6:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: 49ers -1.5, Over/Under: 47.5
Finally, it all comes down to this, as the (reigning Super Bowl Champion) Kansas City Chiefs look to become the first team to secure the Lombardi Trophy in back-to-back years in nearly two decades, against the San Francisco 49ers, who are in turn looking to break through after years of coming frustratingly close, in this, Super Bowl LVIII from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. There are many characteristics that can be attributed to champions, though if we had to pick one to best represent these Chiefs (11-6, 1st in AFC West), it would have to be timely resilience. Indeed, teams that have reached their level of excellence oftentimes find themselves simply “flipping the proverbial switch”, which is what happened to Kansas City shortly after the holidays. Losers of five of eight games at that point, headlined by a dismal performance at Arrowhead Stadium on Christmas Day, this was a team that looked as if they would be a prime candidate to be upset on Wild Card Weekend rather than advancing to their fourth Super Bowl in five years. After all, the passing attack struggled to find its rhythm among a rash of drops from young pass-catchers and repeated mistakes by new additions to the Offensive Line, leaving (reigning MVP) Patrick Mahomes searching for answers. During that stretch, KC averaged just 19.4 points on 319.3 total yards, all the while operating with a turnover differential of -10. However, following a 14-20 loss to the Raiders in which they were done in by not one, but two defensive touchdowns, (Head Coach) Andy Reid’s troops regrouped and managed to redefine themselves as a physical, power-running team, an identity that has served them well in winning each of their past five contests. During this run, they’ve averaged 21.6 points on 346.0 total yards, including 127.4 rushing yards, with a much more palatable turnover margin of +1. To put that into perspective, the Chiefs topped 100 rushing yards just twice in the previous eleven outings. (Sophomore Tailback) Isiah Pacheco has churned out 384 yards and three touchdowns in his last four tilts, including one score in each postseason affair. Adopting a run-first approach has allowed Kansas City to cut down on the turnovers, and in turn ask less of Mahomes (pictured below), who is simply managing the game and taking advantage of what defenses give him. Through three playoff games, the two-time MVP has completed 67.9% of his passes for an average of 239.3 yards on 6.86 net yards per attempt, with four touchdowns and most importantly, zero turnovers. This shift has also allowed him to rediscover his chemistry with (perennial All-Pro Tight End) Travis Kelce, who appeared to hit a wall midway through the campaign. Indeed, after hauling in forty-eight receptions on fifty-nine targets for 525 yards and four touchdowns through his first six games, the 34-year-old cracked seventy yards just three times with only one score in the next nine games. However, Kelce has been reborn in this postseason, reeling in twenty-three of twenty-seven targets for 262 yards and three touchdowns, surpassing that threshold in each contest. When we last saw the Chiefs, they went on the road yet again and proved their championship mettle, eliminating the top-seeded Ravens in a 17-10 affair from M&T Bank Stadium. This one was a defensive struggle between heavyweights, with the visitors making the requisite plays in the first half, while the hosts self-destructed throughout the second half. Kansas City started strong in putting together back-to-back touchdown drives to gain control of the contest, the first of which traveled eighty-six yards in ten plays, while the latter bled nearly ten minutes off the clock en route to amassing seventy-five yards in sixteen plays. Kelce hauled in a 19-yard touchdown from Mahomes to cap the opening possession, while Pacheco barreled into the end zone from two yards out to conclude the second drive. Apart from a 52-yard field goal courtesy of (veteran kicker) Harrison Butker, that would be it for the visitors, who were shut out in the second half, though managed to do the same to the hosts, as (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo put together a flawless game plan to neutralize (newly-minted MVP) Lamar Jackson. We’ve seen this from Spagnuolo on many occasions in the playoffs, as his troops relegated Baltimore to 334 total yards, including eighty-one rushing yards, while forcing three turnovers and relegating them to a mere 3-of-11 on third down. Jackson completed 20-of-37 passes for 272 yards, with a touchdown, an interception, and a lost fumble, while suffering four sacks, seven hits, and ten pressures. The blackbirds also fell victim to eight penalties for a loss of ninety-five yards, including a brutal unsportsmanlike conduct called on (Rookie Wideout) Zay Flowers, who also fumbled the ball into the end zone on a key drive midway through the fourth quarter that resulted in a safety, completely flipping momentum back in favor of the visiting side. When it was all said and done, the Chiefs dominated time of possession (37:30), as Mahomes completed 30-of-39 passes for 241 yards and that opening touchdown to Kelce, who hauled in all eleven of his targets for 116 yards.
From a betting perspective, the Chiefs enter this fourth Super Bowl in five years on quite the heater, winning and covering each of their last four games, which marks their longest such streak in over two seasons. Of course, the remarkable thing about this current run of form is that all but one of these four contests has featured Kansas City as an underdog, which as we’ve repeated many times in this column, is very notable. Simply put, with Mahomes at the helm, this is a team that is 10-3 straight-up in his career when receiving points from the oddsmakers, including a stellar 11-1-1 mark against the spread. Of course, tonight’s showdown in Sin City marks the second consecutive Super Bowl in which he and his teammates have been dogs (ask the Eagles how that worked out), while matching the only time in his career as a starter that he has received points in three straight games, with the only other instance being his first three starts back in 2018. Furthermore, Reid’s troops have covered FIVE consecutive postseason affairs dating back to last year. Looking at this particular matchup, the Chiefs have won and covered each of the three meetings since Mahomes ascended to starter status six years ago, including that 31-20 triumph over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. In that historic clash, which resulted in Kansas City’s first Lombardi Trophy in fifty years, the AFC Champions overcame 10-20 deficit in the fourth quarter, thanks in part to an MVP performance from Mahomes, who completed 26-of-42 passes for 286 yads, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, while rushing for twenty-nine yards and another score to boot. Their most recent encounter came last season in a trip to Santa Clara, which saw the visitors best the Niners in a 44-23 tilt that was remarkably close despite the final score, at least until a furious fourth quarter sprint from KC. This one was 28-23 heading into the final stanza in favor of the visiting side, who ended the afternoon on a 16-0 run; Mahomes engineered touchdown drives of eighty and seventy-two yards bookending a safety of (former 49ers QB) Jimmy Garoppolo by (former Edge-Rusher) Frank Clark, while the home side utterly collapsed with a lost fumble and an interception on their final two drives. When it was all said and done, the Chiefs amassed 529 total yards despite possessing the ball for just 26:15, converting 6-of-9 third downs (which should inform you how little resistance they were met with), with Mahomes completing 25-of-34 passes for 423 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. Kelce hauled in six catches on eighty targets for ninety-eight yards, while Valdes-Scantling added 111 yards on just three receptions. As for Spagnuolo’s defense, they forced THREE turnovers on the day, including a pair of interceptions and a recovered fumble, while Clark’s safety was one of five sacks, eight hits, and ten pressures. On the injury front, Kansas City is expected to be lighter in the trenches than they have been in recent weeks, with (Pro-Bowl Guard) Joe Thuney and (veteran Defensive Lineman) Derrick Nnadi likely out of action due to pectoral and triceps maladies. (Tailbacks) Jerick McKinnon (groin) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (illness) were limited throughout the last two weeks of practice and are listed as questionable for tonight’s affair. As for Kadarius Toney, the mercurial Receiver who caught a touchdown pass and had a crucial 65-yard punt return during his team’s fourth-quarter rally, he was taken off the injury report after publicly protesting his status, though it is really anyone’s guess as to whether or not he will participate in this contest. With a win tonight, the Chiefs would claim their fourth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history, which would put them at level with the Packers and Giants for third-most in the NFL history. Furthermore, if they do prove victorious tonight, they will become the first repeat winners of the Super Bowl in nineteen years, when the Patriots bested the Eagles (whom Reid presided over) back in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Meanwhile, the train of thought in sports is that if you knock on the proverbial door enough, it will eventually open up, which is where we find the 49ers (12-5, 1st in NFC West), who are hoping to finally get over the hump. Indeed, this is a team that has advanced to the Conference Championship in four of the last five years, including a previous trip to Super Bowl LIV back in 2019, where they coincidentally lost to the Chiefs in a 20-31 affair (more on that in a bit). That narrative haunts (Head Coach) Kyle Shanahan in particular, with the offensive maestro frequently coming up short on the grandest of stages. Back in 2016 when he was the Offensive Coordinator of the Falcons, he presided over the most sensational collapse in Super Bowl history, as his troops went cold in the second half in which they threw away a 28-3 lead. Then there was that aforementioned Super Bowl showdown with Kansas City, in which San Francisco led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. Oh, and then there was the 2021 NFC Championship Game at Los Angeles, where they wasted a 17-7 lead in the second half en route to suffering a 17-20 defeat in overtime. As for last year’s NFC Championship Game, a 7-31 thumping at the Eagles, all hopes of victory came to a screeching halt once (unheralded Quarterback) Brock Purdy suffered a torn ligament in his throwing elbow early on in the affair. Needless to say, there is something to be said for getting to this point, but there is also something else to ascertained from failing to finish so frequently. And it is with that said that Shanahan & Co hope that this current iteration of the 49ers will find a way to close the deal, for they are certainly equipped to do so. Unlike their last trip to the Super Bowl, these Niners have arguably the most effective chess piece in the game today, (All-Pro Tailback) Christian McCaffrey, who including the playoffs has accounted for 2,283 yards from scrimmage and an insane TWENTY-FIVE touchdowns. His ability to exploit mismatches in the passing game presents Shanahan with a wealth of opportunities from a playcalling perspective, while drawing attention away to the plethora of playmakers that can be found across the offense. However, there is a prevailing feeling that Purdy (pictured below with McCaffrey) will be the figure to make or break San Francisco’s championship hopes. The final player chosen in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Pro-Bowler has grossly outperformed his draft selection, operating Shanahan’s scheme much like a Point Guard in basketball, judiciously distributing the ball to his playmakers. There have been times when he has struggled to make plays outside of the confines of that scheme, which have proven disastrous for the Niners. Simply put, in his four losses as the starter this season, his mistakes have proven FATAL, with ELEVEN turnovers in comparison just three touchdowns. Will he feel the pressure to match blows with Mahomes, or will he stay the course and play within the system? The answer to that query could very well decide the victor of tonight’s game. When we last saw the 49ers, they rallied back to win their second consecutive postseason affair, this time edging the Lions in a thrilling 34-31 affair. This one was a tale of two halves, for Detroit utterly dominated this first two periods of action, racking up 280 total yards en route to taking a commanding 24-7 lead into intermission. Meanwhile, San Francisco simply couldn’t get out of their own way in the first half, missing a 48-yard field goal on their opening drive, before Purdy was picked off on their third possession. However, things changed abruptly after halftime, as the hosts kicked a field goal before stopping the visiting side on downs, which led to a quick touchdown from Purdy to (emerging Wideout) Brandon Aiyuk, who a few players earlier remarkably caught a tipped pass for fifty-one yards. Two plays later, the Niners stripped the Lions of the football at their own 25-yard line, setting up a short touchdown run from McCaffrey to tie the contest at 24-24. From there, momentum was squarely behind Shanahan’s troops, who extended their advantage to 34-24 before conceding a late touchdown that amounted to little more than a consolation. When it was all said and done, the home side racked up 413 total yards, 282 of which came in the second half, rushing for 155 yards and three touchdowns on thirty-three attempts, converting 6-of-12 third downs and committing that early turnover. Purdy completed 20-of-31 passes for 267 yards a touchdown and a pick, though made some big plays with his feet, rushing for forty-eight yards on just five carries. As for McCaffrey, the newly-minted Offensive Player of the Year was sublime in accumulating 132 yards from scrimmage and two scores on twenty-four touches, while Samuel, who was playing through a partially torn tendon in his shoulder, led the team with eighty-nine receiving yards on eight receptions. Defensively, (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Wilks’ troops left a lot to be desired in the first half, but tightened up in the second, limiting the Lions to 167 yards in the latter two periods, stopping them on fourth down twice.
From a betting perspective, the 49ers may be 14-5 straight-up coming into Super Bowl LVIII, but it has been a very different story against the spread where they have been a far more middling group, posting a 9-9-1 record in that regard. Remarkably, San Francisco has been favored in every single game that they’ve played this season, including a whopping NINE contests as a favorite of 7.5+ points. As a result, they’ve covered just two of their last seven outings, which includes consecutive losses against the spread in these playoffs. Furthermore, there are a number of trends that working against them tonight; the Niners have failed to cover four straight outings against opponents above .500, while owning a 1-5 mark versus the spread in their last six games after conceding 150+ rushing yards. However, Shanahan’s troops have demonstrated the ability to bounce back from poor defensive performances, covering EIGHT consecutive contests after shipping thirty or more points, which is the case after their comeback against the Lions two weeks ago. Looking at this particular matchup, the 49ers have NOT fared well against the Chiefs in recent years, losing each of their three encounters dating back to Shanahan’s arrival in 2017, shipping 30+ points in each of them. Of course, we all know how the most notable of those meetings turned out; San Francisco dominated the first three quarters of Super Bowl LIV, only to completely fall apart down the stretch, as the defense struggled to pressure Mahomes allowing huge chunk plays downfield, while Garoppolo missed a plethora of throws that could have stopped the bleeding in the eventual 20-31 defeat. With that being said, there is a more recent clash between these sides, though the outcome was no different. In last year’s 23-44 blowout in Santa Clara, the hosts saw 444 total yards and 33:45 minutes of possession wasted by three turnovers, two of them interceptions, including a late one tossed by Purdy, who saw the first action of his professional career in place of Garoppolo, who was forced off the field due to injury after suffering a safety and losing a fumble on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter. That affair also served as the debut for McCaffrey in San Francisco after being acquired in a trade with Carolina. The versatile playmaker saw limited action (10 touches) amassing sixty-two yards from scrimmage. On the injury front, the Niners are largely healthy for this trip to Las Vegas, with the only player listed as questionable being (Rookie Defensive Tackle) Kalia Davis due to a tender ankle. With a win tonight, the 49ers would claim their sixth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history, which would in turn place them alongside both the Patriots and Steelers for the most in NFL history. Furthermore, a victory would end a drought that has lasted nearly three decades, including narrow losses in both Super Bowl XLVII and the aforementioned LIV.