We're just days away from Super Bowl 58, in which the San Francisco 49ers will search for revenge after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 54. Last time, the Niners were able to flex their defense to stay ahead for most of the game, but they couldn't hold down Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill for four quarters. According to ESPN, San Francisco's win probability peaked higher than 95%, so what do they need to do differently this year to finish the job?
Many of the key stars are still in place. But with plenty of roster turnover on both sides, the key positional matchups will look pretty different. Let's take a look at some of the key battles we'll see on the field Sunday and how they might play out.
Christian McCaffrey vs. Chiefs Front Seven
As the NFL rushing and scrimmage yardage leader, Christian McCaffrey has to be the top priority for the Kansas City defense. Stopping him is impossible. And even slowing him down is a team effort, as he averaged over 125 yards at a clip of six yards per touch this year.
The bad news for the Chiefs is that as talented as their defense is, they ranked 27th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) against the run, and 28th in EPA (expected points added). Part of this is due to their scheme, which prioritizes defensive-back-heavy nickel and dime sets; but it's hard to change on a dime, especially to stop a player like McCaffrey.
Normally, a breakdown of a run game matchup should be O-line vs. front seven. But with McCaffrey, there are a couple reasons why he's more important. One is that the Niners have an uncharacteristically average line this year, so he's had to create on his own more than usual.
The other is that McCaffrey is a phenomenal receiver as well as rusher. The Chiefs don't have a single linebacker with a Pro Football Focus coverage score over 67, so they don't really have any great way to limit him through the air either — so expect an MVP-type performance from the Niners' best player.
Patrick Mahomes + Chiefs O-Line vs. 49ers D-Line
The Chiefs are second in offensive line adjusted sack rate, probably the best non-Mahomes part of their offense this year. Pairing Mahomes' improvisational ability and arm talent with elite protection is scary, even though the pass catchers aren't as strong of a group as we've seen in the past for Kansas City.
They're going up against a Niners D-line that hasn't been as elite as you might expect, ranking in the middle of the pack in adjusted sack rate. Interestingly, the defense does give pressure at about an average rate despite a bottom-three blitz rate, so that's a vote of confidence in the line. But the team somewhat lacks edge production, as Chase Young has been a bit of a letdown since coming over.
However, Nick Bosa is still fantastic, and the interior duo of Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead is a really solid one. That latter duo could be especially key, since it's not clear that star Chiefs guard Joe Thuney will be ready to go for the Super Bowl. If he's out, or even active and hampered, Hargrave and Armstead could make things really tough for Mahomes when he drops back.
49ers Pass Catchers vs. Chiefs Secondary
Perhaps the best thing about this 49ers team is their group of pass catchers. We've already discussed McCaffrey and how he's an unpredictable dual threat, but just about every key 49ers offensive skill player exhibits some sort of versatility.
On any given play, tight end George Kittle could stay in and be one of the best blockers in the league, or he could run a great downfield route and make a big play. Similarly, wideout Deebo Samuel can run the ball well; and while Brandon Aiyuk is more or less just a receiver, he has one of the more diverse route trees of anyone in the league.
The Chiefs have a solid secondary: L'Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie have been a phenomenal cornerback duo this postseason. But the difficulty with this Niners group isn't simply keeping up with talented athletes as they go through their routes. It's preparing for the possibility that each player could be in several different roles on each snap.
Accounting for that comes down to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who has had a phenomenal postseason so far. Still, this might be his toughest test yet, so we'll have to see how he approaches this daunting task.
Bonus: The Coaching Battle
The battle of wits between Spagunolo and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who calls his own offense, is one of the best you'll see in this sport. However, it's not the only interesting corner of this coaching matchup.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Shanahan, two of the top offensive minds of the modern era, have both been known to blunder late-game management decisions — especially when leading in big games. Reid has, of course, won two Super Bowls of late, so the monkey is off his back, so to speak. But Shanahan has yet to get over the hump — will this be his moment?
Finally, Matt Nagy — the Chiefs' offensive coordinator and previously disgraced Bears head coach — will square off with another former head coach; Niners defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. This is a pretty serious mismatch in San Francisco's favor, as Nagy has really struggled to get the most out of the KC offense this year. We'll see if he can redeem himself on the biggest stage, or if Eric Bieniemy's shoes are just too big to fill.
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