Last week, we looked at the worst games that Kansas City played this year, searching for weaknesses that might cost the Chiefs a Lombardi Trophy. Today, we're going to do the same for Kansas City's Super Bowl opponents, the San Francisco 49ers.
By DVOA, San Francisco's worst games this season (with an asterisk) were, in chronological order:
- Week 9: San Francisco 49ers 28 at Arizona Cardinals 25. The 49ers were undefeated at 8-0 heading into a Thursday night game on Halloween in the desert. Jimmy Garoppolo's 21-yard touchdown pass to Dante Pettis put San Francisco up 28-14 in the third quarter, but the Cardinals rallied with 10 points in the fourth. San Francisco got the ball back with nearly five minutes to go and picked up four first downs to ice the game. Garoppolo finished with four touchdowns to four different receivers with no interceptions and only one sack. Arizona's Kyler Murray threw two touchdowns without an interception himself, while Kenyan Drake (in his Cardinals debut following a trade from the Dolphins) ran for 110 yards on only 15 carries.
- Week 10: Seattle Seahawks 27 at San Francisco 49ers 24 (OT). Just 12 days later the 49ers suffered their first loss of the year on Monday Night Football. It was a sloppy, streaky game -- the 49ers jumped out to a 10-0 lead but fell behind 21-10 in the second half, then tied the game 24-24 and had the ball twice in overtime before finally losing. The teams combined for ten sacks and seven turnovers, with each defense returning a fumble for a touchdown. Garoppolo threw a career-high 46 passes but only amassed 248 yards and a touchdown, and the 49ers gained only 87 yards on 27 carries. The San Francisco defense held Russell Wilson to 232 passing yards and sacked him five times, but they allowed him to gain 53 yards on six carries. Chris Carson added 89 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
- Week 11: Arizona Cardinals 26 at San Francisco 49ers 36. Another streaky game for the 49ers, as they rallied from deficits of 16-0 and 26-23 before ending the day with 13 unanswered points. Garoppolo's 25-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Wilson put the 49ers up 30-26 with 37 seconds to go; the defense then added six points, scoring a fumble return touchdown on a failed Arizona lateral on the last play of the game. Garoppolo finished with four touchdowns and a career-high 424 yards, but he also threw a pair of interceptions. And Arizona smothered San Francisco's rushing attack, limiting them to only 34 yards on 19 carries. The Cardinals, meanwhile, ran for 135 yards, including Murray's 67 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. This was also a sloppy game; each team turned the ball over twice.
- Week 15: Atlanta Falcons 29 at San Francisco 49ers 22. The 49ers went up 19-10 with barely 10 minutes left in the game, but the Falcons scored three times in the last 5:20 to escape the Bay Area with a win. Atlanta's final drive saw an apparent winning touchdown reversed to an incomplete pass, then a game-ending tackle reversed to a winning touchdown. Just like the second Arizona game, the winning team returned a fumble for a touchdown on a failed lateral on the last play of the day. San Francisco was held to 313 yards of total offense and fumbled four times. At the time, the loss seemed to put the 49ers' shot a home-field advantage in jeopardy. In the end, it was irrelevant.
As for that asterisk, eagle-eyed Premium subscribers will note that, strictly speaking, one of San Francisco's worst games was the 9-0 win over Washington in Week 6. We have chosen to throw that game out because it was played in a torrential downpour, ruining the offense for both teams (and kicking off San Francisco's trademark Slip 'N Slide celebration). That leaves us with two games against the Cardinals and one each against the Seahawks and Falcons -- suggesting that Kansas City should change its nickname from the Chiefs to the Bluebirds.
It's notable that all of these games happened in the second half of the season, and three of them happened back-to-back-to-back. Not coincidentally, the 49ers were dealing with plenty of injuries in the back half of the year. Linebacker Kwon Alexander was injured in the first Arizona game and missed the rest of the regular season. Other starters who missed at least one of these games include fullback Kyle Juszczyk; tight end George Kittle; offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley; and defensive backs Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, and Ahkello Witherspoon. All eight of those men played in the NFC Championship Game win over Green Bay (though Witherspoon only appeared on special teams) and should be available in the Super Bowl, so the 49ers who will be playing against Kansas City are not quite the same team that struggled at times late in the year.
Still, they did struggle at times late in the year. Aside from all those missing pieces, what went wrong? There wasn't much dropoff in the passing game -- even in these bad games, Garoppolo completed 67% of his passes for 7.3 yards apiece, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. His DVOA in these games (5.2%) was not much lower than it was the rest of the year (14.3%). The running attack, however, bottomed out. San Francisco's rush offense DVOA plummeted to -36.0%, compared to 9.8% the rest of the year. It's hard to hang those struggles on any specific running back, in part due to Kyle Shanahan's running back-of-the-week approach. Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matthew Breida each averaged 3.7 yards or less on at least 20 carries in these games. Mostert was basically at replacement-level, but only three of Coleman's 37 carries gained more than 5 yards, while Breida had nearly as many fumbles (two) as first downs (three). Coleman's status for the Super Bowl remains in doubt due to his shoulder injury, but whomever is taking handoffs against Kansas City will be at risk of being hit in the backfield -- 27 of San Francisco's 101 runs in their bad games went for no gain or a loss. What may matter here are those injuries to blockers discussed above. In Week 9, the 49ers were missing McGlinchey, Staley, and Juszczyk. In Week 10, those three players returned but George Kittle was injured. Kittle was out again in Week 11, along with Staley.
The 49ers also declined on defense in their bad games, though in this case that means slipping from dominant to mediocre -- even at their worst, their defensive DVOA of -3.5% would have ranked 14th over the full season; their -3.9% DVOA against the pass would have ranked ninth, and their -3.1% DVOA would have ranked 23rd. Mind you, the Chiefs have made a habit out of shredding mediocre defenses all season, but the 49ers won't be pushovers, especially now that they're close to full health.
We mentioned Kenyan Drake's big day against San Francisco in Week 9; he also had a good day in Week 11, averaging 4.2 yards on 16 carries. However, most of the running plays that hurt the 49ers in their worst games were produced by quarterbacks. Kyler Murray totaled 101 yards on 13 carries in two games. Russell Wilson gained 53 yards on six carries. Even Matt Ryan gained 28 yards on four non-kneeldown carries -- officially, he had 27 rushing yards, only the fifth time he has done that in 189 regular-season games. This was a problem for the 49ers all year, as they allowed 374 rushing yards to quarterbacks. Only Cleveland and Cincinnati allowed more, and they had to play against Lamar Jackson twice each. Of course, the 49ers also had to face Jackson -- and they joined the Bengals and Browns (as well as the Seahawks and Cardinals) as teams that allowed the Ravens quarterback to run for over 100 yards in a game.
We already mentioned that San Francisco's pass defense was still very good even when the team was at its worst. That's especially true when it comes to covering tight ends. Jacob Hollister caught eight of 10 targets in Week 10, and though he had no big plays, amassing only 62 total yards, he did move the chains, producing five first downs. In these other three games, though, opposing tight ends were erased -- the quintet of Charles Clay, Darrell Daniels, Austin Hooper, Luke Stocker, and Maxx Williams caught seven of 13 targets for all of 51 yards. Again, that's in three games. The 49ers allowed a league-low 33.5 yards per game to tight ends in 2019, and that average went down to 28.3 yards in their bad games.
Last week, we said that San Francisco seemed well-positioned to exploit Kansas City's weaknesses, but it does not appear that the opposite is true. Stopping the 49ers' run game has been more important than stopping their passing attack … but the Chiefs were 29th in run defense DVOA, 28th in adjusted line yards, and 30th in stuff rate. Kansas City's leading receiver was tight end Travis Kelce, who led all players at the position in catches and yards, and was third in DYAR … but only four tight ends went over 50 yards in a game against the 49ers this season (and two of them still lost!).
If anyone on Kansas City's roster will be able to take advantage of a 49ers flaw, it is -- naturally -- Patrick Mahomes. In Mahomes' first 26 NFL starts (including the postseason), he averaged only 14.7 rushing yards per game. In that 26th start, he suffered a dislocated kneecap. His first game after the injury, in Week 10 against Tennessee, was his only game of his career with zero carries. And then he went on a tear, averaging 30.3 rushing yards in eight games since. Three of Mahomes' five games with 50-plus rushing yards have come since his knee injury -- including both of Kansas City's playoff wins. He'll likely need a third 50-plus-yard game to bring home the Lombardi Trophy. It's inevitable that he'll make some plays with his arm -- he's Patrick Mahomes, after all -- but it may well be his legs that decide who wins the Super Bowl.