Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.
1. A Chiefs-Niners Super Bowl is football nerd nirvana. The NFL season’s final matchup is set, and I’m not sure what more football fans could ask for. After they owned most of the season, it was a bummer to see Lamar Jackson and the Ravens bounced from the playoffs so early. But instead of the best team in football, the AFC will be represented by its best player. Patrick Mahomes had a (relatively) human season by his standards, but in the past two weeks he’s reminded everyone that Kansas City’s offense is still the sport’s main attraction. What’s more exciting than a group that can erase any lead in what seems like seconds? The answer is nothing. Even if the Niners jump out to an early 21-0 lead in the second quarter, not a single person is turning off their TV. Mahomes’s ability was never in doubt after his historic MVP campaign last year, but this month, he’s entered rarefied air among professional athletes: He is the spectacle.
On Sunday’s Ringer NFL Show, Kevin Clark and I wondered what Mahomes might look like if he were stuck in a middling offense without much help—how he might perform if asked to carry mediocre receivers in a stagnant scheme. We’re both glad that we don’t have to find out. Mahomes and Andy Reid are a perfect football pairing. Reid has long been one of the sport’s preeminent minds, but in 21 seasons as a head coach he’s never had a quarterback—or even a team—like this. There’s no question that Reid is the best head coach in NFL history to never win a championship; two weeks from now, that description might no longer apply.
Standing in Reid’s way is the football battle station that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have constructed in the Bay Area. If Reid is the best offensive play-caller in the AFC, then Shanahan is his counterpart in the NFC. Reid, general manager Brett Veach, and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have created the ideal modern passing game in Kansas City, but they’ve done it with the best passer in all of football. Shanahan, on the other hand, has built the football equivalent of a rocket. Jimmy Garoppolo may be at the controls, but every piece matters. And though every play-caller goes into a game with plays that he likes, none has a better understanding than Shanahan of when and why to run them. He’s a master of manipulation, and two weeks from now he’ll throw all he can at the Chiefs defense in pursuit of his first Super Bowl win.
There’s plenty more to enjoy about this matchup: Dee Ford revenge game (!), Tyrann Mathieu’s rise to the top of the sport, what the hell Travis Kelce will do if the Chiefs win. But we’ll have plenty of time to dig into all that between now and February 2. For now, let’s just rejoice that football lovers got a pairing they can savor for the game of the year in the NFL.
2. This Titans season was a welcome surprise—for their fans and anyone who appreciates how NFL teams are built. Tennessee’s locker room was understandably devastated after their glorious, improbable playoff run came to an end on Sunday. But even if the Titans couldn’t slay the beast that is Patrick Mahomes, there are still plenty of reasons for this team to be proud of what it accomplished this season. General manager Jon Robinson’s trade for Ryan Tannehill in March was a transformative move—the type of forward-thinking decision that can save an entire season, and potentially a franchise. Inserting Tannehill into the lineup in Week 6 against the Broncos unlocked Tennessee’s entire offense, and it allowed pass catchers like Jonnu Smith and A.J. Brown to flourish. With a capable QB in place, first-year coordinator Arthur Smith adopted a play-action-heavy approach that proved to be a perfect vehicle for his offensive personnel. Derrick Henry emerged as a dominant force in the second half of the season, and Tennessee’s significant investments along the offensive line helped Henry mow down the Patriots and Ravens. Robinson now has several huge decisions to make this offseason, with Tannehill, Henry, and a few other key contributors hitting free agency. But in his second season, Mike Vrabel proved that he’s built a versatile, well-coached team that should be relevant as long as this core is in place.
3. The Packers were demolished by the Niners on Sunday, but Matt LaFleur’s first year with the franchise was unquestionably a success. Green Bay’s decision to hire LaFleur last offseason led to some raised eyebrows among Packers fans. In LaFleur’s lone season as the play-caller in Tennessee, the Titans finished 22nd in offensive DVOA and 27th in scoring. He wasn’t the obvious choice to save the final few years of Aaron Rodgers’s career, but after a 13-3 finish and an eighth-place rank in offensive DVOA, Wisconsinites have to be fairly happy with the results.
Sunday’s loss to San Francisco served as a microcosm of Rodgers’s first year in LaFleur’s offense: some moments of his trademark greatness mixed with some head-scratching mistakes. None of the other all-time-great quarterbacks from this era have gone through a transition like this. Tom Brady has played in the same offensive system since he arrived in New England. Drew Brees and Sean Payton have been together for 14 years. Even when Peyton Manning went to Denver, he took the basic structure of his offensive system with him. This season showed that Rodgers still has plenty left in the tank, and the Packers could theoretically take a step forward next season with a few tweaks on offense.
Green Bay desperately needs a reliable no. 2 receiver. The Packers decided not to trade for Emmanuel Sanders at the deadline, but the free-agent-to-be could be a great addition this spring. He has experience in the Gary Kubiak–Kyle Shanahan system that LaFleur employs, and that would make him an ideal fit opposite Davante Adams. The Packers could also use an injection of athleticism into the middle of their defense. There are other looming questions (like right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s free agency and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s future with the franchise after a year of arranged marriage with LaFleur), but most of this roster is set to return in 2020. The Packers should once again compete for the NFC North title.
4. The Niners have an acute understanding of how to deploy their most dangerous skill position players. If an alien were watching Sunday’s NFC championship game, it might come to the (reasonable) conclusion that Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel were two of the best football players on Earth. Mostert became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game. I mean, the guy averaged 7.6 yards per carry. Samuel touched the ball only four times, but racked up an absurd 89 yards on those plays. Both players looked like transcendent superstars against the Packers, but the truth is, neither had made a dent in professional football before the second half of this season. Over the past two months, Kyle Shanahan and the Niners coaching staff have discovered just how to unleash their pair of playmakers, and in doing so, they’ve helped unlock San Francisco’s offense.
Mostert’s origin story has been beaten into the ground over the past 24 hours, but here’s a quick refresher: In the past five seasons, he’s bounced among seven teams, often spending time on the practice squad or playing special teams before getting cut. It’s tempting to roast franchises like the Jets, Browns, and Bears for letting Mostert go, but a career path like that doesn’t happen by accident. Mostert has his flaws. He’s slender for a running back (packing only 197 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame), and his viability in a traditional rushing offense has been called into question. But he also has one elite trait: He’s very, very explosive. At his Purdue pro day in 2015, Mostert reportedly ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. His 40-inch vertical leap would have put him in the 94th percentile among all running backs at the combine in the past 20 years. I’m tempted to put an asterisk next to his 11-foot broad jump, which would have been the best mark anyone has recorded in two decades, but the point stands: The dude is sudden. And the Niners have done an excellent job of creating runways within their offense for him to take off.
Take this play from the second quarter against Green Bay. The Niners are lined up in 21 personnel, with two backs, a tight end, and two wide receivers. Up front, the play’s design looks like a basic outside zone run to the right—with one key difference. Instead of handing the ball off to Mostert off-tackle, Jimmy Garoppolo tosses it to him immediately after the snap. By getting the ball in his hands early, Shanahan and run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel essentially turn this into a kickoff return. That allows Mostert to build a head of steam and quickly identify huge creases in the defense. After only two steps, Mostert locates the hole, puts his foot to the ground, makes his cut, and slices through the first level of defenders. Mostert doesn’t have to avoid another defender in space until he’s 17 yards past the line of scrimmage. That deft blend of playing style and scheme results in a 34-yard gain.
Shanahan has a rare understanding of space and how to attack it with the correct personnel, and Samuel is yet another beneficiary. The rookie receiver isn’t the most refined route runner quite yet, but he’s a legitimate threat as a runner. Whether it’s via handoffs or short dump-offs, the Niners staff has a keen sense for how to get him the ball with plenty of room to work.
This play from the first quarter of Sunday’s win is a staple concept in Shanahan’s offense. After a zone play-action fake to the right, Samuel comes back across the formation to take a short toss from Garoppolo. The Packers (who also have a variation of this play in their offense) are ready for it, but when Samuel catches the ball, there’s still about 5 yards of space between him and cornerback Kevin King. That’s enough room for Samuel to make King miss, slip down the sideline, and pick up 16 yards. Even as the Packers react well to the call, the pairing of design and personnel lead to a big gain.
5. On their well-timed trap play in the first quarter, the Niners were confident they could take advantage of how Green Bay uses Za’Darius Smith. In obvious passing situations, the Packers like to use their best defensive player as a roaming menace in the middle of the defense. “They had a lot of stuff with Za’Darius going over the center, kind of freelancing,” left tackle Joe Staley said after the game. “We kinda knew exactly where he wanted to rush, so we thought … the run might create more of a vanilla defensive front for us.” That alignment, combined with the defensive line’s aggressiveness in rushing the passer, provided a ripe opportunity for the Niners to blindside Green Bay with a call it never saw coming. With Smith lined up over the center and fellow pass rusher Preston Smith charging hard upfield, the Niners had the perfect set of angles to gash Green Bay for a 36-yard touchdown.
6. Just take in this George Kittle block. Last week, Kyle Shanahan explained what makes Kittle such a powerful blocker compared to other tight ends. With every hit, Kittle coils, explodes his hips through the impact, and finishes through defenders. He uses every ounce of his body to deliver the blow, and it usually ends with opponents flying backward. All of that is on display here. There’s no one like this guy in the league.
7. Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk spent most of Sunday’s game as run blockers, but their ability to align out wide changes the complexion of the Niners offense. I’m not sure I can pick a favorite play from San Francisco’s game plan against the Packers, but this one is up there. On a second-and-long in the fourth quarter, San Francisco broke the huddle in 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends, and one wide receiver). Typically in that package, the two backs would line up somewhere in the backfield, the tight ends would be situated close to the formation, and a receiver would split out. Instead, both Kittle and Juszczyk are aligned in a two-receiver stack to the right, with Mostert and Samuel lined up as split backs in a shotgun formation. I don’t even know how to begin describing it. It’s like an old-school 21 personnel alignment—only half the players have swapped spots on the field.
San Francisco has gone to this split-back approach with Mostert and Samuel often in recent weeks. This look allows Shanahan to get the ball in Samuel’s hands as a runner and let him go to work. But on this play, the Niners use that tendency to their advantage. Rather than handing the ball to Samuel, Garoppolo fakes a handoff before throwing a swing pass to Mostert in the flat. And who’s out there waiting for him? Kittle and Juszczyk, both of whom throw great blocks to spring Mostert loose for an 10-yard gain. Shanahan is tapped into some galaxy-brain stuff.
8. Tyrann Mathieu is plugged in right now. The Chiefs safety has been a transformative presence for Kansas City’s defense this season, and he’s taken his game up a notch in the playoffs. He was everywhere for the Chiefs on Sunday. Mathieu was able to make a huge hit on Corey Davis for a 2-yard loss because he recognized the design from Kansas City’s game against the Patriots. But my favorite play of Mathieu’s from the AFC championship game came on a forgettable down later in the day. With Tennessee facing a first-and-goal midway through the second quarter, Mathieu knifed into the backfield from his slot corner alignment and dragged Henry down for a 1-yard gain. Mathieu is at his best when a defense allows him to wreck shit near the line of scrimmage, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing for this Chiefs team as of late.
9. Tyreek Hill’s 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter is the Chiefs offense distilled. Everything about this play illuminates why Kansas City is so hard to stop. With free safety Kevin Byard aligned over Travis Kelce as the single receiver to the top of the formation, the Chiefs instantly know that Tennessee is likely in man coverage. That’s already a problem for the Titans, but Andy Reid compounds the issue by putting Mecole Hardman in a short motion toward the formation. Those few steps from Hardman change the defense’s coverage rules ever so slightly—by turning Hardman into the no. 3 receiver on the left side—and they give the speedy rookie a clear path toward the middle of the field to hold the single-high safety. That leaves Hill one-on-one from the slot, which is a mismatch for any cornerback in the league. Mahomes delivers the type of throw that only a handful of people alive can, and the result is a Kansas City touchdown.
10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Ben Garland has been a godsend for the 49ers. When starting center Weston Richburg went down with a season-ending leg injury in early December, it seemed like San Francisco’s offense might take a significant hit. Losing a center can torpedo any unit, but in Shanahan’s zone-running scheme, the position is especially important. The center is the linchpin of those blocking designs, and a player who can handle reach blocks on his own is paramount in shifting the math in an offense’s favor. Enter Garland. The journeyman interior lineman has stepped into the middle of San Francisco’s offense, and this unit hasn’t missed a beat. Garland was already familiar with the system, having spent the 2016 season as a backup in Atlanta, and that has paid huge dividends. Watch the job that Garland does on Kenny Clark here without any help at all. Shanahan hasn’t had to change a single aspect of his scheme with Garland in the lineup, and that’s the best compliment a coach can give a backup lineman.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: We don’t deserve Patrick Mahomes.