Welcome to the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at Super Bowl LVIII …
It’s no major surprise that the Chiefs and 49ers are the last two teams standing in the 2023 NFL season.
The Chiefs, who won it all last year, are making their fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years and feature Tom Brady’s successor as the league’s premier quarterback in Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs are ubiquitous, experienced, and perpetually unfazed, a smaller-scale version on the field of what the Patriots were for 20 years.
They are also, it must be noted, a sidecar to the cultural phenomenon of star tight end Travis Kelce’s relationship with mega-superstar singer Taylor Swift, which apparently bothers a certain segment of delicate-flower football-watchin’ man-babies for some pathetic reason.
The 49ers are a perennial contender, which is why it’s hard to fathom that they have not won a Super Bowl since Steve Young got the monkey off his back with a 23-point rout of the Chargers to culminate the 1994 season.
Under coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers have reached the conference championship game in four of the last five years, losing to Andy Reid and the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, 31-20, to punctuate the 2019 season.
They feature the NFL’s most talented offense and probably the most talented roster overall, with quarterback — and 2022′s Mr. Irrelevant — Brock Purdy having an enviable array of weapons, including running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle, and receiver Deebo Samuel.
Their particular paths to Las Vegas, however, were somewhat of a surprise. The Chiefs relied on their defense — which ranked second in the league, allowing just 17.3 points per game — far more than it had in the past. The pinnacle, at least so far, was the thorough torment of Ravens quarterback and league MVP Lamar Jackson in Kansas City’s 17-10 win in the AFC Championship game.
The 49ers — who had the most well-balanced team in the NFL this season, finishing third in points scored (28.9) and points allowed (17.5) — found themselves having to come from behind in playoff wins over the Packers and Lions. Given questions about Purdy’s inexperience in having to deliver in big situations under duress, the outcomes weren’t just desired, but reassuring.
This should be a great one. Kick it off, Butker (or maybe you, Moody), and let’s get this one started . . .
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH OTHER THAN THE QUARTERBACKS
Travis Kelce: As the four-time All-Pro tight end’s Q-rating (and likability) grew exponentially off the field, he actually endured some frustrating Sundays on the field. He had 28 or fewer receiving yards in a game three times after the start of November, and finished with fewer than 1,000 receiving yards — he ended up with 984 — for the first time since 2015, his third season. But in the playoffs, he’s been Vintage Kelce, catching 23 of 27 targets in the Chiefs’ three games for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Against the Ravens, he caught all 11 of his targets. Kelce will have an advantageous matchup against the 49ers safeties, and should extra attention come his way, it could open things up for rookie receiver Rashee Rice, who came on strong to finish with 79 catches for 938 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Christian McCaffrey: If the 49ers win, here’s your Most Valuable Player. He’s the most productive and well-rounded running back in the NFL, finishing the regular season with a league-best 1,459 rushing yards. He scored 14 touchdowns on the ground and another seven in the passing game. McCaffrey compiled 67 receptions for 564 yards as a receiver, and should defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo lean on zone coverage, he will have a field day as a pass catcher.
Nick Allegretti: Gotta include at least one grunt here. Allegretti, a former seventh-round pick, held up well at left guard against the Ravens in place of injured Joe Thuney. The former Patriot is expected to miss the Super Bowl while recovering from a pectoral injury, which means Allegretti will have to come through again, this time against a ferocious 49ers line that includes Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, and Chase Young.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
I know, this is a recurring grievance here. I promise to leave it alone until this time next year, should Rodney Harrison again fall short of his way overdue election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My problem isn’t with the voters or the players that were elected. This year’s class is made up of Patrick Willis, Dwight Freeney, Andre Johnson, Randy Gradishar, Devin Hester, Julius Peppers, and Steve McMichael — all are worthy. (McMichael was briefly a Patriot, cut in camp in August 1981 and beaten out by Mark Buben of Tufts.)
My problem is that they’re all more than worthy, but certain rules and bylaws — such as a finalist requiring a steep 80 percent of the vote to be elected, and the size limit on a class to between four and nine enshrinees — lead to a backlog of deserving candidates. Harrison, with his 34 interceptions, 30½ sacks, and two Super Bowl rings, has been eligible for 11 years and just this year became a finalist for the first time. Gradishar, a seven-time Pro Bowler and 1978 defensive player of the year, retired 41 years ago. Why did he have to wait so long?
Also, what happens to the finalists who, as part of the process, go to their hotel room to await word — and the symbolic knock on the door never comes? Do they just get the hint when someone slides the bill under the door?
PREDICTION, OR DOES SAN FRANCISCO HAVE DUCK BOATS?
It’s wise to never bet against Mahomes, just as it was wise to never bet against Brady. He’s 3-0 against the 49ers in his career, and he feels almost invincible. But everyone knows that, and almost everyone says it, and it’s led to a severe underestimation of the 49ers. McCaffrey is one of four San Francisco players — along with Samuel, Kittle, and receiver Brandon Aiyuk — to compile more than 1,000 scrimmage yards this season. (No, Tyquan Thornton wouldn’t crack their huddle.) If Purdy can just play with poise and pace and follow Shanahan’s script, the most talented team will prove the best team. 49ers 31, Chiefs 20.