Largely because of the Patrick Mahomes factor, we understand why Super Bowl 54 between the 49ers and Chiefs is being framed as a clash of spectacular offense in Kansas City and smothering defense in San Francisco. Mahomes, the reigning NFL MVP, also heavily impacts the point spread, which opened at 1 1/2 in favor of the Chiefs.
Yet this Super Bowl narrative omits an important fact. As great as Kansas City has been all season offensively — with Mahomes fighting back from his midseason knee injury through the second half of the year and refining his connections with the likes of Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson — San Francisco has been even better.
Mahomes’ injury skews the numbers since the Chiefs quarterback missed a couple starts, but not by enough. The 49ers ranked second in the NFL behind the Ravens in points per game for the regular season. Even with wild-card and divisional playoff totals factored in, games in which Kansas City scored 51 and 35 points, San Francisco still has the better scoring offense, 30.2 points per game compared to the Chiefs’ 29.8 points per game.
Notably, the 49ers are doing it with a quarterback who completed just six passes in the NFC championship game and threw for only 208 yards in their two playoff games combined.
Super Bowl 2020 pick, prediction
That diversity is why San Francisco has an edge over Kansas City in Super Bowl 54, scheduled for Feb. 2 at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. The deeper the 49ers advance, it seems, the less they ask of Jimmy Garoppolo. But the 28-year-old QB’s dwindling numbers over the last month make it easy to forget he threw for 349 yards and 4 touchdowns in an early December win over the Saints that ended up allowing the 49ers to earn the No. 1 seed for the postseason. When they have needed him to produce, he has delivered.
Of course, if the 49ers have it their way, Garoppolo won’t do much in the Super Bowl. Armed with the second best rushing offense in the NFL (again behind Baltimore), San Francisco in the NFC title game ran all over a middle-of-the-road Green Bay rush defense that statistically was better than that of Kansas City in 2019. That’s bad news for the Chiefs, even after their fine performance against Derrick Henry in the AFC championship game.
The 49ers’ approach is simple: lots of pre-snap motion and a heavy dose of misdirection; dominant blocking along the line of scrimmage, inside and outside, from Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Ben Garland, Mike Person, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszcyk, George Kittle and even Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne; constantly fresh legs in the backfield thanks to the rotation of Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman; timely play-calling and astute designs on the part of head coach Kyle Shanahan.
San Francisco does not have the benefit of a passer like Mahomes, but it has proven over the course of Garoppolo’s first fully healthy season with the team that it doesn’t need one.
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The Chiefs have their share of advantages in this matchup, too, beginning with Mahomes. They finished the regular season fifth in passing yards per game. They have been better than the 49ers in turnover differential, +8 to +4.
Chances are, though, Kansas City will need some timely turnovers to win this game. That potent passing offense is facing the NFL’s best pass defense, spearheaded by a confident shutdown corner in Richard Sherman and boosted by what can only be described as an absurd pass rush.
Keep in mind Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and Sporting News’ Rookie of the Year, was simply icing on the cake for a defensive line that already featured first-round picks in Dee Ford (the former Chief), Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. No NFL team has a better or deeper defensive front.
In the second level, the 49ers now have Kwon Alexander back healthy to compliment Fred Warner. In the secondary, Jaquiski Tartt has returned to the lineup to complete a shell of dangerous defensive backs that, beyond Sherman, includes Jimmie Ward, Ahkello Witherspoon, Emmanuel Moseley and Dontae Johnson.
San Francisco checks all the boxes on special teams, too, even though Kansas City has the better kicker in Harrison Butker over Robbie Gould. Rookie 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky isn’t a boomer, but he managed to pin opponents inside their own 20-yard line 23 times in the regular season, two more than the Chiefs’ Dustin Colquitt. The 49ers finished fifth in the NFL in non-offensive touchdowns per game; the Chiefs finished 10th.
Combined, all of these factors suggest the Chiefs, while extremely talented and absolutely worthy of their place in the Super Bowl, are simply outmatched. Kansas City may be the team that has the game’s most impactful player in Mahomes, but it is not the more complete team.
We like the 49ers to win their sixth Super Bowl, which would place them in a tie with the Patriots and Steelers for most all-time, not because “defense wins championships.” We like them over the Chiefs because defense wins championships, especially when complemented by superior offense and hampered by zero notable weaknesses.
Super Bowl 54 pick
49ers 31, Chiefs 27