Can anyone other than Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce step up for the Chiefs offense?
Even in a down year, the connection between Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce remains dynamite for the Kansas City Chiefs. Defenses still struggle to contain the duo, in part because for a handful of plays each game, they have no idea what they’re going to do themselves.
It has not always been a smooth production this season. The Chiefs offense has ebbed and flowed, with Kelce showing signs of his increasing (for a tight end) age. But when the team needed the pair most, they delivered. Kelce is the second-most valuable tight end in the league, third in EPA per play – and ranks first among receivers who will be on the field on Sunday. One problem: Fred Warner. In Warner, the San Francisco 49ers have a part pterodactyl, part linebacker who can match Kelce’s size and speed. If Warner can contain Kelce — or if the Niners choose to double the tight end — the Chiefs will have to find production elsewhere. That could come from their run game, which has been effective throughout the playoffs. But at some point, one of the Chiefs’ wide receivers will have to perform at a crucial time.
Rookie Rashee Rice has been a standout this season. Marquez Valdes-Scantling has flashed in the postseason. However, the rest of the receiving corps has disappeared like werewolves around a pile of silver bullets. The Chiefs will have to match the Niners’ offensive splash game for splash play. If Kelce is limited, they’ll need one of Rice or Valdes-Scantling to tilt the game in their favor.
Related: Super Bowl 2024: Your 49ers v Chiefs questions answered
Will the Chiefs destroy Brock Purdy?
Purdy’s ability to diagnose and attack aggressive defenses is an underrated part of quarterback development. For all its schematic prowess, Kyle Shanahan’s offense doesn’t handle well when blitzed. That’s partly why Jimmy Garoppolo was sunk in big spots — and why Shanahan was eager to start an offense with Trey Lance where the quarterback would act as a runner, limiting the menu of blitzes available to opposing defenses.
Purdy avoided Garoppolo’s fate. Partly because he’s surrounded by a group of excellent receiving options. When a defense assigns additional defenders to the pass rush, fewer defenders are left in coverage. With Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel as weapons, Purdy is blessed with players who can win one-on-one, especially when there are fewer opponents covering them. But Purdy has also been at his best when he has had to speed up his own internal clock – and has shown he can step outside the attack and create with his legs when necessary.
Brock Purdy was his most productive when blitzed, posting a league-high +53.2 passing the EPA against the blitz during the regular season.
— Next Generation Statistics (@NextGenStats) February 7, 2024
That makes things difficult for the NFL’s top blitzologist: Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Ask Spagnuolo not blitz is like handing the big red button to a child. You can explain the consequences, you can outline that you will be very angry, but at some point they will sink in.
Spagnuolo has an almost Pavlovian response to third downs or high leverage situations. Why send four pass rushers when you can send five or six, or better yet, seven for good measure? And in a year when the coach is working with the best cornerback tandem in the league, he has felt emboldened to apply plenty of pressure, knowing his corners can shut down opposing receivers.
Spagnuolo beat Lamar Jackson on more than 50% of the Ravens quarterback’s dropbacks during the AFC Championship Game. Scamming Jackson is generally a no-no. He can avoid extra pressure with his arms or legs, or force a free runner to miss before finding an open man in the field. Purdy isn’t as quick as Jackson, but he’s been just as effective at creating when he’s been pressed this season.
When and How Spagnuolo chooses to apply pressure. Spagnuolo is known for building a series of one-time pressure plans tailored to each opponent’s pass protection rules. They all have different blocking mechanics, with different blockers assigned to pick up different defensive looks. Spagnuolou’s genius – and this is no exaggeration – is intuiting those roles and coming up with a plan that plays them out. By aligning his defense pre-snap, he forces the offense into a certain type of protection and then sends blitzes to expose that protection. Typically, directing pressure is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Some coordinators roll the dice; Spagnuolo counts cards.
Spagnuolo rarely applies pressure for the cause. There is nuance in his throttle-free, no-break style. The Chiefs coach sifts through the details and studies a quarterback’s individual tendencies versus the blitz to adjust the Chiefs’ game plan. But look through Purdy’s back catalog and you’ll find he’s been impervious to it. All busy. Disguises. Climbing plants. Simulated pressure. Zone pressure. Firework zones. Each crazy coach-ism you hear aboutPurdy has found a way to beat them.
The Niners quarterback has had his hardest time when opposing defenses have flooded the field with defenders in coverage and he has been asked to break it up. But Spagnuolo doesn’t have the patience to live in that world for four quarters. At some point he presses the button.
How will Tony Romo perform during the CBS broadcast?
It’s a big game for the $17 million man from CBS. The highest-paid sports analyst in the United States has been criticized for appearing unprepared during games over the past two seasons.
Early in his broadcasting career, Romo was an intelligent, if flawed, communicator. He saw and expressed things that few others could see in real time. He was widely regarded as the best broadcast analyst in the game. Today, he’s passed that mantle to Fox’s Greg Olsen — who has none of the hyperactive energy that infected Romo’s early work.
Listen to Olsen and – shock, horror – you to learn something. Spending time with him is like hanging out with a charming friend who also happens to be the smartest guy in the bar. These days, Romo sounds exactly like the guy who beat you two hours at the bar after shooting 18 on the left. He’s immersed in cliché and weaves his way through broadcasts on little more than vibrations.
But the point is: it’s time for a backlash to the backlash. Because listening to Romo is ultimately silent pleasure. Sure, he’s dizzy to the point of concern. Yes, he loves all the quarterbacks. He’s not as meticulous on the details as the rest, but Romo still has one inescapable quality: games feel big when he calls them.
During a midseason snooze-fest between the Tennessee Titans and the New York Giants, his style could irritate. But he still rises to the occasion in the most important moments. So what if he marries a team’s midgame tight end or claims a backup is a sneaky star? During big plays, he emulates the I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened feeling that runs through the veins of people at home.
With Tom Brady set to join the ranks of the network elites, Olsen will (probably) become the most sought-after free agent on the broadcast market. CBS executives would be right in assessing whether Romo is worth the money if there is an objectively better analyst at a cheaper rate. But Romo can reaffirm his place as the lovable, creepy uncle when he encounters the moment on Sunday.
Andy Reid or Kyle Shanahan: Which Coach Will Blow the Clock?
Our two head coaches on Sundays are not known for their clock management. Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan have had game management issues throughout their careers. They burn unnecessary timeouts, bungle late-game situations, or stay in attack mode at 28-3 (sorry, Falcons fans).
Shanahan is under more pressure than Reid. He has a 7-3 record as an NFL head coach or play-caller when his team is up by 10 points in the fourth quarter; the rest of the league has a combined record of 58-3 in such situations over the same span.
With Shanahan we are nitpicking. His teams are often ten up in the fourth due to his skills as a coach. But in close playoff games, he constantly monitors teams that have forfeited winning positions. If the Niners want to win, they will likely do so by taking an early lead. KC’s offense has collapsed in the second half of postseason games as the defense has put pressure on Kelce. If the Niners enter the final quarter with the lead, Shanahan will have to go against type and be willing to run the ball to get a win.
Will we see a trick play?
Trick games have long been part of Super Bowl folklore. The Philly special. Randle El to Ward. The Saints’ surprise onside kick. If you have a close match, trying to steal a score or possession can make the difference – an offside; a fake punt; hitting him in the red zone after being put against the wall three times.
Once derided as gimmicks, trick plays are now an essential part of postseason game planning. Fun fact: Reid even has a member of his staff scour high school, international tapes, and social media to find the craziest and most imaginative designs, including a movie-sharing program featuring a space-age attack from Japan.
Given their concerns about the offense, the Chiefs seem ripe to uncork something crazy on Sunday.