The 49ers and Chiefs are headed toward a classic Super Bowl 54. Although the opening line has the Chiefs as slight favorites as the AFC “host” team in Miami next Sunday, Feb. 2 (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox), it’s one of the closest NFL championship games to call, ever.
The 49ers, for now, are underdogs by between 1 and 1.5 points. That’s despite the fact that they were 13-3 as the top seed in the tougher NFC and steamrolled both the Vikings and Packers in the playoffs. The Chiefs, meanwhile, had to erase early double-digit deficits against both the Texans and the Titans.
Here’s breaking down the matchup and why to lean more on the 49ers being victorious.
Super Bowl 2020 picks, predictions
- 49ers’ running game vs. Chiefs’ run defense
Raheem Mostert’s monster game against the Packers in the NFC championship (29 carries, 220 yards, 4 TDs) didn’t come out of nowhere. He has been the 49ers’ most reliable and explosive back during the second half of the season by necessity, with neither Tevin Coleman nor Matt Breida able to shake off injuries.
But Mostert is simply using his speed and burst to take advantage of a top-flight zone blocking scheme. The 49ers have a strong offensive line and the ultimate of supplemental blockers in Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle and Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk. They create confusion with varying personnel formations and pre-snap motion. They have plays designed for both the inside and outside.
The Chiefs have a good defensive front with Chris Jones and Frank Clark, but their issues all season defensively have come from a weak overall linebacker corps. Don’t be fooled by their success against Derrick Henry in the AFC title game. This is the No. 25 run defense from the regular season, and although Henry was hard to stop as a big, fast, power runner, the 49ers are a different challenge because of how they change the pace from different angles.
- Chiefs’ running game vs. 49ers’ run defense
The Chiefs’ traditional running game has been a non-factor so far in the playoffs. Damien Williams has had an impact as a scorer and receiver, but quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been the leading rusher, with 53 yards in each game. The 49ers shut down Dalvin Cook and the Vikings but gave up a little more against Aaron Jones and the Packers.
The 49ers’ run defense lost a key piece in tackle D.J. Jones and some depth in the line rotation behind him. They can still be dominant at times, but they ended up No. 17 against the run in the regular season. The Chiefs were only No. 23 in rushing offense. Mahomes’ fearless scrambling adds a concern for the 49ers, who haven’t fared well against QBs running this season.
Although the 49ers’ strength lies in the No. 1 pass defense because a daunting edge rush and sound secondary, the Chiefs won’t suddenly force the issue on the ground, instead using the pass to open up the run and throwing to Williams as an extension of that.
- 49ers’ passing game vs. Chiefs’ pass defense
The 49ers, even with their No. 2 rushing attack, finished No. 13 in the NFL in passing offense. The Chiefs, after finishing second-to-last in 2018, improved to the No. 8 pass defense this season. They have a good rush, led by Jones inside and Clark outside with some timely blitzing help. The secondary, even after losing rookie safety Juan Thornhill, has been stingy because of Bashaud Breeland and Tyrann Mathieu leading the coverage charge.
But the Chiefs don’t match up well with the physicality and quickness of the 49ers’ top two targets for quarterback Jimmy Garoppplo, tight end George Kittle and rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders also brings the savvy of operating against the Chiefs as a former recent Bronco. Also, with as much attention Kansas City will need to put on San Francisco’s running game, play-action will open things up all over the field. It’s also hard to get to Garoppolo when he’s releasing the ball quickly and playing off the run
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Look for the 49ers to exploit the Chiefs’ linebackers and safety Daniel Sorensen here, too. Mostert and Coleman, if he returns to play from his shoulder injury, could both be busy in the short passing game to complement Kittle and Samuel stretching the middle of the field.
- Chiefs’ passing game vs. 49ers’ pass defense
The 49ers’ pass defense is good on every level, but it has enough holes for Mahomes to find things he likes with the Chiefs’ No. 5 passing offense. San Francisco will win with is pass rush at times, but Mahomes’ ability to extend plays with his feet and improv with his arm will cause some breakdowns.
The 49ers’ linebacking corps is much better with Kwon Alexander back to help Dre Greenlaw, and the return of safety Jaquiski Tartt can also help on tight end Travis Kelce. Richard Sherman is still a shutdown corner, but he doesn’t typically travel, and the Chiefs will often deploy the speed of wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the slot.
It will be hard for the 49ers to commit extra men at the right times to take away both Kelce and Hill. The Chiefs can also dig deep with Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman and Williams to create matchups they like.
The 49ers have great weapons, but they’re somewhat limited to Samuel, Kittle, Sanders and the backs. The Chiefs can go up to four deep at wideout and also have their two rookies, Hardman and running back Darwin Thompson, ready for some wrinkles.
The Chiefs also have the most versatile defensive player in Super Bowl 54 in safety Tyrann Mathieu. Advantage: Chiefs.
The 49ers have a good pair with veteran kicker Robbie Gould and rookie punter Mitch Wishnowsky. The Chiefs counter with the confident combination of Harrison Butker and Dustin Colquitt.
Hardman is going to the Pro Bowl for his return prowess. That and Butker’s range break the tie. Advantage: Chiefs.
Andy Reid has the experience, and he has Super Bowl-winner Steve Spagnuolo coordinating the defense. Eric Bieniemy has been a terrific offensive coordinator, too.
But no duo schemed and managed personnel better than Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh for the 49ers did this season. Advantage: 49ers.
The Chiefs have a magical Mahomes, plus Reid and plenty of veterans hungry for a ring. But the 49ers seem to have a little more swagger, like they’ve been here before together even though they have not.
Garoppolo is unflappable, too, and the 49ers are more battle-tested. We trust San Francisco to pay attention to detail and make fewer mental mistakes. Advantage: 49ers.
Super Bowl prediction
The 49ers have more offensive firepower and less defensive holes. The Chiefs have plenty of big-play ability, too, but they also tend to give up more big plays. The 49ers are used to flying out of the gate with determination and discipline, while the Chiefs’ slow starting in the playoffs is a red flag. This has the making of a high-scoring affair that comes down to the last possession.
Shanahan already experienced the disappointment with the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, seeing a 28-3 lead evaporate. That won’t happen again, as a valiant comeback led by Mahomes will fall short with Gould kicking the game-winner.
49ers 34, Chiefs 31