Every NFL team has its superstars, the names everyone knows whether they follow the sport or not, but who are the players to pay special attention to in this year’s big game?
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was at his best on shorter passes this season, recording the most completions (320) and touchdowns (19) on passes travelling less than 10 air yards during the regular season. This prowess was evident against the Ravens in the AFC Championship, where he completed 26 of 28 passes for 159 yards on such attempts.
However, there’s been a notable shift in Mahomes’ once-signature deep ball (i.e., passes over 20 air yards). From 2018-2021, Mahomes led all quarterbacks with 44 deep touchdown passes. Since 2022, he has added just two more. In the Divisional Round against the Bills, Mahomes’ performance marked only his second game in the last two seasons with three or more deep completions, finishing 3 for 3 for 84 yards and a touchdown on passes over 20 air yards. His 22-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce late in the second quarter was his first deep touchdown pass since Week 7.
Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco has had a successful sophomore season, leading the league with an average of 4.7 yards per carry against stacked boxes (i.e., 8+ defenders in the box) through the playoffs among rushers with at least 30 carries. Pacheco also ranked fifth in yards after contact per carry (3.5) during the regular season among rushers with at least 100 carries, with 77.1% of his total rushing yards coming after contact.
Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed shadowed opponent’s number one receiver in seven games this season, most in the NFL. Sneed excelled when targeted downfield, allowing the lowest completion percentage among all defenders on targets of 10+ air yards (24.4%, min. 25 targets). After not allowing a touchdown in coverage during the regular season (on 90 targets), Sneed finally conceded as the nearest defender to Bills receiver Khalil Shakir in the Divisional Round.
Chiefs center Creed Humphrey has been one of the best at his position in pass protection since entering the league in 2021, allowing a bottom five pressure rate in all three seasons of his career. This season, he has allowed just a 3.5% pressure rate, the lowest among 33 centers with at least 300 pass blocking snaps (including playoffs).
TRAVIS KELCE vs 49ERS LINEBACKERS
The 49ers’ linebackers will face a significant challenge covering Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who led all tight ends with 393 receiving yards with linebackers as the nearest defender this season. Kelce also led all tight ends with 562 receiving yards in the middle third of the field. On the other side of the ball, the 49ers defense has locked down the middle third since drafting linebacker Fred Warner in 2018, allowing the lowest yards per attempt (7.0) to that area of the field as a unit over that span.
Warner’s play has been complemented by that of fellow linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who allowed the 19th-most yards among linebackers in zone coverage this season (341) despite facing the second-most targets (66).
49ers quarterback Brock Purdy has brought a new element to Kyle Shanahan’s offense. More so than any of his predecessors, Purdy can fluidly move in and out of the tackle box, throwing more touchdowns from outside that area (11) than any other quarterback during the regular season. He has already passed for nearly twice as many yards off of scrambles (485) in his year-and-a-half as the starter than Jimmy Garoppolo did during his entire 49ers tenure (250).
Purdy has also picked up five more first downs on the ground as a scrambler (14) than Garoppolo did in his five seasons (9). This has resulted in Shanahan trusting the passing game more than ever, as the 49ers had their highest pass rate over expected on early downs in 2023 over their last seven seasons.
49ers running back Christian McCaffrey made a strong case for the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award. He led the league with +349 rushing yards over expected during the regular season and was the top running back with 239 receiving yards from non-backfield alignments. McCaffrey also became the first player since 2017 to lead the NFL in rushing yards both before (510) and after contact (949).
BRANDON AIYUK, DEEBO SAMUEL & GEORGE KITTLE
49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk led the NFL this season in receptions (36) and receiving yards (696) on intermediate targets (i.e., 10 to 19 air yards) and, with 53, trailed only Tyreek Hill in receptions past the sticks this season.
Fellow wideout Deebo Samuel is the only receiver to align in the backfield, wide, tight and the slot on over 5% of snaps (minimum 250 snaps) in 2023-24, while the 49ers have averaged 7.6 yards per play when Samuel aligns in the backfield. Samuel (+235) and tight end George Kittle (+192) led their respective position groups in yards after catch over expected.
Both the 49ers and Chiefs offenses have excelled in yards after the catch this season, ranking first (6.7) and second (6.5) respectively in TAC per reception (including the postseason). While the 49ers comfortably led the NFL with +710 yards after the catch over expected, the Chiefs produced almost 500 more expected yards after catch (2,529) than any other offense this season.
49ers left tackle Trent Williams continued to be a stalwart protecting the blindside of his quarterback. He has allowed the fifth-lowest pressure rate (7.3%) among the 36 left tackles with over 300 pass blocking snaps this season (including playoffs). Williams is also still a mauler in the run game. The 49ers have run to the left side of the formation on 59.5% of carries with Williams on the field, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on those runs.
NICK BOSA vs JAWAAN TAYLOR
A key matchup to watch is 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa against Chiefs right tackle Jawaan Taylor. Taylor allowed the longest average time to pressure among all offensive tackles with at least 300 pass blocking snaps this season (3.97 seconds, including playoffs). Bosa, who primarily lines up at the left edge position, needs 11 pressures in the Super Bowl to set the single-season NGS pressures record since 2018. His 104 pressures entering Sunday ranks fourth-most in that span. Bosa pressured Mahomes nine times in Super Bowl LIV.
Data courtesy of Next Gen Stats