We’ve explored two possible scenarios for Sunday’s big game. One that envisions the Chiefs getting out to an early lead and pulling away, and one that foresees the Niners drawing first blood and holding on. Sure, we’re all guessing at how this one’s going to go, but I’ll start with this.
Most of the narratives that you think you know about these two teams are wrong.
Ask anyone on the street which team they think has the better offense, and every single one will tell you that the Chiefs are an offensive juggernaut while San Francisco lacks talent at the skill positions.
Ask the same people who they think has the better defense and they’ll almost assuredly say that the Chiefs are a soft defensive team, while the Niners D is an all-time great unit.
They’re wrong on both accounts.
You see, these teams are much, much closer than you think, and statistically speaking, the better team isn’t who you think.
Offensively, the Niners actually produced more yards per game and more points per game than Kansas City, and they did it on the strength of their run-based attack. The Niners ended the season among the league’s best offenses, averaging 381 yards (4th) and 29.9 points (2nd) per game. Kansas City isn’t far behind at 379.2 yards (6th) and 28.2 points (5th) per game. It’s close, but offensively, it’s actually San Francisco that has the edge. Not so surprising when you think about offensive-minded wunderkind Kyle Shanahan being the Niners coach. But if you watch any of the major sports networks, you’d think that San Francisco didn’t have an offense at all.
On the other side of the ball, all season long, we’ve heard about how San Francisco was among the league’s best defenses, while Kansas City looked to be limping in on the strength of their offense alone. Yes, San Francisco was the league’s stingiest pass defense, and based on yards per game they have the edge over Kansas City, 281.8 yards per game (2nd) vs. 349.6 YPG (17th). But yards don’t win games, points do. When you look at points allowed per game, Kansas City was the league’s seventh-best unit, allowing only 19.2 per game. San Francisco came in just behind them, allowing 19.4 PPG, good enough for eighth fewest in the league. Again, it’s close, but it just doesn’t fit the mainstream narrative about what this game should look like.
So, what will it look like?
I love the chess match that will be Patrick Mahomes and his receivers against that San Francisco secondary. It’s a tough unit, but they’ll have their hands full with the blazing fast Tyreek Hill, the hard to corral Sammy Watkins and their own matchup nightmare, tight end Travis Kelce. Richard Sherman headlines this San Francisco secondary, but at age thirty-one, he’s not as quick as he once was. The chances are, at some point he’ll make a few heady defensive plays, but he’ll also be a step late and allow a big play or two. This matchup of strength versus strength will determine whether Mahomes and the Chiefs can ultimately hoist the Lombardi Trophy, because if the Chiefs can’t move the chains by passing the ball, they will get blown out.
What about San Francisco?
They have a unique luxury in that their offensive strength, lining up in the I formation and then confusing defenses with pre-snap motion, has been kryptonite for Kansas City all year long. The Chiefs defense ranks twenty-sixth overall against the run, thought they have played better of late, especially in the AFC Championship game, when they were able to take Derrick Henry right out of the game.
Despite the recent rebound, the Chiefs still allowed a whopping 4.9 yards per carry this season, only the Browns, Jaguars and Panthers were worse. NFC Championship game hero Raheem Mostert will likely see the lion’s share of the carries for San Francisco on Sunday after his 220-yard, four touchdown performance against the Packers, who have been bad against the run all year, but still rank a few slots above the Chiefs in both rushing yards per carry and per game.
What about the X-factor?
Will Chiefs coach Andy Reid ask Patrick Mahomes to run the ball more than we’ve come to expect? It would be a deft strategy that might catch San Francisco by surprise. It’s possible, but I just don’t see Reid risking his franchise quarterback that way. Sure, he’ll have the offseason to recover, but if Mahomes gets popped and ends up in the concussion tent, this game is over. It’s too dangerous in both the short and long term to make Mahomes into a running back on more than a handful of designed runs and the occasional broken play.
So, where does all of this leave us? Who wins on Sunday?
Frankly, I think the best chance for a Chiefs win is for them to catch San Francisco off guard and pull away early. Sure, Mahomes can make miracles, but I simply wouldn’t bet on a big comeback for the third time in the playoffs, against this defense. If it’s a close game, I think it becomes advantage San Francisco. The Niners are a better-rounded team, and the fact that their strength lines up with Kansas City’s biggest weakness makes me think that they’ll be able to do what they want offensively.
Prediction: Mahomes provides the flashy highlights but stalls out at the wrong time late in the game. San Francisco does what they do, and it’s enough.
San Francisco 34
Kansas City 31
For more thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.
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