Super Bowl LVIII: Why Mahomes, Chiefs will beat Purdy and the 49ers
Let’s get it out of the way at the jump. Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs will beat the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday and win their third Super Bowl in five years.
And Taylor Swift will have had nothing to do with it.
Numb though some of us are to the bloat of the biggest spectacle in U.S. sports — the interminably vapid pregame shows, an American Idol episode masquerading as the halftime musical performance, the shoe-horned cleverness of McMansion-priced ads — the stories circulating about Swift as a CIA spook working to fix the game in favor of the Chiefs adds a farcical twist to the usual Super Sunday fare.
But Kansas City will claim the title in Vegas because of three facts as irrefutable as the house always winning: the Chiefs have the better coaching, the better quarterback, the better defense.
Nothing against the 49ers’ sensational second-year quarterback Brock Purdy, but Mahomes’ position as the game’s best QB is unchallenged in our eyes. The Chiefs’ defense is as cohesive a unit as there is in the league. Leading that group is coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, an expert at mixing coverages and dialing up blitz packages. Have to give him the edge over his counterpart Sunday, Steve Wilks, who oversees an underachieving and undisciplined 49ers defense. And while Kyle Shanahan's game-planning prowess is top shelf, no head coach locks in like Andy Reid with two weeks to prepare for an opponent.
If these three elements somehow happen to be a wash on Sunday, only then does Swift’s role as a Deep State operative become relevant.
When the 49ers have the ball
Spanuolo v. Shanahan — a battle of wits between heavily strapped opponents. When playing at optimal efficiency, the 49ers’ offense is the league’s most formidable. Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and tight end George Kittle make up the best trio of receivers in the NFL, and the most physical. Their run-after-the-catch skills mean a big play waiting to happen no matter where on the field they catch the ball. The Chiefs’ secondary is a solid tackling group, and Spagnuolo this week is undoubtedly preaching pursuit to the ball and limiting yards after the catch.
Some observers insist that running back Christian McCaffrey, the NFL's leading rusher during the regular season, needs to post an MVP-level performance for San Francisco to win. Count us in that group. It’s less that a victory depends on him putting up robust numbers than that a big-yardage game likely signals that other weapons are contributing, that all facets of the offense are humming.
Of course, McCaffrey’s ability to impact the game hinges on the battle up front. The Niners’ offensive line, an underrated unit, can be especially effective in the run game, where Kansas City is most vulnerable. The focus will be on the two 49er tackles. Trent Williams is generally regarded as the NFL’s top left tackle, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, equally adept at walling off pass rushers and mauling edge defenders and defensive backs in the running game.
But the other side of the 49ers line, manned by RT Colton McKivitz, is dicey. Spagnuolo shifts Chris Jones all along the line, and it makes sense that he’d put the perennial All-Pro defensive tackle over the more inconsistent McKivitz. (As for those snaps when Jones might go against Williams, the camera should forget tracking the ball and zoom in on their individual battle.)
Don’t expect the 49ers to abandon the run, as Baltimore mysteriously did in the AFC title game. When the Chiefs do take away the run, it's because they effectively attack the interior of an opponent’s offensive line, and Jones is usually the indomitable force there, too. "You have to account for him on every play," Kittle said this week of Jones. ”You have to treat him Aaron Donald-ish, because he can wreck any drive."
The score Sunday could dictate how committed the 49ers are to the running game. If San Francisco plays from in front, then what makes Shanahan’s offense so tough to stop comes into view. McCaffrey and Deebo perhaps are the two most unique offensive players in the NFL — equally threatening from the running back position or when lined up wide — and Shanahan is a wizard at exploiting their versatility and, in the passing game, creating mismatches with them in space.
If the Chiefs shut down the 49ers’ running game and get a lead, then the focus and pressure — as it did in the Green Bay and Detroit games — shift to Purdy.
The ex-Iowa State standout showed resilience in leading San Francisco to comeback wins against the Packers and Lions. However, Purdy left plays on the field in the passing game, particularly against Detroit, and either of his two first-half performances in this year's postseason won’t get it done against Kansas City.
This Chiefs secondary might be the best of any of Kansas City’s recent Super Bowl teams. L’Jarius Sneed is a bonafide lockdown corner. Expect him to line up over Aiyuk and make life difficult for the 49ers' top receiver. But that’s where San Francisco's wealth of talent takes over — take away Aiyuk, then Kittle, Deebo, and McCaffrey (and even WR Juaun Jennings) do damage. (Kittle was kept out of practice with an “unspecified” injury. It’s unclear whether this setback affects his status for Sunday.)
Spagnuolo unleashed a lethal mix of blitzes and disguised coverages to frustrate Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, and Purdy will no doubt receive similar treatment. The DC this week has been careful not to say anything that could be pinned to a bulletin board: “He’s [Purdy] the real deal. Not only throwing the ball, but you saw in these playoff games what he can do running the ball,” Spagnuolo offered. “He gets the ball out before the receiver makes his break, and the timing they have is tremendous…I’ve watched about every game now, and I don’t see the guy making very many mistakes.”
Still, as with Reid, giving Spagnuolo two weeks to devise a game plan is not a comfortable thing for an opposing offensive coordinator and quarterback to contemplate.
When the Chiefs have the ball
Mahomes has a less talented stable of playmakers than Purdy. But the connection the veteran quarterback has with Kelce is one of a kind and flourishes even when defenses sell out to take away the big tight end. After struggling for weeks to unclog his big-play passing game, Reid late in the season seemed to pull in the reins and focus more on ball control, picking up first downs and managing the clock, and allowing the Chiefs defense to control the game.
This shift has resulted in a more opportunistic offense. And it’s been an offense that has set the tone of games from the outset. Against Baltimore, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, and though managing just three points the rest of the way, they had the Ravens playing up hill all game long.
Whether that recipe for a fast start and playing from in front carries over to this Sunday will be a key — for both teams. The thinking here is that Reid’s game-planning will shine early and result in a quick Kansas City advantage. Also, the 49ers defense typically starts slow. It did often enough during the regular season, and that pattern intensified in the playoffs, no more so than in the first half of the NFC title game against Detroit, when the Lions stone-washed the 49ers’ front seven all over Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers held Detroit to just seven points in the second half, but dropped passes and hashed-over coaching decisions stymied the Lions more than did the San Francisco defense.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has been criticized for his unit’s poor play, and his job may very well be on the line Sunday. Of particular concern is the 49ers’ run defense, which was gashed by the Packers (130 yards) and Detroit (182 yards).
The Chiefs will seek to exploit that weakness. RB Isiah Pacheco picked up just 68 rushing yards against Baltimore, but he carried the ball 24 times, suggesting that Kansas City was able to move the chains despite a less-than-effective running attack — the Chiefs converting 8-of-18 on third down is another clue. The powerful Pacheco could be much more productive againnst a weaker 49ers run defense, which sometimes struggles to tackle slashing, hard-nosed running backs.
If Pacheco does run the ball effectively, then expect Mahomes, Kelce and emerging star receiver Rashee Rice to have big days in the passing game.
To his credit, Wilks knows that making excuses will not play to the base: “I can tell you as a defense it’s unacceptable,” Wilks said, after the win over Detroit. “We’ve got to make sure that we play every down as if it’s going to be the difference in the ballgame. You could see on those particular plays, it wasn’t to our standard. Those guys understand and know that and quite honestly it was embarrassing.”
Wilks came to the 49ers with a reputation of liking blitz. However, he seemed to immediately buy into the myth that the 49ers' defensive line is all that and then some — that he could consistently rush just four and drop seven. But the truth of the matter is that the front line, larded with high-priced first-round picks, far more often than not fails to put heat on opposing quarterbacks.
A byproduct of Wilks’ conviction in the defensive line is a willingness to play zone, a lot of zone. But Mahomes picks apart zone defenses like Fox News pundits do Taylor Swift’s gun-running for Antifa. Perhaps being forced to switch to man coverage will encourage Wilks to blitz more. Or to run more stunts with his defensive line, which worked with some success in the second half of the NFC Championship Game.
The Chiefs were hoping that Joe Thuney, out since suffering a pectoral strain earlier in the playoffs, would be available. However, Reid, on Wednesday, gave a pessimistic prognosis and Thuney’s availability is unlikely. A Chiefs line minus the Pro Bowl guard would seem to be a break for the 49ers, but with the DL’s play of late, who knows. (Reid also announced that third-down back Jerick McKinnon is unlikely to play because of a lingering groin injury.)
Whether Thuney goes or not, Wilks must come up with a scheme different from those used against Green Bay and the Lions. A burnt vanilla-sweetened passivity infected both the game plan and the onfield effort and nearly cost the 49ers a Super Bowl berth.
This game will likely be close enough that special teams could be a big factor. The 49ers hold the edge in punting, where Mitch Wishnowsky is as good as there is at downing punts deep in opponent territory. Give the placekicking edge to Kansas City's Harrison Butker — not only because of his experience in big games, but also because rookie 49ers kicker Jake Moody will be feeling the pressure, in the biggest game of his life, to justify spending a third-round pick on a kicker.
Can the 49ers beat the Chiefs? Absolutely. And they won’t need the blossoming Purdy-Lizzo romance to manufacture a win either. However, they will need an outstanding performance from Purdy and vastly improved play from an overrated defense mired this postseason in mediocrity and underwhelming effort. Mahomes has the magic, that indefinable “it” quality, that wills his team’s into making winning plays and the opposition into committing back-breaking mistakes.
And so it will happen Sunday. Kansas 23, San Francisco 17.