The key to a Kansas City victory in the Super Bowl isn't where you think it is
MIAMI GARDENS, FL. - A lot has been written this week about the Kansas City Chiefs’ explosive offense and their magnificent quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Rightfully so.
But not enough has been written about the five players who may actually decide if the Chiefs win their first Super Bowl title in 50 years Sunday night. That’s because there is nothing sexy about the Chiefs’ front four combinations of defensive ends Tanoh Kpassagnon, Alex Okafor and Frank Clark and defensive tackles Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadt.
They are not feared like the Kansas City defense that won Super Bowl IV by dominating the line of scrimmage with Hall-of-Fame defensive tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, all-time All-AFL defensive end Jerry Mays and his sidekick Aaron Brown. Not to mention Hall-of-Fame linebackers Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell in the front seven.
That 1969 Chiefs’ defense was one of the best ever, and it smothered the heavily-favored Minnesota Vikings, forcing five turnovers and limiting Minnesota to 67 rushing yards, thus putting the fate of the Vikings in the hands of quarterback Joe Kapp.
That is exactly what those Chiefs wanted.
Now, 50 years later, the same scenario exists. The Chiefs want to create a situation where Super Bowl LIV turns into a shootout because they believe the only thing that can stop Mahomes and his big-play offense is for the 49ers to keep him on his back or on the bench.
Considering that the Chiefs allowed the third fewest sacks in the NFL this season (25) it’s more likely San Francisco might sit him down rather than knock him down. But to do it the Niners will have to repeatedly run over that Chiefs’ defensive front.
To control Mahomes the Niners need to do what they’ve been doing the past five weeks, which is to keep their quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s arm on ice.
That is not to suggest Garoppolo hasn’t been a significant part of the Niners’ success this season. But they did run more than they threw (498 to 476), and in their two playoff victories that became more imbalanced with Garoppolo throwing only 27 times for 191 yards while San Francisco rushed the ball 89 times for 471 yards.
That included a Bob Griese-esque eight throws in the NFC title game for 69 yards as the Niners trampled Green Bay’s defense for 285 rushing yards. That will be their approach again Sunday because that’s the matchup that favors the 49ers, and it’s the safest way to control Mahomes.
Lead back Raheem Mostert is no Joe “The Jet’’ Perry or Hugh “The King’’ McElhenney. He’s not likely to be remembered in San Francisco like Roger Craig or Ricky Watters, either. But he did rush for 220 yards and four touchdowns in that win over the Packers and led a balanced running attack this season with 772 yards and eight touchdowns.
While this may be the Era of the Pass, in San Francisco the offense runs first, plays suffocating defense next and only throws when the odds are heavily in its favor.
That approach has them 15-3 and one game from grasping the Lombardi Trophy. So it’s not likely to change on Super Bowl Sunday because running is what they do best, and stopping the run is what the Chiefs do worst.
San Francisco finished second in rushing yards per game this season at 144. The Chiefs’ defense ranked 26th against the run, allowing 128 yards a game. While many see this as the Niners’ defense against Mahomes, the true story may well be the Niners’ running game against Kansas City’s front seven (plus tacking machine Tyrann Mathieu at safety).
Certainly Mahomes could pass San Francisco out of its reliance on the run with the league’s fifth-ranked passing game, but to achieve that he’d need to beat the league’s top-ranked pass defense. That’s a difficult task against a defense that has allowed only 169 passing yards per game this season.
So while Mahomes may get his yards, they likely won’t come as easily as usual, which means the more shots he has at the Niners the better for the Chiefs.
How best to accomplish that? Limit San Francisco’s running game and thus its ability to control the clock. This post-season the 49ers have rushed for an average of 235.5 yards a game and 5.29 yards per carry. That success is why Garoppolo has thrown only 27 times, the fourth lowest over two playoff games in NFL history.
For context consider this: Mahomes has thrown over 20 times in both Chiefs’ playoff wins … in the first half.
Yet as important as Mahomes and his offense are to Kansas City’s Super Bowl chances, the Chiefs’ defensive front is their key to victory. Shut down San Francisco’s running game, and it forces Garoppolo to win a duel against Mahomes. That’s a gun fight no one in San Francisco wants to see happen.