Today’s the day. Super Bowl LVIII is here and it will kick off in just a matter of hours. The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers will meet in the final game of the 2023 NFL season Sunday night, with both teams vying for right to call themselves champions.
The defending champion Chiefs are looking for their third Super Bowl victory of the Patrick Mahomes era. They captured their first Lombardi Trophy against these 49ers four years ago in Super Bowl LIV, but this San Francisco team is a different beast than even that one, and is surely looking to exact revenge after watching Kansas City rally for a 31-20 win.
Which of these teams will win the Super Bowl in Las Vegas? We’ll find out soon enough. But before we break down the matchup, here’s a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch Super Bowl LVIII
- Date: Sunday, Feb. 11 | Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
- Location: Allegiant Stadium (Las Vegas)
- TV: CBS, Nickelodeon
- Stream: Available via Paramount+ on all platforms, or sign in with your TV provider on CBS.com or CBS Sports apps
- Halftime show: Usher
- Odds: 49ers -2, O/U 47.5 (via Sportsline consensus odds)
When the 49ers have the ball
The 49ers’ superpower as an offense is that they can get into a pretty standard personnel grouping and line up in all different sorts of formations, with players swapping roles and alignments with relative ease. When they have Christian McCaffrey, Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk on the field together, they are technically in 21 personnel, but they can do just about anything — especially if the opponent matches with its base defense. What the Niners want to do more than anything is get you in personnel that matches their formation, then do the opposite of what you expect from them.
The Chiefs like to match those bigger personnel groupings with their base defense, but they do so with a group of linebackers that have very distinct roles. Whether they have Drue Tranquill (an attacking blitzer) or Leo Chenal (a run-and-hit run defender) out there alongside Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. will tell us a great deal about how they’d prefer the 49ers try to attack them, as will how the Niners respond to that decision. If San Francisco can run it down Kansas City’s throat with Tranquill out there and beat the Chiefs with play-action passes and attack the intermediate and deep middle of the field when Chenal is, that will go a long way toward the Niners’ ability to move the ball with consistency.
Of course, that’s not the only pressure point in this matchup. Perhaps the most important battleground will actually be up front, where the Niners have struggled during their two playoff games. Brock Purdy has been under a good deal of pressure during the postseason (43% of dropbacks, according to Tru Media, compared with 39% during the regular season), and the 49ers are particularly vulnerable on the right side of the left. That’s largely where Chiefs edge rusher George Karlaftis will line up, and if he can give Colton McKivitz trouble off the edge, that could force San Francisco to keep Kittle in as a blocker more often that it would probably like. Jon Feliciano has played fairly well next to McKivitz, but he will presumably see a whole lot of Chris Jones, which isn’t a fun matchup for anybody.
The Kansas City secondary is an incredibly tough one to beat, especially for quarterbacks under frequent duress. The Chiefs finished fourth in opponent EPA/dropback this season, per Tru Media, yielding just 6.0 yards per attempt on a 61.2% completion rate. They have a very sticky coverage group, with First Team All-Pro Trent McDuffie leading the way, along with L’Jarius Sneed. An important thing to watch will be how the Chiefs choose to deploy that duo against Samuel and Aiyuk, and whether they are comfortable using both players against either receiver.
If it looks like the Chiefs have preferred matchups, I’d expect 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan to get creative with moving Samuel around the formation so he can avoid that specific look, then try to get him the ball quickly for run-after-catch opportunities. If the Chiefs play things straight up, that might be more of an opportunity for Aiyuk to win down the field. (When they get in 11 personnel, Jauan Jennings could have a size-and-strength advantage against K.C.’s sub-package corners.) One thing to watch out for when they do this, though, is for the Chiefs to send that player on a blitz and try to force Purdy into a rushed and inaccurate throw. Steve Spagnuolo loves sending creative pressures, and the Niners’ love of condensed formations and using players in unusual alignments could leave them vulnerable to quick blitzes out of the slot, in particular.
Of course, San Francisco’s pass game is about more than just the receivers. McCaffrey is the league’s premier pass-catching running back, and Kansas City’s linebackers and safeties will have their hands full limiting him in all facets of the game. And just when they think they’ve bottled up all the main threats, the Niners will shake Kittle or even Juszczyk free for a wheel route or a short crosser to get them on the move and up the field. There is nowhere to hide weak pass defenders, of which the Chiefs thankfully do not have all that many.
What they have had throughout this season is a relative weakness against the run. They finished the year ranked 27th in rush defense DVOA at FTN, and they allowed the league’s 11th-most yards before contact per carry. We know the Niners will run it early and often unless and until your defense proves it can stop the run, and just when you do that, they will hit you with the play action. Striking that balance of defending the run while not opening up the middle of the field for those crossing routes and run-after-catch opportunities is the most important challenge Kansas City’s defense will face.
When the Chiefs have the ball
The way Kansas City’s offensive line has rounded into shape provides reason for confidence that the Chiefs can move the ball here. Frankly, so does how well the Packers and Lions moved the ball against San Francisco at times. They each had stretches of marching up and down the field with relative ease, fueled by runs to the perimeter and largely unpressured dropbacks.
The Chiefs have kept Patrick Mahomes more well protected during the playoffs than they did during the regular season, and Mahomes has responded by raising his level of play. The 49ers desperately need to get pressure into Mahomes’ face and box him into the pocket so he can’t create. In other words, they need their defensive line to dominate the proceedings the way the Buccaneers‘ offensive line did in Kansas City’s one Super Bowl loss.
The issue with that is … the defensive front has not been quite as fearsome as their reputations would have you believe. San Francisco finished the regular season seventh in pressure rate at 40%, according to Tru Media, but has seen both its pressure rate drop to 37% and its rate of sacks per pressure plummet to just 7% during the playoffs. The latter figure was 17% during the regular season. That is a major problem against Mahomes, who is both more likely to scramble and be more effective as a scrambler when opponents play zone defense — an unusual trait that works in his favor against San Francisco, which played zone on 74% of opponent dropbacks this season, good for the ninth-highest rate in the league.
Mahomes has also proven himself over the past couple years to be more than willing to take the kind of underneath throws the Niners defense wants opponents to make. His average depth of target was a career low this season, and even during the playoffs it has remained so. The Chiefs are now much more of a YAC-based offense than they were during the Tyreek Hill days, with Mahomes targeting Travis Kelce and Rashee Rice closer to the line of scrimmage and allowing them to do work with the ball in their hands. The Niners count on their collective team speed and athleticism to close those quick passing lanes and then especially to limit yards after the catch. The latter will be key here.
Kelce has upped his game in the postseason, coming through with 23 catches for 262 yards and three scores in Kansas City’s three games. He even found a great deal of success against the Ravens in the AFC title game, hauling in 11 of 11 targets for 116 yards and a score against Kyle Hamilton, Roquan Smith, and Patrick Queen. He’ll have just as tough a challenge on Sunday night, if not a tougher one, when he tangles with Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, along with Tashaun Gipson and Ji’Ayir Brown over the middle of the field. If that group can limit Kelce in any way and force the Chiefs to funnel their passing game through somebody else, that would dramatically change this side of the matchup.
But the Chiefs now have a worthy complementary target alongside Kelce in Rice. The rookie has 20 catches for 223 yards and a touchdown on his 23 targets this postseason, and he has increasingly earned Mahomes’ trust as the season has gone on. He has proven himself able to win both inside and out, and while he is still mostly a short-area threat, he has won down the field on occasion. The 49ers’ best cornerback is former Chief Charvarius Ward, but he doesn’t go into the slot. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Rice there more often than not. (Deommodore Lenoir mans that spot when the Niners are in nickel.) And when he lines up outside, the Chiefs would do well to try to get him matched up with Ambry Thomas rather than Ward.
Kansas City’s ancillary receivers aren’t targeted all that often and are primarily responsible for creating space, but we’ve seen Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson make plays down the field, and we’ve seen Andy Reid design plays to get guys like Kadarius Toney and even Skyy Moore into open space in plenty of big games — including last year’s Super Bowl. I wouldn’t put it past Reid to have something creative up his sleeve on that front.
Something to watch early on is how the Chiefs test San Francisco’s run defense, and whether the 49ers’ edge defenders can hold up and keep contain on the outside. If Isiah Pacheco gets rolling and barreling downhill, that suddenly opens things up for Kansas City on early downs and in short-yardage situations. If Pacheco can’t get going and the Chiefs have to ask Mahomes to do everything, that makes defending them quite a bit less complicated a task.
The Chiefs were not the best team in the NFL for most of this season. Really, for the majority of the year, they did not look like the team we’ve gotten so used to them being. But they do have the best player in the league, and they have an advantage when games get close. Until somebody knocks them off, I’m going to roll with them in a big situation like this one. Pick: Chiefs 23, 49ers 21