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Tale of the tape: Where the 49ers have advantages over the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII


LAS VEGAS — Like any prizefight in this high-stakes town, a tale-of-the-tape is necessary to size up the competitors. In the case of Sunday’s Super Bowl LVIII, here is how the San Francisco 49ers (14-5) compare to the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs (14-6):

QUARTERBACKS

49ers: Brock Purdy enters with back-to-back comebacks in the playoffs, putting him in the Super Bowl 378 days after tearing his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament. Purdy’s regular-season passing proficiency (49ers’ record 4,280 yards) was complemented in the postseason by his pocket escapes and scrambles. Turnovers have triggered his four losses this season (he sat out Week 18), so a clean game could make him the second-youngest quarterback (24 years, 46 days) to win the Lombardi Trophy behind Ben Roethlisberger (23; 340 days). Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady were both 24 when they won their first Super Bowl.

Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes is the, ahem, chief reason he’s in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years. His ability to keep plays (and seasons) alive will buy him time to find holes in the 49ers’ secondary. He is 3-0 all-time against the 49ers (75-of-114; 65.8% completion rate; 1,023 yards; eight touchdowns; three interceptions, including two in his first Super Bowl). He is this Super Bowl’s marquee star. (49ers counterattack: If any Patrick is going to succeed this week, it’s already happened with Patrick Willis making the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)

Edge: Chiefs

RUNNING BACKS

49ers: Christian McCaffrey is fully willing to carry the 49ers’ championship hopes. He did most of this season, with the NFL rushing title as a prelude to him scoring on two touchdown runs in each playoff win. McCaffrey, who overcame oblique and calf injuries this season, won’t want to come off the field. But some carries or backfield work could go to playoff-mode Deebo Samuel. Elijah Mitchell is healthy, too, so his ability to find positive yards will help if McCaffrey needs relief. Don’t forget about Purdy’s sneaking rushing ability that helped deliver the NFC crown.

Chiefs: Isaiah Pacheco’s hard running ability has garnered praise from the 49ers’ defenders. He has a rushing touchdown in four straight playoff games, including one in last year’s Super Bowl when he ran for 76 yards. He’s averaged an NFL-best 4.7 yards per carry when defenses stack the box. The 49ers’ run defense yielded 148 yards in the first half of the NFC title game to Detroit, and while edge containment will be tested, gap integrity and gang tackling must be on point.

Edge: 49ers

WIDE RECEIVERS

49ers: Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel could make for a potent, 1-2 punch but they must share the ball with other high-caliber targets, such as McCaffrey and tight end George Kittle, to say nothing of Jauan Jennings’ third-down heroics and fullback Kyle Juszczyk’s occasional surfacing. Aiyuk (career-high 1,342 yards) is Purdy’s go-to man, as reflected by boundary throws, mid-range crossing routes, and deep shots, like the one AIyuk caught off a Lions’ facemask to ignite the NFC Championship Game comeback. Samuel also came up big in that win (eight catches, 89 yards).

Chiefs: Wait, they actually catch the ball? A unit that was prone to drops all season at least has found a No. 1 target in rookie Rashee Rice, who’s come on strong since his first 100-yard game here in Las Vegas on Nov. 26. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is a deep threat who had 111 yards against the 49ers in 2022. The mere fact that Tyreek Hill is not back to repeat his Super Bowl LIV heroics is a win for the 49ers; Hill is now on the Miami Dolphins.

Edge: 49ers

San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle (85) scores on a 44-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle (85) scores on a 44-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

TIGHT ENDS

49ers: George Kittle is the NFL’s No. 1 tight end (and AP First-Team All-Pro) with his idyllic combination of blocking and receiving skills. He is the offense’s spirit animal, all due respect to 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 a smart one, at that.

Chiefs: All eyes (including Taylor Swift’s) will be on Travis Kelce. His telepathic connection with Mahomes will command the 49ers to stay tight in coverage with Kelce, and it will be fascinating to who draws that assignment most, with linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw perhaps better options than safeties Tashaun Gipson and Ji’Ayir Brown.

Edge: 49ers

OFFENSIVE LINE

49ers: Left tackle Trent Williams is unquestionably 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. Flanking him are left guard Aaron Banks, center Jake Brendel, right guard Jon Feliciano, and right tackle Colton McKivitz. Their cohesion has grown as it should. But they must be on the same page when it comes to redirecting Chiefs’ defensive linemen Chris Jones, and in helping Purdy recognize where the abundant blitzers are coming.

Chiefs: Offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor do more than commit holding penalties, which is the scouting report Nick Bosa initially offered. But Smith and Taylor indeed will be challenged big time to protect Mahomes. Center Creed Humphrey is impressive, and he’ll go nose-to-nose at times with Javon Hargrave, who’s eager to avenge last year’s Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney is out, so Nick Allegretti is in, and the 49ers’ highly paid interior tandem of Hargrave and Arik Armstead must win that matchup.

Edge: 49ers

DEFENSIVE LINE

49ers: Time for the 49ers’ biggest investment to pay championship dividends. That goes for pestering Mahomes with Nick Bosa off the edge, likely from the left defensive end. And it goes for shedding blocks in the run game to prevent a repeat of past woes. Most importantly, the 49ers need Chase Young or Randy Gregory to prove more of an asset than a liability on the edge opposite Bosa. Armstead, the 49ers’ longest-tenured active player in Year 9, must get through one more game on a bad foot. And Hargrave must pressure Mahomes up the gut.

Chiefs: Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Their top defender opened the season in a contract dispute, and this could be his Chiefs’ finale, but he is the baddest dude on that line. Even when he’s walled off at the line of scrimmage, he’ll look to bat down a pass from the 6-foot-1 Purdy. George Karlaftis has 13 sacks this season, and the 49ers’ offensive linemen stated that the Chiefs’ entire defensive front should not be overshadowed by Jones. It’s not a deep nor formidable unit, though.

Edge: 49ers

LINEBACKER

49ers: Fred Warner rightfully drew NFL Defensive Player of the Year votes, and he could swing this game one way or the other depending on his sure-tackling or his elite coverage skills. Dre Greenlaw is much more of a wild card, whether it be overpursuing runs or making victory-clinching interceptions (see: two vs. Packers in the playoff opener). Strong-side 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-snap motions but of McCaffrey’s never-go-down mentality. Flanking Bolton are Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill, the latter of whom’s coverage skills are best suited to shadow McCaffrey. This unit is not nearly as daunting as what the Ravens would have offered if they had held serve in the AFC Championship Game.

Edge: 49ers

Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers leaves the field after a game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on Dec. 31, 2023 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers leaves the field after a game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on Dec. 31, 2023 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) 

CORNERBACK

49ers: Charvarius Ward is the star of the 49ers’ secondary, having played for the Chiefs from 2018-21 before joining the 49ers in 2022 and blossoming into a Pro Bowl and Second-Team All-Pro cornerback this season. He played through a groin injury in his dour reunion against the Chiefs in 2022, so he’s healthier and capable of picking off Mahomes a time or two. Deommodore Lenoir is sure to be thrust into the spotlight as an entrenched starter. The 49ers’ biggest worry is at No. 3 cornerback, with Ambry Thomas’ No. 20 the first jersey Mahomes should seek to target. Outside of Thomas, the 49ers have been reluctant to call on Isaiah Oliver, rookie Darrell Luter Jr. or Sam Womack III.

Chiefs: L’Jarius Sneed, a Pro Bowl alternate, could shadow Aiyuk, but the 49ers have so many other options that the Chiefs may want to keep their top cornerback wherever best suits their coverage. The Chiefs had the NFL’s fourth-best pass defense in the regular season. Trent McDuffie made AP First-Team All-Pro at slot cornerback. The Chiefs had just eight interceptions in the regular season (two by Snead), and two in their trio of playoff wins.

Edge: Chiefs

SAFETY

49ers: Tashaun Gipson Sr. has intensely studied the Chiefs and must coordinate the secondary to prevent explosive plays and miscommunication. Rookie Ji’Ayir Brown figures to get the start over two-time Super Bowl-winner Logan Ryan. Inconsistent play at safety could cost the 49ers big time.

Chiefs: Stanford product Justin Reid (younger brother of ex-49er Eric Reid) pairs with Mike Edwards as the Chiefs’ safety tandem.

Edge: Chiefs


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