Top Storylines Ahead of Super Bowl LIV

With the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs set to meet in the Super Bowl, some household names and familiar faces give us a few juicy storylines.
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Conference championship Sunday brought an end to the postseason shenanigans. There were no upsets, no comically high-scoring matchups and not even any controversy. Mike Vrabel got the most out of his Titans team, and they put up a good fight against the Chiefs. Instead of ugly winning, Matt LaFleur and the Packers ugly lost to San Francisco, a repeat of their regular season result in that same stadium.

Chiefs vs. 49ers is a Super Bowl matchup to feel really good about. The best teams prevailed. The 49ers were the class of the NFC all season, and the Chiefs made it to the Super Bowl one year after never getting the ball in overtime in the title game against New England. It’s a top defense against an unstoppable offense. Here are the biggest storylines heading into the big game.

Is it possible to slow down the Chiefs offense?

It seems like the only way for an opposing team to stave off Patrick Mahomes and this Kansas City offense is to hope for several mistakes. Drops, a fumble, a scoop-and-score, a special teams blunder (like the fake punt fourth-down conversion the Chiefs gave up against the Texans). The Chiefs didn’t make enough of those mistakes Sunday, and the Titans couldn’t keep up with Mahomes and Co. As we’ve seen the last two weeks, it doesn’t matter if the Chiefs fall behind multiple scores; it’s not over. Against Houston, Mahomes led the Chiefs on a 41-point scoring run after they fell into a 24-0 deficit, and against Tennessee, a 28-point run after falling behind 17-7. Tennessee tried to extend drives as long as they could to keep the ball out of Mahomes’s hands. The Titans ate up nine minutes of clock on a 15-play touchdown drive. It still wasn’t enough.

This matchup is intriguing because this is not a rematch. The last time the 49ers and Chiefs played each other was a 38-27 Chiefs win at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 23, 2018. The two teams have changed dramatically since then, but that game is notable because it was the game when 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL.

The 49ers defense might be just the force to get to Mahomes. They minimized Dalvin Cook and the Vikings' run game in the divisional round. The pass rush erased Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s passing game in NFC Championship. San Francisco’s defensive front is tops in the league, and stocked with talented players. Pass rush is their strength, and pressure is the key to affecting Mahomes. Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa just might have the rare speed and agility to be able to catch Mahomes when he scrambles.

Is this the beginning of a long run of Chiefs dominance in the AFC?

The Chiefs are the new Patriots as the team to beat in the AFC. Mahomes is only 24 years old, and has a chance to become the first quarterback ever to win league MVP and a Super Bowl before the age of 25. The Chiefs are 27-8 with Mahomes as their starting quarterback, including the playoffs. The eight losses are by a combined 36 points, and Mahomes has never lost a game he started by more than seven. His contract extension this offseason is sure to be a record-setting deal that will make him the highest-paid player in league history and keep him in Kansas City for years to come and it’s hard to believe it’ll take 50 more years for another Kansas City Super Bowl appearance.

Which coach will avenge his infamous Super Bowl loss?

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan have both become inextricably tied to famous failures on the Super Bowl stage. Reid was last there 15 years ago as Eagles head coach. His Eagles lost to the Patriots, 24-21, and he was widely criticized for poor clock management. The jokes follow him to this day. Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator for Super Bowl LI, the play-caller for the most epic of all Super Bowl meltdowns, the infamous 28-3 incident at the hands of Bill Belichick’s Patriots.

"I remember every single play and I will go over those for the rest of my life," Shanahan said after he was hired as San Francisco’s head coach. "Everyone tries to compliment you, make you feel better, and it doesn't work."

Both Reid and Shanahan will be asked to re-live these games several times in the next two weeks, but only one of them will come out on the other side with a ring.

Will the 49ers have to throw the ball?

In the divisional round, Kyle Shanahan called 12 straight run plays to beat down the Vikings. It was more of the same against Green Bay. Jimmy Garoppolo completed six-of-eight passes for 77 yards, and the 49ers’ four touchdowns were all rushing touchdowns from Raheem Mostert. Shanahan turned a short field into a 37-yard touchdown drive without a single pass in the second quarter, and he called 32 more runs than passes on the day. This 49ers team has shown a willingness to lean heavily on the run game this postseason, and they’ll face a Chiefs defense coming off a solid run-stopping performance. Kansas City’s defense limited Titans star running back Derrick Henry to his least efficient game since Week 7 (3.7 yards per carry, 69 yards total). They accomplished that mostly by loading the box and trusting the defensive backs in man coverage with a lone deep safety. If the Chiefs replicate that strategy to contain Mostert, it might leave them vulnerable to shots from Garoppolo.

Clash of the tight ends?

Well, not really, since George Kittle and Travis Kelce won’t be on the field at the same time. But this matchup featuring the NFL’s top two tight ends will provide a talking point in the debate over who deserves to be called the best tight end in the league right now.

Kittle set a single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end in 2018 (1,377), narrowly beating out Kelce that same year (1,336). Though Kittle had just one catch in Sunday’s game, the third-year pro led the Niners in the regular season with 1,053 receiving yards and five touchdowns and was named first team All-Pro for the first time this season. Kittle is a better blocker than Kelce, and has been an integral cog in the 49ers’ powerful run game.

Seven-year veteran Kelce led the Chiefs in the regular season with 1,222 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Kittle’s 2019 season as a whole seemed to give him an edge over Kelce as the top tight end of 2019, but Kelce made his case in the postseason, with three touchdowns in Chiefs’ divisional round comeback against Houston. The Mahomes-to-Kelce connection is a rare thing of beauty.

These two offenses feature tight ends heavily, and Kittle and Kelce are the best in the business playing on the biggest stage.

Dee Ford revenge/redemption game

One year ago, Dee Ford was labeled a goat after the Chiefs lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. He lined up offside, negating an interception that would have ended Kansas City’s Super Bowl draught a year earlier.

This offseason, the Chiefs traded him to the 49ers and now guess what: He’ll face his old teammates in Super Bowl LIV.

It’s a little unfortunate that Ford will be forced to relive that play for the next two weeks, but this is what often happens when the media shines a spotlight on every possible Super Bowl story for two weeks.

Ford was injured for the end of the regular season, but returned in time to play about half the 49ers’ defensive snaps in their two playoff games. He’ll be one of the players tasked with slowing down the unstoppable Chiefs offense. Whatever happens in Miami, he’s already a player Chiefs fans will never forget.

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