By: Rob Bishop
Back again, and after two weeks of discussion and prediction, Super Bowl weekend has finally arrived. The Kansas City Chiefs are riding into the game as the favorites due to an explosive, Patrick Mahomet-Led offense. However, San Francisco has defied odds all year, finishing the regular season atop the NFC before making quick work of the Vikings and Packers in the postseason.
While the spotlight has been on Mahomes, and deservedly so, Kansas City is likely to lean on the run early in the contest. San Francisco’s defense thrives on the strength of its front four, and the Chiefs are sure to look to exhaust the unit before unleashing Mahomes against a unit battling not only KC’s blocking but also fatigue. The Chiefs have racked up over 100 yards rushing in four straight games for a reason.
Kansas City is also likely to get Mahomes on the move with plays designed to get the former MVP out of the pocket and allowing his receiving corps to find openings downfield. Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and company are dynamic after-the-catch talents, and the Chiefs are sure to look to get its stars open in space. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman, who re-emerged as one of the best defensive players in the NFL this season, will garner the attention, but it is the rest of the 49ers secondary that will likely be challenged by Mahomes on Sunday.
Even with a great performance from its defense, San Francisco’s offense is likely going to need to put multiple scores on the board. The 49ers gashed its way to the Super Bowl behind its defense and an excellent showing from running back Raheem Mostert. Kansas City’s defense is coming off doing the impossible and slowing Titans rusher Derrick Henry. Mostert is unlikely to be the focal point of San Francisco’s offensive game-plan. Instead, all of the pressure will be on quarterback Jimmy Garappolo.
Though he exists in the shadow of Patrick Mahomes, Garappolo is more than capable of leading an offense. It helps to have a reliable veteran receiver in Emmanuel Sanders, a youngster with game-changing ability in Deebo Samuel, and arguably the best non-quarterback offensive player in football, tight end George Kittle. Kittle in particular is a force, and though he hasn’t been heavily-leaned on so far this postseason, he remains the engine of San Francisco’s offense.
There is plenty more to be said about off-field storylines, most notably Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s quest to secure the ever-elusive Super Bowl win and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s effort to replace the memory of the 28-3 debacle from his time as the offensive coordinator with the Falcons. However, it will all come down to the play on the field, and Sunday evening’s kick-off cannot arrive soon enough.
Though there was obvious rust present during Victor Oladipo’s triumphant return from a year-long absence, the All NBA guard came up huge in the clutch, knocking down a three-pointer during the closing seconds to force overtime in a game eventually won by the Pacers. Oladipo scored only nine points on 2-of-8 shooting, but his shot to force OT was the story here. Indiana will continue to work to integrate Oladipo back into the fold, and the Pacers with him at full strength are going to be a scary match-up in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
James Harden returned from a brief stint watching the Rockets to continue to be entrenched in a now 10-game slump. In a loss to the Blazers, Harden hit a mere 5-of-18 shots. Harden has not looked himself since a January 3 match-up against the 76ers, and his customarily inefficient scoring has been outright horrifying of late. In five of his last ten games, Harden has shot less than 30% from the field, a trend that is even more alarming considering his tendency to take 15+ shots a game. Harden will figure things out soon enough, but his up-and-down play of late is yet another reason to doubt Houston’s case as a legitimate championship contender.