Super Sunday could be decided by an unsung hero or an under-the-radar statistic
The San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs will meet Sunday in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, for Super Bowl LIV to conclude the NFL's 100th season. The 49ers are making their first Super Bowl appearance in seven years, and they're seeking their first Lombardi Trophy in 15 years which would tie them with both the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots for the most titles (6). The Chiefs, on the other hand, are making their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years (they won Super Bowl IV).
Of course, there are plenty of intriguing storylines for this game such as the battle of the quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes vs. Jimmy Garoppolo), the chess match between the coaches (Andy Reid vs. Kyle Shanahan), and the showcase of the tight ends (Travis Kelce vs. George Kittle). But there could be a relatively unknown or overlooked statistic that decides this game.
The Super Bowl has a history of taking under-the-radar players and making them stars. Not every x-factor comes into the game as a focus. The Super Bowl has had unsung heroes before, and we could see one again this year. Here are five x-factors that could ultimately decide this game.
Offenisve line play
The five men up front for both teams don't get too much of the spotlight during the course of a season, but Sunday's game will start and finish with the boys in the trenches. The Chiefs' O-line has had a relatively clean this postseason, as Patrick Mahomes (721 total yards, 9 combined touchdowns in playoffs) has only been sacked twice, both of which came against Tennessee in the AFC Championship Game. Before that, they had only allowed one total sack in their previous three regular games. And while the Chiefs have employed a running-back-by-committee approach due to injuries this season, they still managed to post 230 rushing yards, score four touchdowns, and average 4.8 yards per attempt in January. Come Sunday, they'll be tasked with holding off a Niners defense that has collected a playoff-best nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss (Nick Bosa has accounted for three of each), and have outscored their playoff opponents 64-30.
The 49ers have also done a solid job up front as well. Jimmy Garoppolo has only been sacked three times this postseason, and the lack of pressure from opposing teams is the prime reason why he's completing 63 percent of his playoff passes. San Francisco's run game — more on that shortly — has also benefited from strong line play, as they lead the NFL in postseason rushing (235.5 ypg). Pressure and gap control will be key for both defenses against these sellar offensive lines.
49ers RB Raheem Mostert
Mostert bounced between six teams in a 14-month span before finding a home in the Bay Area a couple of seasons ago. During the regular season, Mostert ran for just 772 yards while sharing the load with Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman. During this playoff run, however, Mostert has put himself in the Niners' record book and for good reason. He plowed through the rugged Packers defense to the tune of 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries in the NFC Championship Game victory two weeks ago. He averaged 7.6 yards per attempt in that game, and he takes a lot of pressure off of Jimmy Garoppolo. It would not be surprising if Garoppolo hands the ball off to Mostert early and often on Sunday, as sometimes the best way to neutralize the Chiefs' offense is by keeping the unit off the field.
Chiefs safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen
While the Kansas City front seven gets the majority of the attention on defense, these two have been quietly enforcing the back end of this unit. Together they have combined for 29 postseason tackles, two for a loss, and four pass deflections. Sorenson also has a forced fumble to his credit, while the "Honey Badger" was voted first-team All-Pro for his work during the regular season. Both men overcame tough tests from the Texas and Titans, but now they'll face their toughest test of the season against the 49ers and their multi-talented offense.
49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk
Don't let the fact that he has yet to show up on a box score in these playoffs fool you, Juszczyk could be the wild card in this game. During this run to the Super Bowl, No. 44 has been mainly blocking for Mostert. But Juszczyk is a jack of all trades on this team. He can run the ball on occasion (93 career rushing yards), he's a solid pass catcher out of the backfield (878 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns in a 49ers uniform), he can obviously run block, he can also be used in pass protection, and he even contributes on special teams.
His versatile skill set has given him staying power in a time in which most teams have abandoned the fullback position at all levels of football. He's the definition of a fullback in today's game, and if head coach Kyle Shanahan decides to fully unleash him this Sunday, then the Chiefs need to know where he is at all times.
Which run defense will bend first?
So not only do the 49ers rank first among postseason teams in sacks (9) and takeaways (5), they also boast the top run defense (41.5 ypg). The Chiefs are third in this category (89.5 ypg), and both teams have had their moments against some of the top backs in this game. The 49ers held both Minnesota's Dalvin Cook and Green Bay's Aaron Jones to a combined 74 yards, while the Chiefs held both Houston's Carlos Hyde and Tennessee's Derrick Henry to fewer than four yards per carry. Their success against Henry — who only picked up 69 yards on 19 carries in the AFC title game — was a major accomplishment considering that he exploded for 1,273 yards in his previous eight games, a record-setting stretch that was capped off by 182 yards against the Patriots and 195 yards against the Ravens in the playoffs.
No doubt that the Chiefs will have their hands full with the 49ers' ground game. But while Kansas City is only averaging 115.0 rushing yards per playoff game, Mahomes is leading the way through both the air and on the ground (106 yards, TD, 7.1 ypc), and his mobility and elusiveness have kept drives alive for his team. NFL history has shown us that whichever team runs the ball successfully usually wins the game. Run defense will be the biggest challenge for both teams.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.