The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers meet in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday night. It's a titanic matchup between two great teams. The game will be live from Miami on BBC One and Sky Sports from 11:30 pm.
16 points were all that the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams could muster last season. It was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. Low scoring games aren't necessarily always bad. But that game featured two ineffective offences, not two great defences. This year's Super Bowl promises to make up for last year's. It's a mouth-watering matchup between two great teams.
The San Francisco 49ers won the NFC. In the regular season, they had the seventh-ranked offence and the second-ranked defence across the whole league. The Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC. The Chiefs ranked third on offence and 14th on defence. In theory, that should make the 49ers the favourites.
At the time of writing, a few days out, the Chiefs are 1.5 point favourites.
While the 49ers were the best team over the course of the full season, there are some mitigating circumstances that justify the Chiefs being favoured. First and foremost, the Chiefs have been more impressive through the playoffs. In beating the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, Patrick Mahomes starred and the defence performed better than it has all season. They are the form team going into the game despite the 49ers blowing out the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Furthermore, the Chiefs' regular-season rankings came when Patrick Mahomes wasn't fully healthy. He missed full games and played others at less than 100 per cent. He's now fully healthy. He's been the best player in the post-season and nobody else has come close.
Mahomes has the talent to cut any defence apart. The quality of the 49ers defence allowed them to suffocate opponents during the regular season. They were able to shut down the Packers and Minnesota Vikings to make it to the Super Bowl too. Both of those teams have limited, flawed offences though. The Chiefs offence is the exact opposite of that.
Matchups matter in every sport. In the NFL they matter more than most because of how each individual matchup interlinks and impacts the whole. As such, it's pointless putting teams in a linear ranking from best to worst. Instead, this team sport is closer to boxing where the styles and different strengths of each team mean that if you had three playing against each other, all three might beat each other.
The best example of this was last year's AFC Championship Game. The Patriots beat the Chiefs by exploiting the Chiefs' lack of run defence. They ran the ball so much the Chiefs offence barely got on the field and when they did, the Patriots had the talent in their secondary to contain the explosive athletes playing wide receiver for the Chiefs.
There are times when it's very easy to predict the Super Bowl winner.
Nick Foles beating Tom Brady two years ago wasn't a surprising result. That Eagles team perfectly matched up to exploit the Patriots weaknesses. Brandon Graham being the only defender to make a big play all game was a surprise though. This year's defences should make more plays. It will still be a high-scoring game but there's too much quality on both sides of the ball for there to not be turnovers and hard yards to gain.
Anyone who is especially confident in a specific team winning this game is overlooking how tight the matchups are. The 49ers should be able to run the ball, they're a much tougher test for the Chiefs defence than Derrick Henry was. But the Chiefs defence has enough quality to contain the running game better than the Packers did. A fully healthy Chris Jones alongside Frank Clark with Tyrann Mathieu marauding behind them is a formidable foe.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will also provide a greater challenge for Kyle Shanahan than Mike Pettine did.
Pettine was the Packers defensive coordinator for the NFC Championship Game. His defenders were constantly going in the wrong direction, showing a lack of technical discipline and a lack of direction. Shanahan knew every single thing Pettine would do in that game because the two had been on the same coaching staff in Cleveland previously. Former Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who was on that team, recently detailed how Pettine sold himself out in those practices.
The then Browns defensive coordinator never prepared for his upcoming opponent. He prepared for Shanahan's offence in every practice. That meant Shanahan knew every single thing the Packers would do last week. That's how the 49ers were so dominant. Shanahan won't have that information on Spagnuolo, so the running game shouldn't be as effective. That's a matchup difference rather than a quality difference.
Spagnuolo will want to stop the run and force this game into the hands of Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers quarterback has been bad in the playoffs. He's capable of having a big game, but his skill set and inconsistent performances suggest that can't be expected the way it can be with Mahomes.
And that's the difference really. For as much as the 49ers are marginally better at many other positions, there is a huge void between the quality of the Chiefs quarterback and the quality of the 49ers quarterback.
The quarterback on his own doesn't decide games, but he does have a greater impact on the game than anyone else. Of the 22 players on the field at a given time, the quarterback is probably 40 per cent responsible for the outcome. That's huge for one player out of 22. If Mahomes plays as well as he has over the last two weeks, the 49ers only hope of winning this game is by dominating every other facet of the game.
They'd have to run the ball well, Garoppolo would need to be at least above-average and the defence would have to swarm the Chiefs receivers while shutting down the run and generating pressure on Mahomes.
Unlike the Houston Texans-Buffalo Bills matchup from the first round of the playoffs, this isn't a matchup between a good team with a bad quarterback and a bad team with a good quarterback. It's a generational quarterback on a good team facing off against an average/below-average quarterback on a great team. Ultimately, that's what makes the Chiefs the favourite. With Mahomes, they have a far greater margin for error than the 49ers do with Garoppolo.
The 49ers can counter that argument by pointing to how many games they've won this year without needing Garoppolo. They beat the Saints in New Orleans and they beat the Seahawks in Seattle. Neither of those games were matchups that they were favoured in. Both of those games had the 49ers facing a gulf in class between their quarterback and their opponent's.
In the end, the only thing that we should be confident of is that this will be a great game.