49ers vs. Chiefs: 10 observations from Super Bowl week, plus game predictions – The Athletic
By David LombardiFeb 10, 2024
LAS VEGAS — Anticipation for Super Bowl LVIII has hit a fever pitch.
Two weeks of intense buildup are nearing their conclusion, as the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will square off Sunday at Allegiant Stadium for all the marbles. Four years later, it’s a rematch of Super Bowl LIV, during which the Chiefs devastated the 49ers with a fourth-quarter comeback to win their second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Kansas City has since won another title, beating the Philadelphia Eagles in another dramatic Super Bowl last season. The 49ers, meanwhile, are still searching for what’s proved to be a highly elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy. Though they have recovered after that defeat in Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers have also incurred more brutal losses since then — including two straight NFC Championship Game defeats to close the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
“More fuel for the fire for this opportunity now,” 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said this week. “All the scars make this moment getting back here even more special.”
How does this 49ers-Chiefs rematch compare to their Super Bowl LIV showdown?
So far, this 49ers postseason has marked a reversal from the previous two in that they’ve come through in the NFC title-game clutch. That comeback win came against the Detroit Lions. Now, the 49ers aim to execute their ultimate reversal: the undoing of Super Bowl LIV, which would lead to the franchise’s first title in nearly three decades.
Here are 10 observations and our predictions for Sunday’s game.
1. Injury report: The 49ers listed tight end George Kittle (toe), defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot), linebacker Oren Burks (shoulder) and cornerback Ambry Thomas (ankle) as limited participants this week, but all of those players are expected to play in Super Bowl LVIII. Coach Kyle Shanahan specifically said the team has “no concerns” about the statuses of Armstead and Kittle.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs will be without first-team All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney, who was ruled out Friday with a pectoral injury. Nick Allegretti is expected to start in his place. Running back Jerick McKinnon (groin), a former 49er, is also unlikely to play.
2. In that case, the biggest 49ers advantage might come through defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, their big-ticket free agent acquisition in 2024 who’s delivered a productive season rushing the passer. Hargrave has worked primarily against opposing left guards.
Javon Hargrave has aligned at right interior defensive lineman on 92.8% of his defensive snaps this season (versus left guard), generating a league-leading 54 pressures from that alignment entering the Super Bowl (incl playoffs).#SuperBowlLVIII | #FTTB pic.twitter.com/Oy01uucksh
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 9, 2024
Hargrave, who was previously with the Eagles, lost last season’s Super Bowl to the Chiefs.
“I think the loss is the only thing I think about,” he said this week.
3. The 49ers are focused on the fact that the job won’t be done even if they do manage to generate pressure against Kansas City’s offensive line. That’s because superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes is among the hardest in the NFL to bring down.
“Pat sees the rush,” Hargrave said. “It’s going to take us all having a big game.”
Pro Football Focus tracks pressure-to-sack percentage. Two of the best three numbers in the league this season belong to Mahomes and his Super Bowl counterpart, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy.
Hardest QBs to sack this season
|1. Josh Allen
|2. Patrick Mahomes
|3. Brock Purdy
|4. Jordan Love
|5. Jared Goff
But note the discrepancy in passer rating while under pressure this season. That’s where the 49ers offense might have a significant advantage. Purdy’s rating of 85.1 ranked No. 4 in the NFL. He averaged 8 yards per attempt in such scenarios, which ranked second. Mahomes’ rating of 60.9 under pressure ranked No. 19.
Kansas City’s offense has been much more reliant on cleanly protecting Mahomes than the 49ers offense has been reliant on cleanly protecting Purdy this season.
4. The 49ers know that unlocking their pass rush will be a function of their run defense. It was downright bad for the first half of the NFC title game, during which the Detroit Lions racked up 148 yards on the ground.
In a 44-23 regular-season loss to the Chiefs last season, the 49ers allowed 112 rushing yards on 21 carries. Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco didn’t have a huge game, but his 43 yards on eight carries paced Kansas City and were enough to disorient the 49ers defensive front. Star edge rusher Nick Bosa appeared especially perplexed by some of coach Andy Reid’s lateral running motion. The 49ers defense, facing disadvantageous down-and-distance situations as a result, allowed 423 passing yards to Mahomes as a result. He threw from clean pockets for most of the afternoon.
To avoid a repeat of that, the 49ers must stymie the run early in the game. Perhaps they’ll even resort to some five-man fronts in the effort to do that. That can be the ticket to opening up the pass rush, where Bosa will work against Kansas City tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor.
Both have incurred several penalties this season.
“They hold a lot,” Bosa said bluntly last week.
There’s been much focus on the officiating crew, led by referee Bill Vinovich, as a result. Vinovich, who has a “let them play” reputation, also happened to be the referee of Super Bowl LIV.
Nick Bosa will need to make Patrick Mahomes uncomfortable for the 49ers to be successful Sunday. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
5. The 49ers’ Super Bowl spirit has reached Purdy’s hometown in Arizona, where a street has been renamed in the 24-year-old quarterback’s honor.
PerryPuma Dr ➡️ Brock Purdy Way
In a special unveiling ahead of #SuperBowlLVIII, Perry High School and the Town of Gilbert have renamed the street outside of Perry High School in honor of @49ers QB @brockpurdy13.
Students also received special shirts that will be worn Friday. pic.twitter.com/5QTeLMunO4
— Zach Alvira (@ZachAlvira) February 8, 2024
6. What will the final buildup to this Super Bowl look like for the 49ers?
There’ll certainly be nerves. Kittle will smack his helmet against the locker room wall on his way out, as is tradition. And cornerback Charvarius Ward will go through his own routine of attaining mental readiness.
“If you care about it a lot, you’re kind of nervous because you don’t want to let your teammates down,” Ward said this week. “I throw up before every game.”
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7. Ward and fellow cornerback Deommodore Lenoir have been very good this postseason. At least on paper, they have the edge over a Kansas City receiving corps that no longer has speedster Tyreek Hill — who badly burned the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.
Rashee Rice and Kadarius Toney are the Chiefs’ two top wide receivers. Marquez Valdez-Scantling, who had a big game against the 49ers last season, is a threat to go deep. But Kansas City’s offense is much less threatening downfield than it had been in years past. In fact, the Chiefs rank No. 24 in explosive pass rate.
It’ll be interesting to see how the 49ers man the nickelback position. Veteran Logan Ryan finished the NFC title game at slot corner after Thomas exited with an ankle injury. Might the 49ers opt for starting the 33-year-old Ryan, whose experience might be massive in a game like this? Ryan has won two Super Bowl rings in his career with the New England Patriots.
49ers are relying on the veteran savvy of safeties Logan Ryan and Tashaun Gipson Sr.
8. Neutralizing defensive tackle Chris Jones might be the 49ers’ most important order of business on offense. Jones ranks at the top of the NFL along with the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald in PFF’s pass-rush win rate among interior defensive linemen. Jones works primarily against right guard, but he’s also rushed against right tackle. In fact, he logged two sacks against the 49ers working from the exterior last season.
That puts a massive onus on 49ers right guard Jon Feliciano and right tackle Colton McKivitz in this game. Because Jones prefers to bull rush from the outside, it’ll be hard to provide McKivitz with chip-blocking help. The first-year starter will have to rise to Sunday’s occasion — and Purdy must be ready to continue delivering with his mobility.
Kansas City hasn’t been great up front outside of Jones, but its No. 7-ranked defense seems to be peaking at the right time. The key for the 49ers is to exploit the Chiefs run defense, which ranks No. 27 by DVOA. That’s because Kansas City’s pass defense ranks in the top five.
“They’ve got Chris Jones over there and (George) Karlaftis and a couple other good guys there,” McKivitz said. “They put it to the Ravens. They are a talented group, so it should be fun.”
9. Much has changed since Super Bowl LIV. Perhaps the biggest shifts have come via Kansas City’s loss of Hill (they traded him to the Miami Dolphins) and the 49ers’ acquisition of Christian McCaffrey (they traded with the Carolina Panthers for him in 2022). Those two moves, combined with the emergence of Purdy, have fueled the role reversal of the two offenses: The 49ers are now the league’s No. 1 unit and the Chiefs are ranked No. 8 by DVOA.
It’s been a particularly busy week for McCaffrey, who took some time off from Super Bowl preparation Thursday night to accept the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award.
Before he plays in #SBLVIII on Sunday, CMC takes home OPOY 🏆
📺: #NFLHonors on CBS & NFLN
📱: Stream on #NFLPlus pic.twitter.com/OkABDfKkVU
— NFL (@NFL) February 9, 2024
McCaffrey finished with 2,023 all-purpose yards, the most of any player this season by a wide margin.
10. An enduring image of the Super Bowl LIV aftermath remains a sobbing Bosa, who broke down in the 49ers locker room.
The star pass rusher underwent even more turmoil after that loss. He tore his ACL early in the 2020 season. But Bosa returned with a bang in 2021 and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2022. He’s roared back to this biggest stage. His journey is emblematic of the 49ers’ furious run over the past years, which now demands just one more win.
Perhaps Bosa’s current level of focus was best illustrated by Kittle, who said he and McCaffrey were the most angry 49ers after a false 6 a.m. fire alarm prematurely woke up the team at its hotel Thursday.
“You don’t want to wake the sleeping bear,” Kittle said of Bosa. “But Christian was not happy, too.”
49ers vs. Chiefs Super Bowl predictions
Matt Barrows: The 49ers say they have yet to play a truly complete game this season. The prediction here is that all their talent will finally assemble in the biggest game of the year.
David Lombardi: Everything has been covered from top to bottom in the lead-up to this game. That’s an iconic score in 49ers history, and this will become another iconic victory in 49ers history.
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(Top photo: Luke Hales / Getty Images)
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David Lombardi is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the San Francisco 49ers. David joined The Athletic after three years with ESPN, where he primarily covered college football. Follow David on Twitter @LombardiHimself