Sunday, 11:30pm, Sky Sports Action
This is it – the greatest night in your sporting calendar, and don’t you even dream of @ing me with your Champions League fancies or your ‘they’re just rugby players with padding’ remarks.
There’s nobody in West Newbury, Massachusetts buzzing for the Heineken Cup final, but you can guarantee that you’re going to walk into work the day after talking absolute rope about ‘Jimmy G’ and how he ‘won the game for them’.
So, spare yourself the spoofology, listen to this brief I’ll give you of Super Bowl LIV – and it seems likely we’ll make a few quid along the way.
The Kansas City Chiefs contested the first-ever Super Bowl, then won Super Bowl IV – that was 50 years ago, and while they’re only a small-time franchise in the grand scheme of things, the Arrowhead faithful are raucous. They’ve also now got the best player in the entire sport – and it looks like he’ll continue to be exactly that for most of his career.
To quote my good friend Will Russo, who’s been a Chiefs season ticket holder for over half his life: “Kansas City just doesn’t get players like Patrick Mahomes”. Well, unfortunately for this Los Angeles Chargers fan, they do – and he’s going to spend his career in Missouri.
But, ironically like the career of his divisional rival Philip Rivers, he’ll not even be considered among the greats if he doesn’t land a Super Bowl. This is his chance to get the monkey off his back very early in his NFL tenure and focus on becoming the greatest of all-time. A loss here will surely set him back, and his next 15 years will be spent trying to right wrongs rather than playing his natural game with a clear head.
But that’s only one facet of this storyline-filled standoff.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is also a clear candidate for the spotlight. Long-considered one of the best minds in the game, his only Super Bowl win came as a small-time backroom assistant with Green Bay in 1996. He has never won a Super Bowl as a head coach and his legacy is also very much on the line, given he turns 62 in March.
They’re a small-city team with the standout signal-caller in the league, a roster filled with redemption stories and the second-most sophisticated offence in the NFL.
But sitting above them is Kyle Shanahan’s unit – and unfortunately for the AFC champs, that’s exactly who they’ll be facing off against in Miami on Sunday.
San Francisco is a massive football town. Since their move from Candlestick Park, they had yet to fully engage with a blueprint that seemed, at least from the outside looking in, sustainable long-term. Colin Kaepernick, for all that he should absolutely have a job in this league, was one-dimensional at times.
But Jimmy Garoppolo is a game-manager in the hands of the best offensive mind in the business – Kyle Shanahan. Their run game is the primary focus of their offensive identity, but their misdirection and constant rejuvenation of schemes is what makes them unpredictable.
Shanahan is the offensive coordinator that gave up the biggest lead in the history of the Super Bowl, let’s not forget. He has his own demons to battle. The reason the Falcons coughed up the 28-3 lead to the Patriots is because Shanahan went conservative with his play-calling and that goes against his grain.
This time, if he begins to limit his play-calling, Patrick Mahomes will swallow him alive.
I give the Niners the edge here, too. With two excellent sets of coaches on either side, it will come down to who can surprise the other in a timely fashion. Both Steve Spagnuolo and Robert Saleh will have plays to counter every signature staple of the other’s offence.
But the Niners were gifted an easy ride in the NFC title game and showed next to no passing plays as Green Bay broke in half against their run game.
Yet the Chiefs, who generally struggle against Cover 4 defences in the first place, had to throw up all of their money plays because they’ve had to claw back two massive deficits in their playoff run to Miami.
The Niners play more Cover 4 than any team in the league, and that’s why I’d hand them a three-point advantage if I were trading this game.
With that in mind, here are your three best bets for Super Bowl Sunday.
There are little or no factors that make me want to pick Kansas City here. The Chiefs play a lot of man coverage at the back-end and the Niners’ version of Cover 4 is effectively a quarters coverage that turns into man on deep routes.
If the game plays out like that, which I suspect it will, deep balls will be at a complete premium. This leaves underneath coverage contending with slot receivers and tight ends. The onus for these players will fall on linebacking corps, and bar maybe Dallas and Minnesota, San Francisco have the best linebacking trio in the NFL.
Kansas City on the other hand, do not. That means they’ll have to compensate by playing a safety closer to the line to either play quick zone for short routes or to offer man coverage on crossers. It leaves man coverage on one side of the field and whether it’s Deebo Samuel or Emmanuel Sanders, I like their chances against a Chiefs secondary that’s better as a unit than they are individually.
There are people reading this wondering what kind of medication I’m on, citing that both of these teams could score 55 by themselves if everything clicks.
But that’s not how Super Bowls work, and definitely not an Andy Reid versus Kyle Shanahan Super Bowl.
Both of these head coaches will gladly throw away drives just to set up a disguise later on in the game. As an example, if the Niners get Sanders one-on-one with a cornerback, they might ask him to run two curl routes on back-to-back plays and never throw to him.
This is merely so Sanders can fake a curl later on and double move his corner for a massive gain in behind.
This is a chess match and chess matches aren’t high-scoring – particularly if the deep ball will be taken away by San Francisco from the off.
Patrick Mahomes will fire late in the game to make it close, I assure you.
But even without that logic, the run game is so big for the Niners that clock will limit point-scoring chances, and with deep coverages being these two teams’ go-to in early downs, I expect drives to be long.
San Francisco will win this, but there won’t be a tonne between the teams at any point.
*All odds correct at time of publication