LAS VEGAS — As with every prizefight in this high-stakes town, a tape story is required to evaluate the opponents. In the case of Sunday’s Super Bowl LVIII, here’s how the San Francisco 49ers (14-5) compare to the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs (14-6).
49ers: Brock Purdy enters the playoffs on back-to-back comebacks, taking him to the Super Bowl 378 days after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Purdy’s passing prowess in the regular season (49ers-record 4,280 yards) was complemented by his pocket runs and tackles in the postseason. Turnovers have triggered his four losses this season (going back to Week 18), so a clean sheet could make him the second-youngest quarterback to win the Lombardi Trophy (24 years, 46 days), behind Ben Roethlisberger (23; 340 days). Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady were 24 when they won their first Super Bowl.
Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes is the main reason for his fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years. His ability to keep games (and seasons) alive will buy him time to find holes in the 49ers’ secondary. 3-0 all-time against the 49ers (75-of-114; 65.8% completion rate; 1,023 yards; eight touchdowns; three interceptions, including two in the first Super Bowl). He’s the big star of the Super Bowl. (49ers’ counterattack: If any Patrick is going to be successful this week, it’s already happened with Patrick Willis being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
49ers: Christian McCaffrey is fully prepared to lead the 49ers’ championship hopes. He made the most of this season, capturing the NFL championship as a prelude to scoring on two touchdown runs in each playoff win. McCaffrey, who is recovering from oblique and calf injuries this season, won’t want to leave the field. But some carries or backfield work could go to Deebo Samuel, who is in playoff mode. Elijah Mitchell is also healthy, so his ability to find upside will be helpful if McCaffrey needs help. Don’t forget Purdy’s sneak-running ability that helped him win the NFC crown.
Chiefs: Isaiah Pacheco’s tough running ability has earned praise from 49ers defenders. He has a rushing touchdown in four consecutive playoff games, including a 76-yard rushing game in last year’s Super Bowl. He averaged an NFL-best 4.7 yards per game when defenses stacked the box. The 49ers’ run defense gave up 148 yards to Detroit in the first half of the NFC title game, and while edge control will be tested, gap integrity and gang tackling need to be spot on.
49ers: Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel could be a strong 1-2 punch, but aside from the third-down heroics of Jauan Jennings and fullback, they need to share the ball with other high-caliber targets like McCaffrey and tight end George Kittle. Kyle Juszczyk pops up occasionally. Aiyuk (career-high 1,342 yards) is Purdy’s top pick, as evidenced by boundary throws, mid-range crossing routes, and deep throws like the one where AIyuk caught the Lions’ facemask to spark their return to the NFC Championship Game. Samuel also had great success in this win (eight catches, 89 yards).
Chiefs: Wait, are they actually catching the ball? A unit that has been trending downward all season has at least found its No. 1 target in rookie Rashee Rice, who has been strong since his first 100-yard game on Nov. 26 in Las Vegas. Threat in 2022, having thrown for 111 yards against the 49ers. It’s a win for the 49ers that Tyreek Hill doesn’t return to repeat his Super Bowl LIV heroics; Hill is currently with the Miami Dolphins.
49ers: George Kittle is the NFL’s No. 1 tight end (and AP First-Team All-Pro) with his superb combination of blocking and receiving skills. He is the spirit animal of the offense; We have the utmost respect for Samuel’s bully-like aura, McCaffrey’s all-around production and Purdy’s calm control. Charlie Woerner is a blocking specialist, but he’s become smart at it.
Chiefs: All eyes (including Taylor Swift) will be on Travis Kelce. His telepathic connection with Mahomes will command the 49ers to keep a close eye on Kelce, and with linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw being better options than Tashaun Gipson and Ji’Ayir Brown, it will be fascinating to see who will take on the mantle the most. .
49ers: Trent Williams, left, is arguably the best lineman in this game, the first Super Bowl of his distinguished career. Does his presence alone give the 49ers a better offensive line? Yes. Alongside him are left guard Aaron Banks, center Jake Brendel, right guard Jon Feliciano and right tackle Colton McKivitz. Their troops increased as they should. But the Chiefs’ defensive linemen must be on the same page when it comes to redirecting Chris Jones and helping Purdy figure out where heavy blitzes are coming.
Chiefs: Offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor do more than just catch penalties per Nick Bosa’s scouting report originally suggested. But Smith and Taylor will indeed face major challenges protecting Mahomes. Center Creed Humphrey is impressive and could come face to face with Javon Hargrave at times, looking to avenge last year’s Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney is out, Nick Allegretti is in, and the 49ers’ highly paid interior duo of Hargrave and Arik Armstead must win this matchup.
49ers: It’s time for the 49ers’ biggest investment to pay championship dividends. This is likely to bother Mahomes with left guard Nick Bosa sidelined. Same thing with throwing blocks in the run game to prevent a repeat of past troubles. Most importantly, the 49ers need Chase Young or Randy Gregory to prove they are more of an asset than a liability opposite Bosa. Armstead, the 49ers’ longest-tenured active player in his 9th year, needs to finish one game worse. And Hargrave needs to put pressure on Mahomes.
Chiefs: Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Their best linebacker opened the season with a contract dispute and that may be the Chiefs’ finale, but he’s the baddest man on that line. Even though he’s walled off at the line of scrimmage, he’ll try to throw a pass from the 6-foot-10 Purdy. George Karlaftis has 13 sacks this season, and 49ers offensive linemen have noted that the Chiefs’ entire defensive front should not be overshadowed by Jones. Still, it’s not a deep or formidable unit.
49ers: Fred Warner rightfully received NFL Defensive Player of the Year votes and could change this game one way or another depending on his sure-handed tackling or elite coverage skills. Dre Greenlaw is much more of a wild card, whether it’s rampant pursuit runs or victory-clinching interceptions (see: two against the Packers in the playoff opener). Strong linebacker Oren Burks is a more appetizing target for Mahomes to target in coverage.
Chiefs: Nick Bolton is wary of not only the 49ers’ pre-move moves, but also McCaffrey’s never-give-up mentality. Bolton is joined by Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill; The latter’s coverage skills are well-suited to shadowing McCaffrey. This unit isn’t nearly as scary as what the Ravens would offer if they continue to serve in the AFC Championship Game.
49ers: 49ers minor league star Charvarius Ward played for the Chiefs from 2018-21, then joined the 49ers in 2022 and turned into a Pro Bowl and Second-Team All-Pro cornerback this season. He suffered a groin injury in a tough matchup against the Chiefs in 2022, so he’s healthier and more than capable of beating Mahomes a time or two. Deommodore Lenoir is sure to be in the spotlight as an established starter. The 49ers’ biggest concern is the No. 3 cornerback, and Ambry Thomas’ No. 20 is the first jersey Mahomes should target. Aside from Thomas, the 49ers have forwards Isaiah Oliver, rookie Darrell Luter Jr. or was reluctant to call up Sam Womack III.
Chiefs: Pro Bowl alternative L’Jarius Sneed could shadow Aiyuk, but the 49ers have plenty of other options and the Chiefs may want to protect the top cornerback where he best suits their coverage. The Chiefs had the NFL’s fourth-best pass defense during the regular season. Trent McDuffie was an AP First-Team All-Pro at slot defense. The Chiefs threw just eight interceptions in the regular season (two by Snead) and two in their trio of playoff wins.
49ers: Tashaun Gipson Sr. has studied the Chiefs extensively and needs to coordinate the secondary to prevent explosive plays and miscommunication. Rookie Ji’Ayir Brown projects to start ahead of two-time Super Bowl champion Logan Ryan. Inconsistent play at safety could hurt the 49ers greatly.
Chiefs: Stanford product Justin Reid (the younger brother of former 49er Eric Reid) pairs with Mike Edwards as the Chiefs’ safety duo.
49ers: The 49ers’ last Super Bowl win came with a rookie kicker (Doug Brien), so they went this far to try to do it again, this time with Jake Moody, who has missed kicks in three straight games. Coverage units tend to allow a back-breaking running back, possibly former 49er Richie James. Or maybe 49ers return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud busts one and wins a prop bet in Vegas, much to the delight of gamblers. Half of Mitch Wishnowsky’s punts in the regular season pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line.
Chiefs: Harrison Butker, in his fourth Super Bowl, was 5-of-6 field goal attempts, and his only turnover last year came from 42 yards. The Chiefs jumped from No. 32 in 2022 to No. 14 this season in longtime NFL reporter Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings. Tommy Townsend’s net average per punt was 41.8 yards, which ranked 17th in the regular season.
49ers: Kyle Shanahan still needs to prove he’s not snakebite on football’s biggest stage and make the Super Bowl. He has his best roster yet, which he and general manager John Lynch have assembled over their seven years together. Shanahan’s postgame celebration script: “I’ll be doing this for a while. It’s not just going to happen one night.” What does he think if he still doesn’t win the big one? He’ll be consoled by his family and team members, then move on with his life as a father, son and long-term coach of the 49ers. “I just don’t want any regrets,” Shahanan said. Myself and “I want to do everything that is meaningful for our team.”
Chiefs: Andy Reid, 65, could become the first coach to repeat the Super Bowl title since 2004, when the Patriots and Bill Belichick defeated Reid’s Eagles 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla. Reid’s 25 career playoff wins rank second only to that. Belichick’s 31st Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is the man who will try to keep Shanahan’s offense off-balance, and that’s a chess match to watch.