This year’s Super Bowl matchup of the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers has the potential to be a classic as a pair of offensive powerhouses face off. After last season’s defensive battle between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, the expectation is for this game to be a high-scoring affair, with the over-under set at 54 points.
The Chiefs give Coach Andy Reid the chance to turn his 15th playoff team into his first Super Bowl victory. The 49ers are looking to complete a turnaround from the second-worst record in the league last season to a championship at the end of this one.
Let’s take a look at the factors that will be most important in determining the outcome of Super Bowl LIV:
The 49ers’ pass rush vs. Patrick Mahomes
No player will play a bigger role in deciding the Super Bowl than Kansas City’s 24-year-old quarterback. Even though the 49ers outscored the Chiefs this season — 29.9 points per game to 28.2 — Mahomes has caught fire since returning from his two-game absence with a dislocated kneecap.
The toughest part for the 49ers’ defense, which was one of the league’s best this season, is Mahomes’s ability to figure out the opposition as the game progresses, which was on display in comeback playoff victories over the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. The key for San Francisco is keeping Mahomes in the pocket, but even then he can make the proper reads and get the ball to his wide receivers, tight ends and running backs.
That’s why 49ers pass rushers Nick Bosa, who has dominated as a rookie, and Dee Ford, who was traded from Kansas City to San Francisco in the offseason for a second-round draft pick, are pivotal to this matchup. They transformed a defensive line that couldn’t rush the quarterback a season ago into one of the most dangerous in football.
If the 49ers can get consistent pressure on Mahomes — and get him to the ground for multiple sacks — that could propel them to victory.
The Chiefs’ speed vs. the 49ers’ secondarySan Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had it right when he compared the Chiefs to an Olympic track team. Just check out their wide receivers: Tyreek Hill has 4.29-second speed in the 40-yard dash. Mecole Hardman ran a 4.33. Sammy Watkins ran a 4.43. Even tight end Travis Kelce ran a 4.61. According to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, Kansas City was the fastest team in football this season based on miles per hour.
That will put strain on a 49ers defense that allowed the second-fewest yards per game this season but is stronger up front than it is in the backfield. Even though Mahomes loves to throw deep, the key to this game might be the Chiefs’ ability to throw quick crossing patterns and slants against the 49ers’ zone coverages — predominantly cover-one and cover-three — which can be vulnerable to shorter passing plays in the middle of the field because they allow gaps between the cornerbacks and safeties.
Against most teams, that means allowing a short completion. It’ll be up to the Chiefs’ speedy playmakers to turn those plays into major yardage after the catch.
Kyle Shanahan’s running game vs. the Chiefs’ defense
The growth of San Francisco’s coach as a play-caller is another big key. Like his father, Mike, Shanahan is the best designer of running plays among his peers, and he has created a second generation of runs that are hard for defenses to diagnose. Each year, he outdoes himself with motion fakes and presnap movement, and he employed presnap motion 72 % of the time this season. The 49ers averaged 5.4 yards per rush when they had presnap motion.
All of this will be a major challenge for the Chiefs’ defense, which improved significantly this season but still had trouble defending the run. In the NFC championship game, the 49ers overwhelmed the Green Bay Packers with their rushing attack, winning with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo only having to pass eight times. Kansas City can’t allow that to happen, in part because it would enable San Francisco to take time off the clock and keep Mahomes off the field.
The Chiefs’ star tight end vs. the 49ers’ star tight end
Kelce and George Kittle won’t be on the field at the same time, but whichever player — in perhaps the best tight ends matchup in Super Bowl history — has the better game could go a long way toward determining the winner.
Their styles are different. Kelce, who has been selected to five Pro Bowls and has put together four consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards, essentially functions as a big slot receiver who destroys the defense in the middle of the field. His game is built on speed and elusiveness; 81 of his 97 catches and 1,118 of his 1,229 yards came when he was lined up in a position not attached to the offensive line (either in the slot or split out wide).
Kittle is similarly talented as a receiver but also is a devastating blocker. Perhaps his best trait is his run-after-the-catch ability. He led all tight ends with 641 yards after the catch this season — and his catch and run that set up the winning field goal in a critical regular season victory at the New Orleans Saints was one of the best plays of the season.