It is in the record books. Super Bowl LIV. San Francisco 49ers 20 – 31 Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs first Super Bowl win in 50 years, and the second in their franchise history in the NFL. Before kick off the common consensus was this could be a coin flip game versus the best all round team (49ers) and the team with probably the most exciting player on offense (Chiefs, QB Pat Mahomes). Talking points aplenty as the Chiefs lifted the Lombardi Trophy, here are my takeaways.
Two Key 4th Qtr Moments
Pat Mahomes had just thrown his second INT of the game (on back-to-back drives). The 49ers were approaching midfield and Jimmy Garoppolo had completed 9 of his previous 10 passes for 106 yards. One more clock-chewing drive resulting in a TD (or even a FG) could have all but sealed the title for the 49ers. It was 2nd and 9, play-action called, the Chiefs brought pressure but Jimmy G had Deebo Samuel open for a first down on a slant route – and he sailed it way over Samuel’s head with way too much juice. The throw had to be made. That was followed by an offside penalty and a long 3rd down not made. The ensuing punt gave the Chiefs the ball and Pat Mahomes the time to craft the comeback.
At this point the 49ers were nursing a 10-point lead and had the Chiefs 3rd and 15 at their own 35 yard line. Andy Reid and Pat Mahomes went for broke as Tyreek Hill was found all alone to move deep into San Francisco territory. Until this play the Niners defense had taken away the vertical threat of the Chiefs through a combination of their superior pass rush and a well-disciplined secondary playing cautiously deep off the Chiefs receivers. Then the 49ers secondary gave Pat Mahomes the smallest of opportunities and he took full advantage. The problem with playing the Chiefs is you have to defend for the full 60 minutes, in the first 54 minutes of the Super Bowl the 49ers gave up 10 points – then in the last 6 minutes they gave up 21 points.
Following the completion to Tyreek Hill the Niners secondary gave up a defensive pass interference call placed at the 1-yard line. when Tavarius Moore found himself all alone and unable to compete against Travis Kelce (a rare Robert Saleh mistake in defensive playcalling resulting in the mismatch opportunity for Kansas City). Throw in Richard Sherman getting beat by Sammy Watkins for 38 yards on the Chiefs next drive and the tide had truly turned.
After looking completely broken just minutes before, the Chiefs O-line regrouped and chipped away at Nick Bosa and company to give Pat Mahomes just enough time to torch a secondary which imploded in the last 6 minutes of the game.
The Truck and the Trailer
On the Move the Sticks podcast Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks have described how QBs can either be a ‘truck’ (they have the ability to lead or even drag their team with them – they can put the team on their back) or a ‘trailer’ where the QB is more of a game manager, using the sum of the parts available to him to craft the offense. Super Bowl LIV was a match up of a truck (Mahomes) versus a trailer (Garoppolo). Their stat lines were:
Pat Mahomes 26/42 286 yards 2 TD 2 INT (Rating 78.1)
Jimmy Garoppolo 20/31 219 yards 1 TD 2 INT (Rating 69.2)
Neither would state they had their best game. Mahomes’ award of MVP shows unmistakable QB bias. For 3 and a half quarters he had looked decidedly ordinary with no vertical threat options to find. Jimmy G had been steady early on if unspectacular but hit stride during the 3rd quarter as the 49ers stretched into the lead. Both had thrown jarring interceptions which could have had serious consequences for either side. Both had trouble putting the ball ‘on the money’ with incompletions and failing to hit receivers in stride, denying much by way of yards after catch.
However, in that 4th quarter Mahomes got hot and Garoppolo went cold. In the go-ahead drive Mahomes went 5 of 5 while Jimmy G could not answer throwing 3 straight incompletions, including missing an open Emmanuel Sanders which would have resulted in a TD and a Niners 27-24 lead with 1:30 to go (how interesting a finale could that have been!). The truck stepped up and put the Chiefs on his back, the trailer could not respond. Other throws were missed, targets not seen by Jimmy G as he failed to work effectively through his progressions on certain key plays.
The defeat is not on the QB alone, not by any means, but the result (and the Chiefs playoff run more widely) demonstrated that if you have a truck at QB you are always in the game. If you have a trailer you cannot count on him to be able to go toe-to-toe.
The Fear Factor?
A lot will be made of Niners Head Coach Kyle Shanahan’s Super Bowl woes. OC when the Atlanta Falcons were 28-3 up and now HC with the 49ers in a 10-point lead late in the 4th quarter – and no rings to show for it. He is a brilliant Head Coach and in tandem with the leadership from GM John Lynch the San Francisco 49ers are back in contention and primed for a period of sustained success in the NFL.
In the big game though there were a couple of head-scratching moments that pointed to a lack of faith in the offense, and a fear of Pat Mahomes and his capabilities (or at least a too healthy respect). Approaching half time the Chiefs were forced to punt. If the 49ers had called the first of their three time outs they would then have had around 1:50 and 2 time outs to at least take a 3-point lead into the half. Instead they let the clock wind down in order to have 0:59 and 3 time outs. Admittedly it was a 50:50 (or maybe 60:40) offensive pass interference call against George Kittle which killed the drive but with the extra minute they could have still made FG range. It simply smacked of being scared to give Mahomes the ball back before half time as opposed to backing your offense to score and bleed the clock (something they have done all season).
The 49ers also chose to kick a FG on the opening drive of the 3rd quarter when 4th and 2 at KC 24. The Chiefs had no such issue with going for it, twice completing similar short yardage 4th downs in order to accrue their early 10-3 lead. Andy Reid backed his offense in key situations, Kyle Shanahan strangely did not. The Niners had had their way with NFC opponents through their stress free playoff run, not being tested in sudden death competition whereas the Chiefs had been, at times, flying by the seat of their pants since the first half versus the Houston Texans.
Defenses do win Championships (just sometimes it is not the best ones)
Steve Spagnuolo has done a tremendous job with the Kansas City Chiefs defense. It is by no means the best in the league, or anywhere near. But ‘Spags’ has a habit of getting his D to play its toughest football in the most high pressure situations (as he did previously with the Giants SBXLVI run). It was reminiscent of the ‘bend but don’t break’ principle. They gave up yards and points but they kept the 49ers within touching distance. Then when they needed to in the 4th Qtr the D stepped up. Spags knew what was on the line and his D brought the pressure, stifling the run and blitzing Jimmy G. The 49ers went punt, punt, turnover on downs, INT in the 4th quarter. The D had done enough.
Mention must also go to the 49ers defense and Robert Salah, which for all but the last 6 minutes was imperious against the Chiefs. The vertical threat had been taken away and the pass rush increasingly homed in on their target – the Chiefs #15. By the end of the 3rd quarter the offensive line’s attempt at a QB pocket had degraded away to nothing. Mahomes was scrambling almost every play – the only way he managed to gain most of his positive yardage at that point was on the run. The 49ers D is now an established top-5 unit in the NFL and it should continue to be so.
This was a great game and a great way to end the NFL’s 100th season. It was a pleasure to watch (probably) the 2 best teams in the league go 12 rounds with the momentum swinging back and forth.
Why did the Kansas City Chiefs win? I’d say that ultimately they stuck to their game plan to a greater degree whereas the 49ers let their concerns relating to the explosive nature of the Mahomes-led offense seep into their own offensive playcalling. And then guess what did for them…
It was fascinating from an X’s and O’s perspective to watch Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan trade blows throughout. Their was great play-design, particularly early on before the pressure grew. At the end when, to an extent the playbook goes out of the window, it was the truck able to adapt, improvise and go off-road whereas the trailer could not change direction.
Roll on the NFL Combine and the 2020 Draft!