The period between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl probably felt longer than two weeks for every player, coach, and fan of the Kansas City Chiefs — or the San Francisco 49ers.
But that wait doesn’t compare to the 50 year stretch between championship appearances that the Chiefs organization (and their fans) have endured. In that same time frame, the 49ers appeared in six Super Bowls — and were victorious in five of them.
Oddly enough, the Chiefs are now the established team that has finally broken through, while the 49ers are the upstart team in their first successful season under a (relatively) new regime. No matter how each team got here, it’s safe to say that this matchup is between the two best teams in the NFL.
In the most anticipated game of our lives, I have five things to watch:
1. Overcoming the 49ers defensive front
The Chiefs offensive explosions in both postseason games were fueled by great play from the offensive line. But now, the group faces what could be their toughest test of the season.
San Fransisco boasts a defensive line made up of five first-round selections. Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa leads the group with 80 pressures — which was the sixth-most among all NFL defensive players this season. He is joined by versatile defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner; they combined for 17.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2019. The fourth difference-maker in this group is an old friend: veteran edge rusher Dee Ford. While he has missed five games this year due to injury, he creates pressure on the quarterback at a higher rate than either Armstead or Buckner.
This unit has been the catalyst for two dominant defensive performances in the playoffs. Over those games, they’ve allowed 505 total yards and accumulated nine sacks. In contrast, the Chiefs offensive line has only allowed quarterback Patrick Mahomes to be sacked twice during the postseason. Bosa has mostly been coming from the left side of the offensive formation, so Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher will have the biggest challenge — and the biggest opportunity — to slow down the rookie phenom.
Watch to see how well the pocket holds up around Mahomes. Another good performance in pass protection would give an enormous boost to the Chiefs’ chances to win the game.
2. Staying disciplined when defending the run
To slow down Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry in the AFC Championship game, the Chiefs run defense needed a great performance. They will need to take it to another level to replicate that feat against San Francisco.
The 49ers run offense is utilized in a different manner than most NFL teams. The Titans used their powerful ground game to control time of possession and set up big plays from play-action. But for the 49ers, the big, explosive plays are the rushing plays.
Running back Raheem Mostert has emerged as the home-run threat. He has eight postseason carries that have gone for 10 or more yards — 20% of his rushing attempts in the two games. The only other player with more than three such carries in the postseason is Henry — but only 12% of his carries gained 10 or more yards.
The zone running scheme that 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan uses takes advantage of defenses when they fail to set the edge or pursue from the back side without discipline. In the days leading up to the game, defensive end Frank Clark has displayed the confidence he has in himself and his teammates. While his pass rushing will obviously be a key, his run defense on the edge is likely to have the biggest impact. His ability to set the play-side edge will be just as important as setting a good angle to prevent cutbacks while chasing down running backs.
Look to see how the Chiefs’ defensive front handles the 49ers’ creative run scheme. They’re bound to give up yards — but preventing long runs should be the biggest focus.
3. Exploiting the San Fransisco secondary
The front seven of the 49ers is as dangerous as advertised — but the back end may be more exploitable than most realize.
It is headlined by second-team All-Pro (and future Hall of Fame) cornerback Richard Sherman. With two interceptions in this postseason, he has looked as instinctive and smart as ever — but it’s his teammates who may give the Chiefs opportunities to exploit.
After allowing a 41-yard touchdown catch — and a few other big plays — in the Divisional round game, starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was benched for the remainder of that game and the NFC championship. His replacement — cornerback Emmanuel Moseley — has played well since. But it’s never a good sign when the starting lineup is juggled this late in the season.
It will be interesting to see how the 49ers decide to cover the Chiefs receiving corps. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is a mismatch for anyone — and his skillset may overpower Sherman’s strengths if they end up across from each other. If he doesn’t see Sherman, wideout Sammy Watkins will be a problem for the remaining cornerbacks. Tight end Travis Kelce will be dealing with talented coverage linebackers like Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander — but he will likely still find windows in the middle of the field, because of the secondary will have to account for the Chiefs’ speed threats on the outside.
4. Accounting for Kittle at all times
The Chiefs have long tortured opposing defenses with Kelce’s ability to win in any coverage situation. In the Super Bowl, they will be getting a taste of their own medicine.
49ers tight end George Kittle has a legitimate argument as the best tight end in the league. While Kelce might the best receiver, Kittle brings similar ability to the passing game while also being an excellent blocker; he essentially performs as a sixth offensive lineman. His dominance on the front side of running plays is a significant reason why their running game produces at such a high level.
And when 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is forced to throw, he’s usually looking in Kittle’s direction. In every category this season, Kittle was the team’s leading receiver. They will not only use him on traditional tight end routes down the field, but also throw him short passes — relying on his ability to get yards after catch (and after contact). Even though Kelce had 12 more receptions than Kittle did in 2019, the 49ers tight end had 218 more yards after the catch.
Having a plan for Kittle is only the first step to stopping him; the players will need to execute as well. Look to see how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo chooses to cover San Francisco’s All-Pro tight end.
5. The battle between two great coaches
Two of the greatest offensive-minded head coaches in the NFL will be standing on opposite sidelines. The matchup between Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan is the storyline — but their units won’t be facing the other.
Shanahan will be facing Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive group. Both of them have experience as coordinators in Super Bowl games. Spagnuolo has done a nice job implementing in-game adjustments during the last eight wins — in which the defense has looked great. In recent weeks, opposing offenses have started off strong, but Spagnuolo has shown he can figure out what to do in order to correct early failures. So if Shanahan comes out with a great opening script, Chiefs fans should take a deep breath; Spagnuolo will adjust.
On the flip side, Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s unit will be facing off against 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. After orchestrating great performances from his defense all season, Saleh has suddenly become a head coaching candidate. The 49ers allowed the eighth-fewest points in the regular season — and forced the sixth-most turnovers. That is an impressive turnaround from last season, when the 49ers gave up the fifth-most points and forced the fewest turnovers.
As impressive as the defensive coordinators have been this season, good offense usually beats good defense. But on Sunday, which defense makes a the right play at the right time could easily make the difference in the game.