With 7:17 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Kansas City Chiefs had a 3.9% chance of winning Super Bowl LIV, per ESPN Stats and Info. Barely four minutes of game time later, the Chiefs moved over 50% and when the clock expired as Patrick Mahomes threw a wild pass up into the air, Kansas City had a 31-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Chiefs erased a 10-point deficit in the second half, a comeback that looks tame compared to what they did in the previous two rounds of the playoffs against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. Through three quarters, it looked like Mahomes was going to have his worst game as a pro, but he ended the night on the stage hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and named Super Bowl MVP.
For this to happen, a number of things had to break right for the Chiefs (and wrong for the 49ers).
Bizarro Andy Reid Game
Andy Reid got his second chance at a Super Bowl win and he coached it in almost the exact opposite way you would expect. Reid was aggressive early on fourth downs, likely knowing kicking field goals would not be enough to keep up in this game.
During the regular season, Reid was a good game manager and typically kept the Chiefs away from backbreaking mistakes — he came out second behind John Harbaugh in EdjSports’ Head Coach Rankings, but he was nowhere near the most aggressive on fourth downs. Kansas City was just 18th in going for fourth down on attempts recommended to go for it by the New York Times Fourth Down Bot.
But on Kansas City’s second drive of the game, the Chiefs faced a 4th and 1 from the San Francisco 5-yard line. Before the play, the broadcast had gone to commercial and Reid had sent the field goal unit out, but by the time the commercial break ended, Reid had changed his mind and put the offense back on the field.
Per EdjSports, the decision to go for it increased the Chiefs’ pre-snap win probability by 4%. Kansas City picked up the first down on a direct snap to Damien Williams, on a play offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy later said was inspired by the 1948 Rose Bowl. The Chiefs score a touchdown a play later.
Going through these grainy 1948 Rose Bowl highlights, this might actually be the play the Chiefs stole. More of an inside running path here. Anyway, Fritz Crisler Michigan was very cool pic.twitter.com/tzs2VSXMBz
— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) February 3, 2020
On the next drive, the Chiefs faced a 4th and 1 from the San Francisco 19-yard line. Kansas City ran an option and as Nick Bosa closed in on Mahomes, the quarterback was able to pitch to Williams, who had a clear lane to the right for the first down. The Chiefs eventually settled for a field goal, but it was another aggressive decision that kept the ball in Kansas City’s possession with the intent of scoring a touchdown.
While the fourth down decisions were aggressive, the offense was more conservative overall in the first half. In an attempt to limit the impact of San Francisco’s pass rush, the Chiefs got the ball out quickly, limited deep shots, and had a number of early-down runs. The game script in the second half forced the Chiefs back into their pass-heavy ways (they ended with a 67.8% pass rate on early downs for the game — though it was a 13/12 split on first down) but inefficient runs on first and second down, added in with a short passing game, made third downs much harder to convert.
Patrick Mahomes & A tale of two halves
The offensive game plan in the first half was questionable in the first half, but so was Mahomes’s performance even when he was able to drop back and have the opportunity for some open throws. Mahomes had some bad misses in the first half without the big plays to make up for them.
In the first half, Mahomes had just 104 passing yards and his average pass traveled only 3.9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He had just two of 18 attempts travel over 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and only one of those was completed.
This was all compounded with an emphasis on getting the ball out quickly to avoid the San Francisco pass rush. In the first half, Mahomes averaged 2.54 seconds to throw. During the regular season, Mahomes averaged 2.84 as much of the Kansas City offense was built around buying time for deep shots. That wasn’t the case in the first half but, perhaps just out of necessity, it changed in the second half. The poor offensive performance in the first half basically forced Mahomes and the Chiefs to play to their strengths in the second half. It worked.
In the second half, the Chiefs were able to hold the ball longer and push the ball down the field. Mahomes finished the game 3-of-5 for 110 yards and an interception on passes more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Part of what enabled this was a schematic shift to keep more players in to block — or at least chip before they went out on routes. Early in the first half, the plan to get the ball out quickly was helping slow down the pass rush. Kansas City had the advantage early in the play but in the second half, Nick Bosa got in a rhythm against left tackle Eric Fisher and was consistently in the backfield. Per Next Gen Stats, Bosa finished the average play 3.44 yards away from Mahomes, well below the league average and significantly better than any of his 49ers teammates during the game.
The extra pass blocking help worked when the Chiefs had to go deep. On a 3rd and 15 from the Kansas City 35 with a little over seven minutes left in the game, the Chiefs went four verts from a 3×1 set. The iso receiver was tight end Blake Bell (81), in-line to the right. At the snap, he stayed in to chip on Dee Ford (55) before his route and on the other side, Damien Williams (26) delayed his route to give help with Bosa (97) on the left side. Mahomes had just enough time to find Tyreek Hill deep for a gain of 44 yards.
On the next drive, Kansas City had a 2nd and 7 near midfield. The Chiefs kept both Williams and Travis Kelce in to block on the left side. That gave them the ability to get an extra set of hands on Bosa and the ability to pick up a slot blitz from K’Wuan Williams. Kansas City had Sammy Watkins one-on-one with Richard Sherman and Watkins was able to get behind the corner for a 38-yard reception.
The Chiefs scored on a five-yard pass from Mahomes to Williams to take a 24-20 lead three plays later.
Mahomes wasn’t perfect, even in the second half, but he was able to put just enough big plays together to lead the Chiefs back into the game. He finished with a 61.6 QBR against one of the league’s best defenses, which means a team would be expected to win nearly 62% of the time with a similar performance to Mahomes’s. It’s a figure below his 76.3 in the regular season, but it’s something the Chiefs will certainly take since it looked like it would be much closer to 0% earlier in the game.
Is Kyle Shanahan To Blame?
There is going to be a lot of talk about how Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers lost the game late. That’s not quite the reality of the game, though. If there were hiccups in Shanahan’s game management, they came early, not late.
San Francisco settled for short field goals on both its first drive of the first half and opening drive of the second half. The first came on a 4th and 5 from the 20 and the second was more detrimental, from 4th and 2 on the 24. The decision cost 5% pre-snap win probability, per EdjSports.
The biggest issue could be how Shanahan handled the end of the first half. With the score tied at 10, San Francisco got the ball back with 59 seconds remaining and all three timeouts. The 49ers ran the ball twice before the Chiefs used their first timeout with 20 seconds remaining. San Francisco then had a 20-yard pass and nearly a 42-yard completion to George Kittle that was called back for offensive pass interference.
After the game, Shanahan said his conservative nature there stemmed from not wanting to give the Chiefs the ball back with three timeouts. The problem there is he almost did with two failed runs on first and second down. The 20-yard gain on third down and the pass to Kittle (even with OPI) showed the 49ers had the ability to break a big play with little time left in the half. Shanahan was comfortable with a 10-10 tie, but could have been more aggressive for points before getting the ball back to start the second half.
There has been some objection to how Shanahan called the end of the game, sticking with the pass instead of the run. This is also a flawed argument.
San Francisco’s biggest drop in win probability came on the three-play, five-yard drive that took just 1:03 off the clock midway through the fourth quarter with a three-point lead. The 49ers gained five yards on a first down Raheem Mostert run. On second down, the 49ers decided to pass. That’s a decision that could be questioned, but George Kittle was open as the intended receiver. However, Chris Jones didn’t get enough pass rush, read the quarterback, and timed a jump to bat down the pass.
On third down, the 49ers dropped back to pass again. Jimmy Garoppolo had Kittle wide open across the middle of the field, but never saw his tight end. A delayed blitz from linebacker Ben Niemann opened up a free shot at the quarterback and Garoppolo launched an inaccurate pass down the field. That’s not on Shanahan.
The 49ers trailed 24-20 the next time they got the ball. After five plays and 36 yards, San Francisco faced a 3rd and 10 from the Kansas City 49 with 1:40 remaining. After the snap, the 49ers got everything they could have wanted.
When previewing the game, we noted how both of these offenses were excellent at creating space and getting separation on deep throws. No quarterback had more receiver separation on deep attempts than Garoppolo during the regular season and he was able to convert most of those open throws. That’s exactly what he got here, but with worse results.
Emmanuel Sanders got behind two Kansas City defenders for what could have been a go-ahead touchdown, but Garoppolo missed the throw.
That’s one third down that could have extended a drive with the lead and another that could have taken a late lead. Shanahan had some miscues in this game, but those late drives are different if the quarterback made a few more plays.
Shanahan called an otherwise impressive game. Despite the loss, the 49ers averaged more yards per play than the Chiefs by over a yard — 6.5 to 5.3.
Defense When It Mattered
Kansas City’s defense was a reason the Chiefs didn’t win the Super Bowl last season. It improved throughout the year in 2019 and showed up in big spots against San Francisco.
After the Chiefs’ first touchdown drive, the defense forced Garoppolo to throw an ugly interception. Chris Jones tore through the offensive line to get early pressure on Garoppolo and Mike Pennel finished with a hit that forced a bad throw and Bashaud Breeland interception.
Even with the San Francisco run game, the Chiefs spent their efforts defending the pass. It was a similar strategy the Chiefs used against Derrick Henry and the Titans in the AFC Championship Game. Only 25% of Raheem Mostert’s carries came against a box of eight defenders or more, per Next Gen Stats. The 49ers did most of their damage on the ground with wide receiver runs, yet even those weren’t as dangerous as they had been earlier in the season.
The Chiefs were able to get pressure late in the game. They brought some blitzes, like the delayed Niemann rush that forced a third down incompletion, and were able to change up defensive looks.
On the play that iced the game, Kansas City only brought four men but Frank Clark delayed his rush after he helped bump Kittle off the line. The Chiefs still got enough pressure to force a Garoppolo throw into traffic that was picked by Kendall Fuller, who started the season as the slot corner and played more safety after Juan Thornhill was lost for the season.
Fuller’s acquisition was loosely tied to Patrick Mahomes. Fuller was a throw-in as part of the trade that sent Alex Smith to Washington and opened up the starting job from Mahomes. The player who had an interception early in the game, Bashaud Breeland, was signed for a one-year/$2 million well after the first wave of free agency. That’s two cheap, savvy additions that paid huge dividends for the Chiefs on the biggest stage.
It’s the little things, as much as the big hits, that put the Kansas City Chiefs in position to win Super Bowl LIV.