June 22, 2021

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Tipping Points: Super Bowl LIV

10 min read

Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers had a clear game plan for the Super Bowl. They wanted to run the ball on offense to take advantage of the Chiefs’ No. 29-ranked DVOA run defense and limit the Chiefs’ offensive possessions, and they wanted to rush the passer on defense to disrupt Patrick Mahomes’ timing and ability to throw deep. Entering the fourth quarter, that plan was working. The 49ers were averaging 6.4 yards per carry and 7.9 yards per play. They had limited the Chiefs to just six possessions, a total Kansas City had exceeded in the first three quarters in all but two previous games this season. Their pass rush had sacked Mahomes twice and hit him on two other plays, holding him to just 1-of-3 on passes thrown more than 15 yards through the air. And that pressure seemed to affect Mahomes’ accuracy and decision-making even when it didn’t result in contact with the quarterback, a trend that culminated in a third-quarter interception that Mahomes threw right to linebacker Fred Warner standing in the passing lane. It all added up to a 20-10 lead and a 79.1% Game-Winning Chance (GWC) for the 49ers at the start of the final period.

By that point, the Chiefs had grown comfortable playing from a deficit. They had trailed in each of their previous two playoff wins this season by double digits as well. But that mental composure couldn’t keep Mahomes comfortable in the pocket against a 49ers defense that knew he needed to pass to get the Chiefs back in the game. As Mahomes came out of a play-fake to Damien Williams from his 46-yard line, Dee Ford had already turned the corner on his front side. That chased Mahomes toward the left sideline and forced him to throw across his body, an awkward pass that Kwon Alexander nearly intercepted despite Mahomes’ intention to throw the ball away. Mahomes had better luck on a quick throw to Tyreek Hill, who doubled the pass’s 7 air yards with a run after the catch through cornerback Emmanuel Moseley along the left sidelines. And Williams did even better on the next play, catching a shorter pass but spinning around Alexander and side-stepping Moseley to gain 13 more yards to advance the Chiefs into field goal range.

Mahomes was surviving the pressure, but his second consecutive attempt to step up in the pocket sent him directly into the arms of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. That sack backed the Chiefs into a difficult second-and-19 at the 49ers’ 36-yard line. Mahomes recovered, eluding both Buckner and Ford as he scrambled 13 yards into a third-and-6. But an inaccurate throw deflected off of Hill’s right arm and into the hands of safety Tarvarius Moore.

With a 10-point lead with less than 12 minutes remaining and now with possession, the 49ers’ GWC ballooned to 91.8%. It peaked two plays later at 94.5% after Raheem Mostert and George Kittle combined for 18 yards, the former crashing through attempted tackles on a run up the middle and the latter sliding to catch a play-action pass thrown low and behind him to avoid the closing safety Daniel Sorensen. But their offense sputtered from there. Chris Jones reached Mostert in the backfield and brought him down for just a 1-yard gain on the team’s subsequent first down. Anthony Hitchens reached Garoppolo and forced a high and incomplete pass on second down. Tanoh Kpassagnon appeared to jump early on third-and-14, but it was blind-side pressure from Ford that forced Garoppolo to roll right out of the pocket. He continued to look for options downfield until the last moment, which allowed cornerback Rashad Fenton to shove Garoppolo to the ground among his displeased teammates on the 49ers sideline. But Garoppolo was prudent to tuck the ball and fall out of bounds, avoiding a repeat of the pressure-induced big mistake he had made with an interception at the start of the second quarter. This short run allowed Mitch Wishnowsky to punt and pin the Chiefs back at their 17-yard line, leaving Mahomes less than a 10% chance of a comeback win in the final nine minutes.

Fortunately for the Chiefs, Mahomes is an odds-beater. The 49ers pressure never fully dissipated, but a Chiefs move to a hurry-up offense helped Mahomes overcome it. After a short Williams gain to start their next drive, Mahomes scrambled left out of the pocket and ran for a first down. He just missed another first down on a completion to Hill that he threw a bit too low, forcing Hill to fall back for the ball and pulling him short of the markers. But Williams picked that up with another short gain. A false start erased those yards and put the Chiefs in an uncomfortable first-and-15 at their 35-yard line. That became second-and-15 when Moseley closed quickly to break up a short toss to Hill, and then third-and-15 when Hill pinned a low potential first-down pass against the ground rather than catching it. The Chiefs were in dire circumstances, on the verge of a punt, still down two scores with just over seven minutes remaining. But Mahomes avoided that fate, taking a shotgun snap, backpedaling another eight steps, and then heaving a 44-yard pass that fell into Hill’s waiting arms. Hill had seen all four of Mahomes’ targets on that drive, but that didn’t prevent him from sprinting into the 49ers’ third level and shedding safety Jimmie Ward with a fake inside and sharp cut to the outside, netting 10 yards of cushion that allowed Mahomes’ rainbow pass to reach him before a defender could.

The 49ers defense rallied from their big mistake to bring pressure and force a pair of incompletions on first and second down from their 21-yard line. But the safety Moore never turned around to play the ball in one-on-one coverage on the much bigger Travis Kelce on third down. Kelce slowed his route to try to catch the touchdown, and Moore crashed into him, earning a defensive pass interference penalty. That advanced the Chiefs to the 1-yard line, where Mahomes connected with Kelce for a 1-yard score.

Suddenly with just a field goal lead, the 49ers were undoubtedly nervous. But with just over six minutes left in the game, they still could have ended things with an extended offensive drive. They look poised to do just that after Mostert went for 5 yards on a first-down carry. But Shanahan surprisingly called for passes on both second and third down. Chris Jones batted the former attempt incomplete, and a six-man blitz crashed into Garoppolo on the latter. He got the pass away, but it sailed over Kendrick Bourne, who was well-covered by Tyrann Mathieu in any case. That left the 49ers in a fourth-and-5 at their own 25-yard line. Garoppolo could have tried another pass, which would have improved the 49ers’ GWC by 6.2% over a punt. But Shanahan had already bypassed several more obvious opportunities for beneficial, aggressive play calls. He remained conservative with a punt here, hoping his defense could hold the Chiefs one final time.

Five minutes was more than enough time for the Chiefs to score, but on the heels of the success of their previous drive, they started this next one in the no-huddle again. And Mahomes excelled again, completing passes for 5, 9, and 3 yards to Hill, Kelce, and Hill again to cross midfield. They huddled from there, attempting to drain some clock and prevent the 49ers from answering a Chiefs score with their own game-winning drive. But that quickly became moot when Mahomes dropped a 15-yard pass perfectly over the head of defender Richard Sherman, hitting Sammy Watkins in stride and allowing him to extend the catch for 38 total yards.

That completion advanced the Chiefs to the 49ers’ 10-yard line. From there, Mahomes scrambled for 6 yards and out of bounds on first down and failed to scramble on second down, taking a hard hit and 1-yard sack from safety Jaquiski Tartt. But those plays did further drain the clock to 2:50, and the Chiefs again capitalized on third down with a 5-yard catch-and-touchdown-run that the running back Williams just reached over the pylon as his foot stepped on the right sideline. The referees ruled it a touchdown on the field, and the replays showed a play that was too close to overturn.

The 49ers finally ceded the lead they had held since their first drive of the second half, but the Chiefs only used 2:26 for that go-ahead drive, which left San Francisco 2:39 to author a comeback of their own. That effort was complicated by a perfect Harrison Butker kickoff that Richie James had to bring out from just in front of the end zone and led to him being tackled on the 15-yard line. But Mostert flipped the field position with a surprise carry on first down, which he swept right and then cut upfield for 17 yards to the 49ers’ 32-yard line. Emmanuel Sanders gave back a few of those yards with a false start, but Garoppolo more than recovered them with 8- and 16-yard completions to Kittle and Bourne. But just past midfield, Garoppolo had a pass batted and another nearly intercepted. That put the 49ers in a third-and-10 with 1:40 remaining. Mahomes had excelled in the Chiefs’ critical third downs, and Garoppolo had a chance here with Sanders streaking past the Chiefs coverage and a two-step cushion. Garoppolo saw the opening and unloaded a deep attempt, but it fell futilely incomplete 5 yards in front of Sanders.

That missed opportunity didn’t fully end the 49ers’ chances, but it may as well have. Shanahan had no choice but to leave his offense on the field for fourth-and-10, but Garoppolo never got that pass off. Frank Clark wrapped him up and drew a whistle for the sack as Garoppolo tried to unload a desperate, two-handed toss. The turnover on downs didn’t fully end things either since the 49ers had all three of their timeouts to stop the clock. But Williams made those useless with a second-and-6 carry that he turned around the left corner. The safety Ward took a bad angle for the tackle, but even a better one would have left Williams with a first down and allowed the Chiefs to kneel to ice the game. Instead, Williams avoided the contact and ran untouched into the end zone for his second score and an 11-point Chiefs lead.

The 49ers had just over a minute remaining but no real chance of overcoming their two-score deficit. Garoppolo made an effort of doing so with a deep toss down the middle, but cornerback Kendall Fuller secured it for a game-ending interception.

Still scarred by the Falcons’ 28-3 Super Bowl collapse against the Patriots when he was their offensive coordinator, Shanahan will undoubtedly hear criticism for the 10-point lead his 49ers blew on Sunday. It was just the third time in Super Bowl history that a team had rallied from 10 or more points behind to win in the fourth quarter.

10-Plus-Point Fourth-Quarter Comebacks, Super Bowl History
Season Team Opp Trailed Trailed By Result
2014 NE SEA 24-14 10 W 28-24
2016 NE ATL 28-9 19 W 34-28
2019 KC SF 20-10 10 W 31-20

But apart from some poor clock management at the end of the first half and a handful of conservative calls on fourth downs that few teams besides the Ravens and Eagles would have even considered attempting, Shanahan coached a good game. His creativity in using receiver Deebo Samuel out of the backfield led to a handful of big first-half plays, and that plus a play-action heavy passing attack led the 49ers to outproduce the Chiefs’ No. 1 weighted DVOA offense 6.5 yards per play to 5.3 (5.8, if you remove Mahomes’ end-of-game kneels). The 49ers also forced a pair of interceptions as well as three fumbles; they just never had the fortune to recover any of them (they did recover one fumble of their own, on a muffed punt return in the first half). Perhaps if they had done that, had made one more critical third-down stop, had not seen Kittle flagged for offensive pass interference on a 42-yard catch at the end of the first half, or had completed Garoppolo’s deep overthrow of Sanders in the fourth quarter, they would have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy instead of the Chiefs.

From my perspective, the Chiefs deserve far more credit for their comeback win than the 49ers deserve blame. The Chiefs’ move to and continued reliance on the no-huddle mitigated the effectiveness of the 49ers pass rush that had disrupted Mahomes all game, and Mahomes overcame the pressure when it still reached him with a number of scrambles, deep completions, and third-down conversions in the fourth quarter. Andy Reid landed in more obvious down-and-distances to be aggressive with his offense, but he still deserves credit for calling runs on a pair of fourth-and-1s in the first half. In part because of that good play calling, Reid removed his name from the list of best coaches to never win a Super Bowl. And in a league that — Patriots aside — has been defined by its heavy turnover, his Chiefs, led by their league and now Super Bowl MVP Mahomes, look like the favorite to win it all again next year and maybe all decade.


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