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Super Bowl LIV could be a special one as high-scoring Chiefs face defensive-minded 49ers

By Mike Keeney

The first Super Bowl of the new century has the potential to be one of the best ones we’ve seen in recent years. SB No. 54 pits the high-scoring Kansas Chiefs, and one of the game’s rising stars in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, against this year’s Cinderella story, the San Francisco 49ers who turned a 4-12 finish in 2018 to a 13-3 (15-3 now after playoff wins over Minnesota and Green Bay) record and a NFC West title.

The game is scheduled for Miami on Sunday. Early weather forecasts call for showers in the morning, but clearing by the 5:40 p.m. Central Time kickoff on FOX.

This will mark the first time in 18 years that somebody other than Tom Brady (started last four Super Bowls), Peyton Manning or Ben Rothlisberger will quarterback an AFC team in the big game.

The Chiefs will be seeking their second Lombardi Trophy, while the 49ers will be looking for their sixth Super Bowl title, which would tie them with the Steelers as the only NFL teams with six Lombardi’s.

This game will also have a local tie, as former MacArthur High standout Richard Whitaker is the special teams coach for the 49ers.

Chief fans have waited 50 years for a return to the big game, while 49er fans have waited 25 years to get back to a game Joe Montana and Steve Young played in routinely back in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Unfortunately, we all know how the Chiefs got to Miami. They overcame a 24-0 first-half deficit to your Houston Texans in the AFC Division round, exploding for seven straight scores en route to a 51-31 thrashing of Bill O’Brien’s team (and the guy still has a job!). In that game, Mahomes threw five touchdown passes and in his team’s 35-24 over Tennessee, the surprise team of this year’s playoffs, he added another two scoring tosses and rushed for another on an amazing scramble to put his team ahead for good near the end of the first half.

In two playoff games Mahomes, who will be the only quarterback from a Texas university to start a Super Bowl when he steps on the field in Miami, has passed for 621 yards, thrown eight touchdown passes, and has rushed for 106 yards and one touchdown.

Mahomes, a product of Texas Tech University (disclosure, I am a proud Tech grad), has a plethora of weapons to throw to and hand off to. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill (5 receptions, 67 yards, 2 TDs in playoffs; 58 receptions, 860 yards, 7 TDs for season) is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, players in the league. Fellow wide receiver Sammy Watkins had a huge day in the AFC title game hauling in seven catches for 114 yards, including a game-clinching 60-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. And then there is tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce (13 receptions, 164 yards, three TDs in playoffs; 97 receptions, 1,229 yards in regular season, five TDs) destroyed the Texans with his three touchdown receptions and his Mahomes security blanket. The SF linebacking corps is one of the best in the league and has the speed and athleticism to cover Kelce.

But the Chiefs are not simply a pass team. Head coach Andy Reid, one of the brightest offensive minds for decades in the NFL, has a stable of capable running back led by Damien Williiams, who has scored four touchdowns in the post season (three rushing, one receiving). The Chiefs can also light up the scoreboard with their special teams, which is lead by speedy rookie return man Mecole Hardman. Look for Hardman to come up with a key return or two in this game and he might make some noise on offense.

The 49ers are no slouches on offense, but they would rather bludgeon teams with their potent running attack rather than throw over opposing defenses. Don’t get me wrong, quarterback Jimmy Garapollo (3,978 yards, 27 TDs in regular season) is capable of putting up Mahomes-like numbers, but Kyle Shanahan’s team is a run-first team as evidenced by the 287 rushing yards they put up against the Packers. The 49ers have a three-headed rushing attack of Raheem Mostert, Matt Brieda and Tevin Coleman. In their win over the Vikings, Coleman was the man with 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He sustained a dislocated shoulder in the Green Bay game, but he hopes to be ready for the Super Bowl.

Once Coleman went down in the Packers game, Mostert responded in spectacular fashion, rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns. For the postseason, Mostert has picked up 286 yards on the ground and the 49ers are averaging 236.5 rushing yards in post season play. If the Chiefs hope to win, they will have to slow down the running game early. KC can’t let Brieda, Coleman and Mostert gash them for big gains early. If that happens, Garapollo could have a field day in the passing game. In the NFC title game, Jimmy G, who ironically saw his first season with SF end in Week 3 at Kansas City in 2018 when he sustained season-ending knee injury, also has a stable of quality pass receivers to go to.

Like Mahomes, Garapollo’s safety valve is tight end George Kittle (85 receptions, 5 TDs), who has been quiet in the playoffs, but I expect him to have a big day in the biggest game he will have played in come Sunday in Miami. Kittle and Kelce are two of the top five tight ends in the league and expect both of them to put on a show in SB 54.

While Kittle handles the middle stuff for Garapollo, he has two quality wide receivers in veteran Emanuel Sanders (36 receptions, 502 yards, 3 TDs and rookie Deebo Samuels (57 receptions, 802 yards, 3 TDs). The 49ers also like to use Samuel on end arounds because of his blazing speed.

Because the 49ers had such ease running the ball against the Packers, Garapollo threw just eight passes in the NFC title game. I don’t think he will get that luxury in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are solid on defense and have a big and fast defensive front led by Chris Jones, Terrell Suggs (who KC claimed off waivers late in the season after Arizona released him) and Frank Clark. The front line and linebackers must slow down the SF running game early because if they don’t it could be a long day for Reid’s team.

Since their 35-32 loss at Tennessee on Nov. 10, the KC defense has allowed just 12.5 points per game, while the offense has averaged 32 points per game during their current eight-game winning streak.

There is no doubt the 49ers have the best defense of the two teams who are playing on Sunday. During the regular season and playoffs, that defense allowed just 18 points a game. SF has one of the best front sevens in the league led by defensive lineman Nick Bosa (9 sacks), Arik Armstead (10 sacks) and former Chief Dee Ford (6.5 sacks). As stated earlier, SF has an active group of linebackers who can roam sideline to sideline. As a unit, this defense recorded 48 sacks during the regular season and added six more in the playoffs.

The secondary is led by veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, who has brought a winning attitude with him from Seattle where he won one Super Bowl and played in another (losing to Brady and the Patriots).

While Mahomes and Reid have their work cut out for them, the mastermind head coach has had two weeks to prepare a scheme to attack the 49ers. I would not be surprised if the Chiefs come out running the football and if they are successful early, Mahomes should have plenty of chances to make big plays downfield to Hill, Kelce, Watkins and others.

I do think this game will live up to the hype and most assuredly should be a big improvement over last year’s bore fest that saw the Patriots win a defensive struggle against the Rams, 13-3.

One big key to this game will be how well Mahomes handles the pressure of playing in the biggest game of his life. He never had that opportunity at Tech and he will be facing the best defense he has seen this season. Garapollo has experienced the Super Bowl before, but that was as a spectator as Brady’s backup.

One big key to this game will be how well Mahomes handles the pressure of playing in the biggest game of his life. He never had that opportunity at Tech and he will be facing the best defense he has seen this season. Garapollo has experienced the Super Bowl before, but that was as a spectator as Brady’s backup.

I have a feeling Reid out coaches Shanahan, one of the top young coaches in the league, and comes up with a gadget or two that turns the tide in the Chiefs favor. Let’s just hope this one will be worth watching come Sunday. My pick, Kansas City 30, San Francisco 27