Super Bowl LVIII is finally here! The NFL’s biggest game of the year features the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, and the San Francisco 49ers. No matter who comes out on top, it won’t be surprising, and the spread of Niners -2, according to SportsLine’s consensus odds, reflects that.
Ahead of what should be a terrific showdown, we provide five bold predictions for some things that could occur on Super Bowl Sunday that could materialize and be categorized as bold.
Patrick Mahomes cooks 49ers strong postseason zone defense
The reigning Super Bowl MVP is in the zone, even by his ahead-of-the-curve expectations. He hasn’t thrown an interception in six consecutive postseason starts, the longest streak by a quarterback in playoff history when having thrown a minimum of 20 passes in each playoff game. The end result of each one of those matchups were the Chiefs celebrating a win. As a result, the 28-year-old Mahomes is set to become the first quarterback ever to start his fourth Super Bowl before age 30.
Patrick Mahomes’ postseason performance since 2022
* Ranks among 14 QBs with 50 or more pass attempts in last two postseasons
Mahomes also shredded the 49ers secondary the last time these two teams played, a Chiefs 44-23 win at San Francisco in Week 7 of the 2022 season. He tossed three touchdowns and racked up 423 passing yards while completing 25 of his 34 passing attempts. That led to a career-high 12.4 yards per pass attempt overall for Mahomes in the victory.
He particularly feasted on their zone coverage, averaging 15.1 yards per pass attempt against it, the highest rate by any quarterback in a game versus any team in the last four seasons including playoffs, among 1,430 quarterback games with at least 20 pass attempts against a team’s zone coverage. Sure their defensive coordinator at the time was current Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans, but their scheme is still zone heavy under current DC Steve Wilks.
The 49ers have played zone defense on 79.7% of their defensive plays this this postseason, the second highest rate among the 14 teams, and they have been successful with it, allowing the lowest passer rating in zone this postseason (76.2).
No matter what Wilks throws at Mahomes, he’ll likely eventually beat their vaunted zone coverage and power the Chiefs to becoming the NFL’s first repeat Super Bowl champions since the 2003-2004 New England Patriots.
Brock Purdy overwhelmed by Chiefs blitz
The 49ers MVP finalist quarterback has been strong against the blitz all season: he threw 15 passing touchdowns to just two interceptions while throwing 1,488 passing yards, good for 10.5 yards per pass attempt when blitzed this season. Purdy’s numbers are good for the highest yards per pass attempt in the NFL against the blitz, and his 15 passing touchdowns versus the blitz are tied with Dak Prescott for the most in the league as well.
However, Purdy under pressure, when the blitz gets home or otherwise, is a different story. He was pressured on 39.5% of his dropbacks in the regular season, the eighth-highest rate in the NFL. Under pressure, Purdy threw seven interceptions in the regular season, tied for the fifth-most in the NFL.
Enter Steve Spagnuolo’s Chiefs defense. Not only is Spagnuolo’s 2023 defense. Including the postseason, they rank second in the league in scoring defense (16.8 PPG allowed), fourth in total defense (294.7 total YPG allowed) and first in sack rate (8.6%).
Chiefs defense this season including playoffs
Total YPG Allowed
* All top four in NFL this season
The Chiefs defense is playing this year is at an all-time great level, in the company of some of the best defenses in recent memory. They have allowed under 28 points in all 20 of their games, the most such games in a season in NFL history including the postseason. Each of the four teams to do so in all of their games in the Super Bowl era — the 2000 Ravens (all 19 games), the 2002 Buccaneers (all 19 games), the 2005 Steelers (all 19 games) and the 2010 Packers (all 19 games) — each won the Super Bowl.
In their last six games, which includes their entire playoff run and their last three regular-season games, Kansas City’s defense has been impenetrable in the second half and especially the fourth quarter. They have allowed one touchdown and only 19 points in their last six second halves, including no (none, zilch, zero) touchdowns and just six points in their last six fourth quarters.
How are they doing all this? Spagnuolo’s group is equipped with All-Pros at defensive tackle (Chris Jones) and cornerback (McDuffie) and plenty of youth that is growing into their own (George Karlaftis, tied for a team-high 10.5 sacks with Jones, defensive end Mike Danna, linebacker Willie Gay, linebacker Nick Bolton).
Spagnuolo himself has also shown the type of schematic flexibility that is necessary to adapt and survive throughout the playoffs. He is known as an aggressive blitzer, and the 2023 regular season supported that notion: The Chiefs blitzed on 37% of opponent dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Spags has become more selective with manufacturing pressure, blitzing on only 30.4% of opponent dropbacks, the eighth-highest rate out of 14 playoff teams.
He has varied round to round with his signature pressure-heavy game plans. The Chiefs blitzed 21 times total against the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills in the first two rounds of the postseason, but then they cranked it up against 2023 First-Team All-Pro quarterback Lamar Jackson with 20 blitzes against the Ravens. All 20 were unique blitzes, meaning each was different based on who blitzed, from where and with what coverage behind it, according to CBS Sports Research. Spagnuolo dialed up a Chiefs’ season-high 12 defensive back blitzes against Jackson to great results: 21 passing yards allowed and a sack taken on 3 of 10 passing.
Spagnuolo mixes it up
Chiefs blitzes this postseason
- vs. Dolphins/Bills: 21 blitzes (four with six+ pass rushers)
- vs. Ravens: 20 blitzes (seven with six+ pass rushers)
The Chiefs utilize the defensive back blitz more than anyone with 108 plays with it, and the fewest passing yards per pass attempt allowed (4.9) with the concept in 2023. When McDuffie is involved in pass-rushing, opposing quarterbacks struggle: 46% completion percentage, 4.2 yards per pass attempt and an 0-2 TD-INT ratio when McDuffie is in the pass rush this season.
They are allowing 13.7 points per game this postseason against opponents that combined to average 28.0 points per game in the regular season, tossing elite offenses 6 feet under round after round.
Chiefs defense this postseason
- Held Dolphins to season-worsts in points (7), yards per play (4.5) and third downs (1 of 12)
Miami had the longest active NFL streak of averaging 5+ yards per play snapped (17 games)
- Held Bills to their fewest yards-per-pass attempt (4.8) since 2021 and fewest yards per completion (7.2) since 2018
Buffalo had the second-longest active NFL streak of averaging 5+ yards per pass attempt (39 games) snapped
- Held Ravens to season-low 81 rush yards and fewest time of possession (22:30) of Lamar Jackson’s career
Baltimore had its longest active (also tied for fifth-longest streak in NFL history) with 100+ rush yards snapped (35 games)
Should the 49ers fall behind early like they have in their other two postseason games during these playoffs, they have the fewest time leading (27:30) of any team entering a Super Bowl appearance in the 21st Century, Purdy struggles and throws multiple interceptions against the Chiefs blitz.
Kyle Shanahan runs the ball in the fourth quarter
The 49ers head coach is an offensive wizard. In the Super Bowl era, since 1966, Shanahan’s offenses average the most yards per play (5.9) and yards per pass attempt (8.1) of any head coach, minimum 100 games as a head coach.
However, his game management for the vast majority of his tenure leading San Francisco since 2017 has been questionable. Entering this postseason, the 49ers were 0-31 down five or more points entering the fourth quarter. That was a situation they faced against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round, and they came back to win 24-21. They were also 0-19 down 17 or more points in the second half entering this postseason. The 49ers overcame that margin to win the NFC title game against the Detroit Lions 34-31.
Now he has just one more hurdle to overcome: his game management in the Super Bowl. Shanahan has made the Big Game twice, once as the offensive coordinator of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons and as the head coach of the 2019 49ers. Those teams combined to score NO points in the fourth quarter and/or overtime of those two games while their opponents (the 2016 New England Patriots and the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs) combined to score 46 points (Patriots 25, Chiefs 21). Shanahan presided over the Falcons blowing the largest Super Bowl lead ever, 28-3 against the Patriots, and the 49ers allowing a 20-10 fourth quarter lead turn into a 31-20 Chiefs victory.
The play-calling issue for Shanahan once achieving those leads is clear: not trusting his run game. He called pass plays on a 2:1 or higher ratio on his offensive plays in both of those games. Atlanta famously suffered a sack on second-and-11 up eight points in the final four minutes of their Super Bowl meltdown, which pushed them out of field goal range and prevented them from going up two scores with three minutes left to play. In the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl, Shanahan called 12 passes to just four runs after reaching a 28-3 lead. In the first 49ers-Chiefs Super Bowl, he called 12 passes to five runs after reaching a 20-10 advantage.
Entering this Super Bowl with the 2023 NFL Offensive Player of the Year at running back in Christian McCaffrey will result in Shanahan calling a balanced offense late into the Big Game for a change.
Travis Kelce nets 100 yards, TD vs. 49ers strong inside linebackers
The 49ers have allowed the seventh-fewest yards per catch (9.4), tied for the second-fewest receiving touchdowns (three) and the second-fewest yards after catch per reception (3.9) against tight ends this season in large part to the efforts of 2023 First-Team All-Pro inside linebacker Fred Warner and fellow linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
On the flip side, the Chiefs have Travis Kelce, a four-time First-Team All-Pro and a nine-time Pro Bowler, at tight end. Mahomes throwing to Kelce has resulted in the best completion percentage (80.9%) and the best passer rating (139.2) among 30 quarterback-receiver duos with 50 or pass attempts to each other in the last 15 postseasons. They have also connected for the most touchdowns by a quarterback receiver duo ever with 17, two more than the connection of Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski and their 15 as a tandem. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, they just click.
This is how their connection comes through in critical situations:
- 23/28, 14 TD in the red zone
- 18/24, 4 TD on throws of 15+ air yards
- 31/36, 5 TD when blitzed
- 30/41, 5 TD when pressured
Mahomes has completed 20 of his 24 passes to Kelce for 255 yards and a touchdown in three career games against San Francisco including their Super Bowl LIV win that capped the 2019 season
There has also never been a better playoff pass-catcher in league history than Kelce. His 156 postseason catches broke the previous all-time record of 151 set by the overall receiving GOAT Jerry Rice. Kelce is four playoff receiving touchdowns away from passing Rice’s postseason receiving touchdowns record of 22.
While San Francisco is top tier at defending tight ends, Kelce goes for over 100 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown against the 49ers on Sunday.
The 49ers limit Isiah Pacheco’s effectiveness
San Francisco has been historically horrendous against the run this postseason. They have the highest playoff rushing yards per game allowed figure (159.0) entering a Super Bowl since the NFL’s first Super Bowl champions, the 1966 Green Bay Packers.
They have also allowed a 90-yard rusher in consecutive games (Packers running back Aaron Jones and Lions running back David Montgomery) despite going 49 games in a row without allowing one, including postseason games, entering these playoffs.
That would seem to be a problem against Kansas City running back Isiah Pacheco, whose 451 playoff rushing yards are the sixth-most in a player’s first two seasons ever. He also has 75 or more scrimmage yards in all six of his career playoff games, tied for the fourth-longest streak ever with future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald and Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Walter Payton.
However, the 49ers stand tall on Sunday and limit Pacheco as the Chiefs’ best offensive lineman, 2023 First-Team All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney, will be playing at less than 100% or not all. He missed the AFC championship game against the Ravens after injuring a pectoral muscle near the tail end of their divisional round win at the Buffalo Bills. Thuney also didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday this week.
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