MIAMI — At some point we’ll play football. But every Super Bowl week, the NFL does an exceptional job of making you believe otherwise by creating this self-sustaining universe of football nonsense on Radio Row and elsewhere; it’s a fever-dream world of on-set, celebrity-infused slop that makes us long for the consumerist subtlety of an old fashioned ShamWow infomercial.
Anyway, now is a good time to remind you of what’s at stake on Sunday. While almost every Super Bowl is a gift—a game between two really good teams!—this one is particularly appetizing. Chiefs coach Andy Reid has one of the deepest file stashes of potent plays in football history. His offensive coordinator, Eric Bienemy, told me this week: “We collect ideas from what we’re seeing. It may not just be one thing, it may have been a few plays that have been successful throughout a period of time. We watch a ton of college football on Saturdays, and then you just want to study: What’s the next thing? Why are these guys doing so well? Let’s take a look at it. There’s no such thing as a bad idea, under coach Reid we remain flexible. Put it up on the board and whatever sticks we let it ride.”
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the most thorough playcallers in the league, has spent the entire season setting up a roulette game with his offense for Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to play. There are only so many places to allocate resources and wherever there are weaknesses, San Francisco has the personnel flexibility to attack them. Run game coordinator Mike McDaniel said this week that Shanahan—who, as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator for the 2016 season was (unfairly) blamed for the team squandering a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI—has been carrying around the lessons he learned that day for four years now. While young, he is more emotionally prepared than many coaches for the gravity of this moment.
“That loss, you learn a great amount from. But the biggest thing is that he’s applied his lessons from that throughout the entire season. This year we’ve played with a lead a little more often and he’s applied those lessons. It’s not like you go into the Super Bowl and say ‘Okay now we do X.‘ You’ll never forget—once you lose a Super Bowl you just never feel comfortable with a lead. That’s been every single game since 2016 that we’ve been carrying that weight. That’s a lesson you’ll always be mindful of.”
So what should you be keeping an eye out for, in what promises to be a classic? Here’s a few things…
1. The Deebo Samuel Effect
I picked the 49ers to win and for Deebo Samuel to get the MVP award. While this is one of the least based-in-facts things I’ll say during this preview, it’s that the Super Bowl is always ripe for birthing a star—the kind of player who is hyper-talented, maybe moreso than his opponents realize. I like Samuel because he can impact the game in so many ways. Shanahan has made the receiver reverse a part of his run game suite, almost to the point where teams have to fear him as much as they might Tevin Coleman or Raheem Mostert. Samuel is aggressive after the catch and the 49ers are already experts at building YAC situations in for their receivers on different calls. He can feast on a missed tackle. If the game hinges on one massive offensive play for the 49ers, there’s a good chance he has something to do with it.
2. Terrell Suggs and the Chiefs’ Pass Rush
I am always a fan of aging pass rushers or interior rushers in big games. Had it not been for the Falcons blowing a 25-point lead in 2016 we may have been talking about the impact of someone like Dwight Freeney in that game; had the Rams’ offense not been blanked, we may have been talking about Ndamukong Suh. In these moments, with two weeks’ rest and a legacy at stake, the Super Bowl can be a place where some of the most artful quarterback torturers of our time shine.
Suggs is not a tipping point for the Chiefs’ defense in the way Nick Bosa was for the 49ers’. There are still effective ways of slowing them down. San Francisco’s offensive line is stout and their complementary backfield pieces are among some of the best blockers in the league. That said, if there is a wildcard who emerges to force the 49ers to change some of what they’re doing and become less multi-dimensional, it might be one of the best and most studious pass rushers in NFL history who has had two weeks to deep dive into the offensive linemen he’ll face.
3. The Chiefs’ Big Decision on Defense
We saw the Green Bay Packers decide to respect Jimmy Garoppolo’s arm during the NFC championship game, which ended up costing them dearly. As time wears on, I’m not sure how much flak Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine deserves because, ultimately, if he allocated more resources to stop the run we would have made fun of them for getting beat deep by Samuel and the rest of the 49ers’ speedy receiving corps. This is the challenge the 49ers pose to every team, essentially forcing them to make a tradeoff before each kickoff.
Tyrann Mathieu will mitigate some of this because of his scheme versatility. The Chiefs can more easily morph because of his ability to bounce between cornerback and safety. But at the heart of their gameplan they’ll have to decide if they are more worried about what happened against the Packers two weeks ago, or what may happen if they bet against Jimmy Garoppolo.
4. Patrick Mahomes’s Targets Not Named Tyreek Hill
Perhaps we’ll hear more about Mecole Hardman or Sammy Watkins during this Super Bowl. Neither of the Chiefs’ last two opponents had a pass rush nearly as potent as the one San Francisco will unleash on Sunday. This means that Patrick Mahomes has less time to utilize his functional pocket mobility to buy time for his best players to get open. Tyreek Hill, normally the biggest beneficiary of such plays, might have to get more of his touches manufactured. It’s interesting that Hill was one of the players who supposedly broke the Seattle Cover 3 defense’s stranglehold over the NFL, but 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has had a few years to install various tweaks and traps to the defense which can help minimize the impact of a knifing speedster like Hill. Mahomes is good enough to beat any team under any circumstance, but it will be fascinating to see how he finds an edge under this particular circumstance. It’s not like there isn’t a weapon set behind Hill that would still be the best in the NFL without him.
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Gambling: Super Bowl 2020 Gambling Guide