George Kittle believes this time will be different.
Four years ago, a young San Francisco 49ers squad lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. But now that Kittle and his teammates are back, a little wiser and more experienced with an offense averaging 29 points a contest — the most since that last Super Bowl team in 2019 (29.9 points per game) — he thinks they are ready to seize the moment.
“Our offense is just chugging a little more consistently,” Kittle told reporters this week. “And when you throw a guy like Christian McCaffrey on our team, that helps a lot. Nothing against our old running backs, but with all the things Christian can do, Coach Shanahan can open his playbook.”
With the addition of McCaffrey and quarterback Brock Purdy, Shanahan has found adaptability, giving him a lot of options for how he can attack defenses.
But finding the best way to do that against one of the top defenses in the league will be a challenge for the 49ers, as Shanahan looks to break through and win his first Super Bowl — and San Francisco’s first in 30 years.
Here’s a look at what the 49ers must do to win it all.
Start fast with the first 15 scripted plays
The 49ers have shown resilience in two comeback victories this postseason, but that was not the blueprint to the team’s success during the regular season. And they will be hard-pressed to repeat that success against one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history in Patrick Mahomes.
San Francisco has done a good job of grabbing early leads and suffocating teams with precision offense and a defense that takes the ball away.
According to FOX Sports research, the 49ers had 12 opening drives that ended with a touchdown or field goal during the regular season, tied for the most in the NFL. And San Francisco finished 11-3 in the regular season when up at any point in the first quarter, tied for the most wins of all teams in this situation.
It will be important for Shanahan to dial up some explosive plays early to put the ball in the end zone. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is known for dialing up creative plays early in the game, especially with an extra week to prepare. But Shanahan must show some innovation early in the game to get his team some momentum in the opening quarter.
Brock Purdy the risk-taker
There’s been a lot of talk about Brock Purdy being a game manager, but the truth is the Iowa State product is willing to take chances to create big plays in Shanahan’s offense, allowing for the opportunity for explosives down the middle of the field or second-reaction plays by moving outside the pocket.
Purdy once again needs to live in that world for San Francisco to have a chance to win this game, as the 49ers will need to score to keep up with the Chiefs.
According to Next Gen Stats, Purdy threw intermediate passes (10-19 air yards) between the numbers a league-high 62 times in 2023. And he completed an NFL-high 62.7% of his passes over 10 air yards this season.
When those players over the middle of the field are not open, Purdy can escape the pocket to create chunk plays. Again, per Next Gen Stats, Purdy has thrown seven touchdown passes on scrambles this season, tied for second-most in the NFL.
Purdy has more completions (35) and more passing yards (485) on scrambles than Jimmy Garoppolo did during his entire time with San Francisco.
Get Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel rolling
When Purdy is creating chunk plays, look for him to find the team’s most explosive playmakers in Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel. Kansas City has one of the best pass defenses in the league, but it will be interesting to see how they attempt to match up against consistent separators like McCaffrey and Samuel.
The Chiefs struggle to stop the run and Shanahan wants to run, particularly on the perimeter with Samuel and McCaffrey. Specifically, watch out for Samuel against the Chiefs. The South Carolina product finished with 1,247 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
Samuel and McCaffrey are the only two players with at least five receiving touchdowns and five-plus rushing touchdowns this season. In the NFC Championship game against the Detroit Lions, Samuel totaled 11 touches for 96 scrimmage yards.
Win in the red zone
One of the reasons San Francisco had one of the top scoring offenses this season is the team’s ability to score touchdowns in the red zone. That will be critical against the Chiefs, particularly with a rookie kicker in Jake Moody.
The 49ers finished No. 1 in red zone scoring during the regular season (67.16%) and No. 2 in the postseason (57.14%).
Force Patrick Mahomes to give the ball away
Mahomes and the Chiefs have done a much better job of taking care of the football, as Kansas City has changed the team’s blueprint to winning football games by leaning on their defense.
The Chiefs have turned it over twice in three playoff games after finishing with 28 giveaways during the regular season and a minus-11 turnover differential.
The 49ers must figure out how to take a couple of possessions away from the Chiefs, either by generating pressure with Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave up front or corralling an interception in the back end defensively when Mahomes tries to force the ball to tight end Travis Kelce. San Francisco is 10-1 this season when they win the turnover battle.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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