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SUPER BOWL LIV: After a long, winding road, we’ve reached the end of football season and the pinnacle of the American sporting calendar. But with upwards of 150 million people expected to be watching worldwide, the Super Bowl has long crossed over from an American phenomenon to a global one, and football fans from every corner of the planet should be able to appreciate this matchup– Chiefs vs. 49ers; elite offense vs. elite defense; the game’s best young QB vs. the league’s top secondary; two innovative offensive minds with their own stories of Super Bowl heartbreak… the storylines go on.

But I think my favorite stat, the one that encapsulates just how good this game should be, is this one: over the course of his brief career, Patrick Mahomes has never lost a game by more than 7 points. Meanwhile, the 49ers didn’t lose by more than 7 anytime this season, and only trailed by more than 7 in the second half of a game once, a stretch which lasted just over 4 minutes. This is what a Super Bowl should be: the best of the best.

Here’s a quick rundown of what we can expect to see, and, of course, a fearless prediction:

San Francisco 49ers (15-3) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (14-4)

Line: Kansas City -1 (54.5)

Recent Trends (ATS= against the spread)

  • Chiefs are 10-4-1 ATS this season as a favorite
  • 49ers are 5-0 ATS this season as an underdog
  • 49ers are 6-1 ATS in their last 7 games vs. a team with a winning record
  • 49ers are 1-9 outright and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 postseason games as an underdog
  • Chiefs are 4-1 ATS in the last 5 meetings between these two teams
  • The betting underdog is 12-6 ATS in the last 18 Super Bowls
  • Jimmy Garoppolo is 8-3 outright and 9-2 ATS in his career as a betting underdog
  • The OVER is 5-2 in the last 7 Super Bowls
  • The OVER is 10-2 in games in which Patrick Mahomes faces a team with 10+ wins
  • The OVER is 4-1-1 in 49ers last 6 games overall
  • The UNDER is 4-1 in 49ers last 5 postseason games

When the Chiefs have the ball…

The Kansas City offense has looked close to unstoppable in these playoffs, racking up  86 combined points and 838 combined yards in wins over the Texans and Titans. They’ve done it mostly through the air, with Patrick Mahomes eviscerating defenses by spreading it out to his speedy wideouts and superstar tight end. But Mahomes and the Chiefs won’t find the going so easy in this game– the 49ers are elite defensively and are especially good in the secondary, allowing the fewest 10-yard and 20-yard pass plays in the league. In addition to excellent personnel in the defensive backfield, they also have a front four that is adept at applying pressure on opposing QBs without the assistance of a blitzing linebacker. This makes it feel like San Francisco defense is everywhere at once– your quarterback is under constant pressure, but the downfield coverage is airtight too.

Of course, the Niners aren’t bulletproof, and Mahomes and the Chiefs will provide a significant challenge. Emmanuel Moseley, the cornerback who starts opposite Richard Sherman in San Francisco, is a young player who has been picked on at times this season, and Kansas City coach Andy Reid is as good as it gets at creating mismatches and exploiting matchup advantages. With the speed of players such as Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Sammy Watkins and the physicality and all-around brilliance of Travis Kelce, Reid certainly has the pieces to get creative. But the Niners are used to teams trying to scheme away from Sherman, of course, and their go-to Cover 3 look makes it especially difficult for opposing offenses to push the ball downfield. Mahomes will have to show patience in this game, which is easier said than done when you have the likes of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford bearing down on you.

Remember: we’ve seen defenses somewhat contain the Kansas City offense this season; the Chiefs scored 26 points or fewer in 4 of their final 6 regular season games, and it’s not like they were resting players. But the opponents they’ve faced in these playoffs– Houston and Tennessee– were poorly equipped to slow down the KC passing attack, as they lack the requisite personnel in the secondary and indeed struggled with giving up big plays all season. The 49ers are the best in the NFL at preventing the big play, so this will be a different type of challenge for Mahomes. The Chiefs will move the ball, but the Niners will provide stiff resistance.

When the 49ers have the ball…

Though they certainly aren’t as dynamic as Kansas City, particularly in the passing game, the 49ers offense has improved over the course of the season and has lit up the scoreboard is recent weeks, averaging 32.3 points per game over their last six contests. Jimmy Garoppolo has shown the ability to carry the offense for stretches, such as when he out-dueled Drew Brees in the Superdome last month, throwing for 349 yards and 4 TDs in a 48-46 San Francisco victory. But the bread-and-butter of this 49ers attack is the running game, which is powered by an excellent offensive line and the schematic brilliance of Kyle Shanahan, who uses personnel groupings, pre-snap motion, and subtle design tweaks to keep defenses guessing and open up creases.

We saw the 49ers power rushing attack in all its frightening glory in the NFC Championship Game, when they ran over a decent Packers defense to the tune of 285 yards on 42 carries. Jimmy Garoppolo attempted a mere 8 passes as his team put up 37 points in a blowout win. The Kansas City defense did a decent job of bottling up Derrick Henry in the AFC Championship game, and tackle Chris Jones, their best interior defender, is healthy again after struggling with a calf injury in recent weeks. But even with Jones on the field, the Chiefs were terrible against the run throughout the regular season, ranking 29th in run defense DVOA and allowing a shocking 4.9 yards per carry. Obviously, those numbers should create tremendous concern when you’re about to face the Niners, who had the second-highest run rate in the NFL this season and are coming off one of the most dominant postseason rushing performances in recent memory. It remains to be seen how the Chiefs plan to stop the run in this game… your guess is as good as mine.

But it’s more than the running game that the Chiefs will have to worry about in this one– injuries in the secondary have limited how creative they can be with their schemes, and the linebackers are a liability in coverage. George Kittle has been close to uncoverable in recent weeks, and Emmanuel Sanders has emerged as the steadying, veteran presence that the receiving corps sorely lacked at the beginning of the season. There are no easy answers here for Kansas City– the Niners should move the ball consistently in this game.

Prediction

This is the classic “unstoppable force meets immovable object” matchup, with Mahomes and the Chiefs offense being the unstoppable force. They certainly made the Texans and Titans defenses look helpless, and in today’s NFL, with the offenses seemingly a step ahead of the defenses in most cases, it’s awfully tempting to ride with the hot hand and the game’s best young quarterback. But there’s just too much leading me the other way: the 49ers are better in the trenches, their defense is specifically designed to slow down pass-first offenses like Kansas City’s, and the Chiefs defense is poorly equipped to deal with San Francisco’s sophisticated-yet-simple power rushing attack.

San Francisco 31, Kansas City 23