If the San Francisco 49ers are going to be Super Bowl champions, it won’t take a herculean effort to beat the Kansas City Chiefs. Brock Purdy won’t have to go above and beyond what he usually does. The defense doesn’t need to hold Patrick Mahomes to 14 points.
The 49ers have proven in two playoff games that their margin for error is greater than any team in the league. Why? Well, the answer is simple. They have better players than the teams they go against. It’s why Deebo Samuel is in line for a monster game.
Samuel would be the best weapon on the roster for most teams, bar none. You can put together a case that he’s the third-best weapon on this team. Matchup-wise, it doesn’t get any better than Christian McCaffrey.
A running back was an MVP finalist in a league where quarterbacks dominate the headlines. If Samuel is the tone-setter, McCaffrey is the engine that makes the 49ers offense go. And he’s walking into another favorable matchup.
Before we get to what we already know about CMC, let’s talk about the Chiefs and how they’ll look to stop McCaffrey.
The foundation favors McCaffrey
For all of the talk about the 49ers run defense, Kansas City’s is worse. On the season, they allowed the fourth-most EPA on the ground and were sixth-worst in schedule-adjusted efficiency.
It doesn't get much better if we filter to the second half and exclude Week 18 — as that’s who these teams are. Kansas City was 24th in EPA per rush. They get gashed against the run. You can run on this defense. You have to.
In the AFC Championship, the Baltimore Ravens forgot to run the ball. It was bizarre. The week prior, the Buffalo Bills ran for 180 yards. On Christmas, the Raiders ran for 157 yards against the Chiefs.
I don’t have to tell you this, but the Niners running game is on another stratosphere than those teams. This will undoubtedly be the most difficult opponent the Chiefs have seen all season.
The Chiefs used a “heavy box” 60 percent of the time this season, the 10th-highest rate in the NFL. That’s nothing new for the 49ers. When you have McCaffrey, every team loads the box. But, contrary to popular belief, that plays right into the Niners’ hands.
The offense averaged the third-most yards per carry against a loaded box and led the league in EPA per rush and success rate against these fronts. McCaffrey is patient, waits for a crease, makes somebody miss, and 30 yards later, he gets tackled. The 49ers had an explosive play at the second-highest rate against heavy boxes this season.
This season's offensive output has been unlike any other, and McCaffrey is the main reason. Generally speaking, a running back is either explosive or efficient. McCaffrey is both. Plus, he was third in the NFL in yards after contact. CMC is the best of all worlds and has done a tremendous job of overcoming an offensive line that has been closer to mediocre as a unit than above average.
He’s a special player.
Kyle Shanahan would be wise to spread the Chiefs out using 21 personnel. That’ll get the linebackers out of the box and open up a few running lanes. McCaffrey is in store for a productive day at the office if so.
Kansas City was dead last in the league at defending running plays with light boxes in both EPA and success rate.
Shanahan is excellent at dictating the game. Sticking to the run will be paramount, and it’s something the 49ers did in the playoffs, even when they were trailing against the Lions and Packers.
Spagnuolo, living in heavy personnel and still being unable to stop the run, should expose the Chiefs' pass defense — another area where McCaffrey can hurt you.
When you typically think about how a running back is targeting in the passing game, you think of short throws where he has a two-way go.
We know the Chiefs will give the 49ers a heavy dosage of man coverage. L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie are two of the best at their position, but Kansas City has three other players to stop, and there are no answers for McCaffrey.
I envsion the 49ers coming back to this play, where it’s McCaffrey on a safety or linebacker.
That route combination is impossible to stop — provided that Brock Purdy has time to throw. McCaffrey as a third level threat is where he’s the most dangerous. Purdy is fantastic at beating the blitz and recognizing where the pressure is coming from.
He left yards on the field when targeting McCaffrey in the rain against the Packers. This time, the Purdy and McCaffrey connection will be why the 49ers offense stays ahead of the chains and why the Niners offense will look like the unit we’ve seen in the second half of the playoffs, just for four quarters.