Super Bowl LIV is as evenly matched as it gets, as the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers have ran over their opponents en route to the big game.
It’s worth examining how these teams stack up on a position-by-position basis, so we can see where one team may gain an advantage over another in trying to lift the Lombardi Trophy.
Here’s the tale of the tape.
With all due respect to Jimmy Garoppolo, there’s not a whole lot worth discussing. It’s unfair to label Garoppolo as a mere game manager because he’s been great when called upon. He’s not even close to the same stratospheric tier Mahomes is in, a class that only features him and unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson at the moment. Mahomes has been the NFL’s best player in the playoffs and is looking to cap off a dominant run on Sunday.
Edge: Chiefs by significant margin
It’s not even so much that Raheem Mostert is a much better back than Damien Williams as it is the 49ers’ run game being an unstoppable force by design. 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk lines up all over the place prior to the snap in order to open massive holes for Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Brieda, while George Kittle absolutely destroys opponents as a run blocker, pass blocker, and a receiver.
Let’s not gloss over Mostert’s performance in the NFC Championship Game, where he rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries. He’s playing the best ball of his career and the 49ers’ offensive game plan allows him to thrive as a runner, where the Chiefs only opt to run the ball as a last-ditch avenue.
Edge: 49ers by significant margin
Kansas City’s vertical passing game is what makes this team so exciting and Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman might be the fastest trio in the league. The Chiefs are obsessed with speed and will try to turn this game into a track meet, facing off against the best defense they’ve seen all season.
San Francisco doesn’t have the high-end star power, though its trade for Emmanuel Sanders proved to be astute, giving the team another downfield weapon. Deebo Samuel is quickly becoming one of the NFL’s most physical wide receivers in the league and can overpower smaller cornerbacks and safeties, opening up some of the 49ers’ quick strikes.
It’s closer than expected but ultimately the Chiefs’ top-end talent here wins out.
This could be one of the matchups that decides the game. George Kittle and Travis Kelce are the two best tight ends in the NFL and will play significant roles on Sunday. Kelce finished with 1,229 receiving yards - the 4th-best mark in the NFL - to go along with five touchdowns. At his best, Kelce elevates the ceiling of the Chiefs’ elite passing attack and can take over games by himself, as we saw against during their 51-31 victory over the Texans. Deploying a linebacker against him could prove to be a fatal move.
On the other hand, Kittle recorded 85 receptions for 1,053 yards and proved capable of exploding for huge plays after the catch, even while playing through injury. Kittle is the 49ers’ most dynamic receiver but unlike Kelce, he can have a huge game without touching the ball. The 26-year-old is the best blocking tight end in the league and will open up other opportunities for Mostert in the run game, while freeing up Sanders and Samuel in the passing game. It’s an even matchup because of Kelce’s offensive ceiling, but Kittle can do it all.
Edge: 49ers by slight edge
San Francisco’s offensive has been nothing short of brilliant throughout the regular season and appears to be peaking through the playoffs. Joe Staley - the lone holdover from the 2012 Super Bowl finalist - has been excellent in pass protection, while right tackle Mike McGlinchey is absolutely destroying opponents in the run game, getting to the second level with relative ease. Laken Tomlinson was a first-round pick in 2015 and has made the Lions look silly for casting him off, working in tandem with Staley to give Garoppolo ample time in the pocket.
If you consider Kittle to be an additional member of the offensive line, then the 49ers’ elite blocking will be on full display Sunday.
Kansas City’s offensive line is nothing to laugh at, but there is an imbalance on the left side. Former first overall pick Eric Fisher isn’t quite a bust, but he’ll likely be overmatched by Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa, while center Austin Reiter doesn’t inspire confidence. Canadian Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mitchell Schwartz form a formidable right side, however, and have allowed Mahomes to work his magic during his tenure with the club.
These are both good units, but the 49ers have been on a different level during the playoffs, mauling numerous Packers off the screen, and could do so again to establish their game plan Sunday.
The 49ers’ defensive line is the strength of their team. By now, you may have heard that the team boasts five former first-round picks, with Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and to a lesser degree, Soloman Thomas, wreaking havoc all season long. San Francisco finished second in overall defense and in pass rush by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and this will be the toughest test Kansas City faces all season.
Tanoh Kpassagnon played the game of his life in the AFC Championship Game, registering two sacks, while Chris Jones and Frank Clark are known quantities at this point, capable of wrecking games by themselves. Kansas City finished 14th in defensive DVOA and sixth in pass rush DVOA during the 2019 season, which aren’t totals to sneeze at.
Ultimately, San Francisco has more weapons firing on all cylinders, while Jones and Clark provide top-end star power.
Edge: 49ers by slight edge
Fred Warner is quickly turning into one of the NFL’s most well-rounded linebackers and this might be his chance to turn into a household name, likely tasked with shadowing Travis Kelce in the pass game while keeping an eye on Mahomes’ tendency for improvisational magic. Dre Greenlaw’s on-off splits have been largely awful, but he essentially saved his team’s season in Week 17 against Seattle and is great laterally, while Kwon Alexander couldn’t have returned from injury at a better time.
Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson lead Kansas City’s functional, if uninspiring group and they haven’t been asked to do a tonne, with their front four leading the charge all season. It’ll be compelling to see how Hitchens commandeers the defense against a San Francisco team that motions their fullback and tight end constantly.
Richard Sherman has playing some of the best football of his legendary career, holding opposing quarterbacks to a ghastly 36.4 passer rating allowed, earning second-team All-Pro honours, and could’ve potentially unseated Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White or Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Sherman famously only covers one side of the field, but Emmanuel Moseley and K’Waun Williams have stepped in admirably throughout the year, while the hard-hitting Jimmie Ward is the last person you want to see coming across the field.
Kendall Fuller and Bashaun Breeland are fine cornerbacks, but the gem here is Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu does it all for the Chiefs, and is best deployed as a box linebacker, causing quarterbacks to think twice as he dares to join the rush. The man once best known as “Honey Badger” almost mitigates the difference in talent between two units but like Sherman, he is just one man.
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