A Crammer's Guide to Super Bowl LIV
The biggest event on the US sporting calendar and most hyped game of football played annually has arrived. Whether you're an NFL nut or just want to sound like the smartest guy at your party, Saul Wajntraub has Super Bowl LIV covered from every angle...
If you are a proper "sports nuffie", you follow (in fact sometimes you love) teams that do not play in your city, your country, hell even your continent and definitely not in any manageable timezone. You follow these teams in the wee hours of the morning or on ‘sick days.’ You celebrate wins in silence, screaming without sound as so not to wake up your household (or on occasion be so overcome be (unshared) delight to you do indeed wake the whole house up!) After wins, you feel a joy that you can share with almost no one and after losses a pain that no one else really understands, or cares about.
In case you haven't already gathered, I am a proper "sports nuffie" and the San Francisco 49ers are my overseas sports obsession.
Ever since I first saw highlights of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana (thanks to Don Lane) in the late 80’s, I fell in love with the gold helmets, the romance of Candlestick Park on the bay and just how incredibly cool Montana and Rice were. I jumped on the 49ers bandwagon in 1988 and was rewarded with three titles in six seasons, the last of which after Joe Cool had moved on to (ironically) Kansas City leaving Steve Young and Rice to be the headline acts. When the Niners won Super Bowl XXIX in 1995, their 5th title in 12 seasons, they were the first team to have won five Super Bowls and were the NFL’s premier franchise. (At the time, the New England Patriots had none and were a laughing stock! Ahhh, those were the halcyon days!)
The 49ers trophy cabinet has not had any Lombardi Trophy additions in the last 25 years however, and the majority of that time spent outside the playoff picture due to the far to common story of ill-informed but powerful owners getting in the way of the prospect of success. (If you want to see a current example of an owner ruining an NFL franchise have a look at what Jerry Jones has done to the Dallas Cowboys - the 49ers biggest rivals from the 80s - over the last 25 years!)
The last time the Niners got to the big dance was sevens seasons ago, a Super Bowl made famous because the electricity went out at the Superdome in New Orleans mid-game, causing a 35 minute delay. The Niners trailed 28-6 when the lights went out but stormed back only to watch as rookie kicker Justin Tucker kicked the match winning field goal late in the game.
Since that day San Francisco have been in freefall, sacking three coaches, casting aside their iconic and revolutionary quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Over the last three seasons prior to the 2019/20 season, the 49ers won just 12 games and finished with the league’s second worst record last season.
This period of six seasons of failure, however, was essentially the building block for the Niners return to success, with San Francisco drafting the players most likely to win them the Super Bowl this season with the picks that failure brought.
Super Bowl 54 is one of the most exciting match-ups in many years, primarily because the team the competition loves to hate, the New England Patriots, are not there! The brutal, cerebral, fearsome and all-conquering behemoth of the last two decades has failed to make the final game for just the second time in the last 6 seasons giving fans no ‘dark side’ team to cheer against.
In fact, both sides have been lauded for their approaches this season. The 49ers play ‘old school football’, based around running the ball and sacking the quarterback, that most pundits and fans enjoy watching. The real fairytale for the neutral however, is the return of the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years and seeing their iconic quarterback Patrick Mahomes play in his first! The Chiefs’ played in the first Super Bowl and won the fourth but have not been back in the 50 years since.
Who are the Kansas City Chiefs?
Kansas City are most people’s second team for two main reasons. Firstly, Patrick Mahomes is the most gifted quarterback in the game; a gun-slinging, touchdown throwing machine who is at his most magical and spectacular when a play is broken and it’s all up to him to find an open receiver. Secondly, the Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid is one of most respected, loved but eternally flawed coaches in the NFL. In 21 seasons as a head coach, Reid has made it to the last day of the season only once, losing Super Bowl XXIX to the Patriots (who else) in a 24-21 heartbreaker in a game widely seen as lost by Reid’s fourth-quarter play calling. His play calling was so bad and lacking urgency that opposition coach Bill Billichick had to check to make the sure the score was the right way around!
Reid has an amazing legacy, however, of creating head coaches. 10 current or former head coaches have come from the tutelage of Reid and two of his proteges have won Super Bowls. Reid’s journey has been a long and sometimes torturous one and yet he has always been a jovial figure so the wider NFL community wants his wins record (7th most wins all time) franked with a Super Bowl title.
The Chiefs’ are an offensive juggernaut who have blown apart scoring records part over the last two seasons. Last season Kansas City were about 10 centimetres off beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship game and making it to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ up 28-24 with 1.01 left to play forced a turnover virtually sealing the win but Dee Ford (more on him later) had lined up forward of the line of scrimmage and was rightfully penalised for being offside voiding the turnover and giving the Patriots the ball back, and in turn, handing Andy Reid and his men a heartbreaking overtime loss. Salt was rubbed into the wound as the Chiefs’ lost the toss for possession in OT, so the greatest offensive weapon in football, Mahomes, didn’t touch the ball before the game was won by the Pats.
The theme here is that the Chiefs’ and Andy Reid always seem to find a way to lose...
In this year’s regular-season the Chiefs’ haven’t been quite the dominating force of last year where they lost only four games. Mahomes, last’s years MVP with 50 touchdown throws dropped to 26 touchdowns this year, with much of the attention and acclaim taken by another game-changing AFC quarterback, Lamar Jackson and his Baltimore Ravens.
The prototype hybrid QB, Jackson changed quarterback play this year by using his legs as his key weapon complimented with a great throwing arm and brilliant play-calling that featured Lamar as a runner as much as a thrower. Mahomes can run (as his 26 yard touchdown run showed last week) but it’s his amazing arm strength and accuracy under pressure, especially when flushed out of the pocket that makes him the biggest show in Miami this week. Mahomes missed two games mid-season with a knee injury this year but has built form and confidence week by week to reach his best performance of the season last game.
Amazingly the Chiefs’ briefly looked like going out in their first playoff game when they found themselves 0-24 down to the Texans early in the second quarter. This is where the freakshow took hold and by halftime Mahomes (and some turnovers) had somehow taken the lead before going on to win 51-31in a canter. This was the first time in NFL playoff history that a team had trailed by 20 points and went on to win by 20.
Last week against the Titans, the Chiefs got themselves down by 10 points but got out of the hole just as quickly thanks to Mahomes magic. These Chiefs’ are damn fun to watch but not much fun to defend.
Who are the San Francisco 49ers?
We’ve heard a bit already about San Fran’s history but the most interesting thing about this team is how quickly the 49ers have become a force again, from being the worst performed franchise over three years.
The 49ers ownership made the courageous call at the end of the 2016 season to hire first time head coach Kyle Shanahan and pair him with first time General Manager John Lynch, who was a well respected commentator at the time. Not only did they pair two rookies up to lead the franchise, the 49ers gave both six year contracts to give them time to rebuild a playing list that was in total decay. After winning the last five games of their first season in 2017 on the back of a midseason trade for franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (Tom Brady’s understudy at New England), the Niners won just four games last season after a season ending knee injury for Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 3 (vs the Chiefs.)
Being so poor gave the Niners the second pick in the draft and with Arizona Cardinals needing a quarterback at pick No.1, the 49ers were lucky enough to pick up the likely defensive rookie of the year, lineman Nick Bosa. The impact of Bosa on the 49ers defence has been massive, especially when combined with the acquisition of another star defensive lineman Dee Ford (yes, the same one who committed the penalty FOR the Chiefs last year) and the Niners two existing 1st Round lineman who had been drafted a few seasons before the arrival of Lynch and Shanahan.
The 49ers played in the strongest division in the NFL this season, with the Seattle Seahawks coming within two inches of winning the NFC West in the season finale versus the 49ers. Had that ball crossed the plane of the goal line SF would have been the NFC’s 5th seed, not the 1st and instead of playing two home games to make the Super Bowl, they would have needed to win three road games to get to the Big Dance.
The 49ers are built around the best pass rush in football and the brilliant play calling of head coach Kyle Shanahan. In their two playoff games against the Packers and Vikings, the 49ers dominated with a run game that their opponents couldn’t stop. So the Niners kept on pounding the ball on the ground and barely asked Jimmy Garoppolo to throw. This low risk domination led to two blowouts in their playoff games but a perceived and undeserved reservation on the confidence Shanahan has in his quarterback.
The numbers are interesting when comparing the Chiefs and Niners. (The numbers mentioned are regular season stats unless otherwised mentioned.)
The Niners have the 2nd ranked offence on points and 7th ranked defence, the Chiefs the 5th ranked offence and 6th ranked defence. The points per game for and against both teams are remarkably close; SF: 29.9 & 19.4 compared to KC: 28.2 & 19.3.
Due to the brilliance of Mahomes, the Chiefs are a pass-heavy offence team, ranked 5th for passing and 23rd for running yards gained. Interestingly none of the four teams ranked above the Chiefs in passing yards made the playoffs but all of the Top 4 rushing sides did. The 49ers ranked 2nd for rushing and 13th for passing. The balance on offence for the 49ers makes them harder to predict for opposition defences than the Chiefs but not any more dangerous. Despite every defence knowing the Chiefs are gonna throw most of the time, Andy Reid has designed an offence that is still hard to predict and even harder to stop. Having Mahomes throwing the ball to lightning quick receivers and a superstar tight end (Travis Kelce) certainly helps. The 49ers have had games where they have rushed for under 50 yards and won and thrown for under 80 and won so it’s likely the Niners will try to move the ball with a combination of ground and air plays in their opening drives to see what works and continue to attack with that.
The No.2 ranked 49ers are awesome on defence, ranked 1st for pass defence but 17th for run defence. The No.6 ranked Chiefs are only ranked 8th for pass defence and 25th for run defence, the classic bend but don’t break defence. This is where the 49ers hold the statistical edge in this game. Both sides have highly ranked offences but the 49ers clear strength is in running plays against the Chiefs clear weakness for teams rushing against them. The 49ers have already had their way with two defences that couldn’t stop the run in the playoffs so far, will it happen again to the Chiefs?
To counter that fear, Kansas City’s big statistical weakness against the run appeared ready to be exploited by the awesome running beast that is Derek Henry of the Titans last week. Coming off the best pair of games for running yards ever in the playoffs, the Chiefs were able to minimise his contribution so Steve Spagnuolo has lifted his defensive unit when it matters in the playoffs.
To stop Mahomes and win the game, San Francisco will need to give the touchdown machine minimal time to throw and have to prevent him running for chunks of ground, this is where the four first round picks the Niners have upfront arguably hold the key to this Super Bowl. If Deforest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa can get to Mahomes quickly enough to stop him escaping the pocket too often, and on crucial 3rd downs the Chiefs don’t appear to have a plan B. But how likely are they to get to Mahomes?
The 49ers have an NFL high 57 sacks this season (including playoffs) and the "Big 4" have 40 of those sacks! They are the 7th team in the last 15 seasons to reach a Super Bowl with more than 55 sacks. The previous six all won.
The Chiefs offensive line’s ability to protect Mahomes is the biggest factor in this game. If the best player on the field doesn’t have time to weave his magic the Chiefs do not seem to have the other weapons to score heavily enough or keep the 49ers offence off the field enough to win.
The Big Names
Sometimes it's the players as much as the teams that make the game. This game has so many fascinating players, many of them the elite in their position in the game.
Patrick Mahomes: There is Mahomes and then daylight to the next best player in this game. Mahomes can throw balls no other quarterback can throw and makes so few mistakes that it’s virtually impossible to create interceptions from his throws. Mahomes was the MVP of last season and his charisma, skill and media savvy make him the face of the new generation of the NFL. It’s not hype with Mahomes either. His win record and highlight reel on throws and scrambles is unique and means this game, like every game he plays in, rests in his hands (and legs).
Tyreek Hill: Andy Reid has built the fastest offence imaginable to maximise his QB’s skills and Hill is the key speed weapon for Mahomes. Hill averages almost 15 yards per catch making him the most effective receiver on the team.
Travis Kelce (KC) & George Kittle (SF): The first of 2twopairs of key players who play similar positions. Kittle and Kelce are the two best tight ends in the game. Kittle broke the yards catching season record last season with 1377 yards and Kelce has had over 1200 yards this year. When it’s third down and 5+ yards need to be made, look for the ball to be thrown to these two. Kittle is renowned for breaking tackles and his ability to pick up yards after the catch and Kelce for his contest catching.
Frank Clark & Chris Jones are KC’s two defensive lineman who have the job of pressuring Jimmy Garoppolo to help take away the 49ers passing game. Garoppolo is seen as suspect under pressure and many of his 14 interceptions this season have come from pressure throws. Garoppolo has many weapons to throw to but needs time to find them. Clark and Jones are key to applying the pressure needed to force errors from Jimmy G.
Mitchell Schwartz is not a big name but he’s gun offensive lineman whose job it will be to keep the "Big 4" of the 49ers defence at bay. If Schwartz is beaten, the pressure on Patrick Mahomes will be huge.
Tyrann Mathieu (KC) and Richard Sherman (SF): Two of the games’ best defensive players and captains of the defence for both teams, both are outspoken and play the game with smarts far beyond most. Both had great careers with other sides, Sherman a Super Bowl champ with the Seahawks, and have had a massive positive impact on their new teams in the last two seasons. Teams often avoid throwing to Sherman’s side of the field while Mathieu appears all over the defence reading the game like few others, breaking up pass and run plays.
Jimmy Garoppolo: The 49ers quarterback is a much talked about figure but not in the same way as Mahomes. Jimmy G is loved by his teammates and has had some stellar games and clutch drives for the Niners this year but is still prone to errant throws and is at his best throwing shorter passes to his group of brutal receivers, Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel (great name hey) and letting them make yards with their legs.
Kyle Shanahan: San Francisco’s coach is seen as the games’ best offensive play caller. Shanahan is the son of Super Bowl winning coach Mike and grew up in the locker rooms of winning NFL teams. Destined to be an NFL coach, his ability to design the most varied offensive in the NFL is his trademark. Shanahan’s claim to ‘fame’ before leading this team to the Super Bowl was to be the offensive co-ordinator of the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Shanahan is the guy who called the plays that took the Falcons from a 28-3 lead over the Patriots (of course) with 17 minutes left to a 34-28 overtime loss!!
Raheem Mostert/Tevan Coleman/Matt Breida: If the 49ers are going to win they will run the ball 30+ times. If they do you will hear the names of Mostert and possibly Coleman a lot. Mostert ran for 220 yards last week, the second highest in playoff history and his speed will be causing Chiefs defensive co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo many headaches. Watch the Niners find many ways to get him the ball through tosses and reverses.
Mitch Wishnowsky is the games’ Aussie connection. The West Australian second year punter for the 49ers has had a great season and if all goes to plan for the Niners he will be invisible! But he’s only the second Aussie to play in the big dance and is looking to be the first Aussie to have a Super Bowl ring.
How the Chiefs win
Kansas City has the one weapon you would want to take into a Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes. Having the superstar ensures the Chiefs will score plenty of points, they will also often score fast and in runs of points.
The Niners have a habit of giving up runs of scores and if that trend follows, the game will blow out into a high scoring affair. The higher the score, the better for the Chiefs.
Mahomes' innate ability to find his bevy of quality receivers on both clean and broken plays makes it likely the Chiefs score off some big plays at some point. The speed of the Chiefs receivers will prove decisive if Mahomes has time to throw. It’s almost impossible to keep up with Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins deep down the field and the chunk yards gained on those plays will generate enough score to take away the 49ers running game and force them to rely on Garoppolo’s arm.
If the Chiefs can land a few of these blows on the scoreboard early, it’s hard to see the 49ers finding a way back. If the game is close and Mahomes is driving for the win, the games’ best player will get the job done.
How the 49ers win
The Niners are most balanced team in football. Their defence is a mix of the fastest and most physical players in the game and their offensive, starting with the offensive line, is by far the most physical group in football. No team breaks tackles like the Niners and none gets to the quarterback faster or more often the Niners.
The 49ers can move the ball in their air or on the ground with the best array of tricks in the game. The 49ers use motion on nearly 80% of plays, easily the most in the NFL. (Motion is the use of players moving from one position to another behind the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. Motion creates the look of one play while actually running another.) The Niners brilliant use of motion will be a huge test for the Chiefs defence.
The Niners will know that the best way to beat Mohomes is to keep him off the field so will be trying to dominate the time of possession and score on long drives, based around running the ball and short throws designed to both wear defence down and keep Mahomes in the only place he can’t hurt the Niners.
If the 49ers can dominate on the ground, they are very likely to win.
This is a game of brilliant contrasts. Both sides are lightning fast but the Niners use their speed with the ball in hand and to get to the quarterback and Chiefs use their speed to get receivers open and receive brilliant passes from their genius QB.
The Chiefs have the games’ biggest star in Mahomes and the most loved (but flawed genius) Coach Reid. KC appeared to be on the path to glory last season and one year later look to be even better equipped to break the 50 year Kansas City drought.
The achievement of Shanahan and GM John Lynch to take San Francisco from the second worst team in football to the Super Bowl in a season is remarkable. The 49ers have won 11 more games than last season.
It’s hard to see how the game doesn’t have plenty of scoring, some brilliant chunk plays and some scorching defence, what more could you ask for?!
Well... I’m asking and hoping (and maybe even praying) for a 49ers win but I fear Mahomes will score last for a KC victory!