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The excitement is through the roof, the buzz around town is electric, it’s Super Bowl 54 in Miami. The San Francisco 49ers, after breezing their way through the NFC, punched their ticket to the Super Bowl against the AFC-winning Kansas City Chiefs.

Patrick Mahomes versus Jimmy Garoppolo. George Kittle versus Travis Kelce. Kyle Shanahan versus Andy Reid. The competition is steep, and the matchups are fierce. On paper, both offenses rank at the top of the NFL, setting up what should be an offensive explosion … right?

SFBay 49ers beat writer Taylor Wirth will report all week from Miami including Super Bowl 54 at Hard Rock Stadium.

What the 49ers defense has done this season has been well-documented. One of, if not the best defenses in the NFL going up against a good, but not great, Chiefs defense. That favors the 49ers if they are able to contain Mahomes and the Chiefs explosive play-makers.

Not solving, but containing Patrick Mahomes

The reigning NFL MVP going up against one of the best defenses in recent memory. You couldn’t ask for a better matchup. If the 49ers are to walk away from Super Bowl 54 as champions, it starts and ends with containing Mahomes.

That is absolutely easier said than done. What Mahomes has done on the field throughout his short, but unbelievable career has been nothing short of dominant. For the 49ers, they won’t look to completely neutralize Mahomes, because I don’t think that’s really possible. Just like with arch-rival Russell Wilson, the 49ers defense, especially their front seven, will have their hands full getting after Mahomes on Sunday.

The key? Get pressure on Mahomes—-but not too much. That may sound weird, so I’ll explain. It’s always good to pressure opposing quarterbacks, yes. When it comes to blitzing the quarterback, Mahomes is different. His numbers against the blitz are very good.

For the 49ers, it will be important to apply the heavy dose of pressure they’ve brought all season while leaving six to seven men in coverage. Pressure Mahomes into making bad throws. Throwing an all-out blitz at him will only open up plays downfield because of his ability to escape pressure and find open receivers.

Chiefs offensive weapons (including their coach)

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid may not be able to run as fast as Tyreek Hill, and he may not be as powerful and explosive as Kelce, but he is certainly a weapon in his own way. With a lot of talk centered around Kyle Shanahan and his offensive wizardry, Reid’s offensive scheme can impact a game just as much, and maybe even more than Shanahan.

On Thursday, Shanahan discussed how Reid has evolved over his career, and what makes him so dynamic as a play caller:

“I think he’s done it his whole career. When you’re coaching you watch the game two ways. As you watch it, you’re looking at personnel and matchups and trying to understand the talent. Then you have to look at it completely from a schematic standpoint and how guys set people up and the way they call plays, whether it’s an offensive guy and a defensive guy. Anytime that you watch Andy since he came into the league, watching him in Philly and having all of that tape, and then watching him go to Kansas City and do it with different quarterbacks, and watch how he evolves with that. It’s always the foundation of what he believes in. He’s always adjusting his personnel, he’s had different personnel throughout his time. He’s always been a very fun guy to watch, and that’s why he’s one of the best.”

In terms of actual players, the Chiefs have some of the league’s most dynamic playmakers. At receiver, the speed of Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Sammy Watkins give the Chiefs multiple weapons that are capable of taking the top off any defense.

At cornerback, the 49ers have Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, and Ahkello Witherspoon. Hill is much faster than anybody the 49ers have on defense. Fortunately for the 49ers, their defensive backfield, starting with Sherman, is smart, and football-smarts can over-compensate for a lack of speed.

The Chiefs offense, as explosive and dynamic as it is, lacks the running game of the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is capable of beating teams on the ground or through the air, while the Chiefs offense relies mostly on their passing attack.

Kansas City’s rushing attack of Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy isn’t bad, it’s just nothing that should intimidate the 49ers defense. The 49ers have faced some of the league’s best running backs this season, and have fared pretty well against a lot of them. If Sunday is similar to how the 49ers have played against the run lately, the Chiefs running game will not be a factor.

Kittle versus Kelce: name a better tight end matchup

My favorite part of this game is the tight end matchup. How lucky are we to be watching a Super Bowl with the two best tight ends in the league facing off against one another. Both George Kittle and Travis Kelce are known as No. 1 and No. 2 tight ends in the league, but which one is which? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Both Kittle and Kelce will have a big impact on this game because both are just too important to their respective offenses. Whether it’s catching passes and breaking off big plays, or shedding a few key blocks, these two will put on a show Sunday.

Chiefs defense cannot be overlooked

The 49ers defense has the edge over the Chiefs, and probably the rest of the NFL. Having said that, playing against the Chiefs isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Pressuring Garoppolo will be Frank Clark (8 sacks) and Chris Jones (9 sacks) off the defensive line. The 49ers offensive line has done a good job of pass-blocking this season, especially as of late, but will have their hands full Sunday with this dynamic pass-rush duo.

Over the middle of the field is where the Chiefs may be in trouble. Back deep at safety, the Chiefs have Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill, who are one of the better safety tandems in the league.

Kyle Shanahan had this to say about Mathieu and the energy he brings to the Chiefs defense, along with his chirping at opposing teams play-callers:

“There’s some guys who guess and are wreckless, and there are some guys who are prepared. He’s a hard guy to get, and it’s just a matter of time before he’s going to make plays. He’s one of the main reasons this defense has been so good. I’ve seen him a lot over his career, and I think he’s at the top of his game now. But yeah you get that here and there from players, I’ve gotten better at avoiding it.”

At linebacker though, the 49ers offense can expose Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson with the likes of Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Emmanuel Sanders. If the Chiefs focus heavily on stopping the 49ers running game, which I believe they will, it will open up plenty of opportunities for Garoppolo and his pass-catchers in the play-action game. Play action is the focal point of the 49ers passing game, and if the Chiefs force Garoppolo to beat them through the air, I like the 49ers chances on offense.

There is a zero percent chance that Garoppolo will attempt only eight passes as he did against Green Bay two weeks ago. The Chiefs defense will make sure of that. However many passes Garoppolo does attempt depends on how the 49ers run the ball. After Raheem Mostert‘s monster game against the Packers, the Chiefs defense will make stopping the 49ers rushing attack priority No. 1.

They will try, but I don’t think they will have much success. The 49ers running game is so lethal because of the Shanahan outside-zone run, something that not many teams (except maybe the 49ers defense themselves) are capable of stopping. The Chiefs defense has been poor against the run all season, before stopping the NFL’s leading-rusher Derrick Henry two weeks ago. As impressive as a performance as that was, the 49ers rushing attack is different.

Stopping an outside-zone run requires defensive ends that are stout and athletic enough to bounce off blocks in order to chase down opposing teams running backs. The Chiefs are not that team off the edge, their edge presence against the run is rather soft, and that’s why I believe the 49ers rushing attack should be able to have some success Sunday.

Predictions

This is a very hard game to predict. Two good defenses, and two great offenses. Will Mahomes tear up the 49ers defense, or will they contain him? Will the 49ers run the ball down the Chiefs throat or will they force Garoppolo to beat them through the air? I think that we can expect a little bit of everything on Sunday.

I’ve gone back-and-forth between picking the Chiefs and 49ers this week. Mahomes is capable of winning a Super Bowl on his talent alone, but the 49ers defense is historically dominant. If Mahomes is unable to take the top off the 49er defense, what else does he have? There’s not much of a running game.

The Chiefs defense is good, but they have to account for the 49ers rushing attack, something they may need to pull out all the stops for. If they do that, then the 49ers are capable of beating them through the air. That’s the deciding factor for me, the 49ers are more two-dimensional on offense, while the Chiefs are more one-dimensional. A very, very, very good one-dimensional offense I might add.

Prediction: 49ers 31, Chiefs 27

Notes

  • As if this game could not get receive any more hype, it was announced Friday night that both teams will play Sunday at full strength. Then early Saturday morning, news broke that the Chiefs may be without running back LeSean McCoy, which would take away a big weapon from an already vulnerable rushing attack. Overall, both teams will be very healthy, which should bode well for a great matchup.
  • What makes the Shanahan scheme so good is that outside-zone run. Pro Football Focus put together an excellent video detailing the Shanahan running game, dating back to his father Mike Shanahan’s coaching days. I highly recommend watching.
  • If the 49ers were not in the Super Bowl, 49ers fans may have decided to root for the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes is a very likable guy, and it’s stories like this that make you appreciate him on and off the field.
  • It’s better to over-prepare than to under-prepare…
  • Whatever happens Sunday, the 49ers season was nothing short of incredible. Nobody could have predicted this team was going to play in a Super Bowl after their 4-12 season last year. Here is a cool video to show how the 49ers Super Bowl odds increased week-by-week.
  • The 49ers have had such great chemistry all season long. Their high-character locker room is almost impenetrable—-or is it?

Nope, never mind.


Taylor Wirth

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