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The Keys to Super Bowl LIV

The league’s best quarterback is playing the league’s best defense for a championship. This will be fun—but something’s got to give.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This will be fun. The league’s best quarterback is playing the league’s best defense in the Super Bowl. Travis Kelce and George Kittle are the league’s best two tight ends. Richard Sherman and Tyrann Mathieu may be the league’s two most charismatic defenders. The Chiefs have the fastest skill players, while the 49ers have the most effective pass rush. Each team is led by a coach whose playoff legacy is defined by not winning a Super Bowl, and for one of them, Sunday will be the first day of a rewritten history.

The 49ers are the third team to make the Super Bowl after winning four or fewer games the prior season, and they would be just the second to win the trophy after the 1999 Rams. A 49ers victory would give San Francisco six Lombardi trophies, tied with the Steelers and Patriots for the most all time. A Chiefs win would give Kansas City a championship 50 years after its lone Super Bowl win. It would also make Patrick Mahomes a living legend.

One legend has overshadowed the Super Bowl as the biggest sports story of the week. The helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, two of Gianna’s teammates, three parents, one coach, and the pilot has devastated the entire sports community. People have tried to glean meaning from the tragedy; one message that stands out is that life is random, but sacred. Find joy in Sunday’s Super Bowl, but also enjoy the people you are with on Super Bowl Sunday. On that note, here are the keys to the game.

Sunday, February 2

San Francisco 49ers (13-3) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Kickoff time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (sideline reporter), Chris Myers (sideline reporter), Mike Pereira (rules analyst), Dean Blandino (rules analyst)
Opening line: Kansas City -1.5
Over/under: 54
Location: Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida
Weather forecast: Sunny, high of 69 degrees
Halftime Show: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira
Key 49ers injured but expected to play: Defensive end Dee Ford (hamstring), linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral), safety Jaquiski Tartt (ribs), running back Tevin Coleman (shoulder)
Key 49ers ruled out: Center Weston Richburg (kneecap, injured reserve), defensive tackle D.J. Jones (ankle, injured reserve), defensive end Damontre Moore (forearm, injured reserve), defensive end Ronald Blair (ACL, injured reserve), defensive tackle Jullian Taylor (ACL, injured reserve)
Key Chiefs injured but expected to play: Defensive end Chris Jones (calf)
Key Chiefs ruled out: safety Juan Thornhill (ACL, injured reserve), defensive end Alex Okafor (pectoral, injured reserve), defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (pectoral, injured reserve), outside linebacker Breeland Speaks (MCL, injured reserve), guard Martinas Rankin (knee, injured reserve), running back Darrel Williams (hamstring, injured reserve), running back Spencer Ware (shoulder, injured reserve)

Key to the game when the 49ers have the ball: Kansas City’s linebackers in pass coverage

Ninety percent of life—and football—is about who shows up. Many of the chess moves head coaches make revolve around who is on the field and why. For all the emphasis fans place on the stars, coaches are often lasered in on the 10th and 11th players the other side is throwing into the fray, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they can be exploited. San Francisco has built its offense to be the exploiter, not the exploited. The players on the 49ers offense are Swiss army knives. Tight end George Kittle is one of the best receivers in football, but he also might be the league’s best blocking tight end. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk can run routes and catch passes downfield as easily as he can seal a rushing lane. The 49ers are strong enough to block, smooth enough to catch, and fast enough to elude. When the defense tries to stop the run, the 49ers can pass, and when the defense tries to stop the pass, they can run. The 49ers are not the best at any one thing, but they do many things very well. Shanahan uses versatility as a weapon, and on Sunday he will likely point it at the weak link in the Chiefs defense: the linebackers.

Kansas City’s linebackers are not versatile. Out of the 102 linebackers who played 200 snaps this season, Kansas City starter Damien Wilson was the 69th-highest-graded linebacker, and fellow starter Anthony Hitchens was 86th, according to Pro Football Focus. In run situations, the Chiefs play linebacker Reggie Ragland. Ragland is one of the better run defenders in the league (top 20 in PFF run defense grading) but Ragland is not a pass cover guy (he dropped into pass coverage the least of any of those 102 linebackers this season). On passing downs, the Chiefs will use linebacker Ben Niemann, who is the inverse of Ragland. Niemann is one of the league’s better pass coverage linebackers (top 21 in PFF pass coverage grades at the position) but he is not a true run defender (he ranked 97th of those 102 linebackers in run snaps). Ragland can stop the run but not the pass, Niemann can stop the pass but not the run, and Hitchens and Wilson are below average at both.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo needs to figure out how to ensure these players won’t be exploited by the 49ers. Those answers were more obvious when the Chiefs played the Titans. Tennessee was going to smash the ball with Derrick Henry, so the Chiefs went heavy on their run defense. Ragland played 42 percent of Kansas City’s snaps, his most since Week 13 and fourth-highest number of the season. Against Tennessee, Spagnuolo sent out Kansas City’s goal-line defense in the middle of the field—a group of big defensive linemen and run-focused linebackers—and they got a stop. Kansas City’s run defense was the fourth-least efficient this season according to Football Outsiders, but in the AFC championship game, the Chiefs held Henry, who had just bulldozed the Patriots and Ravens, to just 69 yards on 19 carries.

The difference between Tennessee and San Francisco is the 49ers’ identity is fluid, and the Chiefs will be particularly vulnerable to San Francisco’s style. The 49ers use pre-snap motion before run plays more than any team in the league. The Chiefs run defense ranks last in football when teams use pre-snap motion, according to Warren Sharp’s Super Bowl report. The 49ers have run 89 times for 471 yards (5.3 yards per carry) in their two playoff games, but unlike the Titans, they are not predictable. If the Chiefs load up with run personnel to stuff them, the 49ers will pass all over them. Perhaps Tyrann Mathieu can guard George Kittle one-on-one, but can Hitchens take the speedy Raheem Mostert, or can Damien Wilson cover Juszczyk?

These mismatches could be devastating for Kansas City. The Chiefs are significantly worse defending passes over the middle of the field than toward the sideline, which is unsurprising considering their linebacker situation. That won’t work well when facing San Francisco, who passes the ball over the middle of the field (65 percent of passes) more than any team in football, according to Warren Sharp’s Super Bowl preview. The 49ers are also vulnerable down the field with safety Daniel Sorensen replacing free safety Juan Thornhill, who tore his ACL late in the season. Sorensen is an excellent special teamer, but the 49ers can exploit him in the passing game. Hitchens and Niemann know Kittle well from their time playing at Iowa together. Kittle joked to ESPN’s Ed Werder this week that Hitchens was a marked man. “Hitch used to bully me in practice when I was on scout team at Iowa and so I’m gonna give it back to him a couple times,” Kittle said.

The Chiefs might be lucky if Kittle burns Hitchens only a couple times in this game.

Key when the Chiefs have the ball: The 49ers defensive line getting to Mahomes in the pocket—and also not letting him escape it

The Chiefs offense is one of the best in NFL history, but it is at its best when everything goes to hell. In the moments when Mahomes scrambles from a defender and whips a throw across his body to a receiver who has broken off of his route, Kansas City seems unstoppable. It’s hard enough for a defensive back (or two) to cover an NFL wide receiver for more than five seconds. It’s much harder to cover Kansas City’s receiving corps, which is the fastest in the league, for five seconds. But when Mahomes, who has the biggest throwing range of any quarterback, extends the play with a scramble, it is almost impossible to defend. The 49ers defensive line then has two jobs: It must wreak havoc in the pocket, but it also has to prevent Mahomes from escaping the pocket. That’s a new wrinkle. The 2007 Giants defensive line wasn’t overly concerned about what happened if Tom Brady juked Michael Strahan to buy another few seconds.

The 49ers’ best pass rushing group is their NASCAR-like lineup of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa on the edge and DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead on the interior. Ford will likely take on one of the league’s better right tackles, Mitchell Schwartz, while Bosa will be working a league-average left tackle in Eric Fisher. Buckner and Armstead will have an advantage on the interior against Kansas City center Austin Reiter, left guard Stefen Wisniewski, and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. If Buckner and Armstead can force interior pressure that cuts off Mahomes’s ability to step up in the pocket, that could be crucial. Mahomes doesn’t need to step up into his throws like some players, but Bosa and Ford coming around the edge would cut off one of the quarterback’s escape routes.

Mahomes is incredibly difficult to sack. He was taken down on just 3.1 percent of his dropbacks this season, second only to Drew Brees, who is one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack in NFL history. Mahomes is smart and processes defenses quickly. He can get the ball out fast, but he also knows when he can hold on to the ball in the hope of a bigger play. In a regular-season game, the 49ers would be hoping the Chiefs would get called for a few offensive holding penalties in this game, but penalties decrease in the playoffs as referees are more likely to let players play, especially under referee Bill Vinovich, the Super Bowl LIV referee who was the head ref for the Rams-Saints NFC championship game (yes, that game).

Not only is Mahomes hard to sack, but the 49ers defense is not as deep as many may think. They pressured the quarterback the second most despite blitzing the fourth-fewest times this year, which is impressive. But a lot of their damage came when they were fully healthy. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote, Bosa has 75 percent of his sacks in the 25 percent of snaps he’s shared with Ford. Ford will be healthier in the Super Bowl than he has been in a while, but a few 49ers pass rushers are not. Defensive tackle D.J. Jones, defensive end Damontre Moore, defensive end Ronald Blair, and defensive tackle Jullian Taylor are all on injured reserve. While the 49ers’ five first-round picks grab the headlines, their talents were maximized when the team was seven or eight defensive linemen deep and could rotate in with their stunning depth. The 49ers have not been as effective without that depth, and the unit could get tired as the game goes on. Warren Sharp’s Super Bowl preview showed that the 49ers’ sack rate on opposing quarterbacks was excellent for the first 34 dropbacks of the game, but fell off a cliff after the 35th. If the Chiefs pass early and often in this game, the fourth quarter might be the toughest test for this 49ers defense all year.

Even if the 49ers defensive line does get to Mahomes, and Buckner and Armstead collapse the interior of the pocket, the easiest way for the Chiefs to mitigate that pass rush is with short throws. If the Chiefs try to dink and dunk their way down the field, that will be a win for the 49ers … if they can tackle the Chiefs in open space. If Kansas City is limited to chunks of 6 or 8 yards on slants, the 49ers will be fine. But when those chunks become 18 or 28 yards because of the yards gained after the catch, it becomes a huge problem. San Francisco’s cornerbacks are solid tacklers, but their issue may be the angles they take. Kansas City’s receivers are so fast that tackling technique won’t matter if the defensive backs don’t get a hand on Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Damien Williams. If Kansas City can effectively move the ball with yards after the catch, San Francisco’s pass rush won’t be as big a factor. Kansas City was second in the league in yards after the catch per completion (5.4)—behind only the 49ers. San Francisco has to limit those plays with tackling on their first try.

Clichés are clichés for a reason. The 49ers defensive linemen getting to Mahomes is the key to this game, especially if they can do so without having to send blitzers. If they can do it in the first quarter, it will be interesting to see if they can keep it up into the fourth quarter. If they can’t do it early, they might not be able to do it at all. Even if they can’t, corralling Mahomes and preventing a three-second play from becoming a seven-second play might be almost as important as getting a sack. There isn’t as much glory in containment, but there might be a trophy in it.