The Mercury News
SANTA CLARA — The 49ers erased a 17-point halftime deficit, capitalizing on a slew of mistakes to beat the Lions 34-31 in the NFC Championship Game.
With the 34-31 victory, the 49ers are heading to Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII. They’ll meet Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium for a rematch of Super Bowl LIV in 2020, which the Chiefs won, 31-20.
It’s a meeting of the most transcendent player in the sport against the league’s best all-around team. Mahomes is armed with an elite defense, but the 49ers have All-Pro talent all over the gridiron.
The Chiefs have reached their fourth Super Bowl in the past five years, continuing their burgeoning dynasty with Mahomes. As a franchise, the Chiefs are 3-2 in the Super Bowl compared to the Niners’ five wins in seven appearances.
The 49ers open as two-point favorites, according to BetMGM.
How they got here
The defending Super Bowl champions went 11-6 in the regular season, their lowest win total in the Mahomes era. Despite the lackluster regular season, Kansas City crushed the Dolphins, outlasted Josh Allen’s Bills and limited Lamar Jackson’s Ravens to 10 points to reach the Super Bowl.
For the past two years, the Chiefs’ offense hasn’t been as dynamic without Tyreek Hill, but Mahomes has elevated his offense with supernatural playmaking ability. This year’s Chiefs defense is also likely the best the Chiefs have had since they drafted Mahomes.
San Francisco, meanwhile, earned the top seed in the NFC by going 12-5. They squeaked past the Packers in the divisional round before beating the Lions.
The 49ers were the only team in the NFL to rank in both the top five in offensive and defensive DVOA, an advanced metric that measures success compared to league average.
Both Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey had MVP-caliber seasons, and they are flanked by an All-Star cast of Fred Warner, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, Nick Bosa and Trent Williams.
The 49ers have much less Super Bowl experience than Kansas City, but there are several holdovers from the 2020 squad that fell short to the Chiefs.
Samuel, Kittle, Bosa, Warner, Kyle Juszczyk, Arik Armstead, and Mitch Wishnowski played in that Super Bowl defeat. They’ll again share a field with Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, Blake Bell and Harrison Butker.
Richie James returned kicks and punts for the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and now he’ll do so for the Chiefs.
And on the sidelines, Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will get a chance to stifle Shanahan’s 49ers again.
Keys for the 49ers
Both the Packers and Lions exposed some chinks in the armor of San Francisco’s defense. San Francisco will have to get more consistent pressure from their big names — Bosa, Chase Young, Randy Gregory, Javon Hargrave. If they don’t, that would put even more pressure on a shaky secondary that still has one starting position up for grabs (between rookie Ji’Ayir Brown and veteran Logan Ryan).
And then, there’s the Purdy question. The quarterback barely earned passing grades in the matchups against the Packers and Lions. If he plays to the same level in Las Vegas, Shanahan’s options as a play-caller could become limited.
Keys for the Chiefs
The Chiefs offense will need to be more balanced to move the ball against San Francisco. Not everything can fall on Mahomes’ right shoulder.
Against Baltimore in the AFC Championship, Kansas City went scoreless for the entire second half, although Mahomes threw a key strike to Marques Valdez-Scantling to put the game away.
Running back Isiah Pacheco racked up 68 yards on 24 carries. Including the postseason, the Chiefs are 12-2 in games Pacheco records at least 60 scrimmage yards.
What’s at stake
On pure production, Mahomes is already building a strong case to threaten Tom Brady and Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback to ever play. And just seven years into his career, he’s already amassing a legacy to rival Brady’s.
Mahomes already has two Super Bowl rings. Only Brady (7), Montana (4), Terry Bradshaw (4), and Troy Aikman (3) have won more than two. This will be the two-time MVP’s fourth Super Bowl appearance.
A Niners victory would give head coach Kyle Shanahan his first Super Bowl victory in three tries, including when he was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator in Super Bowl LI. The 49ers have been one of the most successful franchises in the sport since 2019, but a Super Bowl has eluded the franchise accustomed to winning.
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