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.
"We love the challenge," 49ers defensive end DeForest Buckner told the Miami Herald. "To be the best, we've got to beat the best. That's the challenge that we love to see. If you're in this game and think it's going to be a walk in the park, this isn't the game for you. You've got to love the challenge. We have the guys in the room to do it."
2. Kansas City's Rushing Defense vs. Raheem Mostert and Co.
The Chiefs will have to deal with Mostert, brimming with confidence after a historic performance. Their defense was just 26th in the NFL against the run this season after allowing 126.8 yards per game. The 49ers are 5-1 when they have a player rush for more than 100 yards. Plus, keep in mind the only reason Mostert got his chance is because Tevin Coleman separated his shoulder the previous week against the Vikings. If Coleman is able to play Super Bowl Sunday? It's a 1-2 rushing attack that has burned opposing defenses during this short postseason at a historic rate.
And yet. This team appeared to find something in their postseason games, limiting the great Derrick Henry to 69 yards in the AFC Championship Game. After allowing a season-high 162 rushing yards in their regular-season finale against the Chargers, they've held their two postseason opponents to 94 and 85 yards, respectively.
"We were playing with swagger before [stopping Henry] and played with swagger after," Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark said this week. "[Henry] was just another player. He had to pay rent. Everybody has to pay rent."
Confidence, of course, can only go so far. The defense would be helped by some quick strikes by the Chiefs early; even so, don’t expect the 49ers to abandon the run at any point. It's what got them here.
3. Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers' Secret Weapon in the Passing Game: George Kittle
Make no mistake: Garoppolo is still a vital part of the 49ers offense. And if the run gets taken away, or if the 49ers fall behind early, they’ll be looking to him to spark a passing attack that may have the best tight end post-Rob Gronkowski.
Indeed, this Super Bowl may be a moment where we find out just how close George Kittle is to surpassing Travis Kelce as the best active tight end in the game.
Sure, Kelce busted through the Texans defense to pile up 134 yards and three touchdowns against the Texans two weeks ago. But a closer look at the last six games of the regular season, once Kittle returned from injury, shows the 49ers' tight end making his case.
(Last 6 Games, Regular Season)
Keep in mind that Kittle pulled this off with a variety of ailments, including a torn labrum he claimed he’s had since 2018 on Barstool Sports' Pardon My Take podcast. No one since Gronkowski has found a way to break away, even with the double team or tight coverage that Kittle often gets.
And as for Garoppolo himself? With that low postseason yardage, people forget the reason he was so highly coveted in the first place. The 28-year-old finished eighth in the league in passer rating (102.0), third in yards per attempt (8.4) and tied for fifth in touchdowns (27). That's not a stat line of a guy a team is trying to hide behind a rushing attack.
"We won 48-46 in New Orleans," Kittle said to reporters this week. "I think that classifies as a shootout. He had two back-to-back 3rd-and-16s to beat the Rams. I think he threw the ball pretty well against Seattle to clinch home-field advantage. So yeah, people can keep doubting him, I guess. I'm not going to. I don't bet against really good players."
X-Factor: Super Bowl Demons From The Sideline
So much has been written about Andy Reid, the winningest coach in NFL history to not have a league championship. The six coaches above him on the list have an average of almost five; none of them have less than two.
Sunday will mark Reid's second Super Bowl appearance; the first was an unmitigated disaster. His former team, the Eagles, lost 24-21 to the Patriots in a game they trailed in the fourth quarter with zero sense of urgency. No one will forget the leisurely way in which quarterback Donovan McNabb handled a late two-minute drill, draining the clock by almost four minutes in a 13-play drive that erased any chance of a comeback.
Can Reid's poor clock management history be put behind him? As recently as 2017, he was blamed for a series of gaffes that cost the Chiefs in a 22-21 Wild Card playoff loss to Tennessee. In a way, it feels like the stars lined up for Reid in this playoff run; No Patriots, an AFC Championship at home despite the No. 2 seed, favorable matchups against what was arguably the conference's weakest division (AFC South). It's hard to say that if Reid can't do it now, he won't get another chance because of the youth of the Chiefs' core players. But it's certainly his best opportunity to date.
On the flip side, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has an opportunity to atone for his historic defeat as the Falcons' offensive coordinator. After building a 28-3 lead in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, Shanahan watched the offense fall apart in the fourth quarter as the Patriots were able to tie it, then win the game in overtime 34-28. The missteps included a loss of 23 yards after the Falcons got to the Patriots 22 with 4:40 left in the game, up eight and seemingly in position to kick a field goal that would ice the game. Instead, two questionable decisions led to sacks on passing plays, choices that ultimately undid the Falcons when a few simple runs up the middle would have probably iced it.
Both men feel the pain of those moments; only one will get to rewrite their personal narrative on Sunday night.
The 49ers' defense ended the year second in the NFL in total yards, led the league in passing defense, and allowed just 19.4 points per game. They were back to their winning ways in the postseason, allowing 10 and 20 points, respectively.
But the Chiefs' potent offense reminds me of the best NFL game of the regular season: 49ers-Saints. And for all the great defensive plays made that day, on both sides, the end result was a 48-46 shootout that helped put the 49ers in this position. (They would have been the No. 5 seed and played three straight road games in the playoffs with a loss.)
I suspect another offensive shootout here, one that comes down to who has the ball last. The Chiefs are going to find a way to score; Mahomes makes sure of that. And the 49ers have had no problem scoring themselves, putting up 26 points or more against quality competition in five of their last six contests.
It all adds up to a coin flip Super Bowl, one where a simple turnover or whoever has the ball last will make a difference. Isn't that the pendulum swing the NFL deserves after last year’s Patriots-Rams snoozefest? What a fitting way to end the 100th season, armed with a historic Super Bowl fireworks show offensively that's destined to go down to the final seconds.
Athlon Editors' Super Bowl 54 Predictions
AthlonSports.com NFL/Fantasy Contributors' Super Bowl 54 Predictions
— Preview written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.