And then there were two. After a thrilling postseason filled with stunning upsets, incredible comebacks and outstanding individual performances, the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs are the final two teams standing. The 49ers and Chiefs are set to clash at Super Bowl 54 in Miami, Florida on Sunday February 2nd. As we move through the bye week, let’s take a look at the three phases of the game and see which team has the edge in each realm:
The 49ers and Chiefs ranked 2-3 in the NFL in points per game behind the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season, so both teams can put points on the board. However, the manner in which they do it is quite different.
The Chiefs tend to do their damage through the air as quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the league’s fifth-ranked pass offense. They threw the ball 576 times while rushing it just 375 times – the sixth-fewest. As for the 49ers, while their passing game can be explosive too, they mostly did their damage on the ground. They had the second-most rush attempts in the NFL while throwing it the fourth-fewest.
The Chiefs may have the edge through the air, but the 49ers have the better ground game. Pat Mahomes is the best player in the NFL right now, so he gives the Chiefs the edge on the offensive side of the ball. He'll be facing a much better defense, though.
While the Niners don't have the flashy quick-strike offense, they have a high-scoring offense that many consider to be built for playoff success. Receivers like Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders, and Kendrick Bourne are competant though not overwhelming, though tight end George Kittle is all-world catching the ball and blocking on run plays. It's the run game behind Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman were the Niners are dominant.
Facing a Chiefs Defense that's been vulnerable against the run could be the biggest disadvantage in this game. The 49ers might control the line of scrimmage and control the clock with the running game, keeping Pat Mahomes off the field for long stretches of the game.That would keep their pass rush fresh and limit the number of series the Chiefs get.
While the Chiefs have a high-powered offense, they'll be going against a more formidable defense. Thus, the advantage goes to the Chiefs here, but it's a slight edge given the circumstances of the game.
While the matchup on offense is actually close, that isn’t the case when comparing the defenses. Despite dealing with significant injuries throughout the year and facing an absolutely grueling schedule, San Francisco still ranked fifth in the NFL with an average of 18.8 points per game. The 49ers boast the best pass rush in the NFL led by Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford and DeForest Buckner. This unit had two All-Pros with Bosa and cornerback Richard Sherman.
Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are absolutely huge, each standing 6'7". The two dominate the run game at times, while bringing pressure up the middle that few other teams can match. Nick Bosa and Dee Ford bring world-class pass-rushing talent from the outside, presenting offensive coordinators with a huge dilemma when devising blocking schemes.
Many choose to keep their tight end to block - or at least to chip on one of the ends. That would negate one of the Chiefs' biggest weapons: Travis Kelce. Unlike Kittle, Kelce is not a great blocker, so expect to see the Chiefs try to help lineman with their backs. A key battle will be whether the Chiefs offensive line can handle the Niners front four straight up. If not, then the question becomes whether Pat Mahomes can work his magic in the face of the stiffest pass rush he's seen all year.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City defense isn’t nearly as strong on defense. This is a major concern for them heading into this matchup. Their run defense, in particular, is abysmal. They allowed 4.9 yards-per-carry this season, which is the fourth-worst mark in the NFL. The Chiefs D finished 18th in the NFL in total defense, although they did stiffen up in the red zone and only allow 19.3 points per game.
Keep in mind the Chiefs had a softer schedule, playing against the Bengals, Jaguars, Cardinals, and Broncos twice. When they played teams like the Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans in the regular season, each of those offenses scored at least 31 points against them.
Kickers Robbie Gould and Harrison Butker are both perfect so far in these playoffs. Robbie Gould was arguably the best kicker in the NFL 3 years ago, while Harrison Butker is behind only the Ravens' Justin Tucker the past two seasons. Both give their teams a solid chance at a clutch field goal late in the game.
While 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky has delivered slightly better numbers in the playoffs when it comes to average punt and net yards, it also seems like a wash between him and Dustin Colquitt at the position.
Considering the circumstances, Tyreek Hill could feature in both the punt and kick return games, which could make the difference. Even if not, Mecole Hardman has been a good return man for the Chiefs.
For the 49ers, Richie James Jr. has been good in those departments for San Francisco, but he still isn’t as electric as Hill. All things considered, this is about even, though the Chiefs have had a better return game and slightly better FG kicker this season. The Chiefs do better on kickoffs while the 49ers do better on punt returns, according to the numbers.
Edge: Chiefs (slight)
The coaching match-up is a battle of the old versus the new. Kyle Shanahan is considered one of the best offensive gurus to come along in the past few years. He has a staff of young, hungry, trendy coaches known for their attention to detail. As the son of 2-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan is NFL coaching royalty. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was considered one of the top head coaching candidates heading into the 2020 offseason.
That being said, Kyle Shanahan is dogged by criticisms of the way he handled the 2nd Half play calls in Super Bowl 51. At the time, Shanahan was the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons got out to a 28-3 lead on the New England Patriots, but Tom Brady led a historic comeback against Atlanta in the late-3rd and 4th Quarters. Shanahan was criticized for not running the ball more in the latter stages of the game, thus giving the Patriots the time needed to mount a comeback.
Shanahan seems to have taken the criticism to heart. No NFL team in 2019 was more devoted to the run. The Niners only threw the ball 8 times in the NFC Championship game. You can bet, if the Niners gain a substantial lead in Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan will run the ball mercilessly.
Andy Reid also has an amazing resume, but is dogged by criticism of his decision-making in past playoffs. Reid is one of two NFL coaches with more than 200 career wins and no Super Bowl title. His coaching tree includes Super Bowl winners like John Harbaugh and Doug Pederson, along with successful NFL coaches like Ron Rivera, Matt Nagy, and Sean McDermott. He's respected as one of the most innovative offensive coaches of the past 2 decades.
Despite his 14-14 career record in the NFL playoffs, Andy Reid is considered to have made blunders over the years in key playoff match-ups. Clock management and game management have dogged his staff, though most of the time, his Eagles and Chiefs teams were not the favorites to win the Super Bowl. Andy Reid was 1-5 in championship games coming into the AFC title game this year, while he is 0-1 in Super Bowls - his lone trip was a loss to the New England Patriots in 2004-2005.
One can look at the 2019 playoffs one of two ways. The Niners dominated from the first snap in both of their games. The Chiefs, on the other hand, had to overcome deficits of 24-0 and 10-0 in their two home games. Does that mean Kyle Shanahan prepares a better gameplan? Does Andy Reid and his staff get outcoached in game preparations? Or has Reid and staff shown in-game adjustment skills that helped the Chiefs overcome deficits to win going away in the 2nd Half?
Many would say the Chiefs' comebacks owe more to the brilliance of Pat Mahomes and company. I tend to see it that way. Given the more comprehensive defeats the Niners have given the Packers and Vikings the past two weeks, I'm going to give a slight edge to Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh in this match-up, but both head coaches have postseason demons to exorcise.
So Who Wins Super Bowl LIV: Chiefs or 49ers?
Super Bowl LIV is one of the best matchups in years. Most get the sense, based on the full body of work, these were the two best teams in the NFL this season. Yes, the Ravens had a better record than the Chiefs, but the Chiefs won a regular season match-up and lost games (and stats) when Mahomes was injured.
Super Bowl 54 is a match-up of the NFL's best offense versus the NFL's best defense. It presents classic, intriguing match-ups all over the field.
Las Vegas sportsbooks have the Kansas City Chiefs slight favorites. Bettors likely will back that line, because Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs offense is flashier. The San Francisco 49ers present Mahomes and company with their supreme test of the year, though, and - given the Niners strength (rushing offense) is the Chiefs' weakness (rushing defense) - it would be hard not take the Niners and the points.
This game is practically a toss-up, though, so good luck if you choose to place a bet.