One final pick! Super Bowl LVIII is nearly here. Kyle Shanahan has been asked about his previous Super Bowl losses roughly 400 times. Andy Reid has been questioned about Taylor Swift conspiracy theories. I think these are signs that it’s time to play the actual game. Who will win—the San Francisco 49ers or Kansas City Chiefs? And more importantly, will I finish above or below .500 with my picks for the season? Let the drama build, and come along for one final ride with me!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday morning. Stats are from TruMedia or Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Championship round: 1-1
Season record: 138-138-8
The Case for the Kansas City Chiefs
Let’s not overthink this. The 49ers defense got shredded by the Lions in the NFC championship game, and the Packers went up and down the field on them for three quarters in the divisional round. Now they face Patrick Mahomes—an all-time great quarterback in the prime of his career. In other words, it’s not getting any easier for San Francisco.
Does this Chiefs offense look the same as previous versions? Not at all. This year, Kansas City is more methodical than explosive, and its margin for error is slimmer than we’ve seen in the past. But that’s the brilliance of Mahomes. He’s figured out what he needs to do each week to win. If that means using his legs, he’ll do it. If it means getting the ball out quickly, not a problem. A game that calls for him to play a little more conservatively and avoid the big mistake? Yup, he can play that style too. This isn’t the most electric version of Mahomes, but it’s one of the more impressive ones we’ve ever seen. The talent at wide receiver is still an issue. The offensive tackle play has not been great. Yet Mahomes has been able to consistently problem solve. That’s a trait that separates the greats from everyone else.
If we’re talking about a Chiefs win on Sunday night, it’ll almost certainly be because of an efficient offensive performance—one in which they run the ball, Mahomes completes a high percentage of his pass attempts, and they string together long, methodical drives. This isn’t a new blueprint for the Chiefs. It’s how they’ve had to play for much of the year.
The defense is a different story. For as well as this group has played, it’s unrealistic to expect the Chiefs to just completely shut down the talented 49ers offense. This has to be a big Chris Jones and George Karlaftis game if the Chiefs are going to win. On paper, those two against the right side of the 49ers offensive line should be a matchup advantage for the Chiefs. I’m not expecting a big blitz game from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. As mentioned in the cheat sheet earlier this week, the Chiefs have sacked opponents a league-high 8.3 percent of the time when they’ve rushed four or fewer. This feels like a spot where Spagnuolo will want to commit resources to coverage, force San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy to hold on to the ball, and count on the front four to get home.
The Case for the San Francisco 49ers
It’s hard to avoid recency bias, and it’s true that San Francisco didn’t look great in either of its playoff wins, but the bottom line is that the 49ers have had a more impressive body of work than the Chiefs this season. They were dominant for most of the regular season, and that was because their offense was by far the best in the NFL. On paper, one of the biggest mismatches here should be the 49ers rushing attack against the Chiefs run defense. Shanahan is a run game savant, the Chiefs defense is vulnerable against the run (remember what the Bills did to them in the divisional round?), and Christian McCaffrey is the best back in the NFL. If the Chiefs can’t stop him, Shanahan will run it over and over and over again.
But the 49ers are not one-dimensional. There is no blueprint for slowing down this passing game. Purdy has been great against man, zone, blitz, two-high safeties, you name it. Opponents have tried it all, and nothing has worked. Purdy is a quick processor and an accurate passer. He can operate a YAC offense at a high level. But he also has countermoves. Purdy is willing to aggressively push the ball downfield. And he showed once again in the NFC championship that he can create out of structure when things break down. With McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle, receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, and others, this is just a tough group to deal with.
Defensively, the 49ers won’t change their identity in two weeks. Their foundation is to rush four and play a lot of zone coverage. Their best bet for improving how they played in two playoff games is not complicated: Their pass rushers have to play better. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive end Chase Young have combined for zero quarterback hits through two postseason games. Nick Bosa has the potential to be a game wrecker, but it can’t be just Bosa. Whether it’s Hargrave, Young, Arik Armstead, or someone else, the 49ers need a coordinated and effective pass rush to get to Mahomes, or he’ll pick them apart.
There is so much at stake legacy-wise in this game. For the 49ers, it starts with whether this is finally Shanahan’s time. Will he have other chances? Probably. Shanahan is only 44 years old, and the 49ers have gotten to at least the championship round in four of the past five seasons. They have a strong foundation and should be in the mix for years to come. But the truth is that you just never know. Think of how healthy the 49ers are right now—specifically on offense. They will have nearly all of their key players available for this game. That type of thing doesn’t happen every season. Shanahan is an NFL lifer, and he knows better than anyone how many things—many out of the head coach’s control—have to go right just to get to this point. Even if you think you’re set up well, nothing is guaranteed.
As for the Chiefs, everyone is probably tired of the talking heads overdoing the Mahomes vs. Tom Brady GOAT debate. But guess what? It is a big deal! Brady won his third Super Bowl during his age-27 season and eventually ended up with seven rings. Mahomes is going for his third title during his age-28 season. We can have nuanced conversations about how quarterback wins shouldn’t matter and how so much depends on the supporting casts and luck and coaching and all the other random factors. For the most part, I agree with that. But when we’re talking about separating the best from the best, championships do matter. And we could go a long time without seeing another quarterback make this type of run at Brady’s crown. Again, nothing is guaranteed, but Mahomes has a realistic chance to get there.
The analytical part of my brain is telling me to go 49ers. The Chiefs defense is good, but not so good that I think they can consistently slow down San Francisco’s offense. Before the playoffs, the knock on the 49ers was that they couldn’t play from behind. But they shredded that narrative with their wins against the Packers and Lions. Defensively, they’ve played two bad games recently, but that’s a small sample and not necessarily predictive of how they’ll perform here.
Having said that, I can’t do it. In 12 career games as an underdog, Mahomes is 10-1-1 against the spread and 9-3 straight up. I don’t think that San Francisco’s pass rush will play well enough to control the game, and if Mahomes has time, he’ll shred. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him complete 75 percent of his pass attempts in this game. Defensively, I’m putting my trust in Spagnuolo to come up with enough wrinkles to get the stops the Chiefs need to give Mahomes a chance to steal it.
I think we’ll get a back-and-forth game in which both teams move the ball effectively. The Chiefs will get the ball last, Mahomes will drive them into field goal range, and Harrison Butker will kick the game winner from 41 yards out. Chiefs 24, 49ers 23.
The pick: Chiefs (+2.5)