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The Super Bowl Is a Smorgasbord of Football Excellence

The biggest football game of this season might be its best, too. The Chiefs and 49ers each bring exceptional schemes and extraordinary individual talent. It will be a game decided by small margins.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When they play each other on Sunday, Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo will have a higher combined winning percentage than any starting quarterback duo in the history of the Super Bowl. They’ve combined to win 79.4 percent of their games, which is not to say they are the best pair of passers in history, but it is instructive: They were each placed into winning situations, with elite play callers and solid supporting casts, and have become the best versions of themselves. This means drastically different things for each of them: The best version of Mahomes means being the best passer in football; in Garoppolo’s case, it means not trying to do anything wild while still being solid. Quarterback wins are not a stat, but you can learn a lot from them anyway.

Here are some other things to know about the matchup between the Chiefs and the 49ers: Mahomes is having the best postseason run ever tracked by Pro Football Focus. San Francisco tight end George Kittle, according to the same service, is the highest-graded player in football. Players and coaches at the height of their talents are spread across both sidelines. This is ensemble perfection. Think of Knives Out, except instead of big sweaters, there are a lot of Hawaiian shirts. Kittle is certainly the best tight end in football, and the second best is on the Chiefs, Travis Kelce. Head coaches Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan are two of the best play callers in modern football. There are dozens of these matchups hidden in Sunday’s game. Stack them all up—and include each team’s talent along the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary—and you’ve got a great football game. That’s why the betting line started at one point. There’s been only one Super Bowl since 1983 with a one-point spread: the Patriots and Seahawks in 2015. (Which, if you missed it, turned out to be a famously close game.)

For hardcore football fans, this game is heaven. It is also heaven for casual ones. It features a bunch of famous people doing things well and being put in positions to keep doing those same things well by people who are also famous. Mahomes, Garoppolo, Reid, Shanahan, Kittle, Richard Sherman—it will be good football. It is the first Super Bowl since 2016 to not feature the Patriots, the narrative darlings of the sport, and it will be fine. If you like narratives, you will have them; if you don’t, the same ingredients that create the narratives also create entertaining football. Reid is a descendant of the Bill Walsh–Mike Holmgren coaching tree. Kyle Shanahan is part of the coaching tree started by his father, Mike Shanahan, whose branches touch the Walsh tree by way of Mike Shanahan’s years as an offensive coordinator in San Francisco under George Seifert. Of course, the Walsh coaching tree that led to Reid originated in San Francisco. The offensive schemes these two teams employ are very different, but each is a direct reflection of their pasts: rooted in tradition but updated, rewritten, and perfected for the modern era.

There’s Chiefs defensive lineman Frank Clark against the 49ers Dee Ford, the pass rusher Clark replaced in Kansas City, and ribbed last week. Chiefs fan Paul Rudd will probably be there. It’s all good. The 49ers have stars Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead on their defensive line. The Chiefs have one of the best offensive tackles in football in Mitchell Schwartz. The Chiefs have star defensive lineman Chris Jones, as well as veteran Terrell Suggs, who is there to remind you, every 20 minutes or so, that Terrell Suggs is on the Chiefs. Coaches cannot guarantee fireworks—that comes mostly from the players—but they can put their teams out on the field with bad game plans. Reid and Shanahan won’t do that. That’s why Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Kittle, and Deebo Samuel will run past people, run through them, or some combination of both in this game.

Despite having a capable passing game, Shanahan’s game plan in the NFC title game called for eight passes and 42 runs. He said he did this because “it was working.” Raheem Mostert had 158 yards rushing after contact, the most of any running back in a playoff game since 2006. Chiefs running backs combined for 52 total yards in their AFC title game win, despite nursing a lead for the entire second half. This isn’t a litmus test of run vs. pass—Garoppolo has thrown the ball more than 30 times in seven games this season—but rather more proof that these coaches are flexible and smart and know how to plan for opponents. A clip of Shanahan went viral this week from his time as the Browns offensive coordinator in 2014. In the video, Shanahan coyly rejects head coach Mike Pettine’s request to run the ball before calling a touchdown-scoring pass play:

Speaking of viral sideline videos, here’s Shanahan correctly predicting to a referee pre-snap that Kittle would be held on the ensuing play, and earning his team a penalty flag:

Interestingly, the Chiefs lead the sport in defensive holding penalties, so Shanahan will probably do this again.

Reid doesn’t go viral as often, but he’s still a hell of a coach. This week, Reid was asked how he’s still able to innovate two decades into his head-coaching career. The answer, he said, was playing to his players’ strengths. This means adapting to the players coming into the league, who are playing a different, spread-based form of football. “These kids are coming out of college and, offensively, throwing the ball like crazy and we’re utilizing that in whatever formations might be familiar to them.” This may sound very basic—and hell, most coaches would say that—but Reid has lived it. No one has innovated NFL offenses over the past two decades more than he has. Statistically, Mahomes is having one of the greatest runs in the history of the playoffs, and it is because his football marriage with Reid is pretty much perfect.

The chess match extends beyond the play-calling expertise of Reid and Shanahan to 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh versus Mahomes. The 2018 MVP completes 74 percent of his passes against zone coverage, and the 49ers run mostly zone. These teams are not exactly mirror images of each other—they play different styles—but they have so much in common that there are probably some team-building lessons to be learned from each of them. Both have coaches with a lot of influence on the personnel side and are paired with smart general managers who execute their vision: Brett Veach in Kansas City and John Lynch in San Francisco. Each team constructed their roster well, mixing in rookie-contract standouts with second-contract veterans—which means free-agent additions like Sherman in San Francisco and Tyrann Mathieu in Kansas City. Sherman has been one of the best defensive backs in all of football this year, and Mathieu has played at an elite level recently:

Again, the through lines aren’t all clear: Mahomes, on his rookie deal, made $5 million against the cap this year, 334th-most in the NFL. Garoppolo is tied for the fifth-highest-paid player in football. The Chiefs haven’t picked in the first round since 2017 after trading up for Mahomes and trading for Clark. The 49ers have picked in the top 10 in each of the past four years. If you’re looking for team-building lessons from this game, there’s a simple one: There are a lot of ways to win football games if you’re smart. These two teams have done it. They are not the same but they are both great. This game has a great shot to be, too.