Smothering defense or smoldering offense?
The question arises anew Sunday in Super Bowl LIV, with the San Francisco 49ers looking to cool the high-scoring Kansas City Chiefs with the sudden and relentless ferocity of the weekend storm that rolled in and drenched this city.
The only NFL franchise that waited longer between championship game appearances than the Chiefs is the Cardinals, who have gone from Chicago to St. Louis to Arizona. They went 60 years between appearances on the biggest stage.
The game pits two of the NFL’s best play callers in Kansas City’s Andy Reid and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan. Neither has won a Super Bowl as a head coach, although Shanahan’s father, Mike, won two with the John Elway-quarterbacked Denver Broncos.
Reid coached the Philadelphia Eagles for 14 seasons, and the Chiefs for the last seven. He’s one of seven coaches to lead two franchises to the Super Bowl, and at 15 years has the second-longest drought between Super Bowl appearances to the 19-year dry spell of Dick Vermeil.
If there’s a sentimental favorite in this game, it’s Reid.
“I’m humbled by it,” Reid said of the league-wide support he has felt. “Very humbled by it. I have great guys here. Friends likewise around the league. Been doing it a long time. This is about this team, the guys that have worked so hard to get where they are. The players, the coaches, the organization.
“It’s a team effort even getting to this position. It’s not about one position. Right now, my complete focus is on making sure we as coaches do a good job, as players do a good job in the Super Bowl.”
The spotlight will be trained squarely on Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, last season’s most valuable player and an elusive dual-threat star who rallied the Chiefs from a 24-point deficit in the divisional victory over Houston, and a 10-point hole in the AFC championship game against Tennessee.
He is surrounded by an arsenal of blistering-fast receivers, and guides a team that has averaged 31.6 points during its current eight-game winning streak.
“We’re back playing a mobile quarterback and one who could throw better than any we’ve faced,” 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said. “One of the biggest things is trying to keep him in the pocket and not let him escape when he wants to escape and make him uncomfortable.”
“When you take a look at it over the years, defenses typically win it,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls with the 49ers and finished his career with two seasons in Kansas City.
Still, Mahomes and his quick-strike attack — aided by big plays on special teams — are something to behold. The Chiefs have averaged 43 points per game in these playoffs, despite their slow starts.
While the Chiefs take to the air, the 49ers prefer to stay grounded. San Francisco is averaging 235.5 yards rushing in the postseason and runs the ball on three of four snaps.
The 49ers have run for at least 100 yards in 10 consecutive playoff games, which according to Sportradar, is one short of the postseason record established by the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders between 1983-2000.
“Kyle Shanahan, I was with him in college,” said retired NFL running back and current NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew, who first met the coach when Shanahan was a graduate assistant at UCLA. “He used to say, '`Everyone game plans and schemes for the passing game, and then in the running game, we’re just going to run the ball.’ He’s the opposite. He schemes the running game like other guys do the passing game.
“They find guys they want to attack, and they attack them by shifts and motions and try to get their best blocker on their worst defender. They spend just as much time on the running game as they do the passing game, whereas in most offensive systems, the running game is like a 10- or 15-minute install and the passing game is 35 or 45 minutes.”
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown just 19 times in the past seven quarters, but Shanahan said that’s no commentary on his effectiveness as a quarterback, and scoffed at the notion that might suggest a lack of confidence in his passing.
“It’s really funny that people say that,” Shanahan said. “Did anyone notice how good we were running the ball? We weren’t just running it to punt and try to win 3-0. There were times, especially that Green Bay game, we had a better chance getting 30 yards running it just from some of the looks we were getting.”
The 49ers are a team driven by defense. They have scored 20 points off takeaways in their two postseason games.
A year after finishing 28th in scoring defense, the 49ers have executed a remarkable turnaround under coordinator Robert Saleh. They closed out the regular season second in team defense and third-down percentage, and eighth in points allowed.