Those results set up a compelling Super Bowl matchup, with San Francisco’s highly effective rushing attack and ferocious pass rush likely to provide a major test for Kansas City’s aerial attack — which is unlike anything the 49ers have faced this season.
Here are four big takeaways from the conference championship games while looking ahead to Super Bowl LIV:
This is Andy Reid’s best chance yet to win the Super Bowl.
Chiefs Coach Andy Reid and former Cardinals and Chargers coach Don Coryell might be the best in NFL history to have never won the Super Bowl, but Reid is on the verge of ending that distinction. Reid came close the previous time he made it to the Super Bowl, with the Philadelphia Eagles and Donovan McNabb in the 2004 season. McNabb was a good quarterback, but he’s not Patrick Mahomes, who is showing all the signs of a future Hall of Famer.
A season after throwing 50 touchdown passes and winning the MVP award, Mahomes has seen his numbers go down a bit, but he’s a better quarterback. He led the Chiefs back from a 24-0 deficit in the divisional round against the Houston Texans, and they rallied from 10 points down Sunday against Tennessee.
But Reid still deserves a lot of credit. What’s so impressive is how he continues to adapt in a constantly changing era. He has assembled a coaching staff with backgrounds in the offenses bubbling up to the NFL from the college ranks, and he has built an offensive game plan that is up to date, complete with run-pass options and other creative elements.
He has a very good chance of getting his first Super Bowl victory Feb. 2 — a result of his coaching evolution and a truly unique talent at quarterback.
The 49ers’ running game is a throwback.
This postseason already featured the dominance of the Titans’ Derrick Henry, but the 49ers took running-game success to another level Sunday. They rushed for 285 yards on 42 attempts, with 220 coming from Raheem Mostert on 29 carries (with four touchdowns). Jimmy Garoppolo attempted just eight passes, completing six for 77 yards.
Coach Kyle Shanahan learned from his father, Mike Shanahan, and took a 1970s offensive approach in the conference title game. The Chiefs are going to have to figure out how to slow this rushing attack — and prevent the 49ers from playing keep-away from Mahomes — over the next two weeks.
A year after being the problem, the Chiefs’ defense is good enough to win it all.
It was difficult for Reid to replace defensive coordinator Bob Sutton with Steve Spagnuolo after last season’s AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots, but that decision helped put the Chiefs over the top this postseason.
Kansas City held Henry to 19 carries for 69 yards. As the Chiefs came back from an early 10-point deficit, they shut down Henry in the second half — no easy task, considering Henry was in the midst of one of the greatest postseason runs in history, demonstrating the value of a power back even in today’s NFL. But as the Baltimore Ravens learned against the Titans a week before, it’s difficult for a run-first team to come back from a deficit, and Tennessee simply wasn’t able to put together a rally.
The key for the Chiefs was the pass-rush ability of Frank Clark, who was added via trade in the offseason, and interior lineman Chris Jones, who was limited to third-down plays because of injury but made a few big stops.
But San Francisco’s defense is on another level.
The 49ers are healthy on defense again, and that should be scary for Kansas City. Led by Nick Bosa, the second pick in last year’s draft, the defensive line is loaded with first-round picks and Pro Bowl-caliber talent. The linebackers are fast. The scheme is sound under coordinator Robert Saleh.
The only question marks are at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where Emmanuel Moseley recently replaced the struggling Ahkello Witherspoon, and whether the team’s defensive backs as a whole will be able to match up with the speed of Kansas City’s wide receivers, including Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins.
Perhaps the best chess match in the Super Bowl will be how San Francisco approaches defending Mahomes and the Kansas City passing game. Wisely, the Titans mixed man-to-man and zone coverage against Mahomes, but it was great to watch him consistently identify which coverage Tennessee was playing. When the Titans went zone, Mahomes looked for tight end Travis Kelce. When they went man, Mahomes tried to target his outside wide receivers.
Man or zone? It’s a dilemma facing any defensive coach playing Mahomes, and it’s the one Saleh will have to answer over the next two weeks. That Mahomes appears to be healthier than he has been all season and was effective scrambling in both playoff wins — including the 27-yarder for a touchdown just before halftime against the Titans — only complicates matters. The 49ers have their work cut out for them.
Around the NFL
— Philip Rivers could be on the move. The Los Angeles Chargers quarterback already has made a physical move: He and his family left their home in San Diego for Florida. Even though there is a chance he could go to the Indianapolis Colts and reunite with Coach Frank Reich, who was his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in San Diego, another team could emerge.
Don’t be surprised if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reach out. Coach Bruce Arians made a similar decision when the Arizona Cardinals traded for Carson Palmer. That move got them into the playoffs and once into the NFC title game. Jameis Winston is a free agent and supposedly wants $30 million per year. He threw for more than 5,000 yards but also had 30 interceptions. Rivers could be an interesting alternative.
— It’s looking more and more likely Tom Brady will hit free agency. If the right deal isn’t there, it’s possible he could go back to the New England Patriots if they haven’t already made a move for a quarterback. But the Chargers, if Rivers is indeed out, are a logical fit, while the Las Vegas Raiders are more of a long shot. Coach Jon Gruden could be looking for a starting option other than Derek Carr.
— If Brady leaves, what will the Patriots do? One name to watch is Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has had his eye on him in the past. Another option could be trading for Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton.