In some respects, the fact my memory has started failing me has been a blessing in disguise for analyzing the NFL. I say that because my memory used to be excellent.
It was my ability to memorize things we “learned” in school that helped me get labeled as “smart.” Being “smart” was always a big part of my identity, even as an NFL player. My position coach used to tease me about making a high score on the Wonderlic, for instance.
But the problem is even people with great memories remember things wrong at times. With the passage of time, details start to get fuzzy and context clues start to replace them. Sometimes your mind doesn’t “remember” exactly what happened as much as it makes logical assumptions based on the available evidence.
What does this have to do with the Super Bowl?
Well, we will get to that a little later.
Now it’s time for the grande finale, when I pick who I think will take home the championship and why. As a reminder, I hope to give you an accurate summary or what both teams will try to do in the Super Bowl. That matters to me more than being right about who wins.
After the game ends Sunday, you can even come back to compare notes. In fact, you can do that with some of my previous Super Bowl prediction columns. Even if I haven’t always picked the right winner, I haven’t been totally off base on one yet. But who knows, maybe this will be the year when I look like an idiot. The reaper comes for us all, after all.
The Super Bowl 54 winner will be …
When I was trying to decide who had the best chance of winning this game, I kept coming back to the fact that the Chiefs can score in a flash from anywhere on the field, and that makes it impossible for me to pick against them in a prospective shootout.
Being an “old school” defensive-minded guy, I absolutely love the 49ers’ smashmouth offense and how they impose their will on opposing defenses with their diverse running game. I really dig the innovative ways they get the ball in the hands of their playmakers in the passing game, too.
However, if there is less than a minute left and the 49ers are down a score, I don’t have nearly the same confidence that they can get down the field in a hurry and put themselves in a position to win as I have Patrick Mahomes and that high-powered Chiefs’ offense can. Both Jimmy Garoppolo and Mahomes are young guys who have never been in this situation before, but if I had to choose one of them for that kind of a moment on Super Bowl Sunday, I’m taking Mahomes before you could even finish asking the question.
That’s why 49ers fans should be grateful it won’t come down to that.
Yeah, I am picking the San Francisco 49ers to win Super Bowl 54, and it’s mostly because of one reason.
The 49ers will borrow the Patriots’ defensive blueprint
I believe 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will look at that Patriots film from last year’s AFC Championship Game, contrast it to what Mahomes did to the Titans with their weak-ass three-man rushes this year, and realize not only do the 49ers need to emulate what the Patriots did then to beat the Chiefs, but the 49ers may be able to do even better.
See, watching Trey Flowers play so well against right tackle Mitchell Schwartz this year in a Lions uniform made me vaguely recall him giving Schwartz the business last year with the Patriots. So I decided to take a peek at the film again. Which brings me back to my failing memory …
If you just looked at the 37-31 score from last year’s AFC Championship Game, it gives the impression that it was a really close game and with the numbers both teams put up, you might assume that both offenses had played well. Even if you did recall that Mahomes struggled for much of the game, you might assume at some point he, head coach Andy Reid, and the rest of the offense eventually “figured things out,” and that’s when they started putting points on the board after being shut out in the first half. They made some kind of adjustment and then the offense started clicking. Right?
No, they did not!
What New England’s defense was able to do for much of that game is actually a blueprint for how the 49ers will win the Super Bowl. The Patriots came out with a mission to get pressure on Mahomes.
We joke about commentators using the term “sneaky athletic,” but if that term has ever applied to anybody, it’s Mahomes. He never seems to be in a hurry or running all that fast, but you look up and he is running right by defenders who looked to have an angle on him. To see him take off and score against the Titans the way he did was shocking if for no other reason than it never looked like he was going to even try to make it to the end zone.
With a guy like that, you can’t just rush him with three. If he doesn’t slice you up like a Ginsu knife with all that time back there to let his routes develop, then he still has the option of taking off and hurting you with his legs. And with only three rushers up front, it isn’t likely any of them are going to be in position to try to stop him if he runs.
But when you rush four or more, and those guys win up front, now you have Mahomes having to speed up his clock from the pocket, or try to escape the rush and throw on the run while under duress. He still may hit you for a 60-yard bomb — I mean, he is Patrick Mahomes, after all.
But it’s not going to work well for him more often than not if your pass rushers are really getting after him. Mahomes may well be the most talented quarterback any of us have ever seen by the time his career is finished, but everyone has a weakness.
However, what was unique was not the Patriots’ goal, but how they went about trying to accomplish it. It was a pretty basic concept, but still something I haven’t seen many teams try before or since.
To sum it up as succinctly as possible, New England started the game almost exclusively rushing at least four guys, and sometimes five or six. Even when the Patriots didn’t send more than four, they tried to keep at least one extra “potential” rusher close to the line of scrimmage to give the impression they might be coming, whether they were or not.
Why was that important?
Because instead of relying on individual pass rushers to win their one-on-one matchups, the Patriots decided on a more collective approach and ran pass-rush games on both sides of the center, or right up the middle. With that “extra” rusher hovering around attracting attention, that helped to set up those pass-rush games to be more successful. And on the plays where the “extra” rusher didn’t actually blitz, they were able to become a second containment element of the defense should Mahomes escape those four pass rushers.
And man, did the Patriots pass rushers ever get after that offensive line and Mahomes in that game. It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Kryptonite for the third-year quarterback, and I really think the 49ers repeat it.
Not only do the 49ers have some stone-cold killers up front, those guys also know how to work well together when it comes to running pass-rush games. All year they have been able to generate pressure both with incredible individual efforts and with collaboration, which is why they have been so effective at getting after the quarterback damn near every game. If they can take what they already do well and integrate it with the Patriots’ pass-rush plan, that would be a perfect recipe to take Mahomes totally out of his game. And with the 49ers being able to run the ball, this game will be over before you know it.
And I want to be clear here about what I’m saying. I don’t think the 49ers will squeak by. I’m talking about them damn near completely shutting down the Chiefs by harassing the hell out of Mahomes all night and winning by 10 or more points. I’m actually leaning toward “or more” at the moment.
There are a few more factors in the 49ers’ favor
Offensively, I believe they will continue to lean on their running game, and that the Chiefs won’t have many answers. I think Deebo Samuel will have a big day racking up run-after-catch yards. Having said that, don’t be surprised if Garoppolo takes a few shots. Emmanuel Sanders could see a deep ball off play-action to help break the game open for the 49ers.
Another thing working against the Chiefs is that I have a hard time trusting a team as undisciplined and down right “dumb” at times as they are. In several games this year, the Chiefs make the kinds of mistakes that usually get you beat, like jumping offsides on defense, or having uncharacteristic drops on offense. But this just feels like the kind of game where those “mistakes” will ultimately contribute to them losing.
At the same time, I do believe the 49ers’ defense will force some of the mistakes that help to decide the game. Maybe even one of the defensive linemen will take MVP honors on Sunday (Nick Bosa is an easy prediction, but don’t sleep on DeForest Buckner balling out).
The final puzzle piece that made me decide on picking the 49ers was Shanahan’s experience as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta for that 28-3 Super Bowl debacle. After going through that humiliation, I just can’t see Shanahan doing anything but going all gas, no brakes for the entire 60 minutes. His offense is going to keep doing what it does well until the Chiefs show they can stop it. His defense may give up a few big plays to Mahomes, but I don’t see a scenario where the 49ers stop sending pressure after him.
Add it all together and that equals the 49ers handing the Chiefs a decisive ass-kicking.
Take pride in knowing that after reading this column, you won’t be one of the many people shocked when it happens. I admit I would’ve been one of them had I not watched film, and instead relied on my gut. I was leaning heavily toward picking the Chiefs just based on the fact I wasn’t sure anybody could score with them. But if the 49ers decide to follow the Patriots’ gameplan on defense, they will just end up being a terrible matchup for the Chiefs’ offense overall.
It turns out defense does win championships after all.
Something even an old defensive lineman like myself has to be reminded of every now and then.
We will see how the game actually goes on Sunday, but regardless, this column will give you a good idea of what each team will try to do against the other. Right or wrong when it comes to my prediction on the winner, you will at least be better equipped to talk about the Super Bowl during the game on Sunday — and look super smart doing so. You’re welcome!