By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press on February 10, 2024.
If Luke Willson was a gambling man, he’d be hard pressed to bet against Patrick Mahomes on Sunday night.
Mahomes leads the Kansas City Chiefs into the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers in Las Vegas. The AFC champions are looking to become the first repeat winner since the 2004-05 New England Patriots and chasing a third title in five years overall.
The Chiefs began their Super Bowl run with a 31-20 win over San Francisco on Feb. 2, 2020 in Miami.
“At this point for me, it’s extremely, extremely difficult to bet against Patrick Mahomes,” said Willson, an NFL analyst covering the Super Bowl for TSN. “He just seems to have a moxy about him, a confidence.
“I think if the Chiefs keep this game close, when it comes down to the fourth quarter Patrick Mahomes will find a way.”
Willson, 34, of LaSalle, Ont., knows what it takes to win a Super Bowl. He was a rookie tight end with the Seattle Seahawks when they defeated the Denver Broncos 43-8 in the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, 2014.
The ’23 season has been an intriguing one for both the 49ers and Chiefs.
San Francisco (12-5) was dominant throughout much of the regular campaign, with three of its losses coming consecutively after opening the season with five straight wins. Eleven of its victories were by 12-plus points.
But San Francisco’s playoff path has been bumpy.
The 49ers had to outscore Green Bay 10-0 in the fourth quarter to earn a 24-21 NFC divisional win. But the Packers ran for 136 yards, including 108 by Aaron Jones.
In the NFC championship game, San Francisco had to overcome a 17-0 first-half deficit to rally past Detroit 34-31. Again, the 49ers defence allowed 182 rushing yards.
Kansas City (11-6) has been a different story. Despite again winning the AFC West, the Chiefs struggled offensively.
Often during the regular season, Chiefs’ receivers had trouble with dropped passes. Mahomes and his receivers also had difficulty hooking up on deep throws, something that used to happen with amazing regularity.
After opening the season with a 21-20 loss to Detroit, Kansas City reeled off six straight wins. But the Chiefs went 5-5 the rest of the way and scored 21 or fewer points in 10 regular-season contests.
But in the playoffs, Kansas City has appeared to regain its swagger, downing Miami (26-7), Buffalo (27-24) and Baltimore (17-10). The last two victories came on the road, a first for Mahomes.
“When I look at Kansas City, since the playoffs started it’s been a complete flip in the narrative,” Willson said. “I personally think the San Francisco 49ers are very fortunate to be here.
“I thought they were outplayed by Green Bay, I thought they were badly outplayed by Detroit and the Lions made, in my opinion, some very questionable decisions that allowed San Francisco to come back in the game.
“If you look at the Chiefs, they dominated and controlled the Miami game. The Bills game was a shootout but I thought they played very, very well and against Baltimore I thought from the moment the ball was kicked off the Chiefs were in complete control.”
A key for the 49ers’ defence will be keeping Mahomes between the tackles. The Chiefs’ elusive quarterback is a master of scrambling and either making unbelievable passes to his receivers or taking off upfield.
When Mahomes takes to the air, he often finds star tight end Travis Kelce, who had 11 catches for 116 yards and a TD against Baltimore.
That performance helped Kelce surpass Jerry Rice as the most prolific receiver in NFL playoff history. Kelce has 156 catches in 21 post-season appearances with 19 TDs (trailing only Rice with 22).
If there’s a concern, though, it’s been opposing defences taking advantage of Kansas City’s offensive tackles. And the task doesn’t get any easier Sunday with 49ers defensive ends Nick Bosa and Chase Young.
San Francisco has plenty of offensive weapons with running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. But all eyes will be on quarterback Brock Purdy, 24, who in his first full season as the starter led the NFL in passer rating (113.0) and threw for a club-record 4,280 yards.
However, Purdy continues to be labelled by many as simply a game manager.
Another consideration is Kansas City’s Andy Reid, one of the NFL’s top head coaches. He’d has two weeks to dissect and prepare for a San Francisco defence that’s struggled of late against the run.
“It’s almost like baseball when a pitcher finds out a guy can’t hit a curve, the whole league sees it.” Willson said. “I think with Andy Reid’s expertise and Patrick Mahomes, they have a lot of film on stuff they’re going to be able to do.
“But the one thing I worry about with Kansas City is will the drops or mistakes from earlier in the year with their receivers come back at the wrong time?”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2024.