Super Bowl LIV Preview: Loss of Kobe rightly overshadows buildup of speedy Chiefs-49ers tilt

After a fun-filled season, two teams worthy of the biggest game of the NFL’s historic 100th season remain.

Super Bowl 54. The Kansas City Chiefs versus the San Francisco 49ers.

Storylines aside, this is the most interesting Super Bowl matchup since Super Bowl 49 — Patriots over Seahawks — in terms of X’s and O’s, heading into the game.

I’ll get to why I think that later in this piece, along with my thoughts (and prediction) of Super Bowl 54. But I’ll begin with something much more important.

On Sunday afternoon, the sports world lost a legend and his daughter, along with seven other victims — whose families also deserve thoughts and prayers — in an unspeakable tragedy.

Here is my ode to Kobe Bryant, the tenacious NBA superstar that inspired my generation…

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Me and Tyler, one of my very best friends, used to viciously argue for hours over sports arguments in high school. One of the few I remember was me insisting Kobe Bryant, not LeBron James was the NBA’s best player in 2009, to the chagrin of Tyler. This came days after Kobe’s first NBA title without Shaq, as the unquestioned leading-man of the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Kobe was always a leading man. And it wasn’t because he consistently reiterated that out loud. He didn’t become a generational icon, and in turn, influencing my generation, by saying he did, he influenced us all by his tireless work ethic and drive to be the best at his craft.

Kobe wanted to be Michael Jordan. He wanted to be better than Jordan, actually. Kobe proceeded to become the other NBA player that has reminded us of “His Airness.” Only Kobe matched Kobe’s killer instinct and fearlessness in the clutch.

Just like Jordan famously reiterated “you miss 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take,” Kobe similarly once told the media: “I have no fear whatsoever…If I take the last second shot, and I miss? So what…”

Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality,” which has since inspired many of the younger superstars in the NBA, lives on in a few players. Kyrie Irving is one. Irving dropped 54 points (19-23 field goals) in a win Friday night, dedicating it to Kobe.

And despite the Lakers’ loss to the Trail Blazers at Staples Center, the night was still an honorable ode to Kobe Bryant, as LeBron James and the franchise in which Kobe played 20 seasons, honored him before the game beautifully. And during the game, Damian Lillard, who like Irving, is cut from the Kobe Bryant-mold in terms of basketball mettle, dropped 48 points in a Portland victory. Even in the Lakers loss, the night was a perfect memoriam to everything Kobe represented, with an NBA superstar putting a team on his back with an incredible, fearless performance.

Despite the legendary performance from Lillard, two nights before kick-off in Sunday’s Super Bowl, it was Kobe, his family and the families of the additional passengers on that helicopter that we continued to think about. That won’t go away anytime soon, and it shouldn’t.

This whole week has become a tribute to Kobe, Gigi, and seven other members who lost their lives. And we should all be complicit with that.

I touched down in Miami on Thursday, and the usual Super Bowl hoopla feels a bit different.

Monday’s Super Bowl Opening Night kicked off with a moment of silence for Kobe, and despite a fantastic game played out for us in Chiefs-49ers, the loss of a legend, his daughter, and their friends who lost their lives makes the game feel a bit hollow.

Super Bowl Live. NFL Experience. NFL Honors. South Beach. The bars, parties and events. This year feels a bit different.

Sports are a wonderful thing that continuously brings many of us, from different walks of life, together.

Several have held hands in the mourning over Kobe Bryant this week. Sports are what brought Kobe into our lives. We should be thankful. Everyone we lost in this tragic accident should be on our minds during Super Bowl LIV. And we should continue to think about him, for the rest of our major moments in sports, for the rest of our lives.

Long live Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan.

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And with that, I’ll get into Super Bowl LIV.

Some of the major ties with these two teams come in the way of two historic franchises with an affinity for the same quarterbacks.

Among the passers who played for both teams include: Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Alex Smith.

Another storyline is 49ers EDGE wonder Dee Ford, who was traded this past offseason after four seasons with the Chiefs as an extraordinary pass rush specialist. But his last play with Kansas City was his infamous offsides penalty that cost Kansas City a spot in last year’s Super Bowl. Do you think Ford has forgotten all the hurtful words from Chiefs fans, blaming last year’s AFC title game loss on him? There’s extra motivation here.

Both Travis Kelce and George Kittle should find motivation in trying to prove who is the NFL’s best tight end, as the pro football’s biggest game will feature the two best at the position.

In all, this is the most interesting Super Bowl I’ve seen (heading into the game) since Super Bowl 49, where the Patriots and Seahawks entered the game as the clear titans of the NFL that season, and the betting line was set at a push.

Similarly, the Chiefs are favored by 1 to 1.5 points in this contest, exemplifying the 50-50 feel of the public heading into this contest.

On paper, this game also reminds me of Super Bowl 48, where the Seahawks beat the Broncos 43-8, but heading into the game, many viewed it as a hard-to-pick contest of offense versus defense, with Peyton Manning being the difference for Denver’s recored-setting scoring machine. But the lightning-quick (and physical) Seahawks, equipped with a untraditional band of unique, all-time talent, length on the perimeter, and speed, destroyed the Broncos.

In this battle of offense versus defense, it’s the Chiefs (offense) versus the 49ers (defense), but unlike Denver’s offense in 2013, Kansas City’s offense has the most speed of any unit in the NFL. And at the helm, is Patrick Mahomes, who is capable of unconventional plays that leave even the most terrorizing defenses descending into madness.

Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and others are the great equalizer, making this game truly feeling like a close contest to come.

I’ll break down all facets of this fascinating matchup here.

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The Chiefs and 49ers present the two fastest offenses in the NFL, but the Chiefs pack the biggest punch in this category, with explosiveness all across the board on offense.

NFL Network‘s Cynthia Frelund had some telling stats (powered by Next Gen Stats) in her Game Theory score projection, regarding Kansas City’s big play ability in the passing game:

34 receptions of over 30 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

24 touchdown receptions of over 20 yards in 2019 — Most in the NFL

13 “deep” touchdown passes (Next Gen Stats) — Most in the NFL

But San Francisco may have the antidote to slowing down this prolific offense — The league’s best pass rush.

In addition to their overall defense — which is pretty fast in itself — San Francisco boasts a defensive line stockpiled with five first-round picks, headlined by Defensive-Rookie-of-the-Year-to-be Nick Bosa and former Chiefs All-Pro Dee Ford on the edge, and All-Pro DeForest Buckner in the interior.

One thing that is telling about Mahomes’ play is that 16 of his 17 interceptions over the past two seasons have come when defenses rush four or less defenders, leaving at least seven players back in coverage to defend Kansas City’s arial attack. Of course, that’s not very surprising. Producing pressure with four or less rushers will stymie just about any type of quarterback, no matter how skilled.

Yet another stat in favor of San Francisco is their ability to guard running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Football Outsiders ranks them first in DVOA in guarding running backs, and second when facing tight ends. That can be attributed to their fast linebacking core equipped with Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner. Now that the 49ers’ front seven is healthy again, they remain a huge factor. If San Francisco’s pass rush plays up to par, they’ll pressure Mahomes early and often, forcing him to look for his running backs and tight ends on quicker routes that sometime will be bail-out patterns. But with their speed at linebacker, San Francisco will likely have those routes covered often, on top of their pass rush.

The 49ers predominantly run a Cover 3 scheme that’s similar to the one Sherman helped spearhead with his play on Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense. Sherman excels in Cover 3 and Cover 3 match coverage, where he can play a bit of man coverage (to a degree) on downfield, boundary routes.

But if Mahomes is granted some time (thanks to Mitchell Schwartz and Kansas City’s more than competent O-line), the likes of  Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardmon present problems for Sherman, who is better with using his length versus larger, traditional No. 1 receivers, as opposed to diminutive speedsters.

The Chiefs would be wise to use them on the right side of their formation, as Sherman has an affinity for the left side, where he’ll probably reside the entire game.

Sherman may also see Travis Kelce in the Chiefs’ 3×1 scheme that features Kelce as the lone ‘X’ receiver, or he may draw Sammy Watkins, who is probably Sherman’s best chance in a 1-on-1 man coverage-type matchup.

Kansas City should have limited downfield attempts, so they’ll need to capitalize. Unless they suddenly breakout a top-tier running game behind Damien Williams, the Chiefs will have to try to win this game through the air.

And that’s how they like it, behind the league’s best player in Mahomes. But he’s going to need a little help from the big boys up front.

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Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco love to run the football. Their running back committee has dwindled down to virtually just Raheem Mostert, but that’s a good thing. Mostert’s explosiveness has been showcased in his postseason performances this past month. In San Francisco’s two playoff wins, the team rushed for 471 yards. And in the NFC Championship Game, Mostert ran for 220 yards and four scores on 29 carries.

Unlike Derrick Henry and the Titans, who ran out of gas trying to bulldoze through a suddenly-improved Chiefs run defense, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is an offensive mastermind with beautiful play design, and that extends into their running game. San Francisco would like to pound the still-vulnerable Kansas City defense on the ground with Mostert, gain an early lead, and then tee off on Mahomes with their pass rush, hoping to force him into a few mistakes. That’s their perfect game plan, but that could be asking a lot.

Through the air, Garoppolo will (of course) have to avoid throwing the ball right to linebackers in the play-action passing game. The 49ers quarterback has at times — twice versus the Vikings’ Eric Kendricks in NFC Divisional round — tried to force the ball to Kittle and has paid the price via an interception by a linebacker.

Jimmy G is not completely unflappable. Nerves (and a pass rush) could get the best of him, but he’s much more of a composed player than not. This is a quarterback who’s first career pro start was in place of a suspended Tom Brady, in which Jimmy led the Patriots to national-televised (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) fourth-quarter comeback win over the Cardinals in Arizona. Garoppolo is ready for the big moments.

And to those trying to diminish his 23-5 career record as a starter due to his game-managing in his last two contests — combined 11 pass completions in two postseason wins — just know that Kyle Shanahan’s offense displays a Patriots-like chameleon approach to their offense. They can win in a myriad of ways. Roughly just a month ago, Garoppolo outdueled Drew Brees in New Orleans, throwing for 349 yards and four touchdowns on 35 pass attempts (very Mahomes-like!) in a 48-46 comeback win over the Saints. Don’t underestimate Garoppolo’s ability — and in turn, the 49ers offense’s — to match Mahomes and this Chiefs offense score for score, if he gets even just a smidge of help from his defense.

In fact, San Francisco is 7-0 this season when Garoppolo throws for over 250 yards. They may need him to do that again in Super Bowl 54, as the Chiefs will likely force the game into his hands, knowing they’d be in worse trouble if they can’t stop the San Francisco defense.

But the Chiefs will have more problems with George Kittle, who I believe is the NFL’s best tight end because of his blocking skills and after-the-catch ability. Kelce is quicker and more of a route-running technician. He’s a better tight end-turned-wide receiver than Kittle. But Kittle is built from the Gronk mode, and is a destructive force in all facets on offense.

In the passing game, the Chiefs will likely use their safeties , the sure-tackling Daniel Sorenson, or Tyrann Mathieu, to attempt to neutralize him, but Kittle is a mismatch for either. They may need to double him, or hope for better pressure from a pass-rushing group that is already successful, being equipped with Frank Clark and Chris Jones. The latter is an absolute force in the interior, and pressure up the middle should disrupt Garoppolo’s timing and decision-making. This will in turn give the Chiefs a chance at neutralizing Kittle.

But the 49ers will also use their quick-passing game with the ultra-quick Emmanuel Sanders and the do-it-all rookie Deebo Samuel, who displays running back-like qualities as a wide receiver.

Shanahan will use pre-snap motion to try to confuse the Chiefs defense, or to sniff out their coverages.

Like Andy Reid and his forward-thinking, genius-level offensive concepts, Shanahan is one of the league’s brightest offensive minds.

He’ll pull out all the stops versus a Chiefs defense that will need to keep up its surreal play as of late.

*******

On paper, the 49ers are the better team. Everything is telling me that they should win a close or semi-close contest. But to me, it feels like the Chiefs’ year. And before you roll your eyes, sometimes, football works this way. The 49ers are the better team, but Patrick Mahomes could be the difference. He’s that good. One or two (or six) spectacular plays will have to be made by Mahomes. And they may all include evading San Francisco’s unreal pass rush. But he’s certainly capable of doing so.

The 49ers can possibly win behind the running game, Jimmy Garoppolo, or both. The many analysts and fans doubting Garoppolo may be in for a rude awakening on Sunday. I absolutely think Jimmy is already a top-10 quarterback. I think he matches the Chiefs score for score if he has to, even if it ends in defeat late.

I think this will be a fun, close contest throughout. But I say Andy Reid gets his first ring, and he’ll have his quarterback to thank.

Chiefs 33, 49ers 31. 

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