Super Bowl LVIII Preview

A perfect piece of Americana, Sin City stages Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday. Allegiant Stadium, known as the Death Star, hosts the greatest show on earth. Don’t worry if you think a long snapper is a type of fish; the NFL will have you hooked. If you’re quick, you might even spot a celebrity.

David Anderson, Head of Trading

David Anderson, Head of Trading

4 months ago

“I’d run over my own mother to win the Super Bowl” — Russ Grimm. “I’d run over Russ Grimm’s mother to win the Super Bowl, too” — Matt Millen.

As recently as ten years ago, the NFL’s stance on gambling was pretty straightforward: make no reference to it and pretend no one is betting on our games. On 14th May 2018, PASPA (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) was repealed, paving the way for individual US states to legalise sports betting. In 2020, the Raiders franchise moved to Las Vegas, as the NFL took its most significant step toward recognising sports betting, allowing one of its most storied teams to move to Sin City, for decades the place that Americans would visit to get their gambling fix. In the final part of an amazing transformation in a few years, the NFL will up the ante even further on Sunday by bringing its showpiece, Super Bowl LVIII, to Las Vegas. Thinking about it, it is a perfect match. Travel Writer Mark Ellwood wrote: “Vegas embodies every brash, joyous cliché about the U.S. that the rest of the world hopes might be true.” You could say the same about the Super Bowl.

Dynasty

And what an encounter this year’s game promises to be, with the Kansas City Chiefs facing off with the San Francisco 49ers. Given the storied 57-year history of the NFL’s title game, this matchup has much to live up to. Former Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt first coined the name Super Bowl. Bowl games had been a staple of College Football for decades. The story goes that Hunt came up with the name from the Super Ball toy his children were fond of playing with. Gradually, the term Super Bowl began to be used in the press, and the league eventually embraced it.

”Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence” — Vince Lombardi

The first two renewals of the NFL’s championship game went the way of a Green Bay Packers franchise that had been the league’s best before the evolution of the Super Bowl. After he died in 1970, Vince Lombardi, the Packers’ legendary head coach, had the trophy named in his honour. Initially, the Super Bowl was contested by the rival AFL and NFL leagues. The AFL was considered the weaker, younger brother, and entering Super Bowl III, most observers expected the favoured Baltimore Colts, as they were then, to comfortably deal with the New York Jets from the upstart AFL. Jets quarterback Broadway Joe Namath thought otherwise, even going as far as guaranteeing a win for the Jets. He led the team from the Big Apple to a surprise 16-7 triumph. After this result, the NFL could no longer deny the new league, and the modern NFL was born. Since 1970, the only reminder of their previous division is that the league is split into two conferences, with the AFC champions battling the NFC winners each year in the Super Bowl.

The 1972 Miami Dolphins became the first — and so far only — team to complete a perfect season, going 14-0 during the regular season before winning three playoff games to secure the game’s greatest prize. The rest of the decade saw the Pittsburgh Steelers dominate — by the time Super Bowl XIV was played in January 1980, the men from the Steel City had landed four Lombardi Trophies.

The first taste a UK audience got of Super Sunday was when Washington defeated the Miami Dolphins in January 1983. Many UK viewers may not have understood the more nuanced aspects of the game. Still, by the time the Chicago Bears mauled the New England Patriots three years later, American Football was gaining traction across the pond, and soon, the sport was pulling in more than four million viewers. The eighties in the NFL were dominated by the San Francisco 49ers, who had four titles tucked away by January 1990.

Making America’s Team great again

The first part of the Nineties saw the reemergence of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. After a decade of disappointment, the Pokes hoisted three Lombardi Trophies in four years.

The four falls of Buffalo

For every winner, there must be a loser, and in the early nineties, the Buffalo Bills fulfilled that role. An excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary chronicled the team’s impressive achievement of reaching four straight title games. And the depressing reality of them losing each time. It could have been so very different. In the franchise’s first appearance on Super Sunday, they led 12-3 as half-time approached. But opponents, the New York Giants, dominated time of possession, having the ball for more than two-thirds of the game — 40 minutes and 33 seconds — and an Ottis Anderson touchdown put them back on top, 17-12. The Bills replied with a 31-yard scamper from their running back, Thurman Thomas, to go back in front by two points. The G-Men drove downfield for Matt Bahr to kick a field goal to put his team up 20-19. With eight seconds remaining, Buffalo had worked the ball into field goal range to give their kicker, Scott Norwood, the chance to win the game from 47 yards. But there was to be no fairy-tale ending. Commentator Al Michaels described the errant kick with the words: “No good….. wide right.”

A league of their own

The NFC (National Football Conference) contained most of the league’s powerhouse franchises in the eighties and nineties and won an incredible 15 out of 16 title games between San Francisco’s win in Super Bowl XVI and Green Bay’s success in Super Bowl XXXI. For so long, the bridesmaids, the Denver Broncos, finally bucked the trend and ended the AFC’s barren run, securing two world championships in the latter part of the decade.

Patriot Games

By the turn of the century, the NFL seemed to stand for Not For Long: parity was the league’s watchword, and the NFL pushed the idea that on Any Given Sunday, any team could beat any other. Sure, many teams had their moment in the sun, but dynasties seemed to be a thing of the past. When the New England Patriots faced the St Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, they were 14-point underdogs. But no one would underestimate Bill Belichick’s charges again after they triumphed. Over an 18-year period, the Patriots blew the idea that no one team could dominate out of the water, scaling the sport’s summit an incredible six times and playing on Super Sunday on three more occasions. But their triumph over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX provided the wildest ending.

The Butler did it

A stalemate during the first quarter gave way to a barrage of 28 points in the second, with the teams deadlocked at 14 apiece at the half. Seattle moved out to a 24-14 lead as the game went into the final stanza and had the league’s best defense that season. But the Pats had a quarterback by the name of Tom Brady. First, Danny Amendola snagged a touchdown pass from TB12 to pull New England within three. Then Julian Edelman caught another to put New England 28-24 in front with two minutes and two seconds left. Needing a chunk play, Seattle’s Russell Wilson aired it out to Jermaine Kearse. The ball hit the Seahawks’ receiver in the hands, but initially, he couldn’t corral it. The loose football bounced off his leg and back into his hands for a circus catch. Seattle had running back Marshawn Lynch, known as Beast Mode, and were only five yards from the endzone and seemingly a world title. On first down, the handoff to Lynch moved the NFC champions to within less than a yard of glory. Surely, they would pound the rock with arguably the league’s best running back up to three more times and win the game. Seahawks’ offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had other ideas.

He elected to call a pass, and undrafted free agent Malcolm Butler stepped in front of Wilson’s throw for a game-clinching interception. Even Brady, who had seen most things in his time in the league, couldn’t believe it, leaping up and down as the Patriots celebrated. There were 109 pass attempts from a yard out during that season, and only one was intercepted.

It’s unlikely that we will ever see one team dominate like the Patriots did. However, twelve months ago, the Kansas City Chiefs, playing in their third Super Bowl in four years, clipped the Philadelphia Eagles wings to become Super Bowl champions.

Jets grounded

The Chiefs began the defence of their title as the 6/1 favourites to win it all, followed by 8/1 chances, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Buffalo Bills at 9/1 and San Francisco, who were 10/1 chances in a few places. Kansas City’s Week 1 loss to the Detroit Lions and San Francisco’s opening-game dismantling of Pittsburgh saw the 49ers assume the mantle of Super Bowl favourites. Aaron Rodgers had been hailed as the man to help the New York Jets take off, but their odds of winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy leapt to 60/1 when the triggerman was knocked out for the season in their first game. After hanging 70 on the Broncos, Miami was cut to 9/1 before the end of September.

The 49ers lost three straight games and saw their odds of winning a sixth Lombardi Trophy climb as the Chiefs were reinstated at the head of the market. Their Super Bowl victims, the Eagles, had flown out of the gate, starting the season 10-1 and seeing their Super Bowl odds contract. They gained a small measure of revenge for their defeat on Super Sunday by beating the Chiefs in their backyard. By early December, wins over Seattle and an eye-catching 42-19 triumph over the Eagles had San Fran back at the head of the market. Both of last year’s Super Bowl finalists lost in Week 14, while the Dolphins’ strong performances were enough to make them second favourites.

NFL fans were given an extra Christmas treat when the schedule pitted Baltimore and San Francisco in opposition during the festive period. The Ravens’ 33-19 win was the best performance any team achieved all season, but it wasn’t enough to unseat San Francisco at the head of the market. A late-season swoon saw Philadelphia have to rely on a wildcard, and Tampa Bay ended their hopes of a return to the big game. Detroit brought Tampa’s playoff run to an end, but they, in turn, were eliminated in San Francisco. Kansas City were only the third seed in the AFC, but they accounted for the number one and two seeds, Buffalo and Baltimore, and Miami, en route to the big game.

Not everything goes according to the script in the Hall Of Fame

Since the first Super Bowl, the NFL’s title game has featured a half-time show. Initially, this was usually a marching band production akin to those seen in College Football. Many of the early halftime acts had a Disney flavour, but in truth, they were all a bit Mickey Mouse. From 1991 onwards, the production values increased markedly. The game itself has been the stage for many NFL Hall of Famers, but the half-time entertainment has showcased the talents of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, ensuring that the big hits weren’t just confined to the gridiron. The who’s who of showbusiness stars to have performed includes the likes of Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Aerosmith, U2, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, and Madonna. From wardrobe malfunctions to backing dancers going viral, things haven’t always gone to plan. Still, the half-time entertainment has undoubtedly come a long way since the 1989 Elvis impersonator/magic act Elvis Presto. It’s tempting to say that the only trick he performed that day was to make the audience disappear. It was the eighties, but that’s really no excuse.

Sadly, Elvis Presto appears to have left the building, but we do have R&B icon Usher performing this year’s half-time show, and 30 NFL franchises would like to be Trading Places with this year’s finalists. Need More reasons than Usher to get Caught Up in the Super Bowl and to stay up until the early hours? Lemme See…..

The Kansas City Chiefs have their Superstar — Patrick Mahomes. He has a unique passing style and has been Moving Mountains since entering the NFL seven years ago. On the other sideline, there seems to be No Limit to 49ers quarterback, Brock Purdy’s improvement.

Let’s begin with the team that has done their best to replicate the Patriots’ supremacy over the rest of the league, the franchise that will be looking to defend its title: the Kansas City Chiefs.

KC played in the first Super Bowl, succumbing to the Green Bay Packers. Three years later, they went one better, defeating the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. The Chiefs had to wait 50 years for another appearance in the title game, but they have been making up for lost time ever since. After winning Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers, the following year, Kansas City was favoured to defend their title but had no answer to the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their bid for a third straight Super Bowl appearance was ended by the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime in the AFC Championship game. Still, a year later, they were back on top courtesy of a win over Philadelphia.

In a league which values parity so highly, the Chiefs have become only the third NFL franchise in history to reach four Super Bowls in five years, following the Buffalo Bills between 1990 and 1993 and the 2014 to 2018 New England Patriots. Defying parity in the NFL is like defying gravity, so how have the Chiefs pulled off this trick?

It’s hard to have reservations about the Chiefs

Before the 2017 NFL Draft, there had been a bit of a buzz about a kid from Texas Tech. Despite other quarterbacks being touted as high draft picks, there was a whisper that the kid was special, though many people were unsure how to pronounce his name. The kid wanted to go to Kansas City, but he wanted to give fate a helping hand. The story goes that he told the Chiefs that New Orleans, who held the eleventh pick, was making noises about taking him. So, Kansas City pulled the trigger to move up to the 10th spot, giving away their first and third-round picks in 2017 and a 2018 first-rounder for the triggerman.

That kid’s name? Patrick Mahomes and the world definitely know how it’s pronounced now. The rest of the Chiefs’ roster has been largely built through the draft, though their biggest payouts have not always come in the first round. Running Back, Isiah Pacheco had to wait until the seventh round to hear his name called in 2022. The man who has become KC’s top receiver, Rashee Rice, lasted until round two last April, while 62 teams passed on star Tight End Travis Kelce in 2013 before the 63rd pick ended up in the Midwest.

Sixty-three must be the Chiefs’ lucky number, as they found an ace when selecting Center Creed Humphrey with that pick in 2021. They got tremendous value when acquiring right guard Trey Smith with a sixth-round pick in 2021.

But it’s been on the defensive side of the ball that the men from Arrowhead Stadium have used the draft to particularly good effect. If you re-did the 2016 NFL Draft, star Defensive Tackle Chris Jones would probably be taken first overall instead of sixth in the second round, but the Chiefs saw the superstar potential in the youngster from Mississippi State.

KC hits 21

The Chiefs traded away star receiver Tyreek Hill to Miami, leaving their front office with two first-round picks in the 2022 draft and boy, did they cash on both. With pick number 21, they added Washington corner Trent McDuffie, and nine picks later, another cornerstone of their defense arrived in Purdue’s defensive end, George Karlaftis. Even in the final round of that year’s draft, KC found a golden nugget, adding corner Jaylen Watson, who has become a starter. The draft has augmented the Chiefs’ linebacking corps with two second-round picks: Willie Gay in 2020 and Nick Bolton a year later, while star corner L’Jarius Sneed was of tremendous value in the fourth round in 2020.

KC hasn’t often resorted to free agency or a blockbuster trade to strengthen their squad. But the one exception was adding guard Joe Thuney as an unrestricted free agent from the Patriots. Only three of the Chiefs’ starters were first-round picks, and none came via a trade. Nevertheless, the AFC Champions prove that the teams that draft well do well.

With such a well-assembled roster, hopes were high for a repeat as Super Bowl champions. That optimism was slightly dented with that Week 1 defeat, though losing to Detroit didn’t seem to throw the Chiefs off their stride, as they rattled off six straight wins. That run ended in Denver when they lost 24-9. Although they bounced back with a 21-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins before their bye week, things went south for the men from the Midwest soon afterwards.

Firstly, the Philadelphia Eagles gained a measure of revenge for their Super Bowl defeat, and then the Chiefs could only split their series with the Raiders before a loss in Green Bay and a defeat by Buffalo. That loss to the Bills was a hard one to swallow. Trailing 20-17, the Chiefs had the ball close to midfield with 1:24 left on the clock. Mahomes found Kelce in Buffalo territory. The star tight end came up with a moment of off-the-cuff brilliance. With three Bills defenders converging on him, he threw a backwards pass to a wide-open Kadarius Toney, who scooted into the endzone for what looked to be the game-winning score. However, there was laundry on the field. A flag was thrown as Toney had lined up offside, wiping the touchdown off the board, and it would lead to another defeat.

Chiefs circle the wagons

With a 9-6 record entering their home game with Cincinnati, no one was talking about the Super Bowl champs, although they had punched their ticket for the postseason. Victories over the Bengals and Chargers saw KC secure the number three seed in the AFC. However, after accounting for the Dolphins in the Wildcard Round at Arrowhead Stadium, there would be no more home comforts.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

Their mid-season swoon meant that incredibly Patrick Mahomes faced his first-ever playoff game on the road. For the previous five seasons, the road to the Super Bowl went through Kansas City, as the Chiefs turned the AFC Championship into the Kansas City Invitational, hosting the Conference title game every year. Having accounted for the Miami Dolphins in the bone-chilling cold, KC moved on to face Buffalo. Trailing by a point at the half, the Chiefs turned things around in the second stanza to avenge their loss during the regular season. For the second consecutive game, the bookmakers made the Chiefs underdogs against Baltimore. Once again, Kansas City defied the odds, eliminating the Ravens. 17-10.

When it comes to elite players, the Chiefs’ offense has plenty. Twice NFL MVP and twice the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player, Patrick Mahomes is the rarest of NFL players — one who can boast a 99 rating in the Madden computer game. The hugely successful game franchise has become so advanced that the highly intricate metrics used to compile these ratings would put some of the teams’ scouting departments to shame. On Sunday, the Texas Tech product will become the first quarterback to start in four Super Bowls before the age of 30. Not only is he in unchartered waters regarding title game appearances in the nascent part of his career, but he plays the game differently from everyone else, making throws with different arm angles and prolonging plays with his athleticism.

Joining Mahomes in the 99 club is tight end Travis Kelce, the league’s best in that position. Anyone who has watched the NFL during the past 15 years would have found it hard to believe that any duo would ever surpass Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski’s number of postseason touchdowns. But the Chiefs pair broke that record during this year’s playoffs. Kelce also now owns the record for the most catches in playoff history, with a total of 156, elevating him above the great former 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice.

Kelce’s play worthy of the folklore

Kelce is a sure-fire first-ballot hall of famer and one of the best players ever to play his position. He has been elected to the Pro Bowl in each of the past nine seasons and was selected to the NFL’s 2010s All-decade Team. He was bothered by injuries this season but produced 984 receiving yards despite starting just 15 regular season games. But he has excelled in the postseason, including catching all 11 passes thrown his way against Baltimore en route to 116 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens charged talented safety Kyle Hamilton with the task of negating Kelce, and it was the first time he had allowed a touchdown to a tight end all season.

There will no doubt be a section of the audience tuning in for Super Sunday who have no idea about Kelce’s exploits on the field. He is in a much-publicised relationship with singer Taylor Swift. A romance between a player and a famous celebrity can be an unwanted distraction. This sort of Love Story can quickly make the player an Anti-Hero. But if Kelce has been hearing adverse criticism about his relationship, his on-field performances suggest he has managed to Shake It Off.

In recent weeks, the AFC champions have employed more 13 personnel — three tight ends and 1 running back, giving Noah Gray and Blake Bell more playing time.

The race isn’t always to the swift

When these two teams met in the Super Bowl four years ago, the teams seemed well-matched. One edge the Chiefs possessed was in terms of speed. Their receiving corps resembled an Olympic 4×100 metre team. But following the departure of cheetah, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Byron Pringle, only Mecole Hardman remains of the group that threatened to turn every Chiefs’ game into a track meet.

What they have now is a group lacking that electrifying speed. There have also been issues with too many dropped passes throughout the season. Amid such inconsistency, Rashee Rice has quickly developed into Mahomes’ favourite target not named Travis Kelce. While other receivers on the squad were dropping passes left, right, and centre, the youngster had a 77.5% catch rate. The 55th pick in this year’s draft added 223 receiving yards in the postseason to the 938 he notched during the regular season. He can assimilate information and read coverages way beyond his years. Marquez Valdes-Scantling has yet to top 700 receiving yards during the regular season in six campaigns, and his numbers were the poorest of his career this season. But even though MVS hasn’t been the Chiefs’ MVP, he made the fourth-quarter grab that booked his team’s latest Super Bowl appearance.

Another cerebral player is Justin Watson, who has won two Super Bowl rings with the Chiefs. During the offseason, there was a buzz around Richie James, but the ex-New York Giant hasn’t shown the same form since the season began.

The interior of the Chiefs’ offensive line is arguably the NFL’s finest, with three elite players. Joe Thuney was named first-team All-Pro but faces a battle to be fit after missing the AFC Championship game. He would be a significant loss as he only allowed two sacks in 809 pass attempts this season. Center Creed Humphrey has been selected to back-to-back Pro Bowls, and right guard Trey Smith earned all-rookie honours in 2021. Things aren’t quite as rosy on either side of this terrific trio. Donovan Smith picked up a Super Bowl ring in Tampa, but the left tackle isn’t in the same class as the above players. Jawaan Taylor has been a penalty machine this season. No player in the entire league has drawn so many flags, and he has drawn more penalties than any offensive player since 2003.

A team that relied heavily on offensive firepower in previous seasons, the current Chiefs vintage possess a more robust defensive unit — the 294 yards per game they have allowed is the lowest by a team from Arrowhead Stadium since 1995. Defensive tackle Chris Jones spearheads this unit. The Chiefs missed the back-to-back All-Pro selection when a contract holdout meant he missed their season opener against Detroit. The AFC champions lost that game in Jones’ absence, but he delivered 10 1/2 sacks during the regular season, the last of which was particularly significant. The new deal he signed in September was ladened with incentives, and during the final regular season game, he needed at least half a sack to trigger a $1.25M bonus. His takedown of Chargers QB Easton Stick sparked wild celebrations from the player and his teammates alike.

The Greek Freak

Jones has been a heady performer for several years, but the Chiefs’ d-line also features one of the league’s most improved players. If you were scouting for gridiron stars of the future, the Greek capital, Athens, wouldn’t be the first place on your list. Athens, Georgia, yes. Athens in Europe, no. But George Karlaftis has become the first player from his country to win a Super Bowl ring. He matched Jones’ 10 1/2 sack performance during the regular season and prevented teams from being able to blindly double-team the man alongside him.

The right side of Kansas City’s defensive front is less formidable. A torn ACL has ruled Charles Omenihu out of the big game, though his replacement at right defensive end, Mike Danna, is a capable deputy. Fourth-year man Tershawn Wharton completes their starting defensive front.

Nick Bolton is the standout performer among the Chiefs’ linebackers. He is a heady player, the Chiefs’ cerebral assassin. Pair that with two more athletic running mates, Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill, and KC has developed a solid unit. Bolton set the tone with an early tackle for loss as the Chiefs harpooned the dangerous Dolphins on Super Wildcard Weekend, keeping a Miami offense that averaged 29.2 points per game during the regular season to just seven.

The Chiefs feel the need for Sneed

KC possesses two elite cornerbacks. In Week 5, L’Jarius Sneed shadowed arguably the league’s premier wideout: Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, who came in averaging 135.8 receiving yards per game. Before the Vikings star was ruled out with a hamstring injury, he had found himself hamstrung by Sneed, who restricted him to just two grabs for 14 yards on three targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Second-year man Trent McDuffie ascended to join the First-team All-Pro ranks this season and is primarily the team’s slot corner. The Washington alumnus is quick, covers like a blanket, and has a high Football IQ, making him a valuable chess piece in the Chiefs’ defense.

Jaylen Watson is a solid performer who plays a lot of snaps at cornerback. The versatile Justin Reid, the former Houston Texan, is an above-average performer and forms a safety tandem with Mike Edwards.

The NFL’s scoring leader in 2019, Harrison Butker, has the leg to kick the longer field goals, and he has made his last eight from 50 yards+. It was his 45-yarder that clinched last year’s AFC Championship game against the Bengals. Punter Tommy Townsend received a Pro Bowl nod in 2022.

A part of the coaching trees of Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren, Chiefs’ Head Coach Andy Reid, affectionately known as Big Red, began his NFL head coaching career in Philadelphia. He spent 14 seasons there, leading the Eagles to a place in four consecutive NFC Championship games, including taking them to Super Bowl XXXIX, where they lost to New England. Reid then took over the head coaching role in Kansas City, a position he has held for over a decade. He has guided the Chiefs to double-digit wins in 10 of his 11 years in charge. It is hard to believe that people used to say that Reid couldn’t win the big game — the 65-year-old has become the fourth coach in history to reach five Super Bowls.

Big Red’s first lieutenants are Matt Nagy and Steve Spagnuolo. Offensive coordinator Nagy posted a 34-31 record in his head coaching stint in Chicago but lost both of his playoff games. He is in his second stint as OC in KC and was instrumental in recruiting Mahomes.

“Spags,” as he’s known, had a dismal 11-41 record in two head coaching roles, in St Louis and with the New York Giants. He has, however, constructed some first-rate defensive units. His troops found a way to subdue the high-octane 2007 New England Patriots offense during his time with the G-Men. He suffered a dismal season in charge of the Saints’ defense in 2012 when his charges surrendered a record number of yards in a single season. Things didn’t get much better in 2015 as DC with the Giants, who allowed the most passing yards in league history. But there was a significant uptick in year two when his defensive unit was ranked tenth in the league. In this his fifth year running Reid’s defense, the Chiefs finished second in the league. A disciple of former Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, Spagnuolo utilises an aggressive blitz-heavy defense, which has worked well with their current personnel.

Now, we move to the opposing sideline to look at another of the league’s most storied franchises. Unquestionably, the team of the eighties, the San Francisco 49ers, secured four world championships during that decade and a fifth in the mid-nineties. Then followed a fallow period when, for eight consecutive years, the Niners failed to have a winning season between 2003 and 2010.

Despite late surge, electrifying Niners suffer Super Bowl short-circuit

They returned to winning ways in 2011, but their two most recent appearances on Super Sunday have been less happy. A string of impressive performances during the 2012 season led to San Francisco being installed as four-and-a-half point favourites against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. But they trailed by 15 at half-time, and despite a second-half comeback, they came up just short in a game best remembered for a 34-minute delay caused by a major power outage.

The past four years have seen San Fran post a significant win percentage. They reached Super Bowl LIV and looked booked for a sixth world championship when they took a ten-point lead into the fourth quarter. However, the Chiefs produced 21 unanswered points to deny them. From 5:38 remaining in the third quarter onwards, the 49ers drives resulted in a punt, another punt, a turnover on downs, and an interception, as the Chiefs went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown before running out the clock.

Only three times has a team lost a Super Bowl and come back to hoist the Lombardi Trophy the following season, proving that the Super Bowl hangover is tough to shake off. But a flurry of injuries suffered in their Week 2 loss to the New York Jets derailed their attempts at repeating as NFC champions. Their second-overall pick in 2020, Nick Bosa, tore his ACL while starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Raheem Mostert went down in that match along with defensive end Solomon Thomas. As the weeks went by, there was no let-up in the injuries as the defence of their NFC crown ended in a 6-10 season.

Granted more luck with injuries, the 49ers returned to the NFC Conference Championship game a year later, only to lose to their divisional rivals, the Los Angeles Rams, a team they had beaten twice during the regular season. They returned to the same round the following season but finally ran out of healthy quarterbacks. Purdy had been their fourth quarterback of the season, but when he joined the injured ranks against the Eagles, San Fran had to turn to journeyman Josh Johnson — a man who has had more clubs than Tiger Woods. A healthy Purdy has seen San Francisco go one better this year, reaching the franchise’s eighth Super Bowl.

Like their opponents, three of the Niners starters are players they picked in the first round, but the rest of their roster has been assembled differently than their adversary’s on Sunday.

Caught in the draft

Being the last player picked in the NFL Draft isn’t quite like being picked last in gym class, but it does bring the unwanted title of Mr Irrelevant. That dubious honour was bestowed on Brock Purdy in 2022, but the seventh-rounder rather than third-overall pick Trey Lance secured the starting job, with the 49ers trading Lance. The 49ers also struck gold when they drafted tight end George Kittle in round five of the 2017 draft. The NFC Champions mined Linebackers Fred Warner in the third round in 2018 and Dre Greenlaw in round five a year later.

Their investment in wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has paid dividends after they used the 25th selection in the 2020 draft on him. Even better value was taking Deebo Samuel in round two a year earlier. But when it comes to draft day, it’s along the defensive line where San Fran has invested the most. Between 2015 and 2020, the Niners had nine first-round picks, and five were used on players along the defensive front — though they cashed in their chips on defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, receiving a first-round pick from the Indianapolis Colts in exchange. There is no question that the best of this bunch has been Nick Bosa, who they took second overall in 2019. Picked 17th in the 2015 draft, Arik Armstead has also been a valuable contributor. Things haven’t panned out quite so well with their 2020 first-round selection. Javon Kinlaw was consigned to a backup role, and the Niners declined the final-year option on Solomon Thomas’ contract, allowing him to leave as a free agent.

Unlike their Super Bowl opponents, San Francisco has actively traded for individual pieces of their roster. Trent Williams was among the few shining lights on a poor Washington team. His position of left tackle is highly prized in the NFL, as his role is to protect the quarterback’s blindside. Arguably the best player in his position in the league, the 49ers pulled the trigger on a trade that saw them give up just a fifth-round pick in 2020 and a third-round selection a year later, which looks like an excellent bit of business.

49ers go all in

Very much in “win now mode”, the Niners felt running back Christian McCaffrey was the man to help get them a sixth Lombardi Trophy last season and went all in by acquiring him from Carolina for four draft picks. They sent second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-rounder this year to the Panthers. Having come up one game short of the Super Bowl last season, the Niners went to the well again when trading for edge rusher Chase Young, also from Washington. Once the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, San Francisco parted with a third-round pick to acquire his services.

As well as a trio of significant trades, the 49ers have been active in free agency in recent years to fill holes in their roster. They fought off stiff competition from three other franchises to secure the services of fullback Kyle Juszczyk before the 2017 season. Charvarius Ward had been on the Chiefs’ team that denied the 49ers a Super Bowl four years ago, but San Fran persuaded him to jump ship in 2022 and added another piece to their secondary when they picked up safety Tashaun Gipson the same year. Not content with all the draft capital they had ploughed into their defensive front, they dug into their coffers to land prized defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, formerly with the Philadelphia Eagles.

So, the 49ers have used more trades and made more splashes in free agency than their opponents on Sunday, but both approaches to building a roster capable of winning the big game have brought these teams to the same place.

How the West was won

Given their powerful roster, San Francisco began the year close to the top of most pundits’ power ratings, and the first five weeks did nothing to dismiss the idea that they were leading contenders for the Super Bowl. In Week 1, they delivered an eye-catching 30-7 road win in Pittsburgh. Wins over the Rams, Giants, and Cardinals were expected, but the margin of their next victory was not. Most observers expected a tight contest between two of the NFC’s front-runners when they hosted Dallas. But the men from the Bay Area easily lassoed their opponents, 42-10, in a statement win.

So far, so good. But then the injury bug began to bite. McCaffrey, Kittle, and Williams all missed time, and San Fran suffered during a three-game skid that saw them drop to 5-3. Their Week 9 bye week came at just the right time. As key players returned, so did the Niners’ form, and they wouldn’t taste defeat again until Christmas Day. They mauled the Jaguars 34-3 in Duval County and confirmed themselves as the NFC’s alpha males by seeing off the conference’s other contenders. They plundered a 27-14 win against the Buccaneers, clipped the Eagles’ wings 42-19, and twice downed the Seattle Seahawks, their closest rivals in the battle to secure the NFC West. The division was secured in Week 15 for the second straight season, as they defeated Arizona. Such a rich vein of form made what happened next all the more surprising.

Many felt that their encounter with the Baltimore Ravens was a possible Super Bowl preview. Despite having home advantage and most of their key personnel available, San Fran was comfortably beaten by the Ravens. The 33-19 scoreline flatters the Niners as Baltimore had the game in safekeeping long before the clock reached triple zeroes.

The five-time Super Bowl champions saw out the old year with a win in Washington and had little but pride to play for when the Los Angeles Rams defeated them to close their regular season.

The Niners had seen off Green Bay in the NFC Championship game the last time they made the Super Bowl, and they welcomed the Pack to Levi’s Stadium for the divisional playoffs. The pattern during the playoffs has been one of slow starts for San Francisco. They fell behind against Green Bay three times and trailed 21-14 entering the fourth quarter. Ultimately, a McCaffrey 6-yard run was enough to book them a place in the NFC Championship game for the third straight year.

Again, it was anything but plain sailing, this time against a Detroit Lions team that had never made it to Super Sunday during the Super Bowl era. At half-time, the Niners looked set to fall short once more as they trailed 24-7. They did receive the second-half kick-off and turned that opening drive of the second stanza into a field goal. But they certainly rode their luck as they proceeded to claw their way back into a contest in which they had been given less than a 10% chance of winning at one stage in the second half.

The Lions eschewed a 45-yard field goal attempt and failed to convert on 4th-and-2. San Francisco looked to take advantage of that turnover on downs, with Purdy throwing deep for Aiyuk. His pass was headed straight for Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor. But the ball ricocheted off the Lions defender’s facemask and bounced straight into Aiyuk’s arms. Three plays later, the Niners receiver caught the touchdown that cut the deficit to seven. A Detroit fumble gave San Fran the ball in plus territory before a touchdown run by McCaffrey and a Jake Moody field goal saw Kyle Shanahan’s team lead for the first time. Again, the Lions turned down a field goal attempt — from 47 yards — and came up empty on fourth down before Elijah Mitchell found the painted grass with the decisive score. Trailing by two scores, their opponents could only muster one touchdown in response, and when San Fran recovered an onside kick, it was victory formation for the men from the Bay Area.

Purdy leads the new avengers

The man spearheading the Niners’ bid to avenge their Super Bowl defeat isn’t the player the 49ers expected to be their triggerman. Jimmy Garoppolo was under center in their Super Bowl defeat four years ago. Not convinced that Jimmy G was the man to take the team to the promised land, the Niners drafted Trey Lance a year later, and he started last season as the number one on their depth chart. The curse of Week 2 injuries struck the Niners again as he went down with an ankle injury, thrusting Brock Purdy into the spotlight, and he has been San Fran’s clear starter ever since, recording an impressive 21-5 record as a starter.

The Iowa State product was in the league MVP conversation throughout a season which saw him throw for 4,280 yards, with 31 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions during the regular season. He led all starting quarterbacks with 9.6 yards per attempt. He’s added over 1,000 passing yards in two playoff efforts this year, with five touchdowns and just one pick. If asked to name the league’s leading quarterbacks in yards per scramble, no one would be surprised to hear that Kyler Murray finished top. Second on the list? Lamar Jackson? Justin Fields? No, with an average of 9.1 yards per scramble, it’s Purdy, which shows what an underrated athlete he is.

Run CMC

The son of former NFL wideout Ed, Christian McCaffrey was named first-team All-Pro this year. A first-round pick of the Panthers, he was selected just two places before the Chiefs nabbed Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft. Also a potent receiving threat out of the backfield, the seventh-year man was the NFL’s rushing leader in 2023 with 1,459 yards. Another member of the Madden 99 club, Run CMC, has “contact courage”, the toughness to go looking for a hit. He added a further 260 yards from scrimmage during the postseason. A touchdown machine, he has hit paydirt in 26 of the 32 games he has played as a 49er, reaching the endzone 38 times.

Anyone wondering if there is still a place in the modern NFL for the fullback position needs only to look at the performances of Kyle Juszczyk. A powerful blocker, capable receiver, and short yardage runner, he joined McCaffrey in the backfield of the All-Pro team this year, and the Niners’ swiss-army knife is an eight-time Pro Bowler.

Deebo Samuel is another weapon that coach Kyle Shanahan can use in various ways. The 49ers have gotten the ball into the hands of one of their key playmakers as often as possible, including on jet sweeps, lining him up in the backfield, and targeting him downfield. Bothered by injuries this term, 2021 was his breakthrough season when he earned All-Pro honours. His importance to the Niners is underlined by the offense averaging over seven yards a play when he is on the field and only 5.5 YPP when he is absent.

Brandon Aiyuk earned a second-team All-Pro spot this season after posting a career-high 1,342 receiving yards at an impressive 17.9 yards per catch. A colourful character, tight end George Kittle has received All-Pro recognition in both of the 49ers’ recent Super Bowl seasons and posted his third 1,000-yard season this year. A big-play threat, the Iowa alumnus had 16 receptions of more than 20 yards this season. It’s a concern for the NFC Champions that Kittle has been bothered by a toe injury in the lead-up to the game.

The (red and) Gold Standard

Trent Williams is the (red and) Gold standard for offensive tackles and was a First-team All-Pro in the past three seasons. Picked fourth overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, Pro Football Focus graded him second among offensive tackles in 2023. This season, he has shown several examples of why he is at the top of the tree regarding offensive linemen. Against Cleveland, he had responsibility for blocking first-team All-Pro Myles Garrett during a game in which he subdued the Cleveland star despite rolling his ankle. A week earlier, he drew the tough assignment of facing the Cowboys’ explosive edge rusher Micah Parsons, and he had the better of that match-up.

There is a significant drop-off to the rest of the 49ers’ Offensive Line. From left to right, next to Williams is Aaron Banks, an improved performer and the Niners’ second-round pick in 2021. Center, Jake Brendel bounced around four teams before finding a home in the Bay Area. Jon Feliciano looks set to start ahead of Spencer Burford, but neither has been impressive at right guard. Former fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz possesses excellent physicality, and his salary is a fraction of that of former starter Mike McGlinchey, but he has had issues in pass protection. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the 49ers offensive front — bar Williams — can hold up on the biggest stage.

There is a certain symmetry to the defensive front for the NFC Champions. At left defensive end, they have an elite player and a premier pass rusher, drafted second overall in his year, out of Ohio State. At right defensive end, they have an elite player and a premier pass rusher, drafted second overall in his year, out of Ohio State.

It’s a family affair

Manning the left side, is the exceptional Nick Bosa. He has been elected to the Pro Bowl every season except for the 2020 campaign, which was cruelly curtailed by injury. Pro Football Focus graded him second behind Myles Garrett among edge defenders. The former Buckeye has excellent bloodlines: dad John played for the Miami Dolphins in the eighties and nineties, brother Joey is a star for the Chargers, and four other members of his extended family have played in the NFL. But Nick is on top of the family tree.

The only year that Nick Bosa missed out on Pro Bowl selection was the one season that Chase Young was selected for the NFC squad. Formerly with Washington, a trade on 1st November last year brought him to the West Coast. He can dominate when his head is in the game, but there are rumours that San Fran might even consider benching him for Super Sunday as they believe that he has been taking plays off and lacks the required effort on every down. He averaged 5.4 pressures per game in the nation’s capital in the first half of the season. Since going west, that number has shrunk below three. Randy Gregory and Robert Beal Jr would be in line for more playing time if the Niners elect to sit Young.

A Pro Bowler in 2021 during his time with the Eagles, Javon Hargrave offers an inside pass rush, exemplified by finishing second in pass rush win rate in 2022 to Chris Jones, who will be on the opposing sideline on Sunday. This season saw the eighth-year man receive his second Pro Bowl nod. Alongside him in the trenches is Arik Armstead. A player who also played Basketball in college, Armstead has rebounded from a slightly down year in 2022.

Fred Warner was Pro Football Focus’ top-rated Linebacker this season and has been named first-team All-Pro for the third time in four years. The BYU product had four interceptions this season, and a Madden Rating of 96 out of a possible 99 says it all. Pro Bowl recognition can’t be far away for Dre Greenlaw. He possesses the coverage skills you’d expect from someone who played defensive back in college. The Niners line up with just two linebackers in their base defense, but Oren Burks and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles can expect to see playing time.

Headlining the San Francisco secondary is Charvarius Ward. A Super Bowl winner during his time with the Chiefs, Ward is the Niners’ best cover man, and he led the league with 23 pass breakups during the current season while adding five interceptions, which saw him named second-team All-Pro. His teammate, Logan Ryan, eulogised about the 27-year-old, saying: “Great corners make the game seem easy. (Ward) makes the game seem easy, it’s just the confidence.”

Sadly, the 49ers lost outstanding safety Talanoa Hufanga to a torn ACL in Week 11, ending the season of the 2022 first-team All-Pro. But elsewhere in their secondary, third-year man Deommodore Lenoir has been progressing nicely, making 16 starts this season. He spends much of his time in the slot, only allowing a 75.0 passer rating into his coverage. 2021 third-round pick Ambry Thomas will see extended playing time at the other corner spot, while a third-rounder in this year’s draft, Ji’Ayir Brown, made the Pro Football Writers of America NFL All-Rookie Team. The ex-Chicago Bear, Tashaun Gipson, brings considerable experience to the table. The 33-year-old was a Pro Bowler way back in 2014.

The Moody Blues

Selecting a kicker as early as the third round of the draft always creates news coverage — only twice in the past 15 years has someone at that position been taken off the board within the first 100 picks of a draft. Jake Moody was selected with the 99th pick by San Francisco. Against the Browns, in Week 6, he missed two field goals, including what would have been a match-winner from 41 yards. He has missed one or more field goals or extra points in his past three outings. All this has come after the Niners decided to part ways with long-time kicker and old mister reliable Robbie Gould. Moody may prove his detractors wrong, but he hasn’t been as good as Gould.

The role of punter in the NFL will never garner many column inches. Still, as an American sports analyst and someone who once played the position at the highest level, Pat McAfee once said: “Punters are people too.” Mitch Wishnowsky is the person responsible for handling punting duties for the NFC Champions.

The son of former NFL head coach, Mike, Kyle Shanahan has been in charge in San Francisco since 2017. His first two seasons with the coaching reins brought just ten wins, but he has guided the men from the Bay Area to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons.

That wasn’t in the gameplan

Sadly, he is perhaps best known for his exploits as offensive coordinator with the Falcons when they played in Super Bowl LI. Things didn’t start well in Super Bowl fortnight when Shanahan lost his rucksack, which contained the Falcons’ Super Bowl game plan. If the opposing New England Patriots had gained an unfair advantage, it didn’t show initially, as the Falcs raced into a 28-3 lead. However, Shanahan’s playcalling came to be questioned as Atlanta surrendered the biggest lead in Super Bowl history. On four occasions, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan took the snap with double digits left on the play clock rather than wasting as much time as possible. Eight points ahead with possession at the 22-yard line and only 4:35 left in the game, Atlanta somehow failed to win.

All this leads to questions about whether he can win the big game. But, hey, didn’t people used to say the same thing about Andy Reid?

Shanahan serves as offensive coordinator, though he is assisted by run game coordinator and offensive line coach Chris Foerster and passing game coordinator Klint Kubiak, who will take over as the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator next season. Steve Wilks is taking charge of the Xs and Os on the defensive side of the ball. Formerly in charge of the 2018 Arizona Cardinals and the interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers, four years later, like his compatriot on the opposing sideline, he is fond of regularly dialling up blitz packages. The Niners hurried, hit, or sacked opposing passers on nearly 28% of pass attempts, finishing second in the league.

To Shanahan’s and the front office’s credit, the 49ers have reached the Super Bowl despite a coaching upheaval that most teams would have struggled with. In 2022, Mike McDaniel, previously their offensive coordinator, accepted the head coaching role in Miami. Then, in the most recent off-season, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans left to take charge in Houston.

Having looked at the personnel on show, let’s examine some of the matchups and the games within a game that we will see on Sunday. The Chiefs are a different proposition from the Kansas City teams of recent years. Previously, a high-octane offense whose defense was the junior partner, the roles have now been reversed. This season, Andy Reid’s team has averaged 22.1 points per game against teams that have allowed an average of 21.8 points per game. They will face an above-average defense in the 49ers, who have allowed only 18.4 points per game against teams scoring 22.3 PPG in all their contests.

Both units are pretty even regarding the Chiefs’ prospects of establishing the run. KC has averaged 4.3 yards per attempt against run defenses who allowed an average of 4.2 yards per rush. The 49ers run defense has been middle of the road — the 4.3 yards per rush they have allowed matches the average of their opponents this season. Regarding the Chiefs’ aerial attack, they have produced 6.6 yards per attempt against defenses allowing 6.6. The Niners’ pass defense has performed well, allowing only 5.9 yards per attempt to offenses with an average of 6.6.

On the other side of the ball both units are excellent. San Francisco has scored an average of 28.9 points per game, exceeding the 22.8 PPG that their opponents have allowed. Equally, the Chiefs have stymied opposing offenses, restricting opponents to 16.8 points per game against teams that averaged 22.5 PPG.

On the ground, San Francisco produced an impressive 4.8 yards per rush on average in 2023 against defenses allowing only 4.3 yards per rush. The Chiefs run D has been a little softer, yielding 4.5 yards per rush to opponents who produce an average of 4.2. The Niners’ passing attack has also outperformed the league average, netting 8.7 yards per attempt against pass defenses conceding 6.7. But the Chiefs have also been strong in slowing opposing passing games, allowing opponents only 5.4 yards per attempt against teams with an average of 6.6.

The Niners’ offense is a tough team to match up with in man coverage, and the Chiefs deployed that coverage seventh most of any team in the league this season. However, Brandon Aiyuk lined up on the outside on 82% of his routes this year, and while he is an excellent target, KC allowed the fourth fewest yards to receivers on the boundary in the league in 2023.

It’s tricky to stop Run CMC

The Niners never abandon the run. Even if they are only getting two or three yards a pop, they know they always have the potential to unleash an explosive play for a big gain. Run CMC averages 8.1 yards per carry when he can cross the line of scrimmage without contact. Kansas City’s first order of business on defense has been to slow down opposing aerial attacks, often employing two high safeties — a package they deployed on 63% of snaps — where this pair protect against deeper throws.

A matchup Kansas City will look to exploit is the contest between George Karlaftis and Niners’ right tackle Colton McKivitz. The young offensive lineman allowed nine sacks this season and hopes his night doesn’t turn into a Greek tragedy against the impressive pass rusher from Athens. Chris Jones is also likely to see some snaps opposite McKivitz.

The Chiefs’ pass defense was impressive in the first half of the AFC Championship game. They kept Baltimore to five first-half completions, the fewest the Ravens had registered since Week 1. As good as that effort was, generally, the Chiefs’ defense has been particularly impressive after the interval, as Kansas City had this season’s best second-half defense. They have also been among the best in the league at batting down passes from opposing quarterbacks.

Looking at when the Chiefs have the ball, opponents have found out to their cost that playing zone defense is asking for trouble against Mahomes; blitzing the former league MVP hasn’t proved a winning formula either, but although San Fran can be aggressive on defense, they can change things up. They only blitzed Jordan Love twice in their win in the divisional round. Nearly half of the occasions on which Rashee Rice has been thrown the ball this season have come when he is in the slot. Deommodore Lenoir has been the 49er principally charged with covering slot receivers and will face a stern examination.

The Niners’ O finally goes

The Chiefs have been fast starters of late in the playoffs, scoring on their first drive in eight consecutive postseason games. Until recent weeks, the 49ers had struggled to win from behind. Before the start of the playoffs, they had played 30 games under coach Shanahan, where they trailed by five or more points going into the fourth quarter. They had lost all 30 of those matches. But against the Packers, they erased a seven-point deficit entering the final stanza before their second-half heroics against the Lions. Nevertheless, San Francisco is a team built to play with the lead, run the ball, and run out the clock.

For all the talk about this being a rematch of Super Bowl LIV, these two teams have played more recently. In Week 7 of the 2022 season, the Niners bounced out of the gate into a 10-0 lead at home to the Chiefs. But Kansas City rallied behind 423 passing yards from Mahomes to take a decisive 44-23 win. That game saw Jimmy Garoppolo start under center for the home team, but Brock Purdy did take his first snaps in a regular season game in Santa Clara that day. He can expect to play a much bigger part on Sunday.

A less heralded but important factor in the Super Bowl is the officiating crew. The NFL employs all-star crews — officials who have been graded highly during the season but don’t regularly work together as a unit. Bill Vinovich will referee his third Super Bowl; his first was the meeting between these two teams four years ago. Generally, the received wisdom is that the zebras (so-called for their black and white striped uniforms) tend to “let the players play” in the playoffs, only calling the most flagrant fouls. Over the past six seasons, 60 of the 101 matches officiated by Vinovich have gone under the posted total.

There is one more team to mention in Super Bowl LVIII: the commentary team. It’s CBS’s turn to air America’s biggest sporting event. That means the commentary team of veteran play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned analyst Tony Romo, who will be teaming up for a third Super Sunday.

Three is a magic number

Having run the rule over the teams and examined the key matchups, it is safe to say that a tight encounter is expected — all bar two of the past 20 Super Bowls have been decided by 14 points or less — and it’s noteworthy that Andy Reid’s troops have a 5-0 record in one-score games in the playoffs over the past two seasons. Before the Conference Championships, US sportsbooks provided lookahead lines, pricing the four potential Super Bowl matchups. Before their NFC Championship win, the 49ers were a three-point favourite against the Chiefs, but having made hard work of taming the Lions, and with the Chiefs’ strong effort in downing the Ravens, the line has dropped to 49ers -2. This is significant, as in the words of Bob Dorough (or De La Soul), three is a magic number, with 15.1% of NFL games ending in a three-point margin of victory. When these teams met in the Super Bowl four years ago, sportsbooks again found them hard to separate, making the Chiefs the narrowest of one-point favourites.

It is a similar story this time around, with San Francisco currently a 3/4 chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, with their opponents offered at 11/10. These teams combined for 51 points when they met in Super Bowl LIV. The line back then was over/under 54.5. The total is lower this year and currently sits at 47.5.

Market reflects 49ers’ changing prospects

The current lines represent a significant recent shift in the oddsmakers’ and the public’s perception of these two teams. On a line through the Baltimore Ravens, the Niners were six-and-a-half-point favourites at home to Baltimore on Christmas Day. Fast forward to the AFC Championship game, and those same Ravens were favoured by four-and-a-half points when they hosted the Chiefs. Even allowing for home advantage in both matches, the perception was that San Francisco was nearly a touchdown superior to the Chiefs. The market doesn’t think that anymore.

American Football may be the ultimate team game, but the quarterback position remains paramount in the NFL. The winning team’s triggerman was awarded the Most Valuable Player award in 32 of the previous 57 renewals. Understandably, most MVPs have been on the victorious team, though Dallas Cowboys legend Chuck Howley lassoed the prize when the Pokes lost Super Bowl V against the Baltimore Colts.

That’s the all-star cast for the greatest show on earth, but what about the stage on which this drama will be acted out? Generally, building a new state-of-the-art stadium makes an NFL team likely to get to host the big game. Opened in 2020, Allegiant Stadium hosted the 2022 and 2023 Pro Bowls — the NFL’s all-star game — but getting the right to host Super Sunday was what the Raiders had been building towards when they broke ground on the 72,000 capacity stadium, back in 2017. At the cost of a reported $1.9B, it is the second most expensive stadium ever built — behind SoFi Stadium, the Los Angeles home of the Chargers and Rams, which hosted the NFL’s signature event two years ago.

Appropriately enough for a venue in Sin City, the stadium is home to Raiders and Rebels, though its nickname, “The Death Star”, is more in keeping with the empire and comes from its black facade. The Raiders play on a natural grass surface, with the UNLV Rebels taking to an astroturf field, which is brought in 48 hours before kick-off. It will be a grass surface on Super Sunday — something the 49ers will be more familiar with than the Chiefs, who play on Astroturf at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs played in the fourth-coldest NFL game in history when netting a win over the Dolphins. Still, there wouldn’t be any danger of adverse weather conditions in the desert, and in any case, Allegiant Stadium has a fixed roof over it.

In the fanzone

Fans of both teams will descend on Allegiant Stadium hoping to be able to say they were there when the confetti rained down as they were crowned world champions. The Chiefs Kingdom travel well, and Kansas City supporters are likely to significantly outnumber the 49er Faithful within the stadium, as was the case when the two teams met in Miami four years ago. The Chiefs Kingdom have made Arrowhead Stadium one of the most challenging venues for NFL teams to visit in recent years. Although the Star-Spangled Banner is sacrosanct in the US, it doesn’t stop Kansas City fans from singing the last line as: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the CHIEFS.”

The Chiefs’ travelling support will try to make enough noise to force their opponents into false start penalties and communication errors. Still, there will be no tangible home advantage in the Super Bowl — only twice has a team played at home on Super Sunday, the recent back-to-back wins for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Rams. So, what will the deciding factor be?

It’s hard to overturn turnovers

Jimmy Johnson knows a thing or two about winning big games. A National Championship-winning coach in College, and with a pair of Super Bowl rings to his name as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, the recent inductee into the Pokes’ Ring of Honor opined: “It’s not how many great plays you make; it’s how few bad ones you make. I know fans, and even some losing coaches, are enamoured with long pass completions or the great run plays, but that doesn’t offset the interception or the fumble.” Super Bowl history would seem to back this up — in title games where one team had a turnover edge, the team with fewer turnovers were victorious 37 times. So, while there are several of the league’s biggest stars on show, all capable of a moment of magic, it may be avoiding mistakes that are the key.

What happens in Vegas?

In the home of some of the world’s most famous casinos, will it be an Encore for the Chiefs as they become the first team to secure back-to-back Lombardi Trophies since the 2003-2004 New England Patriots? Will the Mahomes and Kelce Stardust secure a fourth world title for the Chiefs Kingdom, and can their defense prove that this year’s improvement is more than just a Mirage? Or will the 49ers get swift retribution for their Super Bowl LIV loss and Usher in a new Gold Rush? Aboard the Death Star on Sunday night, in a galaxy not so far away, the Super Bowl saga continues.