Super Bowl LIV is upon us. Down in Miami, it’s been a week filled with crippling traffic, the sort of late-night thunderstorm that happens only in South Florida, and chatter about the most fascinating football game in recent memory. The Niners-Chiefs matchup is absolutely loaded with intriguing individual battles, schematic geniuses, and star power. Travis Kelce literally starred in his own reality show at one point, and he might be the fifth-most-famous player in this game. For my final look ahead to what should be a fantastic football nerd Super Bowl, let’s break down four possible versions of how this game could go:
Version 1: The Chiefs run into a 49ers buzzsaw, and this game gets out of hand fast
Let’s just get this one out of the way—because while I do think it’s possible, it’s the least likely of these outcomes. A Chiefs blowout win seems especially unrealistic, given that San Francisco’s defense is built to contain explosive plays, but the inverse of that is conceivable. One-sided affairs typically require game-swinging defensive plays, and the 49ers’ pass rush is capable of creating those at any moment. If Nick Bosa can wreak havoc inside or the Niners can get a couple free rushers on some stunts, they could present problems that Patrick Mahomes hasn’t had to deal with much this season.
If the Niners score quickly on offense and follow it up with, say, a strip-sack that gives them the ball deep in Chiefs territory, they won’t be the type of team that lets off the gas. San Francisco has ridden its dominant running game so far during these playoffs, but Kyle Shanahan’s team actually finished second in the NFL in explosive pass rate this season. Only the Ravens and presumptive league MVP Lamar Jackson were better. I expect Shanahan to pull out all the stops for this one: a backside leak concept to Deebo Samuel here, a double move by George Kittle there, with a downfield release by fullback Kyle Juszczyk mixed in. It wouldn’t shock me if this resembled the Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl that none of us saw coming, and a cheap touchdown or two from the Chiefs in garbage time cleaned up the final score.
Mahomes’s skill at avoiding pressure — and the overall power of this Chiefs offense — makes this version of the game a remote possibility, but I still think there’s an off chance this one gets away from Kansas City.
Score: 49ers 41, Chiefs 21
Version 2: Patrick Mahomes overwhelms an ill-equipped Niners defense, and the Chiefs win a game that never feels close
As I thought about the game this week, I kept coming back to what it means when the best team in football meets the best player in football. Top-to-bottom, the Niners’ roster is objectively better than Kansas City’s. San Francisco’s one weakness may be that the wide receiver group is somewhat thin, but George Kittle and a ton of heavy personnel packages more than make up for it. The Niners are deep, healthy, and dangerous. But they don’t have Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes and Andy Reid have been unsolvable during the playoffs. The numbers have been absolutely ridiculous: 8.8 yards per attempt, eight touchdown passes, and a 65.7 percent completion rate. Mahomes was the most efficient quarterback in football against zone defenses this season, so to try to slow him down, the Texans played almost exclusively man coverage in the AFC divisional round. The Chiefs proceeded to methodically carve them up and go on a 51-7 run for the final 41 minutes of the game. There’s just no good answer right now for the best passer in football.
The Niners play a zone-heavy defense that includes more 3-deep coverage than any other team in the NFC. The Chargers have had (relative) success against Mahomes with a similar approach, but I don’t think he’ll have any issues on Sunday. Kansas City’s passing game is rolling right now, and with two weeks to prepare, Reid and his staff will have plenty of answers if the Niners want to sit back and limit big plays all game. The Chiefs’ 3x1 receiver sets with Travis Kelce isolated to the back side are perfectly designed to exploit zone coverage, and Kansas City’s RPO game should do well against those soft looks and an extremely aggressive Niners scheme.
Reid and his system consistently put Mahomes in positions to succeed, but the terrifying part is that he often doesn’t need the help. Even if the Niners come up with an inspired game plan and give Mahomes headaches on Sunday, it might not make a difference. Watching Mahomes play quarterback right now is like seeing a dude hanging upside down above a shark tank while he does a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. He’s solving problems that he shouldn’t be able to. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he’s under pressure, a defense is varying its coverages, or no one is open. The Chiefs are making plays anyway. The Niners may be the most complete roster in this game, but Mahomes is the best player left in the playoffs (and maybe the world). That may be enough for Kansas City.
Score: Chiefs 31, Niners 20
Version 3: Both teams trade haymakers all game, but the Niners defense makes just enough plays
While I think the two timelines above are theoretically possible, I have a feeling this one is going to stay close. Both offenses are just too talented and well coached to stay down for very long. San Francisco’s ground game should be able to consistently move the ball against a Kansas City front that’s struggled to stop the run at times this season, and the rest of this offense is ideally suited to exploit other weak points of the Chiefs defense. Kansas City’s secondary is vastly improved this season, but the team’s linebackers have serious issues playing in space. All the motion, misdirection, and play-action in Shanahan’s offense is designed to manipulate the middle of the field, and I could see San Francisco torching guys like Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson on Sunday with throws between the hashes.
The Niners defense has a fighting chance against Mahomes, but like I mentioned above, I’m just not sure there’s an attractive option against Kansas City right now. San Francisco and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh may come out fighting left-handed and play more man coverage than they typically would, but that sort of tweak is always a considerable risk. I expect the Niners to mix up their coverages on early downs a bit more than we’ve seen against other teams and reserve most of their wrinkles for exotic looks along the defensive line. That group may not dominate the entire game—especially considering the Chiefs’ line features the league’s best pass-blocking right tackle in Mitchell Schwartz and solid left tackle Eric Fisher—but the Niners have multiple match-up advantages on the interior. Bosa is very comfortable bumping inside in certain packages, and both Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are mismatches for guards Stefen Wisniewski and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. San Francisco should do a quality job patrolling the deep part of the field with Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward, and I could see Mahomes holding on to the ball just long enough for one key sack to give San Francisco the edge.
Score: 49ers 34, Chiefs 31
Version 4: A historic shootout comes down to Patrick Mahomes getting the ball last
San Francisco’s secondary has been one of the most improved units in football this season. The addition of first-year pass game coordinator Joe Woods and some improved injury luck have completely transformed this group. Ward is having arguably the best season of his career after a (nearly) full-time move to free safety, Sherman is no longer dealing with the lingering effects of his Achilles injury, slot corner K’Waun Williams has blossomed under Woods, and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt is playing faster than he ever has before. That being said, there’s still no one in this group that I trust to handle Travis Kelce for an entire game. The way that Kansas City uses Kelce allows him to consistently find the voids within zones and exploit one-on-one matchups out of certain alignments. The Niners’ defensive structure is designed to contain downfield speed, but that emphasis could lead to a monster game for Kansas City’s most important pass catcher underneath. Even if San Francisco’s offense can keep up, it still feels like Mahomes is going to get his on Sunday.
The Chiefs may not have as much talent up front on defense as the Niners, but Frank Clark and Chris Jones are both more than capable of making game-altering plays. Jones, especially, could come up huge against the interior of the 49ers offensive line. I also expect the Chiefs to move Jones around their front to give him more opportunities to stifle the Niners’ perimeter running game. He’s by far the most important piece in the Chiefs’ front seven, and Kansas City isn’t afraid to get creative with its exceptional players. The same goes for Tyrann Mathieu, who has played virtually every position on the back end during the playoffs. The Honey Badger has reemerged as one of the most impactful defensive players in football down the stretch, and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s best bet may be to align him in the middle of the field to take away the play-action shots and misdirection plays that Shanahan likes best. Kansas City’s defense doesn’t need to be great on Sunday—one or two big plays may be enough if Mahomes can stay hot. And if he has the ball in the final minutes with a chance to win, a spectacular touchdown drive would feel like a fitting culmination for the league’s next all-time-great quarterback.
Score: Chiefs 34, 49ers 27