From the Bleachers: Chiefs over the 49ers
Maybe it’s just that the Patriots aren’t in the Super Bowl, but I find myself more excited for this year’s rendition of the greatest event in sports than I’ve been in a long time. It’s fitting that the Kansas City Chiefs, who represented the AFC in Super Bowl I, will play for their second Lombardi Trophy in the league’s storied 100th season. They find themselves facing the five-time Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, who can tie the Patriots and Steelers for both the most rings in NFL history and the most annoying fan base with a victory.
What I’m most excited for is Patrick Mahomes on the big stage. A Dee Ford offsides penalty and an overtime coin toss robbed the Chiefs of a Super Bowl berth last year, and it looked like the Chiefs were going to meet a similar fate when they fell behind 24-0 to the Texans. But thankfully, the gunslinger carried his team to victory, saving America from a Texans-Titans AFC Championship that probably would have been flexed to Thursday Night Football.
Mahomes put his team on his back in the AFC Championship Game, throwing for 294 yards and three touchdowns while running for 53 yards and another score. The Texas Tech product was much less of a storyline during the regular season than during last season’s MVP campaign, but he saved his magic for when it mattered most. His rushing touchdown before halftime, which included a nifty headfake and some stellar footwork down the sideline, will go down as one of the greatest plays in the team’s 60-year history.
While it took 35 pass attempts and eight rushes for Mahomes to will his team to victory, Jimmy Garoppolo only needed to throw the ball eight times for his 49ers to seal the NFC championship. Eight! Raheem Mostert ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns, while the rock-solid defense forced three turnovers en route to a blowout victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
So what’s next? Given how solid both teams looked in the playoffs, it’s hard to predict the outcome of the big game. Mahomes, in 35 career starts, has never lost a game by more than seven points. The 49ers haven’t lost a game by more than seven points this season. Both teams won their two playoff games by double digits, but it’s hard to see Super Bowl LIV ending in blowout fashion. There’s nothing that Andy Reid wants more than to win a Super Bowl, and there’s nothing Nick Bosa wants more than to visit Donald Trump in the White House. Neither side is going to back down.
The main storyline is the Kansas City offense versus the San Francisco defense, but the 49ers offense actually finished second in points scored this season, one spot ahead of their Super Bowl counterparts. Their defense was mediocre near the end of the season but lights out in the NFC playoffs, largely thanks to the return of defensive stalwarts Kwon Alexander, Jaquiski Tartt and Dee Ford (yes, that same Dee Ford).
Historically, great defenses have gotten the better of great offenses in the Super Bowl. In eight matchups between the top-ranked defense and top-ranked offense on Super Bowl Sunday, the defense has emerged victorious seven times. Star 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman was on one of those defenses in Seattle, when his Seahawks demolished league MVP Peyton Manning and my Denver Broncos 43-8 on one of the most trying days of my young life. Mom, I’m still sorry for crying in front of our guests.
And let’s not forget about a few other key factors that absolutely, definitely matter a lot in deciding the outcome of this game. The 49ers will be donning their white jerseys for the big game. Thirteen of the last 15 Super Bowls have been won by the team in white, and the 49ers are 2-0 with the combination of white jerseys and gold pants. Also, Bay Area sports teams have won six championships in the last 10 years. The last thing spoiled Bay Area folk like Mark Zuckerberg, James Franco and my younger brother Logan need is another championship. However, if history is any indication, Silicon Valley may have another “chip” coming its way.
In spite of all of those crucial points, my money is on Mahomes and company to get the job done on Sunday. For as good as San Francisco’s defense is, it has a glaring weakness at cornerback opposite Richard Sherman. Sherman doesn’t usually travel with the opponent’s top receiver, meaning that Tyreek Hill will find himself with a matchup advantage quite frequently. Michael Thomas, Davante Adams and Julio Jones all broke 130 receiving yards against the 49ers defense this season, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if Hill had a similar fate. Travis Kelce had three touchdowns in the Divisional Round, and he will certainly make his presence felt.
Defensively, Kansas City is much improved from last year’s mediocre unit. The Chiefs were stellar against Derrick Henry in the AFC Championship Game, holding him to just 69 yards. That’s not to say that the 49ers won’t have success running the ball, but it’s going to take a much more balanced effort to topple Mahomes and company.
That brings me to my next point: the 49ers’ handsome devil of a quarterback. Garoppolo has put up respectable stats this year and is no stranger to close games; he led the 49ers to 48 points in a shootout victory over the Saints and accumulated four game-winning drives over the course of the season. But he also threw 13 interceptions, many of which were inexcusable. Against Minnesota, it didn’t matter. Against the Chiefs, it absolutely would.
In San Francisco’s last few games, Garoppolo has merely needed to protect a lead by throwing easy quick passes. But in what could end up being a track meet, Tom Brady Junior may need to take matters into his own hands in a way he hasn’t had to do before. I’m confident in Mahomes to make his share of big plays, but I can’t say the same about Garoppolo.
I’ll take the Chiefs by a score of 31-26, which will cause the states of Kansas and Missouri to throw the greatest, and maybe only, party the Midwest has ever seen. Meanwhile, Bay Area fans will forget all about the game on Monday morning when they throw on their polo shirts and khaki shorts to raise seed funding for their new compression algorithms before leaving work at 2 p.m. to go surfing.