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How The Chiefs And Niners Became The Last NFL Teams Standing

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): And just like that, we’ve got ourselves a Super Bowl.

It would have been hard for the conference championship games to match the chaos of the first two rounds of playoff action — though about 10 minutes into the Kansas City-Tennessee game, I thought the Titans might actually take out the No. 2 seed (along with the Nos. 1 and 3 they had already dispatched). But Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs rallied again. What stood out to you guys about that game?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): That the Titans, stealing a line from “The Untouchables,” brought a knife to a gun fight.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): That Derrick Henry is basically just a guy, and that Mahomes is not just a guy.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Too much K.C. offense, too much Mahomes.

Salfino: Mahomes now has 11 TDs and 0 picks in the postseason. He has the highest QB rating in postseason history since the merger.1

joshua.hermsmeyer: Two moments stood out to me in particular:

One was the Titans’ last drive right before the half. They needed to run clock, and it was Henry time. They got predictable and had to give the ball back to Mahomes before the half (he scored), and then K.C. got the ball again after halftime.

The other was the third-and-1 where holding was called, and Henry still got stuffed.

neil: In general, the Chiefs were able to slow down the Titan running game like no team really has recently. Tennessee’s rushing expected points added in the game was -0.1 compared with average. That stopped a streak of nine straight games where they had been positive, and often significantly so.

Salfino: When it came to stopping Henry, the Chiefs, who allowed 4.9 yards per rush during the regular season, just threw numbers at the problem. Remember, a team with a top QB like the Chiefs should be built to stop the pass, not the run. They don’t care about stopping the run because they are generally playing ahead. But Sunday, the Chiefs did. They committed to it.

You can do that against the run and it works. You can’t really throw numbers at the problem of stopping the QB.

neil: Of course, K.C. did do some Andy Reid-ish things late in the game to try to let the Titans back into it…

sara.ziegler: Clock management just shouldn’t be so hard.

neil: Mahomes is so good that bad clock management can’t thwart his Super Bowl aspirations.

Salfino: Mahomes bailed Reid out of horrible clock management with 20 seconds to go in the half by running in that TD.

That was classic Reid.

neil: And then late in the game they just refused to either: a) force Tennessee to stay in bounds to run clock, or b) not stop the clock when they had the ball.

sara.ziegler: I get that teams built to pass sometimes keep passing in end-of-game situations just because it’s what they do best. But man, they really kept stopping the clock!

neil: Luckily they got that defensive pass interference call!

Salfino: I thought the game was over as soon as the Chiefs went up double digits. Everything after that was garbage time.

neil: Certainly that took the Titans away from their run-heavy focus and made Ryan Tannehill more than a caretaker.

sara.ziegler: What did you guys think of how Tannehill played?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought he played well. They went back to their strength, the play-action (0.41 EPA per play-action pass play), and he kept them in the game at the very least.

Salfino: Tannehill was OK. Not as good as his rating. He could not make a play to stop the Chiefs momentum.

neil: He did his best — and man did he take some licks at times.

sara.ziegler:

neil:

sara.ziegler: That was maybe my favorite moment of the game, tbh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Momentum is a hard thing to stop, considering it’s impossible to measure or define.

I thought Tannehill’s QBR of 74 accurately reflected his play. And his QBR of 86 on play-action passes was very good.

Salfino: It’s interesting with Tannehill and the Titans. We reflexively say after a run like the Titans had, “They’ll be back.” No, they won’t.

Tannehill is a free agent — I’m fairly certain he’ll be back, but do you give him a long-term deal at franchise money or just franchise him for $30 million (or whatever) in 2020? I opt for the latter. That’s almost a guarantee you don’t have Tannehill in 2021 though.

sara.ziegler: So was this just lightning in a bottle for them, Mike?

Salfino: The Titans have two football freaks on offense in Henry and A.J. Brown who have really no other physical comparables. But the defense is bad. They don’t have a high draft pick. They have no long-term plan that I can see at QB unless you believe Tannehill is good. (I do not.) And their approach to football is antediluvian.

neil: “Antediluvian”!

LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: The pre-flood games were lit.

neil: Noah was BIG on smash-mouth football.

Salfino: I learned that word from Josh.

When he’s flaming the “run to win” Twitter trolls.

neil: To be fair, there was one team that Ran to Win on Sunday … but I am sure we will get to the Niners soon enough.

Salfino: Do you guys think that Mahomes would have been great no matter where he landed, or that he landed in the perfect place (or both)?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think he landed in a good spot, but there’s no denying that he’s a special talent.

But my take is that every QB, if he’s any good, is a system QB.

Salfino: I just have a hard time assessing true skill level in football as opposed to baseball, which is so pure in this regard. It’s more tools in football, I guess. Mahomes sure has them.

sara.ziegler: A little website I like to follow told me that Mahomes had a pretty ideal situation to start out in.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That guy Neil seems to know his stuff. Sharp fellow.

neil: LOL

I think it’s fair to say he has exceeded expectations, though, even given his coaching and supporting cast.

sara.ziegler: I’m pretty sure Mahomes’s path to greatness all started with his early experience around the Minnesota Twins clubhouse:

neil: Yesssss

Or his Little League World Series experience (hat-tip to designer Emily Scherer for this find):

Salfino: Um…

neil: This is how good Mahomes is. Not even the Mets’ curse can stop him.

sara.ziegler: LOL

So let’s move on to the NFC game … which was decidedly less exciting.

neil: Pretty exciting for San Francisco fans, at least.

sara.ziegler: Well, sure.

neil: And Aaron Rodgers haters.

sara.ziegler: And Packer haters.

😬

neil: LOL, jinx.

Salfino: The 1972 Dolphins are always so touchy about their place in history and about people remembering them. But this is really the postseason of the 1972 Dolphins. Or that era’s Dolphins teams. The Titans started it, and then the people who want that style of football just latched on to the Niners. San Francisco had the third-fewest passing attempts (eight) in a postseason game since the merger. Miami had the others. Note that all but one team with fewer than 15 attempts won their games. (Just don’t throw the ball, and you’ll win!)

sara.ziegler: Jimmy Garoppolo with just six completions was definitely my favorite stat of the day.

neil: And Raheem Mostert had the second-most rushing yards by anybody in a playoff game ever!

So much history (that Green Bay was on the receiving end of).

Salfino: You need to find a back who can run to the Super Bowl either at the top of the draft or on the punt coverage team after he’s been cut a half-dozen times. Take your pick.

neil: 😂

joshua.hermsmeyer: I had no dog in the fight, but the game was an object lesson in the old football saw that you have to stop the run to win. Mostert averaged 10 yards per carry on his first 19 attempts. That’s far too many long run plays. It looked like high school ball out there.

neil: The Packer run defense had zero answers for it.

Salfino: I don’t remember a team running that often and that easily ever. There was almost no resistance. I guess we have to credit the Niners’ scheme and blocking.

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about how that happened, though. The Packers were bad against the run during the regular season, but not the worst in the league, by any means. Football Outsiders had their run defense at 23rd in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan is a chip off the old block — Mike Shanahan was finding running backs in the recycling bin with the Broncos and turning them into All-Pros, even after Terrell Davis (a sixth-round pick who also made his bones on special teams).

Someone told me once that defense doesn’t matter. Offense controls outcomes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The why is always hard without a lot of tape study. But it sure seemed like Shanahan saw a structural flaw in the Green Bay defense and exploited it again and again.

Salfino: How many times have the Packers faced a fullback and a tight end who can block like George Kittle? This is what is tricky about defensive stats, seriously.

neil: And it bears mentioning that the Packers are sort of built this way deliberately. No team spent a higher share of the cap on offense this year, and it’s not even close.

A lot of that is tied up in Rodgers’s massive contract as well. But Rodgers and the offense couldn’t really get rolling at all when the game was still in reach.

(The many turnovers didn’t help.)

sara.ziegler: That has to worry Packer fans long-term. We’ve talked about Rodgers’s “eliteness,” but is he kind of done?

Salfino: Rodgers gave hope to the people who still believe in the greatness — which has objectively faded since 2014 — with a bunch of garbage-time numbers.

neil: Well, he did statistically outplay Jimmy G in the raw numbers, LOL.

(Obviously those numbers are very misleading for the reason you said, Mike.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers was average all season long. I think he’s a player you can win with, and might still have sparks of greatness left. Think late-career John Elway as the very top range of outcomes, if the entire team is reshaped around a different philosophy.

Like, imagine Rodgers in a system that asked him to make the throws Tannehill was asked to make this season.

Salfino: I will say it again: Rodgers has ironically turned into Alex Smith, his lifetime nemesis from back in the 2005 draft.

sara.ziegler: Can I just rant for a second about that dumb narrative about Rodgers seeking revenge on the Niners for not taking him No. 1? It’s not like every other team was lining up to take him as their first pick either. He fell to No. 24, for Pete’s sake!

neil: Also, it was 15 years ago. Get over it already.

sara.ziegler: ^^^ THIS

Salfino: The Niners always kick Rodgers’s ass in the postseason, too.

neil: By running the ball down the Packers’ throats, usually.

ESPN’s Stats & Information Group had a stat where San Francisco has averaged 258.3 rushing yards and three rushing TDs per game in three playoff wins vs. Rodgers.

Salfino: Well, there was that Colin Kaepernick game where he ran for about 1,000 and threw for 1,000.

neil: Right.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Coming back to more recent history, I have another thought on the Niners game: It was smart of the 49ers to hide Jimmy G. I think they should continue to do so in the Super Bowl, if they can.

Salfino: But they won’t be able to, Josh. I’m sure you agree.

Mahomes doesn’t let you run to win.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, they won’t. And I think it’s why K.C. will win, and probably pretty easily.

neil: This is low-key one of the biggest QB mismatches in Super Bowl history.

Salfino: I think the spread should be 5. It was 2.5. Now it’s 1.5. All the retired head coach money coming in on the Niners.

neil: (We say K.C. -3.5, for what it’s worth.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Richard Sherman is not going to be able to run with Tyreek Hill.

Salfino: Darrelle Revis doesn’t think so. Tyreek is going to have a huge game — 200 yards, I predict. He’s going to break the way the Niners prefer to play defense. Or Travis Kelce will have about 150. Pick your poison.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, if you go to a zone scheme with safety help for Sherman, then Kelce could be a big problem underneath.

sara.ziegler: Will the Niner pass rush affect Mahomes? He had all day long to throw on Sunday — I can’t imagine that will continue against Nick Bosa and Co.

Salfino: Mahomes’s sack rate is the most underrated thing about his game. It was 3.4 percent this year and down from 2018. It’s 2.8 percent for this postseason. Yes, the Niners have the best rush the Chiefs will have faced, but Mahomes won’t be getting sacked 10 percent of the time or so, which would swing this game to the Niners, IMO. I’d expect 5 percent — so two or three sacks.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners get above-average pressure with just their front four, so I think Mahomes will not be too comfortable. But we saw at the end of the half vs. the Titans what he’s capable of if you let him loose running as well.

Salfino: Mahomes is such a decisive runner for someone who does not run a lot. He had 53 rushing yards in each of the past two games, and he has only exceeded that number twice in his career in the regular season.

sara.ziegler: What other matchups in the Super Bowl are you guys excited to see?

neil: I will say that K.C.’s run defense is suspect, even after they performed a lot better against Tennessee. That might play into San Francisco’s strengths some.

The Chiefs ranked 29th in rushing defense DVOA this season.

Salfino: The 49ers could hurt the Chiefs in the passing game if they cross them up by being more aggressive and designing their game plan to score 30 points, which I think is essential for them to win. If they think they are going to ride their defense and running game to victory, they are sadly mistaken. I’m assuming Shanahan is too smart to think that, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Early on, the Niners offensive line vs. the Chiefs run defense should be telling. San Francisco will need that to be another home run, much like the Green Bay game.

Salfino: But Neil, don’t you discount their season ranking given how they just shut down Henry, who was supposedly unstoppable? I just believe that if you want to stop the run badly enough, you can.

neil: So will the key to the Super Bowl be whether Garoppolo is better than Tannehill???

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s the question!

neil: (Um … is he?)

(LOL)

Salfino: I think Garoppolo is better than Tannehill, but I have very low confidence in the accuracy of that opinion.

Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are very serious weapons, though. I think the Niners forgot Manny Sanders was on the team yesterday. But he’s fine.

sara.ziegler: When Kittle was on the stage at the end, holding the trophy, I was like, “Oh, yeah — him!”

LOL

Salfino: Kittle did have 17 targets in the loss to Atlanta. That seems impossible now. Both the targets and the losing to Atlanta.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

joshua.hermsmeyer:

sara.ziegler: Oh, no.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kittle is all that’s good and wonderful about football.

sara.ziegler: So let’s wrap up our final Slack chat of the season (not including our live blog the night of the Super Bowl) with our predictions.

Are you three all taking the Chiefs???

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes!

Salfino: Chiefs 34, Niners 17.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow, even a score.

sara.ziegler: You think the Niners are going to give up roughly the same number of points as the Titans, but score less?

Salfino: I’m 5-5 in the playoffs now! Feeling it!

neil: I’m gonna be a little more conservative than Mike. Chiefs 24, Niners 21.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 28-13

sara.ziegler: Neil stays true to the model, to the very end.

Salfino: Hahaha

neil: Ehhhh, my O/U of 45 now feels a bit low. Can I make it 27-24? LOL

sara.ziegler: Nope

neil: Awww 😔

sara.ziegler: OK, fine.

Salfino: 27.5-24.

neil: Ooooh

I like how somebody on the FOX pregame picked a half-point margin. I think it was Howie.

They were like, YOU CAN’T DO THAT!

Salfino: I think this game is going to be very tribal. There is a football philosophy on the line for the old-school types. So I bet that, as was the case with the Titans, ex-players and coaches will pick the Niners in the game.

sara.ziegler: All right, I can’t let us all have the same picks.

So I have to take the Niners.

neil: It helps that you also took them in our Hot Takedown Super Bowl Draft episode! (Many, many weeks ago!)

sara.ziegler: Very true — gotta stick with my teams to the bitter end.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nice work!

sara.ziegler: 49ers 29, Chiefs 28.

Salfino: Niners win on a 2-point conversion in the final seconds.

neil: Running it in, naturally.

sara.ziegler: But really, I just want a good game. We deserve a good game for the Super Bowl.

I’m like Rob Lowe out here, just rooting for everyone:

neil: “Go League! Protect the Shield! Wooo!”

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 100 attempts.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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