Welcome to the Super Bowl edition of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted look at Sunday’s matchup between the Chiefs and 49ers.
Yeah, I know. I miss them being there, too. I don’t believe the vast majority of Patriots fans have taken the last two decades of unprecedented NFL excellence for granted. But if you were among those who did, the past couple of weeks have hopefully jolted you awake like the first burst of cold water from the shower in the morning.
The deep postseason runs in this era — including 13 AFC title game appearances, nine trips to the Super Bowl, and six Lombardi Trophies hoarded — had become so familiar, so much a part of our January and early February routines, that since their loss to the Titans in the wild-card round it’s been weird to watch the postseason play on without them. But here we are. Hopefully it’s not the new normal, but at the least it should lead to deeper appreciation of what has been.
Not that a soul outside of New England sympathizes, of course. Fans of the 31 other NFL teams are probably thrilled to have a Super Bowl without the Patriots for the first time since the 2015 season. And it should be a terrific one, matching up teams with contrasting styles — the hard-running NFC champion San Francisco 49ers (15-3), and the high-flying AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs (14-4) — but both already having built a strong case as the league’s best team this season.
The Chiefs, led by 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, already one of the most dynamic quarterbacks the league has ever seen, feature a rapid-fire passing offense that averaged 28.2 points per game during the regular season and was limited to fewer than 23 just once, in Week 5 against the Colts. The Chiefs came from behind in both of their playoff wins — including digging almost effortlessly out of a 24-0 hole in the divisional round against the Texans — and there is a team-of-destiny feel about them as they try to get popular coach Andy Reid his first Super Bowl victory.
But the 49ers, featuring a ferocious defense and a relentless running game, are fully capable of ruining the Chiefs’ grandest dreams. The Niners are coming off a 37-20 dismantling of the Packers in the NFC title game in which journeyman running back Raheem Mostert trampled the Green Bay defense for 222 yards and four touchdowns.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw just eight times in the game, completing six, but the onetime presumed successor to Tom Brady with the Patriots is more than a game manager. He threw for 250 or more yards seven times during the regular season. The 49ers won all seven of those games. The Niners lost by a total of just 13 points in their three defeats.
This is the first championship appearance for the 49ers since their 34-31 loss to the Ravens in the Super Bowl in February 2013. A win would tie them with the Patriots and Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins with six. The wait has been considerably longer for the Chiefs, who haven’t reached the title game since their 23-7 win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV in January 1970.
Kick it off, Butker (or Wisnowsky), and let’s get this thing started . . .
Grievance of the week
This only becomes a grievance if you pay it no mind. Right now, it is merely a plea: Should the 49ers prevail Sunday, and should their talented young quarterback perform well, please don’t suggest the Patriots made a mistake by keeping Tom Brady and trading Jimmy Garoppolo during the 2017 season. They could not keep both without gutting the roster’s quality and depth, and Garoppolo, after winning two championships in three years as Brady’s understudy, wanted a huddle of his own. The Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl that season, where Brady threw for 505 yards and the defense couldn’t stop anyone wearing the Eagles’ logo. The next season, Brady and the Patriots won their sixth Lombardi. It would have been great if they could have kept both. It just wasn’t possible. One more Super Bowl win in two trips justifies how they handled it.
Three players I’ll be watching not named Jimmy Garoppolo
Patrick Mahomes — Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was phenomenal this season, throwing a league-high 36 touchdown passes, rushing for 1,206 yards, and threatening every time he touched the ball to deliver another how-did-he-do-that? highlight. He’ll be the league MVP, and he deserves it. But if you could swipe any quarterback in the league to add to your favorite franchise, he’s no higher than the second pick. The No. 1 pick has to be the 24-year-old Mahomes, whose skill set is some drool-worthy combination of the best of Brett Favre and Russell Wilson. Mahomes has a rocket arm, remarkable deftness in the pocket, and zips the most accurate no-look passes since Magic Johnson. He also happens to be surrounded by a fast, deep complement of talent that ideally suits his skill set, with speed demon Tyreek Hill and annoyingly dependable tight end Travis Kelce at the forefront. In his third season, Mahomes has been nothing short of brilliant in the postseason, with eight touchdown passes, no interceptions, and 615 passing yards in victories over the Texans and Titans. He also has a touchdown run in the playoffs, a dazzling, game-changing 27-yarder just before halftime in the AFC Championship game, a play you’re going to see on highlight reels forever. It would not surprise me whatsoever if this game serves as his official coronation as the NFL’s next great big-game quarterback.
George Kittle — Watching the 49ers tight end do his quasi-Gronk routine over the past two seasons, during which he’s totaled 173 receptions for 2,430 yards and 10 touchdowns while also chucking more than his share of would-be tacklers out of the club, I was left with one question: How in the world was this guy just a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft? He’s not huge (6 feet 4 inches, 250 pounds) for a tight end, but he’s big enough, and he’s such a menace as a blocker that he’d be in the league even if he wasn’t basically 1986 Mark Bavaro as a receiver. He’s a much more complete tight end than the Chiefs’ Kelce . . . and yet he was passed up for four rounds in the draft? We know that happens sometimes — think of that 199th pick in 2000 — but it’s still hard to fathom given how obvious his talents are. A little digging suggests one factor more than any other: He wasn’t especially productive in Kirk Ferentz’s ground-and-pound offense at Iowa, where he had 48 catches for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns in his entire career. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has said that they thought he was one of the best, if not the best tight end, in the draft that year, acknowledging that they had him pegged as a third-round pick. Still, they didn’t take him until Round 5, with the second of their two third-round picks spent on his Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard. The Patriots took three players ahead of Kittle in their thin ’17 draft class: Derek Rivers, Tony Garcia, and Deatrich Wise. It’s tempting to blame Ferentz for failing to tip off Bill Belichick on what he had in Kittle. Perhaps he didn’t know, either.
Richard Sherman — The lasting image in these parts of Sherman at a Super Bowl came after Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX in February 2015, when the NBC cameras caught the joy of expected victory melting right off his face, a slow-motion “Nooooooo!’’ succinctly summing up Seattle’s feelings at the moment. Sherman is an accomplished player, a probable Hall of Famer with one Super Bowl ring already to his credit. But he gets a chance to enhance that résumé with a stellar performance Sunday against Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and the lightning-bolt Chiefs. Sherman has had a phenomenal season, allowing just a 46.8 passer rating for a Niners defense that allowed a league-low 169.2 passing yards per game. They haven’t faced a test like this all season, but if Sherman and the 49ers pass it, he’ll have that second ring he thought he was getting five years ago.
49ers running back Raheem Mostert vs. Chiefs defensive line
According to his pro-football-reference.com page, Mostert has been cut or waived 10 times by six teams (Ravens, Browns, Jets, Dolphins, Eagles, Bears) in his five-year NFL career. In his first three seasons, he ran for a total of 36 yards in 25 games spread over five teams (including the Niners; he never saw the field for the Jets). He still has never started an NFL regular-season game.
I’m not sure Mostert’s 220-yard, four-touchdown outing
against the Packers in the NFC Championship game was the most improbable, sensational performance by a running back in NFL history. It’s tough to top the obscure Timmy Smith’s 204-yard performance in the Redskins’ 42-10 rout of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII in January 1988. Mostert has had his moments this season as part of the 49ers’ three-headed (or six-legged) running back rotation, including 146 yards against the Ravens in Week 13. But that level of dominance he showed against the Packers was, to say the least, unexpected.
This game could well come down to how well the Chiefs’ run defense deals with Mostert, Matt Breida, and, if he’s a go, Tevin Coleman (who suffered a dislocated shoulder against the Packers). For much of the season, the Chiefs’ run defense appeared to be a weakness. But Patriots discard Mike Pennel and veteran Terrell Suggs, picked up after he was let go by the Cardinals, have helped steady a defensive line that is led by pass rushers Chris Jones and Frank Clark. And the group is coming off its most impressive performance of the season, having held the Titans’ Derrick Henry — who had rampaged on the ground like the second coming of Earl Campbell in Tennessee’s wins over the Patriots and Ravens — to 69 yards on 19 carries. It was the first time since Week 8 that the Titans were held to fewer than 100 rushing yards.
That Chiefs run defense was just 26th in the league during the regular season (128.2 yards per game, 4.9 per carry). But they allowed just 89.5 yards per game during their wins over the Texans and Titans. Dealing with Mostert and the Niners’ speedy backfield, which has totaled more than 180 rushing yards in both playoff wins, is a different challenge than shutting down the physical Henry. Whether they’re up for it will go a long way in determining whether the Chiefs leave Miami with their first Super Bowl win in 50 years.
So, who does a Patriots fan root for Sunday? Patrick Mahomes, whose performances might be the best show in sports right now, is the most likable thing about the Chiefs other than perhaps Andy Reid, who gives off an authentic everyman vibe as their coach. But the Chiefs may lead the league in Scumbag Quotient, with Tyreek Hill, Terrell Suggs, and Frank Clark all having off-the-field incidents so ugly that sometimes you wonder how anyone can rationalize rooting for these guys. The 49ers are the more likable team from the local angle — genial Jimmy Garoppolo was very easy to like during his time here, general manager John Lynch was a Patriot for a moment, and Kyle Shanahan’s lauded aggressiveness was a huge factor in the Patriots’ comeback from 28-3 against the Falcons in the Super Bowl three years ago.
On paper, this does look like a matchup of contrasting styles, with the Chiefs’ explosive offense (and improved defense) taking on a 49ers team that has relied on the run and a bone-rattling defense to make it this far. I do wonder if that’s how it plays out, though. It wouldn’t surprise me if Shanahan, who vows to be aggressive, will let Garoppolo throw more than we expect. And the Chiefs will have a few tricks of their own, too. Maybe that will even include Reid mastering the game clock in what should be tense final minutes. These teams aren’t much alike, but they’re truly excellent in their own exciting ways, and they’ll both remind us Sunday that they deserved their place in this game. Expect a classic. Chiefs 35, 49ers 31