LAS VEGAS — The 49ers have more ways to win the Super Bowl on Sunday than they did in this same game four years ago, which is only relevant because they’re playing against the same team, with the same GOAT-mode quarterback, same spectacular tight end and same Hall of Fame coach.
But the 49ers have Brock Purdy at QB now, not Jimmy Garoppolo, and they have Christian McCaffrey at running back, not anybody else in the universe. I think that’s the difference. Even though it feels far too simple, and even though Patrick Mahomes is a winning formula all by himself in almost any game, especially the biggest ones (especially-especially the one four years ago in South Florida), I think the 49ers had everything else they needed to beat the Kansas City Chiefs back then except the right QB and RB.
And now, I’m presuming they have both.
There are, of course, dozens of other important aspects of Super Bowl LVIII — many of them pointing toward advantages for the Chiefs. All factors are important. The Chiefs, quite frankly, have looked much better and tougher during their three-game run through the AFC postseason, matched against better foes, than the 49ers looked in their two shaky victories against lesser-talented teams in the NFC tournament.
Also, it’s potentially foolhardy to put too much emphasis on a game four years ago, under different circumstances and with only a handful of the same players that will suit up at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday. It’s a small and old sample size that I’m using here, admittedly. It could be wildly misleading. Fate and fortune might really be pointing to Travis Kelce earning the Super Bowl MVP award and inviting his fairly famous friend onto the postgame stage.
However … back in February 2020, the 49ers had one way to beat the Chiefs that evening at Hard Rock Stadium: Run the ball, swarm and confuse Mahomes, and hold on tight. And the 49ers were up 20-10 with just a half-quarter to go, having run it 20 times for 119 yards and thrown it 22 times for 201 through the start of the Chiefs’ rally. But when Mahomes got things going with the epic long shot to Tyreek Hill on third-and-15 midway through the fourth quarter, which started to yank the game off of the 49ers’ script, the 49ers couldn’t find another way. The 49ers, in fact, looked absolutely lost for the final seven-plus minutes.
Can they win a game just by running it now? Well, they’ve got McCaffrey, this season’s NFL Offensive Player of the Year, to carry it 20 to 25 times, so I think the 49ers’ chances of running to win are even better. The 49ers also can give it to Deebo Samuel, who was a rookie four years ago. If that’s what Shanahan wants to do against a vulnerable Chiefs running defense, he can run it a ton. Or that might be what he wants the Chiefs to think he’ll do.
But the 49ers can play it many other ways this season. They’re just not the same team as they were even last year, when the Chiefs came into Levi’s Stadium and blew out the 49ers days after McCaffrey’s arrival from Carolina in a trade. Sure, overall, the 49ers might not be at their peak. The 49ers’ defense, after trading DeForest Buckner months after that Super Bowl and after the injury losses this season of safety Talanoa Hufanga and defensive end Clelin Ferrell, probably is a little worse than it was four years ago and sure has played that way for several weeks now. But it’s very possible that the 49ers are different in the most necessary ways to win this game.
For instance, compare the 49ers’ run/pass ratio in the NFC postseason four years ago to what they did against Green Bay and Detroit this postseason and you see the key evolution.
Back in January 2020, the 49ers ran the ball an incredible 89 times (44.5 runs a game in the playoffs!) and threw it only 27 total times in their two NFC playoff victories. That wasn’t precisely a sign that Kyle Shanahan didn’t trust Garoppolo to win big games — hey, if the opponent can’t stop your rushing attack, why even bother throwing it? But it also wasn’t an indication that Garoppolo had or deserved Shanahan’s full faith, either.
So it wasn’t a shocking development when the 49ers’ offense faltered once they had to answer Mahomes. Garoppolo went 2 for 9 for 24 yards and an interception from the moment the Chiefs scored a touchdown to close the 49ers’ lead to 20-17. Tailback Raheem Mostert ran it twice for 22 yards in that period while the Chiefs were galloping up and down the field. I think McCaffrey can do better than that.
Also, I think Deebo can and will do better than that. In fact, Samuel, as a rookie, had three carries for 53 yards and five catches for 39 yards in Super Bowl LIV, but did not touch the ball after a 16-yard reception at the 5:23 mark in the third quarter. He’s better now and will get the ball more than that on Sunday.
And go to the 49ers’ run/pass ratio this postseason: In their victories over the Packers and Lions, the 49ers ran it 57 times … and passed it 70 times. Granted, they were behind for some of the Packers game and most of the Lions game, so it would’ve been hard to keep running and running. But Shanahan might’ve tried to do that, anyway, if he didn’t have Purdy as his QB.
Shanahan trusts Purdy at the start of games, in the middle even if Purdy is struggling a bit, and absolutely trusts him at the end of games. And in the 49ers’ two NFC playoff games, when the 49ers absolutely needed Purdy to throw it well or to evade the rush and make plays with his legs at the end of both games … he did.
I think that’s extremely important. No doubt, I think it’s equally important that the 49ers’ pass rush bothers Mahomes and the 49ers’ run defense finally delivers a competent game. I think it’s important that Jake Moody, the 49ers’ rookie kicker, doesn’t completely melt down. I think it’s important that Shanahan calls a solid game and is ready to push the envelope when a little risk-taking is necessary. I know that Chiefs coach Andy Reid will always do that.
I think the Chiefs’ offense will put up at least three TDs and probably a little more than that. I think Mahomes, as always, will exert enormous influence over this game. I think the Chiefs’ defense is much better than it was four years ago.
But I couldn’t help notice how loose Purdy looked in the carnival-atmosphere lead-up to this game. He smiled more during those sessions than at any of his regular 49ers HQ podium appearances combined. So I don’t think he’s going to freeze up. Of course, Mahomes was built for this, but I don’t think Purdy is out of his league in this game.
He’s the guy who clearly beat out Trey Lance and Garoppolo for this job over the last few years, who led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game as a rookie last season and had his elbow torn up early in that game. He’s the guy who, weeks after suffering the injury, shrugged off the 49ers unsuccessfully reaching out to Tom Brady (with the idea of red-shirting Purdy for a rehab season) and then got himself ready to go by Day 1 of this year’s training camp. Then put up one of the best statistical seasons a 49ers QB has ever had.
I think Purdy is ready for this, and he’s got McCaffrey, Deebo, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Williams and George Kittle alongside him. I think that should be enough, even against Mahomes. I think that because the Chiefs don’t have Hill to make that third-and-15 catch anymore and the 49ers have Purdy instead of Garoppolo and McCaffrey instead of everybody. I think they’re ready to play their best game. It will be necessary.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Chiefs 27.
49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, Brock Purdy can become an NFL power couple. They just need a ring
(Photo of the 49ers celebrating their NFC Championship Game victory: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)