Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024 | 2 a.m.
Today, Kansas City goes for its third Lombardi Trophy in five years and fourth in franchise history while San Francisco hunts for its sixth overall and first since the 1994-1995 season. This might be a nightmare matchup for the hometown Raiders, as their biggest rivals from each conference square off for a championship — but it’s a dream for the NFL. Although both teams have endured their share of ups and downs this season, it doesn’t get much better than this matchup from a starpower perspective.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a two-time regular season and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award winner, came into the year as the undisputed face of the league but he’s arguably been eclipsed by his top target, tight end Travis Kelce. The relationship between Kelce and pop star Taylor Swift has sent interest in the NFL soaring all season and could contribute to Super Bowl 58 being the most watched of all-time.
San Francisco doesn’t have anyone as ubiquitous as Mahomes or Kelce, but it’s stacked with standouts across the field including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Christian McCaffrey, receiver Deebo Samuel, left tackle Trent Williams, tight end George Kittle, edge rusher Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner. There’s a reason the betting market labeled these two teams as the favorites to reach this game as soon as futures odds posted a year ago.
This marks the first time since Super Bowl 49 between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks that the two preseason favorites ultimately made it to the big game.
• Who: 49ers (14-5) vs. Chiefs (14-6)
• When: 3:30 p.m.
• Where: Allegiant Stadium
• TV: CBS
• Radio: Westwood One Radio
• Betting line: 49ers -2, over/under: 47.5
49ers’ favorable matchup: McCaffrey vs. Chiefs’ rushing defense
The eighth-year veteran running back has been the most consistent weapon in the NFL all season, leading the league with 2,023 yards from scrimmage and 21 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns. And McCaffrey’s dual-threat ability looks tailor made to give the Chiefs fits. Kansas City was mediocre in both defending the run and covering running backs in the passing game throughout the season. In fairness, the Chiefs bottled up McCaffrey in his first game with the 49ers last season as part of a 44-23 victory after he was traded from the Carolina Panthers. McCaffrey wasn’t fully integrated in the offense yet, however, and produced at an efficient clip despite a small workload (64 yards on 10 touches). San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has since built a large part of his offense around McCaffrey, whom the coach has known since he was 2 years old. The relationship between Shanahan and McCaffrey has Super Bowl origins, as they first met each other when their fathers were a part of the back-to-back Denver Broncos championship teams in the late 1990s — Mike Shanahan was the coach while Ed McCaffrey was a Pro-Bowl receiver.
Chiefs’ favorable matchup: Mahomes vs. 49ers’ defensive mental miscues
Sometimes the obvious choice is the only choice. If Kansas City is going to upset San Francisco, it’s likely going to take a superhuman effort from the best football player in the world. But Mahomes has made such superhuman efforts look commonplace, especially in the playoffs. He’s 14-3 in the postseason in his young career with some of the best statistical production of all-time. He’s willed the Chiefs to the Super Bowl this year despite a No. 3 seed — the lowest they’ve ever been under Mahomes — with a trio of games where he’s completed 68% of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Mahomes has also only taken two sacks in the postseason. Meanwhile, missed gap assignments up front and busted coverages in the back are the biggest reason why the 49ers needed to rally to beat both the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions in the NFC Playoffs, where they were the runaway top seed. If those problems persist, Mahomes will make the 49ers pay with his one-of-a-kind playmaking ability.
“His dad was my hero. I cut my shoes like him, wore my shoulder pads like him, I had Tourette’s like him, the way he caught a pass and shook his head. I knew all his kids and the way they played tackle football outside the games together and killed each other. Everyone acts like I babysat (Christian), but I didn’t. That was my sister.” -San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, recounting his origins with the McCaffrey family from the 1990s with the Broncos
“They wanted me to stay. I wanted to stay. Coach (Andy) Reid made it pretty clear they wanted me to stay, but they didn’t have the money to compensate me. I had to get my bag. I was young and wasn’t rich yet. I needed my money. The 49ers were a great team, Super Bowl contender and they gave me the bag.” -cornerback Charvarius Ward recounting the free agency two years ago that ended with him leaving the Chiefs for the 49ers
“I think the biggest thing I can do is trust the offense. I’m never going to lose my aggression. I’m going to take chances whenever chances are there, and I think my guys can win.” -Chiefs quarterback Mahomes on his mindset as a passer going into his fourth Super Bowl
“You’ll hear me say this a lot, but I want this one more than I’ve ever wanted a Super Bowl in my life. It’s because of the team we have, the people in this thing but also because that tier of teams that have done it twice have all gone down in history as some of the greats.” -Chiefs tight end Kelce on why this year’s Super Bowl victory would mean more than his first two
49ers’ Gamebreaker: Edge rusher Nick Bosa
The former No. 2 overall draft pick had a relatively quiet year coming off winning the Defensive Player of the Year award last season, dropping from 18.5 sacks in the 2022-23 regular season to 10.5 sacks this year. But the advanced statistics indicated the 26-year-old was as disruptive as ever, and it started coming through in the form of sacks in the NFC Championship Game win against the Lions. Bosa had a pair of sacks in the comeback victory and keyed an improved defensive effort in the second half. Mahomes hasn’t seen an All-Pro-level edge rusher since Week 16 of the regular season, which is perhaps not coincidentally the last time Kansas City lost a game. The Raiders stunned the Chiefs on the road in that contest, with Maxx Crosby helping pave the way to a 20-14 victory for Las Vegas. As if the Kansas City offensive line won’t be focused enough on Bosa, he gave them extra incentive in a news conference. When asked what stood out about the opposing blockers, Bosa responded simply, “they hold a lot.”
Chiefs’ Gamebreaker: Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed
Purdy, the 49ers’ second-year quarterback, was the odds-on favorite to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award going into Week 16, when his candidacy started to unravel. Although bad luck like tipped passes also contributed, the Baltimore Ravens continually confused Purdy and baited him into bad decisions as part of a four-interception game in which they prevailed 33-19. The 49ers’ most recent opponents have tried to implement a similar blueprint and at least found some positive results. Green Bay held Purdy well below his season averages while Detroit managed one interception and dropped two others. If Kansas City has a player most likely to torment Purdy, it’s Sneed, who became one of the best cornerbacks in the league this season. Sneed has only two interceptions on the year but 16 pass breakups, ranking fifth in the NFL. His former teammate, current 49er cornerback Charvarius Ward, leads the league in the category with 23 passes defensed. Ward was on the opposite side the last time these teams faced off in the Super Bowl, in 2020 when the Chiefs won 31-20 months before drafting Sneed in the fourth round out of Louisiana Tech.
Best Bet (14-3 this season): Rashee Rice under 69.5 receiving yards
This is nothing really against the rookie receiver, who’s turned into easily the Chiefs’ best option behind Kelce and has a Pro Bowl-caliber career ahead of him. It’s just that I’m looking for unders in the prop market out of a belief that this game will be slower-paced and run-heavier than expected. Despite all of Rice’s success, he hasn’t eclipsed this number in either of Kansas City’s past two games. And they both featured better matchups for him. San Francisco is the No. 1-ranked team in the NFL defending passes in the middle of the field, per the DVOA ratings, and that’s where Rice typically does most of his work as a slot receiver. Mahomes typically spreads the ball around, and that hasn’t been any different in Super Bowls, with nine different receivers logging targets in last year’s game. That makes it difficult for any single receiver outside of his go-to (Kelce) to dominate the box score.