With so many tantalizing matchups between the NFC and AFC champions, let’s take an early look at some intriguing battles from a scout’s perspective.
Here are three key matchups to watch:
Can the Chiefs slow down the 49ers’ running game?
Despite the Chiefs’ emergence as a defensive juggernaut this season, the unit’s issues defending the run could encourage Kyle Shanahan to turn Super Bowl LVIII into a street fight in a phone booth. The Niners not only excel at attacking opponents with an array of off-tackle runs with Christian McCaffrey running to daylight, but they find creative ways to put the ball in Deebo Samuel‘s hands on jet-sweeps or reverses on the perimeter.
With Shanahan intent on getting his best players at least 20-plus combined rushing attempts, the Chiefs must gear up for a ground-and-pound plan designed to test their toughness, physicality and gap discipline for 60 minutes. Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could counter by blitzing the Niners relentlessly to ensure that there’s a defender in every assigned gap at the line of scrimmage. Moreover, the heavy-pressure tactics could result in a few negative plays that disrupt the Niners’ schedule and force Brock Purdy to throw against the exotic blitzes that routinely result in turnovers.
If the Chiefs can handle the deception (pre-snap motions and shifts) and misdirection (reverses, jet-sweeps, and trick plays), they can control the line of scrimmage with their speed and physicality while utilizing an aggressive plan that plugs the running lanes for McCaffrey & Co.
How can the 49ers limit the Mahomes-to-Kelce connection?
After watching the league’s most dominant quarterback-pass catcher combination torch another opponent in the playoffs, the Niners must neutralize Travis Kelce‘s impact on the perimeter. The four-time All-Pro tight end has been unstoppable during the playoffs (22 catches, 261 yards and three scores), displaying the crafty route-running skills and playmaking ability that will earn him a gold jacket after he retires.
To slow down the Chiefs’ top offensive threat, Niners defensive coordinator Steve Wilks must play more man-to-man coverage with an extra defender assigned to Kelce. Wilks cannot allow the perennial Pro Bowler to dominate the game by refusing to utilize double teams or bracket coverage to eliminate him from the progression.
Though taking a defender out of the box or deep coverage would put pressure on the rest of the defense to hold up against the run and the Chiefs’ other weapons, Kelce has repeatedly shown the football world that he can single-handedly win the game as a one-man army on the perimeter. By making a greater commitment to minimize Kelce with the “Double No. 87” strategy, the Niners can force Patrick Mahomes to rely on a shaky supporting cast that has faltered for most of the season.
Everyone hates the kicker until he’s needed to make a crucial kick with the game on the line. That’s why the battle between Harrison Butker and Jake Moody cannot be ignored in a matchup of elite squads.
Butker has been nails this postseason with an unblemished record (7-for-7 on field goals and 7-for-7 on extra points). That follows a regular season in which he converted 94% of his field-goal attempts and was perfect on extra-point attempts. Throughout his seven-year career, Butker has also been a model of consistency in the postseason: an 87.5% conversion rate on field-goal attempts, including five makes on six attempts of 50-plus yards.
Conversely, Moody has been shaky since his arrival as the No. 99 overall pick in the 2023 draft. The former Michigan standout ranked 24th in field-goal conversion percentage (84.0%) while converting 60 of 61 extra-point attempts.
During the postseason, Moody has made just three of his five field-goal attempts, with a pair of misses at intermediate range (40-49 yards).
While the Niners have expressed the utmost confidence in their rookie kicker, Moody’s inconsistency could alter Shanahan’s game-day approach. Can the Niners coach trust his kicker to nail a crucial attempt from the 35-yard line, or will he need to aggressively dial up his fourth-down calls to take the game off his kicker’s shoulders?
In a game that a crucial kick will likely decide, the battle between the veteran and the rookie could determine which team’s players will feel the confetti falling on their shoulders.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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