Super Bowl LIV finishes the NFL's 100th season with a matchup intertwining the league's past and its future. The Kansas City Chiefs are in the big game for the first time in 50 years; they're also one half of the sport's first Super Bowl matchup in 1967 against the Packers. The San Francisco 49ers didn't make their first Super Bowl until 1982 but have won it five times in six tries; no franchise with three or more appearances has a better track record. Only the Cowboys (eight times) have appeared more as the sport’s NFC representative.
Both teams are also jostling to grab the torch and shine on top once again as the sport transitions into a new era. The Patriots aren't battling for the championship for the first time since 2016; instead, it's 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes taking center stage over 42-year-old Tom Brady. The 2019 NFL MVP has a talented set of young skill players around him (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins) just entering their prime as they construct one of the most potent offenses in NFL history. One year after losing a coin flip in the AFC Championship Game — literally — this group is looking to take the next step and deliver head coach Andy Reid the first of what could be several Super Bowl trophies.
The 49ers, meanwhile, still bring the ghost of Brady to this game in the form of his former backup, Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G wasn't asked to do much in the NFC Championship Game, throwing just eight passes for 77 yards as the 49ers throttled the Packers through a dominant rushing attack. But it's the Garoppolo trade that sparked a turnaround for a 49ers franchise that had struggled for parts of the past decade; including the postseason, he's 21-6 since becoming the team's starting quarterback. Garoppolo has brought the winning tradition of the Patriots and a team-first mentality the Patriots have taken to six Super Bowl titles of their own.
This postseason, Raheem Mostert has emerged as a breakout star to complement Garoppolo's offensive weapons, rushing for 220 yards in the NFC Championship Game. The undrafted running back is the only player in NFL history to rush for 200-plus yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game. A repeat performance would almost certainly earn the 49ers their first Super Bowl victory this century after picking up five in a dominant run from 1982-95.
Will the 49ers offense band together with an All-Star defense (Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Nick Bosa) to finally find a way to stop Mahomes' march through opposing defenses? Or will this year be the one the Chiefs and Reid finally overcome decades of near misses and march to the NFL's championship trophy?
The Chiefs and Niners have met 13 times before; San Francisco has a 7-6 edge, but Kansas City has won three of the last four. Since they play in opposite conferences, this is naturally their first postseason meeting.
Super Bowl LIV: San Francisco vs. Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 2 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.)
Spread: Chiefs -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Patrick Mahomes vs. 49ers' Front Four
After a busted kneecap slowed his regular-season romp, Mahomes is back in peak form during a playoff run that's seen him throw for eight touchdowns and no interceptions while producing a 131.5 QB Rating in two games. He brought the team back from a 24-0 early deficit against the Texans, scoring 21 points in a span of 3:24 in the second quarter to inject the confidence needed for the comeback.
Most importantly, Mahomes was turnover-free and sacked just twice in two postseason games for a total loss of just two yards. His feet became the turning point, in fact, in an AFC Championship Game that hung in the balance until his 27-yard touchdown run, after avoiding a sack and multiple tackles in the backfield, catapulted the Chiefs to a 21-17 lead just before halftime. It's been an incredible two-game performance that would have likely earned Mahomes a second straight MVP nod if not for his midseason injury and recovery, enough of a blip to give conference rival Lamar Jackson the edge for the season as a whole.
How do you stop one of the NFL's most intimidating players? Simple. Keep Mahomes from getting out of the pocket. His knee fully healed, he led the Chiefs with 106 rushing yards in the postseason and can turn any play from a 10-yard loss into a touchdown run. You need to send multiple guys after him, put on the pressure early and make the first tackle count.
Easier said than done, right? But if there's any team equipped to at least have a chance, it might be the 49ers. Their defensive line room includes five — count 'em, five — first-round draft picks. The team finished tied for fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks and were sixth with 27 takeaways. That last stat is probably the most important; you need to force Mahomes into the rare turnover that swings the game if it's an offensive shootout. For the defense, it's an understanding you're going to get burned; you have to be able to douse the four-alarm fire just enough when it matters to keep your offense in the game.