6:30 PM EST, FOX – Line: Chiefs -1.5, Over/Under: 52.5
After months of pulse-pounding action, the NFL’s 100th campaign will come to it’s long-awaited conclusion, as the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas Chiefs battle for the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LIV from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. After one of the lowest points in the history of their proud franchise, the 49ers (13-3, 1st in NFC West) have proved that parity is still very much alive in the NFL, as they have become the first team in NFL History to advance to a Super Bowl following four consecutive 10-Loss Seasons. Of course, many would argue that this team has emerged simply a year too late, as the brain trust of General Manager, John Lynch, and Head Coach, Kyle Shanahan, have done an amazing job rebuilding San Francisco into a bonafide powerhouse that no matter the outcome of today’s contest, looks set to compete at this level for years to come. Shrewd scouting and wheeling and dealing coupled with some of the top young tacticians in the league have propelled them to this point, with the final domino falling into place as Jimmy Garoppolo (69.1%, 3,978 YDS, 7.31 NY/A, 27 TD, 13 INT, 60.2 QBR) emerged as the Franchise Quarterback that the Niners had been searching for. Again, this wealth of improvement was on course to take place in 2018, with the 28-Year Old Signal Caller enjoying his first full Offseason with the club after being acquired midseason a year prior for a Second Round Pick with the New England Patriots, in which Garoppolo was otherwise excellent upon his arrival, leading his side to a perfect 5-0 finish down the stretch. Needless to say, big things were expected of him the following term, though fate would have other plans in mind, as his season, and by extension, San Francisco’s, came to a premature end thanks to a Torn ACL suffered in Week Three. In hindsight, that injury may have been more of a blessing than a curse, for it allowed Shanahan to further cultivate his roster by building precious depth, while also affording Lynch the opportunity to add some more premium pieces via the Draft (which we’ll get into shortly). For Garoppolo, 2019 has been a campaign that has been all about growth, for he has exhibited steady improvement within the Offense, growing from simply being a Game Manager to a Quarterback in complete control of the attack, benefitting greatly from the return of Offensive Tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, who each missed roughly the first half of the year due to various injuries, along with the addition of reinforcements in the form of veteran Receiver, Emmanuel Sanders (66 REC, 869 YDS, 13.2 Y/R, 5 TD), who was acquired via trade midway the term. Over the final ten games of the Regular Season, he completed an efficient 69.6% of his Attempts for an average of 266.4 Yards per Game on 7.99 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty Touchdowns in comparison to Seven Interceptions. With that said, Shanahan has made his return to the lineup in 2019 as seamless as possible by building the entire attack off of the strength of the Running Game, which has been the most prolific in the NFC this season averaging a whopping 144.1 Yards per Game (2nd Overall) on a healthy 4.6 Yards per Carry (9th Overall). The 49ers have proven adept at pounding the football down the proverbial throats of just about every opponent they’ve faced, even surpassing the 200-Yard Threshold on four occasions, including a season-high 289 Yards against the Green Bay Packers in their 37-20 rout in the NFC Championship Game. Clearly, Green Bay did not learn from their previous meeting back in late November in which San Francisco throttled them to the tune of 112 Yards, as the hosts continued to enjoy success when handing the football off, carrying it a staggering forty-two times, with Garoppolo only having to throw the ball on a scant eight occasions. The star of the show was undoubtedly the unheralded Raheem Mostert (137 CAR, 772 YDS, 5.6 Y/C, 8 TD), who routinely burst through the Line of Scrimmage to amass 220 Rushing Yards and Four Touchdowns on Twenty-Nine Carries, with his total yardage ranking second all-time in NFL Playoff History. Cut seven times over the course of his five-year career, Mostert was just one component of a Backfield that featured a triumvirate of 600-Yard Rushers, carrying the bulk of the load after fellow Tailback, Tevin Coleman (137 CAR, 544 YDS, 4.0 Y/C, 6 TD), separated his shoulder midway through the First Quarter. While Coleman’s status for Super Bowl LIV is currently in question, one would have to figure that the Niners’ ground game will be in good hands with the undrafted Free Agent. But getting back to Garoppolo for a moment, the Quarterback hasn’t been asked to do much in these Playoffs (17-of-27, 208 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT in 2 Games), certainly in comparison to his counterpart in Kansas City, which has led some to question whether or not he would be able put the Offense on his back and win the game if circumstances dictated so. Well, given the blueprint to defeating the Chiefs being laid earlier in the season in the form of successfully rushing the football and controlling Time of Possession, one would have to think that Shanahan, one of the truly elite Offensive Play-Callers in the sport, will continue to do what has worked so well for his charges thus far.
As sexy as it often is to talk about offense in this modern era of football, ultimately the major reason for San Francisco’s dramatic turnaround in 2019 has been the play of their Defense, which has gone from being a previously underachieving unit to a violent and opportunistic group adept at wrecking opponents no matter the matchup. After years of spending premium Draft Picks on Defensive Linemen, the Defensive Front has evolved into arguably the most threatening in the league, with the likes of Arik Armstead (54 TKL, 11 TFL, 18 QBH, 10.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD), Deforest Buckner (61 TKL, 9 TFL, 14 QBH, 7.5 SK, 2 FF, 4 FR, 1 TD, 2 PD), and Rookie, Nick Bosa (47 TKL, 16 TFL, 25 QBH, 9.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 2 PD), accounting for a combined Thirty-Six Tackles for Loss, Fifty-Seven Quarterback Hits, and 26.5 Sacks. Under the direction of Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh, the unit as a whole has ranked among the league’s finest, allowing just 19.4 Points per Game (8th Overall), on 281.8 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including a league-low 169.2 Passing Yards (1st Overall) on 4.8 Net Yards per Attempt (1st Overall), while permitting a scant 33.3% success rate on Third Down (2nd Overall). Furthermore, they registered a healthy Twenty-Seven Takeaways this season (6th Overall), a sizable increase over last year’s meager total of seven, which was the lowest such figure in the league. The key has been those studs up front, for this is a Defense that has been able to make life miserable for opposing Quarterbacks without having to blitz much at all; San Francisco ranked Fifth Overall in Sacks (48), First Overall in Hurry Percentage (14.7%), and Second Overall in Pressure Percentage (28.7%), despite only blitzing on 20.9% of all plays, which was the fourth-fewest in the NFL. And this is where enduring that dreadful 2018 has been a blessing; in finishing a dismal 4-12 last year, they were awarded the Second Overall Pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, which they used to select the aforementioned Bosa, who was thought of by a plethora of scouts as the Draft’s top talent. The dynamic Edge Rusher has certainly lived up to the hype with Nine Sacks, Sixteen Tackles for Loss, and Twenty-Five Quarterback Hits, while accumulating Forty-Five Quarterback Pressures, which ranks tops on the team. Their collective dominance has extended to the Playoffs, where they have manhandled the likes of both the Minnesota Vikings and the Packers for long stretches of those respective matchups. Against the former, Saleh’s troops relegated their opponent to a miserable showing consisting of a scant Seven First Downs, 147 Total Yards, and a combined 2-of-14 on Third and Fourth Down, while shutting out the latter in the First Half of the NFC Championship. Opposing Quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers, struggled greatly against their onslaught, with Cousins managing just 172 Yards on 21-of-29 Passing, while Rodgers couldn’t get anything going until the Second Half after coming out of Halftime facing a 27-0 deficit. Simply put, the Pro Bowl Quarterbacks were little more than victims, sacked nine times and hit on another eleven occasions, tossing three Interceptions and losing a Fumble. Granted, Mahomes and the Chiefs’ blitzkrieg attack presents very different problems, but given this unit’s ledger in 2019, one would have to imagine hat they will be posing just as much of a threat to the 2018 NFL MVP as he does to them. One thing is for sure, these guys will not be lacking confidence, particularly with Richard Sherman (61 TKL, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 1 TD, 11 PD) leading the way. Considered by some to be washed up following an Achilles injury that ended his successful stay in Seattle, the outspoken, 31-Year old Cornerback has enjoyed a renaissance in San Francisco, selected to his fifth Pro-Bowl, while registering an Interception in each of the last two games. Sherman will be participating in his third Super Bowl since 2013, as he tries to guide the Niners to what would be their sixth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history, tied for most all-time alongside the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Meanwhile, after waiting fifty years the Chiefs (12-4, 1st in AFC West) have finally returned to the Super Bowl, where they will be looking to secure their second Lombardi Trophy in franchise history, and their first since 1969. After the bitter disappointment of coming so close to reaching this stage, Kansas City has been a team very much on a mission to complete their objective by any means necessary. Granted, this season has been far from easy for them, with injuries to a number of key offensive personnel preventing them from reaching the outrageous heights that they had last year, and a new-look Defense that needed a good deal of time in order to find an identity and come together as a force to be reckoned with (which we’ll get into shortly). However, we have to start with the Offense, led by Patrick Mahomes (65.9%, 4,031 YDS, 7.79 NY/A, 26 TD, 5 INT, 78.0 QBR), who in just his third season in the league appears poised to join the ranks of football immortality. Though he missed a pair of starts this year, and was hampered in numerous others with a nearly-dislocated knee, the 2018 MVP continued to position himself as arguably the best at his position in the league, a standing that has only been strengthened by his previous two performances in the Playoffs, which have been nothing short of amazing. In Kansas City’s ridiculous 51-31 throttling of the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round, the 24-Year Old led the hosts to an insane Forty-One Unanswered Points after falling behind 24-0 in the First Quarter, ending the contest with 321 Yards and Five Touchdowns on 23-of-35 Passing. The amazing thing about this unit has been their ability to breach the End Zone in the quickest of manners; Kansas City needed just ten minutes and eighteen plays to turn the tide and run off twenty-eight straight in the second stanza, and in the end put together four different Drives resulting in Touchdowns featuring four or fewer plays. That’s Twenty-Eight Points and a Total of 153 Yards on just Twelve Plays, folks. It was more of the same in the AFC Championship, where they once again rallied back from an early deficit to eliminate the Tennessee Titans, 35-24. After falling behind 10-0 late in the First Quarter and the visitors looking to shorten the affair with their Rushing Attack, the hosts made the most of their time in possession, scoring Touchdowns on five of their next six possessions, eventually building a commanding 35-17 lead following Mahomes’ 60-Yard Touchdown Pass to veteran Receiver, Sammy Watkins (52 REC, 673 YDS, 12.9 Y/R, 3 TD), midway through the Fourth Quarter. Kansas City ended the game with 404 Total Yards on Twenty-Seven First Downs, with Mahomes completing 23-of-35 Passes for 294 Yards and Three Touchdowns, while rushing for another, as Pro-Bowl Wideout, Tyreek Hill (58 REC, 860 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 7 TD), caught a pair of scores to go with his Sixty-Seven Yards on Five Receptions. Speed has been the name of the game for the Chiefs this season, with a plethora of playmakers that can race by a Defender straight into the End Zone. Perennial Pro-Bowl Tight End, Travis Kelce (97 REC, 1,229 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 5 TD), is arguably the best at his position, and was huge in the matchup with Houston, hauling in Ten Catches for 134 Yards and Three Touchdowns, all of which came in that watershed Second Quarter. Hill, who missed five games earlier in the term with a broken collarbone, is easily one of the most dangerous deep threats in the game today, often utilized in a multitude of creative ways, particularly on sweeps, screens, and reverses. Watkins, who has been injury-plagued throughout his young career is as fast and athletic as anyone when healthy, and Rookie Receiver, Mecole Hardman (26 REC, 538 YDS, 20.7 Y/R, 6 TD), really came on over the course of the Second Half of the season as Returner, where he was ultimately selected to the Pro-Bowl, totaling 704 Yards and a Touchdown on Twenty-Seven Kick Returns, while averaging a robust 19.0 Yards per Touch as Receiver, Rusher, and Returner. Furthermore, the speedster has been dynamite in the Playoffs, returning Ten Kickoffs for 228 Yards, including a crucial 58-Yarder that set up his side’s epic against the Texans. And if all of that isn’t enough, the Niners will have to account for Mahomes as a rusher too, for he became the fourth Quarterback in NFL History to rush for over Fifty Yards in Two Playoff Games, in which he led the Chiefs on both occasions. In fact, his remarkable 27-Yard jaunt down the sideline and through a number of Titans’ Defenders shortly before Halftime may just be the play of the Postseason thus far.
And then there is Reid, who may just be the most sympathetic character in this Super Bowl, given his long history in the league. With 207 Regular Season Wins, the 61-Year Old ranks Seventh Overall, and since arriving in Kansas City back in 2013, he’s been nothing short of a modicum of consistency, going 77-35 (.688), leading his side to six Playoff Appearances and finishing with no fewer than nine victories in any campaign. However, the albatross for Reid has long been the Super Bowl, which has eluded over the course of his twenty-one years as a Head Coach. In fact, just getting to this particular stage alone has proven to be an arduous task, with his team’s owning a disappointing 2-6 mark in Conference Championship Games. Before the Chiefs’ triumphant victory over the Titans two weeks ago, Reid’s only prior success on that stage came with the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2005, which of course ended in heartbreak as he and his troops fell to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX fifteen years ago. Following last January’s epic 31-37 defeat to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, a contest in which the hosts spent the majority of the contest reacting to a masterful Gameplan from the visiting side, Reid set about overhauling his Defense, bringing aboard his old chum from Philadelphia, Steve Spagnuolo, the architect of the New York Giants’ stunning upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, to set things right, with the veteran Defensive Coordinator’s message eventually beginning to hit home over the final third of the term; over the last six games heading into the Playoffs, the Chiefs have relegated opponents to an average of just 11.5 Points on 298.5 Total Yards, limiting each of their final four foes below 300 Yards, while altogether owning a Plus-6 Turnover Differential. This unit finished the season in very respectable fashion, ranking Seventh Overall in Points Allowed (19.3), Eighth in Passing Defense (221.4) and Passing Touchdowns Allowed (21), Fifth in both Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (5.7) and Interceptions (16), Tenth in Takeaways (23), and Ninth in Red Zone Defense (50.9%), which are all significant improvements over last season. Indeed, new additions such as Pro Bowlers, Frank Clark (37 TKL, 12 TFL, 13 QBH, 8.0 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 4 PD) and Tyrann Mathieu (75 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 2.0 SK, 4 INT, 12 PD), have made a wealth of difference, bringing speed and athleticism to a unit that had sorely lacked it in 2018, while also adding a heavy dose of ruthlessness in the process. That run of form has largely continued into the Playoffs, where the Chiefs have nearly shutout the Texans following a disastrous First Quarter, before relegating the giant-killing Titans to a scant 295 Total Yards, which included snuffing out the league’s leading Rusher, Derrick Henry, who could muster just Sixty-Nine Yards on Nineteen Carries. Spagnuolo placed an emphasis on shutting Henry down, stacking the Line of Scrimmage throughout the affair, and bringing a myriad of Run Blitzes to place the visitors in longer Down and Distance. Without the Run Game to lean on, Tennessee’s attack collapsed in fairly short order, with their Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, completing 21-of-31 Passes for 209 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, but also taking Three Sacks and Four Hits. San Francisco’s Rushing Attack presents a wealth of problems for the Chiefs, particularly with their ability to get to the edge and exploit space. The veteran Coordinator has proven on multiple occasions that he can coax a masterplan when needed, and he’ll need one if his side is going to slow the Niners down at the point of attack.