NFL

Road to the Super Bowl: What Can We Learn from KC and SF’s Seasons?

A look back at both seasons for the Chiefs and 49ers leading into the last game of the NFL season.

January 29, 2024

The Super Bowl LVIII matchup is set, as the Kansas City Chiefs will face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Feb. 11 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. It’ll be a rematch of Super Bowl LIV, when the Chiefs won 31-20. But both the Chiefs and 49ers have many differences from those teams which squared off four years ago. As of this writing, the 49ers are -1.5 point favorites on Tipico Sportsbook.

This may not have been the most expected Super Bowl matchup going into the playoffs, but some saw it coming despite the bumps in the road that both teams experienced at various points this season. Below, we’ll examine each team’s journey from the beginning of the season to this point, and we’ll try to pinpoint trends that could prove pivotal in the outcome of Super Bowl LVIII.

Kansas City’s Season in Review

Coming off a Super Bowl LVII victory, the Chiefs had a pedestrian regular season by their lofty standards. Kansas City’s 11-6 record was the team’s worst in the Patrick Mahomes era, though you can excuse the Chiefs for being a bit bored in the regular season after making five consecutive AFC Championship Games – a streak the team extended to six this postseason. Kansas City quickly gave themselves some breathing room in the AFC West with a 6-1 start and ultimately won the division by three games, despite some inconsistency in the second half of the campaign.

Though there were some struggles, a key storyline down the stretch was the emergence of rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice as the top option in an otherwise underwhelming wide receiver room. In his last nine games (including the playoffs), Rice has compiled 63 catches for 741 yards and four touchdowns on 81 targets, giving KC a key complementary piece to the Mahomes-Travis Kelce connection through the air and the Isiah Pacheco-led rushing attack.

Come playoff time….defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense has been the better unit overall.

Kelce came 16 yards short of an eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season, but his slight decline in production was overshadowed by the influx of attention and support for Kelce and his teammates created by the tight end’s tabloid-filling relationship with Taylor Swift. Mahomes had a down year statistically with “only” 4,183 passing yards and 27 touchdown passes in 16 games, but the Chiefs had their best defensive showing in the Mahomes era, finishing as the NFL’s second-stingiest scoring defense by allowing only 17.3 points per game.

Come playoff time, Mahomes has taken care of the ball with a 5:0 TD:INT ratio, while defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense has been the better unit overall. In the Wild Card round, the Miami Dolphins looked like aquatic mammals out of water in frigid Arrowhead Stadium conditions, as the Chiefs cruised to a 26-7 victory.

Things got tougher, though not much warmer, in the divisional round, as Mahomes improved to 3-0 head-to-head against Josh Allen in the postseason with a 27-24 win in Buffalo. Despite a Mecole Hardman goal-line fumble breathing life into the Bills, a two-touchdown effort from Travis Kelce led KC to a win in Mahomes’ first true playoff road game.

The Chiefs were on the road again for the AFC Championship Game, where a hot start offensively (TDs on the first two drives) coupled with an opportunistic effort defensively (three forced turnovers, including L’Jarius Sneed’s forced fumble on Zay Flowers at the 1-yard line) helped KC hold on for a 17-10 victory in Baltimore. Mahomes’ three wins this postseason have improved his career playoff record to 14-3, and he’s seeking a third Super Bowl title in his fourth appearance.

San Francisco’s Season in Review 

Like the Chiefs, the 49ers built a nice cushion with a hot start before experiencing some mid-season turbulence. San Francisco started 5-0, then dropped three straight while battling numerous key injuries. After healing up during a well-timed Week 9 bye, the 49ers bounced back with six consecutive wins.

Even with an ugly Week 16 home loss to the Ravens, San Francisco clinched the top seed in the NFC prior to Week 18 with a 12-4 record, allowing the team to rest its key contributors in the season finale.

Second-year signal caller Brock Purdy (31:11 TD:INT ratio) and star running back Christian McCaffrey (league-high 1,459 rushing yards, 21 scrimmage TDs) both got some MVP buzz, but the poor showing against Baltimore coupled with sitting out the final game likely knocked both out of contention for the regular-season award.

San Francisco was at its best against other NFC playoff teams in the regular season, outscoring the Cowboys, Eagles, Rams, and Buccaneers by a combined margin of 141-66 prior to the meaningless 21-20 Week 18 loss to the Rams. Things got much tougher in the playoffs, though, as the 49ers were on the ropes against a pair of NFC North foes following a first-round bye.

Coming into the divisional round game against the Packers, Shanahan had a 0-30 record when trailing by at least seven points entering the fourth quarter.

The Kyle Shanahan era in San Francisco prior to this point has been defined by tremendous success – he has made at least the NFC Championship Game in four of the past five seasons, including this one – but a surprising dearth of comeback victories. Coming into the divisional round game against the Packers, Shanahan had a 0-30 record when trailing by at least seven points entering the fourth quarter. He picked a good time to get his first such win, as the 49ers scored 10 unanswered fourth-quarter points to turn a 21-14 deficit into a 24-21 victory over Green Bay.

San Francisco remained at home for the NFC Championship Game and needed an even larger comeback to get past the Lions. The 49ers took a 24-7 deficit into the locker room at halftime, but a curious decision by Detroit coach Dan Campbell flipped the momentum for good in the third quarter. After San Fran cut the Lions’ lead to 24-10, Detroit had a chance to restore a three-possession lead but instead opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 49ers’ 28-yard line.

The failed conversion was followed in short order by a 51-yard Brandon Aiyuk catch on a ball that bounced off a defender’s facemask, a six-yard Aiyuk touchdown catch, a fumble by Lions rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs, and McCaffrey’s second touchdown run of the game. In short, Detroit’s two-touchdown lead evaporated in just a 4:01 span following Campbell’s gamble.

Conclusion

Purdy heads into the Super Bowl with a 4-1 career playoff record, and the lone loss came when he got injured early in last year’s NFC Championship Game against the Eagles. McCaffrey has backed up his stellar regular season with a pair of two-touchdown performances in the postseason, but a San Francisco defense that allowed just 17.5 points per game in the regular season has been a bit suspect in the playoffs, with that marking jumping to 26 ppg.

The unit has shown up when it counts the most, however, as the Packers and Lions combined for only seven fourth-quarter points in the past two games.

For Shanahan to fill the Super Bowl-sized hole on his resume, the 49ers may ultimately have to rely on their newfound comeback ability…

Purdy has certainly proven adept at getting the ball to Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle through the air, but Plan A for San Francisco will be to feed McCaffrey against a Chiefs defense that excelled at defending the pass but allowed 4.6 yards per carry to running backs in the regular season.

For Shanahan to fill the Super Bowl-sized hole on his resume, the 49ers may ultimately have to rely on their newfound comeback ability, as the Chiefs have scored an opening-drive touchdown in each of their last eight playoff games.

But if they do fall behind, can the 49ers come back against a strong Chiefs defense? We’ll have more answers next week as we take an even deeper look at how these teams match up.

Sasha Yodashkin
Sasha Yodashkin has been contributing NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and Tennis content to RotoWire since 2015, with an emphasis on DFS. He is a huge New York sports fan who has been playing fantasy sports since middle school.
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