It’s ‘go’ time! Following 21 weeks of regular-season and postseason action, the 2023 NFL campaign will conclude with Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11, live from Las Vegas with the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs and the star-studded San Francisco 49ers vying for this year’s ultimate prize.
On one hand, this matchup is precisely what many could’ve forecast back in Week 1. The 49ers came within one win of playing K.C. in last year’s Super Bowl. The Chiefs are reigning champs. And yet their respective journeys have infused the upcoming heavyweight brawl with added drama: Patrick Mahomes and Co. were curiously sluggish before rediscovering title-caliber swagger this postseason, while Brock Purdy and the 49ers found their own level of crunch-time fortitude in January.
Love them or hate them, these two teams feature some of the best talent in the NFL by a relatively wide margin, combining for 10 conference championship appearances in the last six years. In other words, their battle is must-see TV.
The 49ers are currently the oddsmakers’ favorite to hoist the trophy, which on some level is quite ridiculous considering the Chiefs’ undeniable track record during the Mahomes-Andy Reid era. But it speaks to the talent pool in San Francisco.
The 49ers finished 2023 with the No. 2-ranked offense — No. 3 rushing, No. 4 passing, and No. 3 in scoring, averaging almost 29 points per game — and they’ve been even better in the playoffs. Why? Because as erratic as Purdy was to start the 49ers’ first postseason matchup with the Green Bay Packers, he’s coming off back-to-back game-winning drives and second-half comebacks, silencing the notion he and Kyle Shanahan’s offense are only built to play with a lead. Across the board, Purdy’s weapons are also superior to those of the Chiefs, with Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel starring as after-contact workhorses, George Kittle remaining an over-the-middle safety valve and Brandon Aiyuk stretching the field out wide.
(Super Bowl LVIII will be broadcast on CBS and Nickelodeon and you can stream it on Paramount+; here’s how to watch)
They say defense wins championships, however, and while San Francisco has a reputation for fast, physical play on that side — with Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and ex-Chiefs starter Charvarius Ward among top playmakers — the Chiefs actually have a clear advantage here. Steve Spagnuolo’s in the midst of his best stretch as Reid’s defensive coordinator, and he’s got imposing difference-makers on every level — Chris Jones and George Karlaftis up front, Nick Bolton in the middle, L’Jarius Sneed and Justin Reid on the back end. Not since 1995 have the Chiefs surrendered fewer yards per game.
Whereas the playoffs have only brought out the Chiefs’ best on defense, with the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens both thoroughly blanked against their front, the 49ers have found trouble against both the Packers and Detroit Lions, only tightening the screws after first surrendering a lead.
And then, of course, there’s the elephant and/or signal-caller of destiny in the room: Mahomes. Without the hard-nosed ground support of Isiah Pacheco, the inevitable chain-moving availability of Travis Kelce or the emergent downfield speed of Rashee Rice, the Chiefs quarterback isn’t always capable of stealing the show himself. But most of the time, he is. Fourteen career playoff wins? Looking for Super Bowl ring No. 3 at age 28? The guy’s legacy has already been etched and discussed ad nauseum, but it doesn’t change the fact he’s been there, done that, at the highest level, not so unlike Tom Brady of the peak New England Patriots years.
Purdy’s a special story in San Francisco. He really is. At 24, the kid has a chance to prove once and for all that he’s not just a product of the Shanahan system and supporting cast, but rather the dynamic glue that maximizes the whole endeavor. He, like Jalen Hurts with the Philadelphia Eagles a year ago, probably also has the overall talent advantage, comparing one team’s lineup to the next. But that advantage didn’t lift the Eagles when it mattered most, and Shanahan’s actually proven less aggressive when push comes to shove. With all that said, the prediction here is another Chiefs parade, but only after a hard-fought slugfest.
Call it 27-23, Chiefs, and one heck of a Super Bowl show.
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