By Matt Barrows, David Lombardi and Nate Taylor
The crowning of a dynasty or a return to glory? That’s what’s at stake Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs battle the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are eyeing their third championship in four seasons, while Brock Purdy and the 49ers are looking for the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl victory — but first in 29 years.
Much has changed about these rosters since these two squared off four years ago in Miami in Super Bowl LIV — a game in which Kansas City overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 31-20.
How does this 49ers-Chiefs rematch compare to their Super Bowl LIV showdown?
Will Mahomes’ magic reign supreme? Or can San Francisco’s cast of Pro Bowlers get it done this time?
We turn to our beat writers at The Athletic — Matt Barrows and David Lombardi on the 49ers and Nate Taylor on the Chiefs — to help us break down the matchup.
The 49ers will win if …
Barrows: The 49ers can summon the level of intensity and focus they had in games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 1), Dallas Cowboys (Week 5), Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 10) and Philadelphia Eagles (Week 13) this season. Those were all blowout victories against good teams — at the time of the meeting, anyway — in which the 49ers got early leads and never let up. The issue is that the team hasn’t been able to muster similar energy and sharpness since the Eagles game. That includes a Christmas night home loss to the Baltimore Ravens and their two playoff victories in which they fell behind and had to come roaring back in the second half. The most recent game required the 49ers’ coaches to lecture the players about giving full effort on every play. That’s something you might tell a team in the preseason or Week 3, not on the eve of the Super Bowl. The good news is that the necessary intensity and effort is lurking in there somewhere. The 49ers have shown it. And when the 49ers pair it with their incredible talent, it’s very hard to beat.
The Chiefs will win if …
Taylor: If Mahomes continues his excellent postseason run, especially against the 49ers’ zone coverage, he will be the game’s MVP, further cementing his status as the league’s best player. One of the more fascinating subplots in Sunday’s game is that Mahomes has a chance to finish one of the most remarkable four-game runs in NFL postseason history. Through three games, Mahomes has accounted for 793 all-purpose yards and four touchdown passes while not committing a turnover. Of course, Mahomes will need help from a core of star players in tight end Travis Kelce, running back Isiah Pacheco, pass rusher Chris Jones and cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie. If Mahomes and Kelce can control the middle of the field against 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, the Chiefs should be able to have a balanced attack with Pacheco. A turnover or two from the Chiefs defense could also play a critical role in them controlling the tempo and scoreboard.
Who will be the X-factor?
Taylor: Steve Spagnuolo. An argument can be made that Spagnuolo, who has helped two franchises — the Chiefs and the New York Giants — win a championship, is already a future Hall of Famer. But so far, this season has been Spagnuolo’s masterpiece. He has the most versatile group of players to counterattack opposing offenses that he’s had in his five years in Kansas City. The Chiefs, though, haven’t played an opponent this season quite like the 49ers, who have a collection of all-star skill-position players in running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Known for his blitzes, Spagnuolo will have to pick the right time to pressure Purdy. Spagnuolo, given his experience, could give the Chiefs a boost if his play calls in the first quarter rattle Purdy and disrupt the 49ers offense. An extended halftime period should also give Spagnuolo and his players plenty of time to make the proper adjustments.
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Lombardi: Christian McCaffrey. Ever since he joined the 49ers via the 2022 trade, they’ve been the No. 1 offense in football. In fact, one can break down this rematch in simple terms: The Chiefs had Tyreek Hill and the 49ers didn’t have McCaffrey when these two teams played in Super Bowl LIV. The opposite is true on both counts now, and that’s a huge part of the reason the 49ers have the more explosive offense entering this game. McCaffrey is the NFL’s rushing champion, and that’s a bad matchup for Kansas City’s No. 27 run defense. But his biggest contributions may come in the spacing of the passing game. McCaffrey draws attention that doesn’t go toward Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. And those are the targets that’ll end up opening room for the 49ers’ run game to exploit Kansas City’s biggest weakness.
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The Chiefs had a mediocre regular season (by their standards) but have turned it on in the playoffs. The 49ers were dynamic most of the regular season but have had sluggish starts in their playoff games. What do you make of those situations?
Barrows: It’s baffling. For a while during the Packers and Lions games, it seemed like the 49ers would be the victim of their regular-season success. That is, in securing the No. 1 seed — and a playoff bye — a week before the end of the regular season, they lost the very mojo that had put them in that position and have had trouble flipping the switch back to full-power mode. The 49ers have incredible leaders on both sides of the ball with linebacker — and Mr. Energy — Fred Warner whipping up the defense and Trent Williams and George Kittle leading the way on offense. That’s not the issue. Perhaps one factor is age. San Francisco’s starters — eight of whom are 30 or older — are the oldest of all the playoff teams. Maybe the 49ers, who were in cruise control to end the regular season, are a bit like an older gentleman who’s gotten settled into a cushy lounge chair: It may take him a little longer to get back on his feet.
Taylor: These trends further prove that the NFL season season, including the postseason, has become a marathon. Midway through the season, the 49ers demonstrated that they were the best team in the NFC. Their postseason run, I think, is understandable because Purdy is still gaining valuable experience early in his career. The biggest issue for the 49ers is their defense has been inconsistent, which was not the expectation before they faced the Packers and the Lions. The Chiefs entered the postseason as the most experienced team, even though they have the league’s youngest defense. Many of the Chiefs’ losses this season were the result of their own errors, including dropped passes, penalties and turnovers. In their three postseason victories, the Chiefs have demonstrated their resolve in pressure moments. The coaching staff also cut out the fat in their game plans to put the players in better situations to succeed. The beauty of the Super Bowl, though, is that both teams were given two weeks to recover mentally and physically before playing on the biggest stage.
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In the last four years, Andy Reid has gone from the coach who can’t win the big one to a Hall of Famer and maybe the best coach in the league. Kyle Shanahan is looking to avenge two previous Super Bowl losses (one as a head coach, one as a coordinator). How do you break down this coaching matchup?
Taylor: The schemes of Reid and Shanahan are so distinctive that it sets up a beautiful contrast. The 49ers need to establish McCaffrey’s success on the ground to open up the best part of Shanahan’s play calls: his play-action pass plays that often lead to deep completions and huge highlights. Defending play action is one of the Chiefs’ defensive weaknesses. Kittle, Samuel and Aiyuk all thrive on those opportunities.
Similar to the Chiefs’ comeback victory over the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl, the easiest way for Reid to limit the effectiveness of the 49ers’ pass rush is to give the ball to Pacheco over and over again. Even when Mahomes is in obvious passing situations, the Chiefs could unleash quick plays — such as jet sweeps, screen passes and run-pass options with an element of misdirection — to thwart the 49ers’ edge rushers in Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Randy Gregory.
Lombardi: It’s a first-rate coaching matchup. These might be the two best offensive architects in the game today. The fact that this Super Bowl is a rematch between Reid and Shanahan makes it all the more compelling.
When it comes to schematics, there are some interesting parallels at play. Both the Chiefs and the 49ers have exploitable weaknesses on run defense, so it’ll be interesting to see Reid and Shanahan both try to attack those. In 2022, Reid was able to flummox the 49ers on the edges. That led to confusion from defensive end Nick Bosa and a productive day on the ground for the Chiefs. Meanwhile, Kansas City has really struggled in run defense this season. The best way to attack the Chiefs might be to run directly at defensive tackle Chris Jones, and one can expect Shanahan to try just that on Sunday.
The coach who best schemes a run game — something that’ll also be dependent on how well each QB sets that with the pass — will likely be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the night.
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Patrick Mahomes is playing in his fourth Super Bowl in five years, while Brock Purdy is making the sixth postseason start of his career. What’s the key for each quarterback to succeed in this game?
Taylor: Mahomes is known for his compelling comebacks in the postseason, but this season he has been asked to be an overqualified game manager to help the Chiefs defense be its most effective. A fast start from Mahomes, who should be comfortable on the stage, would be a tremendous advantage for the Chiefs. In the AFC Championship Game, Mahomes led the Chiefs to a touchdown on their first two drives, which put the pressure on Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson struggled in the second half as the Chiefs defense could blitz him while playing sticky man-to-man coverage in the secondary. A strong performance in the first quarter from Mahomes could put Purdy in a similar situation. Of course, if the game is close in the fourth quarter, Mahomes is more than capable of making a highlight play or two to put the Chiefs over the top.
Barrows: Purdy’s gotten into trouble when he forces throws into soft coverages. That’s why the 49ers need to run the ball effectively early — to make the Chiefs linebackers play close to the line of scrimmage, thus creating the throwing windows Purdy has exploited so well in 2023. He also can take a page from Mahomes’ book and simply take the easy throws — to, say, McCaffrey — that are available to him. Purdy also has underappreciated burst and running skills. He’s just as capable as Mahomes at picking up a back-breaking first down with his legs when it’s third-and-8. The Lions discovered that in the second half of the conference championship when three Purdy runs helped fuel his team’s comeback win.
Which individual matchup are you most intrigued by?
Taylor: Sneed, the fourth-year cornerback, is the Chiefs’ shadow cornerback, the defender who covers the opponent’s best receiver. As the nearest defender in coverage on 90 targets in the regular season, Sneed didn’t surrender a touchdown. The final assignment for Sneed this season could be Samuel, one of the league’s most versatile receivers. Samuel could line up on the perimeter, the slot or in the backfield. If Sneed travels with Samuel, he will try to be as physical as possible to disrupt the timing of Samuel’s routes for Purdy. Sneed having success guarding Samuel should help Spagnuolo get creative with his blitzes.
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Lombardi: The 49ers defense against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Multiple players will likely cover Kelce since the 49ers run a lot of zone defense. But this is one of the most difficult assignments in the league since Kelce is so good at improvising and finding open space. The 49ers’ run defense and pass rush must be on point so that they are operating on a fair platform against Mahomes and Kelce. And if that’s the case, prepare for a battle of titans. The 49ers have been especially pleased with safety Tashaun Gipson Sr.’s coverage, but we also might see Fred Warner covering Kelce. And that’s a true battle of All-Pros. There will be many of those across the field in this Super Bowl. So buckle up.
(Top photos of Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid: Kevin Sabitus and Kathryn Riley / Getty Images)