Ever since I created my blog to share my sports (mainly football) predictions, I have not had such a strong personal connection to one of the teams playing in a stage as big as the Super Bowl. Even before my blog, I would publish long posts on Facebook about who I would think would win the NFL playoff games but still, I didn't start doing that until 2014. The last time the 49ers made the Super Bowl was the 2012 season and since then the franchise was embroiled in turmoil between the head coach and owner. Then you had the Colin Kaepernick kneeling situation (I will refrain from taking sides on that issue but can understand both sides) which further distracted the team from winning football games. Since the 49ers last trip to the Super Bowl, they have been the epitome of futility which was frustrating for this die hard 49ers fan given that they were also awful from 2003 - 2010 until Jim Harbaugh turned the franchise around with a remarkable 3 year run (2011 - 2013) to the NFC title game.
I recall being in the 5th grade when I saw Joe Montana throw the game winning TD to John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII in Miami to beat the Cincinnati Bengals. That was 31 years ago. Back then the venue was called Joe Robbie Stadium and has undergone as many name changes as your typical Miami resident does face lifts in his or her lifetime (no gender discrimination there!). It was a fairly new stadium having opened for business in 1987 and here are the 49ers back to where they experienced the peak of their dynasty. One of my first memories of the 49ers is watching that final drive by Montana as he calmly marched his team 92 yards with 3:20 left on the clock to pull off one of the most iconic TD drives in NFL history. I was only 11 years old and had no idea that what I watched is something that would have an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life. In a way it was a transformation process for me when I shed my love for GI Joe and Transformers and instead became enamored with pro football. I have never looked back since (and don't worry ... I have no idea where my GI Joe or Transformers toys are anymore!).
The 49ers would go on to win two more Super Bowls but there would be way more heartbreak. For example, the 49ers lost NFC title games in the 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2011, and 2013 seasons. There have been other playoff losses that were tough to swallow and of course there was Super Bowl XLVII when John Harbaugh got the best of his younger brother in New Orleans. Perhaps the biggest blow was how the 49ers ownership built a brand new stadium only to part ways with the coach who helped build them a winner so that they can get the money from hard working fans like yours truly (in the form of stadium builders license fees) to make the stadium a reality. It has been painful to watch games in an empty stadium with a lackluster crowd while the elite would socialize in the many club levels Levi's offers and not really care what was happening on the field.
OK, now that I have let out some of the pain that has been festering in me for quite some time, I can get over it because my beloved 49ers are back in the big game. This time, however, it feels different than it did in 2012. When you grow up watching your favorite football team consistently make the conference championship in much the same manner the New England Patriots have during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era, you become accustomed to greatness and are not sure how to handle futility. It was quite emotional to see my boyhood team make it back to the Super Bowl in 2012 and it was fun to experience the build up to the game itself which the media tends to do a good job of disseminating on multiple outlets. It has been awfully hard, however, to experience that same level of excitement given the recent news of Kobe Bryant's and his daughter's sudden and tragic passing last Sunday. Then you have the outbreak of the coronavirus as well as Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate. The headlines have been nothing but negative and rather intense news so perhaps this Sunday presents a great opportunity to forget about our troubles and watch an amazing football game which should be more competitive than last year's game.
Enough with the nostalgia and time to discuss the game at hand. I think most people who read this pretty much know which team I am going to select. Even though I will run through the numbers, there is no way in hell I am going to pick against the 49ers. I may not bet the farm on the 49ers since, after all, I don't think I can handle a broken heart and being broke in general should my favorite team lose! However, the Super Bowl is a great time to place a bit of action and to spend quality time with family and friends (and of course eat good food and be entertained by the commercials and halftime show). Before I get into my analysis, here is my prediction since it is no surprise who I will pick.
San Francisco 27
Kansas City 24
MVP: Jimmy Garoppolo (250 yards and 2 TDS)
Here we have the best QB in the league in Patrick Mahomes with the "best looking" QB in Jimmy Garropolo. Both titles used to belong to Tom Brady and it is kind of fitting that with the first Super Bowl without Brady in quite some time, we see those titles split between both of the starting QBs this Sunday. So why do the 49ers win a close game? Five reasons.
San Francisco's Rushing Attack. Like the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century, the 49ers offensive rush game has yielded a huge return on investment. You don't have the fancy names carrying the rock but you have amazing depth and efficiency. One week it could be Tevin Coleman running all over the opposing defense. Another week it could Raheem Mostert dominating the game. You can even sprinkle in Matt Breida or Jeff Wilson for surprise TDs. Every once in a while, Deebo Samuel could break off a 20 yard gain on an end around play. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has been the master of making other teams guess who will keep moving the chains for the 49ers offense and in some ways has proven to be a better play caller than his father who was instrumental in the 49ers last Super Bowl title in 1994 when he was the offensive coordinator and helped John Elway finally win a championship 3 years later. The Chiefs run defense for the season, as a whole, has not been great but has been better lately. What is important to take note is that in the 8 games the Chiefs have lost with Mahomes as QB, it is usually due to a poor rushing yard differential. In those 8 losses, the Chiefs allowed close to 170 rushing yards while only gaining 80 yards themselves. That is a 90 yard differential. The 49ers this year have averaged
235.5 rushing yards this postseason while allowing just 41.5 rushing yards. The regular season rushing numbers for the 49ers are not as dominant but still represent a siginificant rush differential in their favor. The 49ers have the right offense to control the tempo of the game and keep a dynamic QB like Mahomes on the sidelines.
Defending the tight end. Usually this position does not carry a lot of significance for most teams but in this game, two of the best tight ends this season will be featured. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was instrumental in the Chiefs comeback against Houston three weeks ago and has been a Pro Bowl level tight end for his entire 6 year career. The Chiefs can still win games if he is not putting up big numbers but that is mainly because he garners so much attention that the other superb athletes on the Chiefs offense will have mismatches. However, if the 49ers can shut down Kelce without having to double team him, that would be a huge. No team allowed fewer yards to the tight end position than the 49ers in 2019 so they are equipped to defend Kelce well. Here is another interesting stat: in the 4 games 49ers strong safety (the position usually tasked with defending the tight end) Jaquiski Tartt was not on the field, the 49ers surrendered 42 percent of the 552 yards and half of the TDs allowed to tight ends. That means in three times as many games, the 49ers defense was very stingy against tight ends. The 49ers also have three other linebackers who excel in coverage: Kwon Alexander, Dre Greenlaw, and Fred Warner. The more I write and analyze the 49ers defense, the more respect I have gained for defense coordinator Robert Saleh. I am glad that he will be staying with the 49ers for another season but he deserves an NFL head coaching job and that will probably happen very soon. As for George Kittle, we are still waiting for his breakout game in the postseason but maybe that won't be needed (see reason #1 regarding the 49ers rush game). If he does pop off, even better!
Slot defense. Attacking a team's defense in the middle field with consistency can make or break the game. Both teams do a great job of targetting slot receviers and inline tight ends but the 49ers tend to do so in base or nickel packages for almost all of their defensive snaps. The Chiefs, on the other hand, must do so in dime packages and that tends to happen on about half of their defensive snaps. The reason for that is that the Chiefs don't have the linebackers the 49ers do when it comes to quality pass coverage. When a team is having to use the dime package with such high frequency, that will open up more running room for the opposing offense. Again, see reason #1 above. Garoppolo and Shanahan are two very smart people who will see that opportunity and it's no wonder the 49ers are comfortable with running the ball 30+ times with just 10 or so passing plays.
Speed kills. This reason actually favors the Chiefs and is why I feel the final result will be close. I expect the 49ers to build a sizeable lead early in the game. 14-0 after the first first quarter sounds about right. However, the 49ers have been known to let teams back into games and a team like the Chiefs are built to come from behind. One way an offense can pull themselves out of a hole is with big plays and for those big plays to happen, you need a WR who can blow past his defender. That is where Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman come into the fold. The 49ers don't have any defenders who can match their speed so it is imperative that Mahomes is not given time to let those WRs complete their routes. That brings me to my final and most important reason why the 49ers win Super Bowl LIV ...
Pass rush. The 49ers defensive line will dominate the line of scrimmage against the Chiefs offensive line. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NFL and the one thing that has held steady in those 100 years is winning the war in the trenches. No team has done that better than the 49ers this season. Blitzing Mahomes would be a mistake since the great QBs make you pay for sacrificing an extra defender in the secondary. However, the 49ers are able to get steady pressure against the QB with just their defensive front four: Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, and Arik Armstead. Remember the Super Bowl the Patriots had against the NY Giants? As great as Brady was in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, once he had to face Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul, he had no chance of putting up video game like numbers. If you can get get pressure on the QB without the need for extra pass rushers, that will usually be the reason why you win the game. The Chiefs offensive line is mediocre at best based on most metrics developed by Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus. In fact, that unit ranks 5th to last in adjusted line yards meaning that the Chiefs won't just have trouble stopping the 49ers pass rush but may have trouble running the football as well.
Sum all of this up and there are just too many factors that favor the 49ers. I can see this game being a double digit victory for San Francisco but given the 49ers recent trend of close games against mobile QBs and the phenomenal athletes on the Chiefs offense, this game can be close. The spread of -1 for KC and over-under of 55 are right in line with my model but when you get very granular with the data, the 49ers win Super Bowl LIV with what has got them to this point: running the ball and pressuring the QB. That has been the recipe for success for the last 99 NFL Champions and there is no reason to go away from that if you wish to be crowned the 100th NFL Champion.
Enjoy the game everyone and start your New Year's diet on Monday, February 3!