould on the 54-yarder, as the 49ers were facing a fourth-and-14 after a dismally timed sack by Garoppolo, but the coach's decision-making on fourth down during this postseason has been iffy, especially given how dominant his team's running game has been. He kicked a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the 9-yard line with a 17-0 lead in the second quarter against the Packers in a similar call to the one Bill O'Brien was (rightly) excoriated for making against the Chiefs in the prior round.
Early in the fourth quarter, on a fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 39-yard line with a 21-point lead, Shanahan chose to take a delay of game and punt. That game was already in the Niners' pockets, but his running game was averaging 7.0 yards per carry! In the third quarter of the Vikings game, with a 14-10 lead, Shanahan kicked a field goal on fourth-and-2 in the red zone. Those decisions haven't come back to bite the third-year head coach, but the margin for error against the Chiefs is much smaller than it was against the Vikings and Packers.
The referee for the Super Bowl will be Bill Vinovich. Historically, Vinovich has a significant track record of swallowing his whistle and letting the game play; his crew has routinely come in about 15% to 20% below league average in terms of penalty yards per game, although he will be working with an all-star crew for Super Bowl LIV.
It's also true that officials tend to keep the flags in their pocket during the Super Bowl. When you compare the penalty yardage per regular-season game for the most common penalties over the past decade to those same yardage rates over the past 10 Super Bowls, you'll find that most penalties have been called less frequently on the biggest stage:
Whether it's because of the pressure to not decide the game, the lack of a home team, more talented defensive teams making it to the Super Bowl or sheer chance, defenses haven't been flagged quite as frequently for those calls in February. The streak of Super Bowls without an illegal contact penalty also now stretches back 15 years, as Roman Phifer was whistled for an illegal contact call in the first Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl matchup in February 2005.
If the refs are generally relaxed, it would likely favor the Chiefs, who were flagged 32 times for defensive holding, illegal contact and defensive pass interference this season, the fourth-highest mark in football. Overall, the Chiefs racked up the league's seventh-most penalty yards, while the Niners were 11th. Given Vinovich's history and the track record of officials on this stage, coaches should probably encourage their players to be more aggressive with their hands downfield, since referees are less likely to make the calls they would typically make.
The prediction ...
It's difficult to think of many closer Super Bowl matchups in recent memory. The Chiefs are favorites by either 1 point or 1.5 points across Vegas on Thursday morning. The only time a Super Bowl line has been that close over the past 35 years was for the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl in February 2015, which ended up being decided by a yard. It would hardly be surprising if this game came down to the final few moments of the fourth quarter.
In evaluating these two teams, though, there's one significant weakness that stands out: the Chiefs' run defense. Against most teams, the Chiefs are simply too devastating on offense for their 29th-ranked run defense to matter. The 49ers have feasted on those terrible run defenses in 2019, scoring 51 points on the 32nd-ranked Panthers, 31 points on the 30th-ranked Browns and 41 points on the 28th-ranked Bengals. Furthermore, if you were trying to build a defense for Shanahan to exploit in the passing game, you'd want to build one that was overmatched at linebacker and free safety.
The Chiefs have been able to overcome sloppy play on defense and special teams by scoring at an astronomical, unsustainable rate on offense, even by Mahomes' incredible standards. The 49ers won't shut down Mahomes, and I would be worried about a fourth-quarter comeback if the 49ers are winning once the pass rush begins to tire and Reid finds a weakness, but this is the best defense Mahomes has faced during the postseason by a considerable margin. The 49ers should be better along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in this game, and that has won football games for a century now. If Mahomes can overcome those advantages and still guide Reid to his first Super Bowl victory, we'll be lucky enough to see it. 49ers 27, Chiefs 23
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