But this time, the revenge factor will be on the other side.
Even though it’s been nearly three years since the championship match, the 49ers’ core — from the head coach to the team’s key players — is still largely the same. There’s no doubt they remember the loss well — and that motivation may be stacked upon the desperation they may feel after falling to 3-3 with a loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6.
It should make for a very competitive contest. I have five things to watch in this game.
1. Another challenge for the offensive line
The performance of the Chiefs’ offensive line has been volatile, to say the least. It has shown stretches of dominance, but also vulnerabilities that played key roles in both of this season’s losses.
It won’t get any easier against the 49ers’ defensive front, which has contributed to the team earning 23 sacks — the league’s second-highest total. The group has also been stout against the run, allowing a league-low 3.3 yards per rush.
Meanwhile Pro Football Focus says Kansas City offensive tackles Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie are both among the top six for allowed pressures among offensive linemen. They will be attacked by a very deep group of defensive ends — all of whom are now healthy, according to the final injury report.
The offensive interior will also have an important role to play. On third downs, the 49ers will use a third defensive end on the inside. It will be a test for right guard Trey Smith, who hasn’t been as impressive this season as he was during his rookie year. Meanwhile, left guard Joe Thuney is questionable to play with an ankle injury.
2. Rejuvenating the run defense
Through four weeks, the most impressive aspect of the Chiefs’ defense has been their play against the run — but in the last two games, that flipped: the team allowed a total of 280 rushing yards in those matchups.
It’s a point of concern against a run-heavy San Francisco team — but the Chiefs will be getting some help with the return of linebacker Willie Gay Jr., who was suspended for the last four games. Gay’s ability to penetrate and disrupt — even when he’s not the one making the tackle — can allow clean-up opportunities for his teammates.
One difference between the last two weeks and this game is a less-threatening pass attack; quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is someone you can dare to beat you through the air. For this reason, teams have been stacking the box against the 49ers. That’s also what Kansas City did to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, holding the team to only 82 rushing yards.
I see them using a similar strategy in this game.
3. Wide receivers building off Week 6
In last Sunday’s game, we finally had a big performance from wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster; he totaled a team-high 113 receiving yards and a score, making two of the offense’s biggest plays of the day.
His ability to gain yards after the catch will once again be important, because the 49ers’ pass rush will force the ball out of Mahomes’ hands quickly.
The last game was also another step forward for rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore; he ate into wide receiver Mecole Hardman’s playing time in traditional three-receiver sets more than he ever has this season. He also had the same amount of targets as Hardman.
Moore’s ability to win quickly off the line will be vital, as it will be a way to take advantage of a banged-up San Francisco secondary. Former Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward is the team’s lead guy, but is questionable to play with a groin injury. On top of that, play-making safety Talanoa Hufanga has been held out of practice all week and is also questionable to play with a concussion.
4. Generating a pass rush
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves to blitz. Unfortunately, he’s needed to bltiz to generate any sort of pass rush this season. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing so in any game — but the 49ers are especially well-equipped to make Spagnuolo pay for it.
Fewer defenders in coverage means fewer bodies to rally to the ball and tackle playmakers like wide receiver Deebo Samuel or tight end George Kittle — or even running back Christian McCaffrey, who was traded to the 49ers on Thursday; according to NFL insiders Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport, he could play in Sunday’s game.
This is how the 49ers have managed their big plays this season: quickly getting the ball to a pass catcher in open space. Against the blitz, Garoppolo is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and has thrown four touchdowns — the fifth-most this season.
So it’s important for the front four to earn pressure on their own — especially with the 49ers’ starting offensive tackles both being limited in this week’s practices. If the Chiefs once again have to heavily rely on the blitz, the non-blitzing defenders need to bring their best tackling effort to minimize yards after the catch.
5. Open-field tackling
I mention tackling effort for a reason. This season, the Chiefs are tied for the fourth-most missed tackles as a team, per Pro Football Reference.
Rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson is the team’s leader with seven, but that was also something with which Gay had trouble during the two games he played this year. In those two matchups, he totaled four missed tackles.
The 49ers can force missed tackles as well as any skill-position group in the league. On Sunday, Kansas City will need to focus on sound, fundamental tackling from the back seven.