Super Bowl LVIII kicks off Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET in Las Vegas. These key battles within the big game will influence whether the Chiefs or 49ers rule the NFL.
Tremendous QB stories
The indomitable Patrick Mahomes has reached his fourth Super Bowl in five years, equaling what Tom Brady achieved last decade. Mahomes became an all-time great at warp speed. If the Chiefs repeat as champs – no NFL team’s done that since the mid-2000s Patriots – he will join Brady and Troy Aikman as quarterbacks who won three Lombardi trophies in their 20s.
Mahomes persistently coughed up the ball in 2023, tossing a career-worst 14 picks, but hasn’t made a single turnover-worthy play in the playoffs, per PFF. None of his last 203 passes in the postseason have been intercepted, meaning Brady’s record streak (237) could be broken Sunday. Mahomes avoided errors and was only sacked twice as Kansas City routed the Dolphins at home and edged the Bills and Ravens in demanding road duels.
Brock Purdy’s miniscule cap hit – 93 NFL QBs earn more money annually, per Over The Cap – enabled the 49ers to construct a stacked roster. His command of the offense, escapability when forced to scramble, and unflappability at 24 years old helped him guide that group to Vegas.
The last pick in the 2022 draft usually gets the job done. Purdy ranked in the top five in completion rate (69.4%), passing yards (267.5 per game), touchdowns (31), and explosive 20-plus-yard completions (72, the NFL high). The Lions intercepted a poor throw in the NFC title game, and another floater struck a cornerback’s hand and facemask before Brandon Aiyuk dove to snatch it. The improbable 51-yard gain sparked a major Niners comeback.
Chiefs’ defensive excellence
In an NFL first, no opponent scored 30 points against Kansas City over 20 regular-season or playoff games, per Stathead. A superb defense that ranked second in yards and scoring kept the Chiefs in every matchup and quieted talented offenses.
En route to the Super Bowl, K.C. surrendered 41 points (13.7 per game) against quality Miami, Buffalo, and Baltimore teams. Only 10 of those points were scored after halftime. Clutch takeaways in the AFC title game – the Chiefs stripped Lamar Jackson, forced a touchback fumble at the goal line, and intercepted Jackson when he passed into triple coverage – offset the K.C. offense’s second-half slowdown.
The Chiefs pester passers. Ranking second in sacks (57) and quarterback hits (125) this season helped them force the fifth-most punts, face the third-fewest field-goal attempts, and allow fewer scrimmage touchdowns than every team except Baltimore, per Pro Football Reference. Their four takedowns of Jackson in the conference championship included a sack on a safety blitz that pushed the Ravens out of kicking range.
The 49ers are a great foil. Boasting enviable depth, they were the sixth offense in the Super Bowl era to field four 1,000-yard playmakers, per Stathead.
The San Francisco defense is gifted, too. Edge rusher Nick Bosa’s seven QB hits (to go along with two sacks) top the playoff leaderboard, per PFF. The ballhawks around him forced multiple turnovers in seven of 11 Niners games from November through January.
49ers’ rushing edge
Pounding the ball upfield is a literal strength for the 49ers. Fronted by powerful linemen, their run blockers earned the highest collective PFF grade this season. Christian McCaffrey led the NFL in rushing yards gained before contact (853) and was second in yards after contact (606), showing he’s hard to catch and bring down.
McCaffrey leads all playoff rushers in touchdowns (four) and missed tackles forced (12). During the regular season, the Niners ran for more yards than the NFL team average (112.7) in 15 matchups. Their run defenders held 14 opponents below the average total, partly because they dissuaded clubs from testing them and faced the fewest rushing attempts.
Slumping lately, San Francisco surrendered big gains in the NFC playoff rounds. Tacklers whiffed as Packers running back Aaron Jones scampered for 53 yards, Lions wideout Jameson Williams scored on a 42-yard end around, and Detroit back Jahmyr Gibbs tiptoed into the end zone from 15 yards out.
Like McCaffrey, Chiefs lead back Isiah Pacheco housed a rushing TD in each of his last four playoff outings. Their streaks are tied for the 11th-longest in postseason history, per Stathead. Shouldering a heavy load, Pacheco’s 24 carries apiece against the Dolphins and Ravens helped K.C. set the tempo and dominate possession in those wins.
Telltale team stats
The 49ers outperformed the Chiefs this season in three notable ways:
Turnover margin: San Francisco’s 28 takeaways and 18 giveaways produced a plus-10 differential. Compiling the inverse stat line, Kansas City committed 28 giveaways with 17 takeaways to finish minus-11. The Chiefs didn’t win the turnover battle in any game between Week 6 and the conference championship.
Red-zone scoring: The Niners’ 67.2% touchdown rate led the league. The Chiefs crossed the plane on 54.1% of trips, which ranked 17th. San Francisco bagged a dozen more TDs in the situation (45-33) despite only visiting the red zone six more times (67-61), per Pro Football Reference.
Second-half scoring: The 49ers tallied an extra touchdown per week in second halves. They averaged 14.1 points to the Chiefs’ piddling 7.6, per Team Rankings. Many offenses cool after halftime – teams in the lead run the ball more, and trailing clubs force throws that get picked – but Mahomes’ unit only managed to outscore the lowly Jets, Titans, and Patriots.
The Chiefs gained 6.3 yards per play in first halves – the equivalent of ranking third in offense. Their average second-half play gained 4.8 yards, which was akin to ranking 28th. Mahomes’ completion rate (62.7%) and passer rating (85.7) after halftime resembled Gardner Minshew’s modest output over full games.
Counting the postseason, the Chiefs are 12-2 when they lead or are tied at the break. Halftime deficits led to four defeats, though they came back to beat the Bengals on New Year’s Eve and the Bills in the divisional round. Because of the defense’s impenetrability, they fended off the Ravens despite punting on five straight second-half drives.
Secondary MVP candidates
Quarterbacks tend to be the Super Bowl MVP. Their 32 triumphs in 57 tries include 14 wins this century. Mahomes has been honored twice already.
Five wideouts, three linebackers, and a safety have swiped the award since 2000. Gaudy stats draw attention to unconventional candidates. Star defenders sometimes prevail when the opposing offense is silenced.
The following pass-catchers and defensive weapons could conceivably swing the game and garner votes:
Travis Kelce: The Chiefs tight end leads the NFL in playoff receiving touchdowns (three) and catches (23 for 262 yards, or 87.3 per matchup). His 11 grabs on that many targets in the AFC title game included some acrobatic snares in close coverage. Heating up, Kelce just scored in consecutive games for the first time since September.
Aiyuk: Explosive when Purdy eyed him this season, the 49ers’ top wideout ranked seventh in receiving yardage (1,342) while placing second in yards per catch (17.9) and yards per target (12.8). Aiyuk’s huge gain against the Lions accounts for half his playoff production (100 yards) to date. He has one more shot to break open a massive game.
George Karlaftis: The Chiefs edge rusher grabbed a fumble against the Ravens and has 2.5 playoff sacks despite failing to generate consistent pressure. Karlaftis’ pass-rush win rate in January was 7.3%, down from 12.7% this season, per PFF. That said, paths to Purdy will open if nose tackle Chris Jones destabilizes the 49ers’ offensive line from the interior.
Fred Warner: The All-Pro linebacker has anchored strong Niners defenses since 2018, back when Jimmy Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard, and Nick Mullens quarterbacked the squad to four wins. Warner earned his position’s top PFF grade in 2023 by making the kind of splash play (four interceptions, four forced fumbles) that, if timed well, can complete a championship quest.