The Super Bowl is set. Patrick Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs will face Raheem Mostert's San Francisco 49ers in Miami. Although the Tennessee Titans put up a fight during the first half, in truth both games turned into comfortable victories. Neither the Titans nor the Packers had the talent to keep up with their Championship counterparts.
Now the Super Bowl will see teams of two completely different styles clash, and the Super Bowl record of 75 combined points should be under threat.
1. Patrick Mahomes' Intelligence Amazes
Patrick Mahomes played in the AFC Championship last season. The Chiefs lost to the New England Patriots. During the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Mahomes drove his team down the field to tie the game. It was a warning shot. That drive didn't get the Chiefs to the Super Bowl, but it reminded everyone going into the offseason that Mahomes was real.
Back in the AFC Championship this season, Mahomes wouldn't need a fourth-quarter drive.
After some initial hiccups, the Chiefs offence found a spark early in the second quarter. Tyreek Hill ran in an end-around screen for a touchdown. It was a beautiful play design from Andy Reid. Tight end Travis Kelce blocked a defensive end before taking out Kevin Byard on the second level to give Mahomes an easy touchdown pass. That play was about the design of the offence around Mahomes. But after that, Mahomes took over.
Mahomes' brain was on show. Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees tried different things to stop him, but Mahomes kept shredding the coverage. He recognized where to go with the ball every time, notably early on converting a Fourth-and-2 on an option route to Kelce. He repeatedly moved defenders out of the throwing lane he wanted to use, exploiting the coverage for huge gain after huge gain.
At the end of the second quarter, Mahomes moved Kamalei Correa to connect with Kelce. It was a play that moved the offence across midfield. Pees had disguised his coverage, dropping Correa from the middle of his defensive line into zone coverage underneath. Mahomes moved Correa to the flat route, so he could hit Kelce in behind him on a deep curl route. Prior to that play, Mahomes had moved the offence quickly by hitting checkdowns at the perfect point to exploit the specific coverages called.
That touchdown drive gave the Chiefs a lead at halftime. The Titans had got everything they wanted: success running the ball, unforced errors and unforced penalties from the Chiefs. They still trailed at halftime.
In the second half, Pees took the peculiar approach of spying Mahomes. Spying a quarterback is having one player follow him, watching him so he doesn't run the ball. Mahomes isn't a runner. It's not a strategy you should use against him. Pees sacrificed his pass rush to spy Mahomes, turning a four-man rush into a three-man rush. And yet, even while setting up to stop scrambling from a quarterback who doesn't scramble, opportunities came for Mahomes repeatedly.
One of those opportunities turned into a long touchdown run where the Titans defenders showed off awful tackling technique. That was...unusual.
What wasn't unusual was Mahomes connecting with Sammy Watkins for a 60-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Pees had noticed Mahomes would run into the left flat every time the Titans spied him and used a three-man rush. So the defensive coordinator showed that look to Mahomes to get him to run into the flat where he had a defender stunting to. That means Mahomes would run into the arms of a defender. When that paly began, Mahomes reacted as expected but recognized it as he was moving.
He readjusted, reset in the pocket and found Watkins for the touchdown. It was amazing. It was the type of high-end mental processing that makes Mahomes an equal to Peyton Manning rather than another Brett Favre.
2. Titans' Philosophy Can Only Go So Far
Throughout this playoff run, the Titans have been playing on the front foot. Derrick Henry's efficiency and workload have allowed the passing game to be complementary. In the first game against the Patriots, the Titans ran the ball repeatedly while Bill Belichick set up to take away the big plays in the passing game. That gameplan worked, but the Patriots offence was a disaster. Against the Ravens, Don Martindale took the opposite approach and paid for it, giving up big plays in the passing game and in the running game.
Although the Chiefs took up the same approach as the Ravens, they didn't give up any big plays in the running game. They were able to contain Henry with better tackling and stronger defensive line play. Frank Clark and Mike Pennel particularly impressed in the second half.
The key difference between this game and the Ravens game was the scoreline. The Ravens moved the ball all day against the Titans, but they didn't score. That allowed the Titans to stick with their running game. The Titans scored 17 points in the first half with some effective running and from passing off those run designs. AJ Brown had a huge gain on the opening drive after a hard play fake, Dennis Kelly the offensive lineman caught a touchdown off another play fake in the second quarter.
Had the Titans been winning 17-0 or up 17-7 at the half, they likely would have been able to stick o their time-consuming approach on offence. Instead, they were forced to try and open up the passing game to keep pace with Mahomes. When that happened, the offensive linemen were asked to pass block more and the lack of wide receiver talent was put into focus. The Titans aren't built to win that way.
Philosophically, it's very difficult to win three or four playoff games in this NFL. The league rewards passing the ball more than it does running the ball. Defensive pass interference, defensive holding, roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness makes it very difficult for pass defences to stick to opposing receivers. For the Titans and Arthur Smith, this is likely the peak of their potential. They can't improve as a team without changing philosophically.
This was highlighted most at the end of the second quarter.
After a 10-minute scoring drive, the Titans gave the ball back to the Chiefs with a 17-7 lead. The Chiefs scored quickly, leaving four minutes left in the half. At that point, the Titans needed to score a touchdown to keep pace with Mahomes. They only had four minutes though. They couldn't just come out and run the ball, they needed to come out and pass to move the ball downfield, drain the clock so it was the last score of the game and get points.
Instead, because of how limited they are on offense, the Titans called two running plays and a screen. They punted, giving Mahomes enough time to drive downfield for the touchdown. Instead of going in 20-14 up or 24-14 up, the Titans were down 21-17. They never recovered from that point in the game.
3. Super Bowl Satisfaction for Andy Reid
Andy Reid has been a head coach for 21 years. 14 with the Philadelphia Eagles, seven with the Chiefs.
He's been to the playoffs 15 times. That consistency is rare. Outside of Bill Belichick, there isn't a coach from the last 20 years who can claim to be more accomplished than Reid. The only legitimate criticism that has ever existed with Reid is his lack of a Super Bowl. He went to one 15 years ago but lost on a late field goal to the New England Patriots. His second Super Bowl will give him a chance to have a winning record in the playoffs.
Reid stands at 14-14 for his career in the playoffs after today's game. He is 4-5 with the Chiefs. But those records don't really mean anything. The real measure of Reid's impact is found in his ability to get his teams to the playoffs consistently. Once you reach the playoffs, the tiny sample allows for some volatility. Especially when you consider the quarterbacks Reid has had.
Donovan McNabb and Alex Smith were both good players. Both were also limiting in playoff matchups. Reid was regularly working with the less effective starter in playoff matchups.
Now that's not the case.
Now, Reid has Mahomes. Mahomes being arguably the best quarterback in the league isn't just a fluke either. When Mahomes came out of college, he had major footwork issues that made him hugely inconsistent as a passer. Those footwork issues also limited the impact of his intelligence. Reid sat Mahomes for his first season in the league so he could refine his mechanics. He didn't make Mahomes who Mahomes is, but he played an undeniably crucial role in his development.
Had Mahomes landed in Buffalo or with another random NFL team, he likely wouldn't have developed the same way.
Reid is the best play designer in the league. He's one of the best play-callers in the league. He played a pivotal role in creating the Chiefs' offensive philosophy that perfectly fits this era of football. And he doesn't interfere with his defensive coordinator. Steve Spagnuolo can run any defence he wants.
NFL teams keep hiring Reid's offensive coordinators for jobs because they're hoping they can become him. Whether he wins the Super Bowl or not, Andy Reid is a great coach who deserves all your respect.
4. Packers Played with House Money
Jimmy Garoppolo was in the passenger seat for this one.
Aaron Rodgers threw an interception late in the second quarter. At that point in the game, the 49ers were up 20-0. Garoppolo had thrown six passes. Mostert started that drive with 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He finished it with 160 yards and three touchdowns. It was too easy. The Packers defensive front was being ripped apart.
The 49ers have a very different type of running game to the Tennessee Titans. The Titans try to bludgeon you with Derrick Henry. The 49ers running game is about offensive line execution and creative play designs. They have talented running backs, but Kyle Shanahan can build a great running game with any running back. All he needs is some speed. Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida all have that.
Containing the 49ers running game is crucial because it's how they build their passing attack. Kyle Shanahan is great at creating big plays on screens and easy throws for Garoppolo. They overwhelmed the Packers to such a degree that they never needed to go to those plays to win the game.
In truth, while it hurts now, the Packers were playing with house money this year.
When Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson left, they left the Packers with a roster devoid of talent. Matt LaFleur and new GM Brian Gutekunst were brought in to rebuild the roster. Gutekunst hit stars in free agency with Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith. Adrian Amos wasn't bad either. His first draft class has more question marks, but signs are necessarily bad after one year. Especially with Darnell Savage. They have a foundation to build their defence on.
On offence, Aaron Rodgers is always going to keep you at a certain level of effectiveness. He's older but he's still got enough time left to build around. Not trading for Emmanuel Sanders during the season was a major mistake. Now, the Packers enter the offseason desperate for new wide receivers and a new tight end to open up their passing game.
5. Notre Dame Have High Aspirations
Having learned previously that Ian Book would return for the 2020 season and play in Dublin, Brian Kelly announced this week that Tommy Rees would return as offensive coordinator. Kelly pointed to Rees' leadership, knowledge and humble approach to his role as the reasons for the hire. He also said that Notre Dame conducted an "extensive national search" to assure those sceptical that he had looked at outside candidates.
Book and Rees' returns have Notre Dame fans looking to a matchup with Clemson in November.
Clemson just lost the National Championship, but running back Travis Etienne shocked everyone by announcing he would return to school for his senior season. Etienne and Trevor Lawrence coming back all-but assure that Clemson will be ranked number one entering next season. If they are unbeaten by November 4th, they will be the first-ever top-ranked team to play against Brian Kelly's Notre Dame in South Bend.
Can Notre Dame be that good next season? Returning an experienced, pro-standard quarterback is a big first step. After that, it's about figuring out who from the most recent recruiting classes can come in and make an impact. According to 247Sports, Notre Dame had the 10th-ranked class in 2018 and the 16th-ranked class in 2019. Neither particularly impressive.
ESPN ranked Notre Dame as the 10th-best team in their projections for next season, on the fringe of the top tier. They note that Notre Dame's losses came early last season and they were a juggernaut by season's end. A crucial detail is that they return all five of their starting linemen. They need to find running backs and receivers from the talent pool available to them and the secondary will have four new starters, but there's an undoubted excitement about where Kelly's football team is going.
No matter what level of football you are playing at, continuity is huge. Tommy Rees is a new coordinator, but he was on the staff last year. He and Book should be on the same page quickly. Having five starting offensive linemen returning is huge. There won't be any adjustments or changes to make in protection calls or understanding between individuals.
When Notre Dame last played Navy in Dublin, they went on to feature in the Championship Game. Alabama eventually steamrolled them, but that team entered the year in a similar position to this one.