MIAMI – The best thing about Super Bowl LIV is it will feature the two best teams playing in the NFL today, the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
While that may seem like what the Super Bowl should always be, the reality is due to various circumstances, it really doesn’t happen regularly.
However, with wins over the Saints, Packers and Seahawks – their three closest competitors in the NFC – there is no question the 49ers are the class of the senior circuit these days.
Some might argue the Ravens had the better regular season than the Chiefs in the AFC, and they did, but Kansas City is the hottest team in the NFL right now, on an eight-game win streak, while the Ravens were one and done in the playoffs in spite of being the No. 1 seed, and were actually noncompetitive against a Titans team the Chiefs waxed solidly.
It is also a classic irresistible force meets the immovable object matchup with the 49ers, while not quite the stingiest defense in the NFL, certainly the most explosive, meeting a Chiefs offense that is one of the most explosive in NFL history.
San Francisco also owns the best rushing attack in the league and while stopping the run has been a problem for the Chiefs, they have improved steadily over the second half of the season and were the first team in months to put a governor on Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, ending his historic run and the Titans’ Cinderella story in the AFC title game.
For little more than uniform choices and other appearances, San Francisco will be the visitors, the Chiefs the home club.
49ers run game vs. Chiefs run “D”: San Francisco was fourth in the NFL this season in total offense, mainly on the strength of the league’s No. 2 rushing attack, which was really No. 1 in a traditional sense as only Baltimore ranked ahead of them and it needed over 1,100 yards from quarterback Lamar Jackson to do so.
Conversely, the Chiefs defense against the run ranked 26th in the NFL, allowing just over 128 yards per game, while the Niners posted 144 rushing yards on average a week.
San Francisco boasts a three-headed monster of Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida in the backfield along with the best blocking fullback in the game in Kyle Juszczyk, and one of the NFL’s best in-line blocking tight ends in George Kittle.
As much as folks talk about the backs, San Francisco averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in three games when Kittle was either out or severely limited by knee and ankle woes, but 4.8 a pop when he was healthy.
Coleman is the starter and keyed the divisional route of the Vikings, but he banged up a shoulder early in the title game and was out of uniform and on the sideline for the second half vs. Green Bay. Check his status on gameday.
Mostert actually took over the bulk of the load the second half of the season and is every bit as dangerous as Coleman, coming off a monster 220-rushing yard, 4-TD game two weeks ago to get the Niners here.
Breida is also explosive in both the run and passing games, but ball security has been an issue and he appears to be a bit outside the Kyle Shanahan circle of trust these days.
All Pro DT Chris Jones is probably best known as a fierce interior pass rusher for the Chiefs, but his presence against the run clearly matters and after limping to the finish line of the regular season with a significant groin injury and playing limited snaps two weeks ago, his return should make a difference for the Kansas City run defense.
Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland and Damien Wilson are Kansas City’s primary run stuffers but none of them are special.
49ers pass game vs. Chiefs pass ‘D”: It is difficult to know exactly what to make of the 49ers aerial attack these days because their prolific run game has left Jimmy Garoppolo and Co. grounded a good part of the past few games.
The 49ers ranked a very respectable 13th overall on offense, averaging 237 yards a game, but they’ll be throwing into the strength of Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s group, ranked 8th against the pass (221.4 yards per regular season game).
Garoppolo notched an excellent 102.0 passer rating this season with 27 TDs, but he tossed 13 picks and will turn the ball over on occasion.
His primary target is Kittle (85-1,053-5 receiving in the regular season), a locomotive going downhill with the ball after the catch.
Rookie Deebo Samuel looks like a star in the making and lives over the middle where the faint of heart rarely venture, while veteran Emmanuel Sanders has provided excellent balance that had been missing prior to his acquisition via trade in Week 8.
It is against the pass, though, where the Chiefs showed significant improvement as the season wore on with outstanding campaigns from free agent addition Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, slot corner Kendall Fuller – younger brother of Bears Pro Bowl CB Kyle – and Bashaud Breeland, one of the boundary corners along with Charvarius Ward.
Of course, the question is who matches up with Kittle, and we assume it could be Fuller – with safety Daniel Sorensen over the top.
Don’t be surprised to see the Chiefs in a lot of Vic Fangio’s 6-1 defense, allowing them to keep six guys up front to challenge the run but still have Fuller on the field to shadow Kittle.
Chiefs run game vs. 49ers run “D”: Kansas City just isn’t a running team, ranking 23rd in the NFL on the ground with 98.1 yards per game, but this is also the one category in which the 49ers aren’t dominant – 17th in the NFL vs. the run (112.6 yards per regular season game).
Those Niners numbers are a bit misleading, as when you’re number one against the pass, teams are going to try and run on you a lot more.
While the Chiefs won’t consistently gash teams on the ground, they are a big play waiting to happen – particularly when Damien Williams is on the field, and he will be a lot as LeSean McCoy might be beginning to show his age and has been a healthy scratch a number of times in recent weeks.
Darwin Thompson will most likely be on the field when Williams isn’t, and like everything else about this Chiefs team, both are built for speed.
Middle linebacker Fred Warner for the 49ers is one of the NFL’s leading tacklers and with Kwon Alexander back from a stay on the I.R., the 49ers should get at least a draw if not better here.
Chiefs pass game vs. 49ers pass “D”: No team is as explosive throwing the football as the Chiefs, although they did rank fifth in passing yards per game, while the 49ers defense was was the best in the league against the pass in the regular season.
Patrick Mahomes is the reigning NFL MVP, as prolific a hurler as there is in the game today, in large part because of the league’s best receiving corps – including All Pros Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman.
The speed and quickness of Hill and Hardman make matching up with them almost impossible while Kelce is an All Pro tight end and Watkins is one of the better possession receivers in the game.
A big part of their success is Mahomes’ uncanny ability to extend plays. Combined with the best arm talent in the NFL today, it makes his Chiefs almost unstoppable. But the 49ers’ ability to counter with the best and most consistent pass rush in the game, and the venerable Richard Sherman at cornerback with the ability to take away half the field from the offense, makes this the most intriguing matchup of the game.
While the Chiefs ‘D’ can have some success just by limiting Kittle, San Francisco must slow both Kelce and Hill to make this one a fair fight.
No receiver in the league boasts the speed and quickness of Hill and both Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon have struggled across from Sherman.
Safety Jimmie Ward likely will spend the most time with Kelce.
A lot of this one will come down to how close to a draw the Chiefs front can get with Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, and it’s been a while since any other club has come close.
Overall offenses vs. overall defenses: San Francisco is 2nd in points scored (29.9 points per regular season game) and the Chiefs are 7th in points allowed (19.3 ppg).
The Chiefs are 5th in points scored (28.2 ppg) and San Francisco is 8th in points allowed (19.4 ppg).
San Francisco is tied for 10th in turnover/takeaway ratio with a plus-4, while the Chiefs are 7th in the league at plus-8, and perhaps more relevant, the Chiefs have only turned the ball over 15 times this year, compared to the 49ers’ 23.
Special Teams: This is an area where both clubs shine but the Chiefs are annually among the best in the league because of coordinator and former Bear Dave Toub, a perennial head coach candidate and considered one of the top special teams coaches in the league.
Nobody feels particularly safe when they look up and see Hill or Hardman back to return punts and kicks, but the 49ers are actually a lot better returning punts, and the Chiefs are much better on kickoffs. Both clubs are solid in coverage but the Chiefs are stronger overall.
Harrison Butker is one of the best young kickers in the game, but Robbie Gould may be the NFL’s most dependable placekicker outside of Baltimore. Butker led the NFL in scoring and field goals made this year. Gould struggled through the middle of the season with injuries but has come on strong as of late.
The 49ers’ Mitch Wishnowsky has been a hair better than Chiefs P Dustin Colquitt in most categories but it’s really tight.
Coaches: Andy Reid has one of the most successful coaching trees in the NFL, but 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and his dad, Mike, are the first father-son coaching duo in Super Bowl history. So, it’s hard to argue whose “tree” is better.
Reid spent 14 years as the head coach of the Eagles before moving to the Chiefs, where he’s been the boss the past seven seasons. He won a ring as an offensive assistant and the tight ends coach with the Packers in 1996, and took the Eagles to five straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl in 2004 in Jacksonville, where they lost to the Patriots.
Shanahan took over the 49ers in 2017, the year after he went to the Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta and saw his Falcons blow a 28-3 lead in the second half and lose the game in overtime.
Some blamed Shanahan for being too aggressive with his play-calling as the lead was slipping away.
Situational success: Ball security and third down success will be pivotal in this game as both teams can explode for points in a hurry and neither club wants to be chasing a big lead. Though the Chiefs can put up points as often and quickly as any team in the league, they don’t want to be down two or more scores to the 49ers and trying to get their offense/run game off the field.
As explosive as the Chiefs are, the 49ers will punish them physically and wear them out if they’re able to play on the lead.
Make Jimmy G win the game: The Chiefs must force Garoppolo and Co. to throw the football. It’s not that the 49ers passing game can’t beat you – it can and will – but your odds against them are much stronger if you’re not letting them control the tempo of the game. The 49ers cannot allow Hill or Kelce to beat them. Yes, the Chiefs have any number of other weapons but those two are the guys who make the Chiefs offense go along with Mahomes, and when one or both of them get going, it feels like there is no stopping the Chiefs.
Zone out Mahomes: We don’t know if this is even possible, but the numbers suggest that the reigning MVP’s rare mortal moments almost always comes when a defense can rely on on its front four to pressure while playing coverage behind it. That’s the specialty of Robert Saleh’s “D,” which has received an unmistakable addition of juice with the return of Dee Ford. But he and Bosa draw one of the better pass protecting bookend pairings in the game, and the Niners have some inexperience in their secondary beyond Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward.