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Super Bowl preview: Chiefs present problems in every aspect of game

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3 keys to 49ers victory

1. Forget the Chiefs run game: Don’t load the box on defense. The Chiefs don’t want to run the ball. Running bores Andy Reid. He would rather call a screen pass or a deep pass or literally any pass. He’ll call a few runs just to say he did. So the 49ers don’t need to load the box with eight defenders to stop the run like they normally do. They can play seven in the box and dare the Chiefs to run. That’s the smart play.

2. Avoid Tyrann Mathieu: Don’t force passes into his coverage. Like Richard Sherman, Mathieu is a defensive back teams want to avoid. Testing Mathieu usually is a bad idea. He intercepted four passes and allowed a 57.8 quarterback rating during the regular season. But unlike Sherman, Mathieu moves around. Sherman stays on the left of the 49ers defense — Mathieu plays free safety, strong safety and nickel back. Jimmy Garoppolo needs to find Mathieu before every play, then throw elsewhere.

3. Attack the Chiefs linebackers during pass plays: The Chiefs have a good secondary, but their linebackers don’t cover well. Anthony Hitchens allowed a 114.6 quarterback rating during the regular season, and Damien Wilson allowed a 123.4 quarterback rating. Both get lost in coverage and routinely fall for play-action fakes. The 49ers should target the middle of the field with play-action passes as much as they can.

Grant Cohn

MIAMI — The 49ers deserve this moment.

They’re not frauds like the Rams, who didn’t belong in the Super Bowl last season. They made it because the officials missed an obvious pass interference call committed by the Rams in the NFC championship game, which allowed them to beat the Saints. Then the Rams scored just three points in the Super Bowl, got exposed and still haven’t recovered.

But the 49ers are the real deal, an outstanding team. They’ve been the best team in the NFC all season, and they’re one of the best 49ers squads in franchise history.

But the Chiefs are the real deal, too. They’ve won eight games in a row, plus they beat the Ravens, who beat the 49ers. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes never has lost a game by more than seven points during his professional career. The 49ers will have to play their best to beat him.

And their best might not be good enough — the Chiefs are one-point favorites. They’re supposed to win. A 49ers victory would be an upset. This is the first time the 49ers ever have been underdogs in a Super Bowl. Winning this game would be the biggest victory in franchise history.

Here’s why:

1. The Chiefs have the better quarterback: No disrespect to Jimmy Garoppolo, who had a terrific season after missing most of 2018 with a torn ACL.

Garoppolo is a highly skilled quarterback who makes highly impressive plays. He’s like a golfer who chips and putts well. Does lots of understated, difficult things that elicit a strong golf clap — play-action fakes, a quick release, accuracy on short and intermediate passes.

Call him Shooter McGavin from the movie “Happy Gilmore.”

Patrick Mahomes is the real Happy Gilmore. He makes you drop your jaw in amazement. Can throw the ball 80 yards on the fly and is by far the most physically gifted quarterback the NFL has seen since a young Aaron Rodgers.

“He is very, very special,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of Mahomes. “His arm strength, his accuracy, the speed that he has at his disposal. He has a very unique sense of the pocket. He can move up and away from pressure. It’s going to be a big-time challenge.”

The 49ers have a more balanced roster than the Chiefs, but the Chiefs have the better quarterback, and the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Mahomes always gives the Chiefs an advantage.

2. The 49ers’ pass protection is good, but the Chiefs’ is better: Most analysts focus on the 49ers’ defensive line, because it’s their best position group. But it will face a fantastic Chiefs offensive line that has allowed a sack percentage of just 4.15 this season — fourth-lowest in the league. Meaning Mahomes got sacked only 4.15% of the time he dropped back to throw.

The 49ers defensive line may not dominate this game like it normally does. The Chiefs have two elite tackles — Eric Fisher on the left and Mitchell Schwartz on the right. They match up well with Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.

“You can have the best quarterback in football,” Saleh said. “But if you can’t protect him, you can’t play, and that offensive line has protected him all year. It’s a fantastic offensive line and it works very well together. Our front four has a big-time challenge.”

3 keys to 49ers victory

1. Forget the Chiefs run game: Don’t load the box on defense. The Chiefs don’t want to run the ball. Running bores Andy Reid. He would rather call a screen pass or a deep pass or literally any pass. He’ll call a few runs just to say he did. So the 49ers don’t need to load the box with eight defenders to stop the run like they normally do. They can play seven in the box and dare the Chiefs to run. That’s the smart play.

2. Avoid Tyrann Mathieu: Don’t force passes into his coverage. Like Richard Sherman, Mathieu is a defensive back teams want to avoid. Testing Mathieu usually is a bad idea. He intercepted four passes and allowed a 57.8 quarterback rating during the regular season. But unlike Sherman, Mathieu moves around. Sherman stays on the left of the 49ers defense — Mathieu plays free safety, strong safety and nickel back. Jimmy Garoppolo needs to find Mathieu before every play, then throw elsewhere.

3. Attack the Chiefs linebackers during pass plays: The Chiefs have a good secondary, but their linebackers don’t cover well. Anthony Hitchens allowed a 114.6 quarterback rating during the regular season, and Damien Wilson allowed a 123.4 quarterback rating. Both get lost in coverage and routinely fall for play-action fakes. The 49ers should target the middle of the field with play-action passes as much as they can.

Grant Cohn

Ditto for the 49ers’ offensive line. It has given up a sack percentage of 7.17 this season — 12th highest in the league. And the Chiefs have a good pass rush. Defensive end Frank Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones are two of the league’s best pass rushers.

Garoppolo could face more pressure than Mahomes.

3. The 49ers defensive backs are slower than the Chiefs wide receivers: The Chiefs have the NFL’s fastest offense by far. It is an offense on jet propulsion.

They have the league’s fastest player, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ran a 4.28 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2016. They also have rookie wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who ran a 4.33 40 at the Combine and looks just as fast as Hill during games.

The Chiefs slowest receiver, Sammy Watkins, ran a 4.46 at the Combine in 2014.

“When you have this many track guys out there running full speed,” Watkins said, “and you also have Patrick Mahomes, one of the most prolific quarterbacks, scrambling and getting out of the pocket, it’s usually five guys out there and maybe four of them are open.”

The 49ers can’t let Mahomes scramble out of the pocket and extend plays, because they can’t chase those speedy receivers for more than a few seconds. No one can.

This is the biggest mismatch of the game.

4. The 49ers could struggle to run behind George Kittle: Before this season, the Chiefs hired a new defensive coordinator — Steve Spagnuolo, who beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in the 2012 Super Bowl when Spagnuolo was the Giants defensive coordinator.

The Chiefs struggled to implement his system the first half of the season and gave up lots of rushing yards, but the run defense has improved recently. During their current eight-game win streak, the Chiefs have given up 4.35 yards per carry. Not bad. And two weeks ago, they limited the best running back in the playoffs, Derrick Henry, to just 3.64 yards per carry. Impressive.

The Chiefs load up to defend the strong side of offensive formations, meaning the side with the tight end. The Chiefs usually shift their defensive linemen toward the tight end and make it difficult to run that direction.

The 49ers love to run behind Kittle — he’s their best run blocker. All of their best run plays require Kittle to block at the point of attack. The Chiefs might force the 49ers to run other plays.

5. One turnover from Jimmy Garoppolo could cost the 49ers the game: To win, the 49ers have to run the ball effectively and possess it longer than the Chiefs. The best way to defend Mahomes is to keep him on the sideline.

In theory, the 49ers can pull off this game plan, but they have little margin for error. One turnover will give Mahomes one extra possession, which might be the difference in the game.

Garoppolo committed 18 turnovers during the regular season — more than any other quarterback who made the playoffs. He was turnover prone. Three weeks ago, he threw an interception against the Vikings during his first career playoff start, and has been allowed to throw merely 14 passes in six quarters since then.

Garoppolo will have to throw much more to beat the Chiefs. And the Chiefs have a good pass defense. It has intercepted 11 passes the past eight games, and their best defensive player, strong safety Tyrann Mathieu, will cover Garoppolo’s favorite target, Kittle. Mathieu has three interceptions since mid-November.

To beat the Chiefs, Garoppolo must achieve a level of performance he hasn’t yet reached in the playoffs.

Prediction: Chiefs 31, 49ers 28.

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