The Chiefs and 49ers left little doubt in their respective conference championship games, as Kansas City trounced the Titans after falling behind early and San Francisco steamrolled Green Bay in a wire-to-wire victory. The result is a highly-anticipated Super Bowl LIV matchup that, despite some fairly shocking upsets in the playoffs, features two of the best teams in the league squaring off in Miami.
It will be a fascinating matchup of two very different styles. The Niners made it through the NFC playoffs behind a stout defense and a rushing attack that has dominated opponents, while the Chiefs have simply out-gunned their two postseason foes, falling behind early and then unleashing Patrick Mahomes and all of his various weapons to overwhelm defenses. In a game such as this that will pit strength-on-strength — and that Las Vegas thinks will be very tight with the Chiefs as narrow one-point favorites — there are going to be some key matchups that figure to decide the outcome of the Super Bowl.
We are going to take a look at three such matchups in this space that figure to be the places where the Lombardi Trophy will be won or lost.
Patrick Mahomes vs. Robert Saleh
Kansas City’s offense has been nigh unstoppable in the playoffs and it’s going to be the task of Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to come up with a scheme that can not only stymie Mahomes early, but can adapt as the game goes on and the Chiefs make their own adjustments. We saw against both Tennessee and Houston that you can slow KC down for a bit, but eventually Eric Bienemy and Mahomes make the requisite adjustments and the result is an onslaught of yards and points.
The good news for the 49ers is they have the pieces to make Mahomes’ day tough. Up front, Nick Bosa and the Niners pass rush is as good as it gets in the NFL, and it will be imperative that they can get pressure on Mahomes without having to blitz regularly. On the back end, Richard Sherman leads a secondary that’s been stingy recently, and will make windows tight and decisions tough.
The question for the Niners defense is how well they do against the Chiefs in limiting the big plays, particularly off of broken plays. No one in the NFL is better than Mahomes at breaking the pocket when the rush arrives and finding guys wide open when they break off their route and try to settle into gaps in the defense. It’ll be on the front four to be wise in how they get their pressure on Mahomes, keeping him from having too many opportunities to shake free and find time to scan downfield. For the secondary, whether in their familiar zone or in man, they have to stay disciplined and not let an arsenal of big play artists get behind them while they have their eyes trained on Mahomes outside the pocket. On the season, it’s been quarterbacks that can extend plays and improvise that have had the most success against the Niners.
from @ESPNStatsInfo this morning: Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Russell Wilson had a QBR of 71 vs SF this year. All other QBs: 28.
Pat Mahomes sure looks fast these days….
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 21, 2020
That is going to be the task of Saleh, having this group prepared for those moments and devising a scheme that is adaptable for when the Chiefs figure out their first plan and start picking it apart, because that will happen at some point.
49ers Running Game vs. Chiefs Front Seven
If he can avoid it, Kyle Shanahan will not put this game in the hands of Jimmy Garoppolo. We’ve seen that through two games of the postseason, as the Niners have happily run the ball on a majority of their plays, pounding opponents with their zone rushing attack. The Chiefs proved against the Titans that they can take on a robust rushing attack and neutralize it, as they held Derrick Henry in check after Tennessee found some early success. However, on the season, they were the 29th ranked rush defense in DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and San Francisco will try to put them to the test.
The Niners will want to establish the run and control the tempo of the game in an effort to keep Mahomes off the field and their defense fresh, but also because that’s when they’re at their best. Their passing game is opened up by rushing success, as that’s when they dial up play-action passes and look to attack the seams with George Kittle. If the Chiefs can stay in their base defense and slow down the run, they’ll be able to get stops. If they have to send extra defenders into the box, it’ll open up those passing lanes for Garoppolo in the play-action game and make it far more difficult to keep the Niners offense in check.
Travis Kelce vs. George Kittle
The tight end matchup will be one of the best in Super Bowl history and both will be critical to their teams’ passing game success. Kelce has become basically uncoverable, and his attacking the middle of the field is going to draw lots of attention from backers and safeties. He’s going to look to settle into those gaps in the zone and the area between the backers and safeties, and the more attention those safeties have to pay to him, the less effective they are protecting over the top against Hill, Sammy Witkins, and Mecole Hardman. It’s part of why the Chiefs are so difficult to scheme for, because the danger is death by a dozen Kelce receptions over the middle or the backbreaking long touchdown passes over the top when you sit on his action over the middle. The Niners defense has been excellent this season against tight ends, allowing an average of 4.4 receptions for 38.1 yards per game this season, but Kelce will put them to the ultimate test.
On the other side, Kittle is similarly important for San Francisco’s efforts to keep pace with the Chiefs. It’s hard to see the Niners having the same rushing success they’ve had in beating the Vikings and Packers and not needing to open things up through the air, which means Kittle should expect much more work than he’s gotten so far. Kittle, like Kelce, is a matchup nightmare given his combination of size and speed. If San Francisco is going to open up their offense in this game, expect them to target Kittle early and often, because not only is he their best pass catcher, but forcing linebackers to concern themselves with Kittle getting behind them will slow their first step to help the Niners running game.
The All-Pro tight end that’s best able to effect this game will give their team an advantage in this one, as they represent two of the biggest matchup nightmares in the Super Bowl.