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Why the 49ers will be Super Bowl champions

From history to the spot to the playoffs, numerous signs point to a 49ers victory.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

It’s Friday before the big game. By Wednesday, it felt like we were at the “analysis paralysis” since there was a week off between the Championship round and the Super Bowl. You’ve heard every angle between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

I’ve been asking those without a rooting interest around Vegas how they think this game will play out. There’s an overwhelming support for the home team in this game. Some approach this from the surface level, asking, “How can Patrick Mahomes lose to Brock Purdy?” Others have gone way out of left field, tying Gematria into the equation as to why Kansas City will prevail.

Plenty of respectable, intelligent people do this for a living and believe the Chiefs have enough significant advantages in this game to hoist the Lombardi Trophy come Sunday evening.

Oddly enough, I’m more confident that the 49ers will win this game than the previous two playoff games, even though San Francisco was expected to beat the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers by a touchdown.

The spot

Kyle Shanahan spoke on Thursday and said he doesn’t feel like the 49ers have played their A-game all season. He said the team came close against the Dallas Cowboys early in the season and again in the second half against the Philadelphia Eagles.

There seems to be a belief that if the 49ers don’t play their A-game on Sunday, they won’t be victorious. That thought process is off and not rooted in any facts we’ve seen this season. Plus, after winning a pair of playoff games with their C- game, it’s fair to assume we’ll see closer to a B/B+ effort — at worst — from Shanahan’s squad.

I love tying betting lines to how teams have performed in similar spots historically. But you have to be careful doing that. For example, if the information we’re using doesn’t involve Shanahan or Brock Purdy playing, then it’s useless or skewed to some degree that’ll throw off the data.

The Niners opened as 1.5-point favorites, and the number has held steady at 2 since the opener. The 49ers have excelled, unlike any team in this small favorite role. When San Francisco was favored by less than four points, they were 7-0 straight up and against the spread with Purdy and Shanahan. Here’s how it has gone this season:

Week 1: -1 @ Pittsburgh - Won 30-7
Week 5: -3.5 vs. Dallas - Won 42-10
Week 10: -3 vs. Jacksonville - Won 34-3
Week 13: -3 vs. Philadelphia - won 42-10

Dating back to last year, the 49ers are beating oddsmakers’ expectations in this scenario by an incredible 16.25 points per game. It’s also worth pointing out that these aren’t “scrub” teams the Niners are playing. Six of the seven wins were against playoff opponents, and the Jaguars were on the cusp of making it this year.

That tells me Shanahan is an excellent motivator in these spots, and the team takes it as disrespect when they’re viewed as equals to opponents. That’s the case on Sunday.

Conversely, in sports, letdown and revenge spots are a real thing. The Buffalo Bills had beaten the Chiefs earlier in the season. I’d argue that Kansas City’s win over Buffalo in the Divisional round was their best game of the year. Then, they follow that up with another upset win.

If you dig through historical data and see how teams have fared off multiple upset wins and how the 49ers have played against them, the Niners are 8-1 in those situations. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are the opposite. When they’re facing a team that won but struggled to do so — aka failed to cover the spread like the 49ers have the past two weeks, they’re 1-10 in those games under the mighty Patrick Mahomes.

So, yes, the Chiefs and Mahomes have been notably good as an underdog. But that’s usually when they’re facing a team that’s coming in “riding high” and “hitting on all cylinders,” much like the AFC Championship.

All week, Shanahan has been answering questions like, “How painful has it been losing two Super Bowls?” The players on the Niners have been bombarded with questions about slow starts on offense or poor effort defensively.

After leaving little doubt about who the best team was during the regular season, many have soured on the 49ers in the playoffs. This game sets up perfectly for the Niners to remind everybody who they are.

One thing to keep an eye on when the 49ers throw the ball

Steve Spagnuolo has the utmost confidence in the Chiefs’ secondary to tackle. They’re among the best in the NFL at limiting yards after the catch and getting you on the ground 1-on-1.

When they’re in man coverage, their cornerbacks are physical and terrific at throwing the timing of the routes off for the opposing receivers. Kansas City is also as battle-tested as they come. This passing defense has faced eight top-10 passing offenses and performed well in each game.

L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie are objectively studs at cornerback. But they’re running into a different beast this week. Zay Flowers, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill all struggled to consistently get off the line of scrimmage.

I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that Brandon Aiyuk or Deebo Samuel are better receivers than the three mentioned above. But, from a physical standpoint, it’s not close. And there’s no way to simulate going against those two or Jauan Jennings every play.

You can’t take a play off against that trio, or George Kittle. So, on running plays, it’s a boxing match. Then, once it’s time to cover them, you’ve already been punched a couple of times, and the idea of doing it again isn’t as appealing.

Go down the list of skill players the Chiefs have seen. Then, with a straight face, convince yourself they’ve seen this.

25-year-old Jaylen Watson — a 7th-round pick in 2022, is a player I expect Shanahan and Brock Purdy to prove they can make a tackle. Honestly, the same is true for Sneed and McDuffie. The Chiefs are good on paper, but the Ravens, Bills, Dolphins, Bengals with a backup quarterback, Raiders with a backup quarterback, and Patriots with a backup quarterback are the last six games.

Spags will do everything to put the ball in Brock’s hands and force him into a mistake in the face of pressure. Purdy played four games against top-10 passing defenses and threw eight interceptions. That’s a popular talking point for those in favor of the Chiefs. Context matters here. If Deebo didn’t play, throw that data point out.

San Francisco is 15-1 when Purdy, Samuel, and CMC play. Deebo was named after a bully. On Sunday, in the passing game, for the first time, the bully will get bullied. How? By being aggressive on early downs through the air to Deebo and Christian McCaffrey.

It’s how Shanahan can offset Spags’ blitz packages and put the ball in the hands of his best players, where Deebo has a monster advantage, and McCaffrey isn’t far behind.

This isn’t going to be a Samuel/McCaffrey versus Sneed/McDuffie game. The 49ers have been tackled by defensive backs the fewest times in the NFL this season. They live in the middle of the field. It’s the easiest way to get a receiver open, according to Shanahan:

San Francisco’s skill players have been tackled by a linebacker more than any team in the league. It’s a Drue Tranquill, Nick Bolton, and Leo Chenal game for the Chiefs. Take that trio over Samuel-McCaffrey-George Kittle at your own risk.

I still can’t shake that Baltimore game, where the Ravens outgained the Chiefs by 1.5 yards per play. But everyone sees ten points and assumes Baltimore was shut down.

I’ll bet against another multi-turnover game from Purdy and the team with the most explosive offense in the NFL to continue to thrive against a team that lives in man-to-man coverage but hasn’t faced a team with multiple receiving threats who excel once the ball is in their hands.

Overreaction defensively

The Niners’ offense has been as good or better than they were in the regular season. While it makes sense for Shanahan to be aggressive on early downs, he’s not going to shy away from the run.

The Ravens had an embarrassingly bad game plan against the Chiefs. The best running team in the NFL had a 79 percent first-half pass rate. That’s not who Shanahan is.

But the overreaction comes on the other side of the ball. It’s warranted. Since Christmas, San Francisco has been the worst team in the NFL statistically on a per-play basis.

Arik Armstead missed three of those games. One was the backups in Week 18, and the Packers game wasn’t nearly as bad as it felt when you look at the box score. When you narrow it down, the first half of the NFC Championship game and the Ravens in Week 16 are the driving force behind the lackluster defensive numbers during this span.

Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Charvarius Ward. Six of the 49ers’ 11 starters had an argument for being among the best, if not in the top five of their position groups this year.

Nobody will debate Mahomes’ greatness. Not a single person would argue that Travis Kelce — arguably the greatest postseason tight end in NFL history — will be shut down in this game. Kelce has 20 receptions on 24 targets for 255 yards in three games against the 49ers. He’s an animal.

But that’s two great players against six.

That’s before you get into the tendencies. During the regular season, the Chiefs ran between the tackles on 65 percent of their carries. Even with Armstead missing Weeks 13-18, the 49ers were top five in success rate on runs between the tackles.

Andy Reid is no dummy. He has adjusted how he’s called plays during the playoffs. And after watching the Packers and Lions get to the edge, it’s hard to believe Kansas City won’t increase their outside zone rate. In three playoff games, Kansas City is already up 16 percent from their regular season runs outside the tackles.

Kelce and the tight ends are how the Chiefs stay ahead of the chains. Mahomes targets tight ends on 42 percent on early downs. Steve Wilks must find a way to funnel everything through the middle. The 49ers were first in EPA on passes between the numbers and dropped to 19th on passes outside of the numbers.

Both defenses struggle against play-action, but neither offense relied on it much during the season. The 49ers were dead last in EPA allowed since Week 14 against play-action, but it was a career low for Mahomes, as he only used it on 17 percent of his dropbacks this year.

It’s difficult to execute when you don’t have perimeter threats or an offensive line to protect. That tells me Reid doesn’t trust the players around Mahomes and Kelce to win down the field, which plays right into the Niners’ hands. Without play-action, the Niners were excellent. They only allowed 4.7 yards per attempt.

The most dangerous assumption when talking about this game is that the Chiefs will be playing with the lead. You have to ignore a lot of data to come to that conclusion. In the AFC Championship, Mahomes converted a 4th & 2 after they were stuffed at the line of scrimmage on 3rd & 2. Mahomes threw across his body to Kelce. That led to the first score.

The Chiefs converted four third downs on the next touchdown drive, including this gem:

The probability of doing either of those again is slim to none, which is why Kansas City didn’t score another touchdown for 2.5 quarters and punted on five of their final six drives.

In a game that’s expected to be close and an offense that goes through scoring lulls, 17 points won’t be enough for the Chiefs.

It's the same Chiefs offense that finished 24th in a touchdown-to-field goal ratio this season and 19th in points per red zone trip. Against a Niners defense — for all of their faults in the playoffs — rose to the occasion with their backs against the wall in the red zone. But neither of those were outlier performances, as the 49ers were sixth and fourth in a touchdown-to-field goal ratio and points per red zone trip defensively.

I think we see the Chiefs offense from the regular season that struggled to move the ball consistently and score touchdowns when the pressure was on them to do so. That’s not a recipe for success against one of the best offenses in the NFL in recent history.

Considering how much we lean into recency bias, the talking points surrounding this game haven’t been surprising. There isn’t game-changing speed on the Chiefs roster that’ll allow them to score like the Lions did in the blink of an eye.

We’ve seen what the 49ers defensive line — and defense in general — looks like when they have the lead in the playoffs. That’s been conveniently ignored when discussing this game. The Niners will have a lead much earlier this time, and we’ll see the defense from the second half of the playoffs show up in the first half.

Mahomes should win an award for getting this version of the Chiefs to the Super Bowl. But it’s a team sport, and the 49ers are superior across the board.

Monday morning’s headline superimposed with a Steve Young Super Bowl winning picture: Kyle Shanahan officially gets the monkey off his back.