Like any team missing its top offensive threats, the Kansas City Chiefs have been a different group this season when playing without the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Damien Williams. But to the credit of their head coach Andy Reid, they’ve been a different team by design.
And without one more or of those guys in the lineup at 100 percent in all but really three full games, Reid managed to adapt the team’s style to weather the storm and position the Chiefs for a playoff run after a 12-4 regular season.
Kansas City plays a completely different style when all their bullets are loaded in the chamber, which has gotten lost for many people handicapping and analyzing today’s Super Bowl matchup against the San Francisco 49’ers.
Add players like Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson to the players mentioned above and you have an offensive group with more speed, overall athleticism and depth than any team in the league.
With those guys all available, Reid’s offense become a quick-strike, big-play aerial assault. Without some of them – and he was missing two or three of those guys for the vast majority of games this year – it becomes a much more conservative, ball-control style like what he used in Philadelphia.
With the full contingent in tow, however, Kansas City gets many more possessions – sometimes as many as 12 or 13 per game – and controls the ball for much less time, often in the 25- to 26-minute range as opposed to 30 or more minutes, than without them.
Either way, somewhat remarkably, the Chiefs score on about 60 percent of their possessions. It’s just clear that when Mahomes has been out of the lineup or not at 100 percent – and frequently minus Hill and Williams – Reid prefers to control the ball more and limit the possibility for mistakes.
The bottom line is that he has an enormous amount of trust in Mahomes when he is at full speed and is surrounded by all his weapons. In that situation Reid is fine with setting a track-meet pace and is confident he can outscore his opponents.
More often than not, he’s right.
If 12 possessions leads to seven or eight scores – and three or four of those at a minimum are touchdowns – you’re looking at an almost-guaranteed total of between 34 and 40 points per game.
The Chiefs have a strong secondary, so Reid feels that in an up-tempo, high-scoring game in which his opponents often are playing catch-up and have to throw to stay close, his young superstar QB is less likely to make critical mistakes than the opposing team’s signal caller and his secondary is good enough to allow Kansas City to outscore the opposition.
Seems like a pretty good theory against almost anyone Kansas City might face.
But today is different, and it will be interesting to see if Reid is as confident facing a team that has a stronger defense than any his squad has seen and also probably has more weapons on offense than any team the Chiefs have faced.
Is it possible that Reid might be better off reverting to the ball-control style that allowed his team to weather the injury storm and still win games? That approach certainly would catch San Francisco off guard, and Kansas City certainly is capable of pulling it off. It might eliminate the chance of a blowout and keep the game close, but also might give the Chiefs their best chance of winning.
While they may not have the star power on offense that Kansas City has, the 49’ers have three talented running backs with different styles and different strengths to go along with the top pass-catching/blocking combo tight end in the league in George Kittle and outside receibing threats Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel.
This is an offense that actually averaged slightly more points per game at nearly 30 than Kansas City this year and has tremendous balance.
Any offense directed by a Shanahan is going to be able to control the ball and run it down your throat as seen in an NFC championship game that saw quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo throw just eight passes. And as soon as you stack the line to slow the run game, San Francisco can burn you with the big play, hit a back in the flat or find Kittle in a seam up the middle.
The truth is, with the top defensive line in the NFL – one that makes quarterbacks speed up their thought process and doesn’t allow plays to develop or receivers to get down the field – and a solid zone coverage scheme backing it up, it is almost a certainty that the 49’ers will be able to at least slow down – if not shut down – the Chiefs’ big-play offense.
That leads us to the real question of the day – and one that is likely the opposite of what most fans and handicappers are thinking: Can the Chiefs stop the 49’ers balanced offense?
This is a huge question mark.
Many are overlooking San Francisco’s offense because of what is perceived to be a mismatch at the quarterback position and the Chiefs’ offensive talent and firepower.
Guess what? Offenses don’t play against each other.
With a defense that is susceptible to the run and had to stack the box to slow down Derrick Henry in the second half in the AFC title game, it appears as though San Francisco has more of an advantage over the Chiefs defense than Kanas City’s offense has over the 49’ers defense.
If Kansas City plays it straight up, San Francisco should have its way on the ground, be able to control the ball and limit the Chiefs’ possessions – all keys to keeping the game close and ultimately winning. And if Kansas City sells out for the run, Kittle, Sanders and Samuel could have a field day.
That might not limit the Chiefs’ possessions, but then the pressure would be on Kansas City’s offense to match San Francisco blow for blow against a great defense.
What it boils down to is that San Francisco has the better all-around team, but the Chiefs can still beat you in more than one way.
The ball is in Andy Reid’s court, and we know that he has not had the greatest of postseason success during his career.
While taking the conservative, ball-control approach would not take full advantage of his playmakers and eliminate the possibility of big plays, a ton of points and a blowout, it gives him the best chance of winning. His team is more than capable of using the running game and a short, possession passing game to move the ball and eat clock.
By turning a four-quarter game into a one-quarter game and protecting his quarterback from a fearsome defensive line, Reid can almost guarantee his team a shot to win at the end. With his offensive talent, if you are within a score and get the last possession, you have to like your chances.
Shanahan, on the other hand, has a Super Bowl nightmare of his own lodged somewhere in his brain and knows that limiting Kansas City’s possessions is the key to staying in the game. While Reid may turn to the quick passing game to maintain possession, expect Shanahan to establish the run first and try to sucker the Chiefs into selling out to stop the ground game in hopes of scoring a big play or two.
San Francisco will be able to move the ball and score, so if Kansas City is playing for the home run and comes up short a few times in the first half the Chiefs may fall behind and become predictable. That could spell disaster against a defense as strong as the San Francisco’s.
The expectation here, contrary to what most others have written, is for this to be a well-played, yet somewhat conservative game that goes down to the wire.
Yes, Kansas City could go off offensively with everyone at 100 percent and salt this one away early, but given Reid’s playoff past and the strength of San Francisco’s defense, look for him to take what the defense gives him and make this a one-quarter game.
Shanahan knows first hand how quickly a great offense can run up points from the Falcon’s famous 28-3 Super Bowl collapse. And he knows that although his quarterback is much better than advertised, he also is susceptible to making a questionable decision or two (or three) every time out.
Two coaches with postseason demons back on the world’s biggest stage. If you asked any NFL coach before the season if they could be guaranteed being even or within one score going into the fourth quarter of that year’s Super Bowl, they would all agree to that scenario in a heartbeat.
That’s how today will play out, with the better all-around team winning the Lombardi Trophy – or coming very, very close.
We like the 49ers +1.5.
At 54 or 55 the lean would have been toward the under. But at current 52.5 we think it will be right at that number or slightly over. We are looking at a 30-24 or 30-27 final score.
But it could be 28-27. Those 1.5 points could be huge!