SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There is no need to search far for compelling storylines now that the matchup for Super Bowl LVIII is set. The 49ers and Chiefs met on this same stage four years ago, back when Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes was just starting his legacy and head coach Andy Reid was seeking his first championship. Kansas City wound up winning that year's title with a stirring fourth-quarter comeback. There is a very good chance this game comes down to a similar suspense-filled ending.
The Chiefs reached this Super Bowl by reminding us how much experience matters in their latest quest for a Lombardi Trophy. While the Baltimore Ravens melted down in the AFC Championship Game, Kansas City kept its cool, played great defense and made all the necessary plays to deliver that 17-10 win. The 49ers went a different route in beating Detroit in the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco fell behind by 17 points in the first half before rallying behind quarterback Brock Purdy in the final two quarters for the 34-31 victory.
Now we get to spend the next two weeks dissecting what is going to unfold in Las Vegas on Feb. 11. Kansas City is chasing its second straight Super Bowl win and third in five seasons, accomplishments that would cement that franchise as the newest dynasty. San Francisco knows a few things about dynasties as well. The problem is the 49ers haven't won a Super Bowl since 1994, even though they've had two previous cracks at it in the last 11 years.
So let's prepare for a terrific matchup with the Super Bowl edition of The First Read. There will be plenty of questions asked of both teams as the game nears, but here are the five most important when it comes to determining who ultimately wins this contest …
1) Do the Chiefs need a huge game from Patrick Mahomes to win? As strange as it sounds, the answer to that is a resounding "NO." Mahomes needs to play well, but anybody who's watched him in this postseason can see that he's gone to another level with his quarterbacking abilities. He's averaged 239.3 passing yards in Kansas City's three playoff wins while tossing all of four touchdown passes. He only had 241 passing yards on 30 completions against the Ravens' vaunted defense, which reveals plenty about how the Chiefs have been approaching their offensive strategy in the postseason. This team has stopped trying to dominate opponents with schemes and accepted that the best path to moving the football and scoring points is simplicity. The Chiefs have leaned into the violent running of Isiah Pacheco. Mahomes attempted 39 passes against Baltimore and 24 went toward Pacheco, tight end Travis Kelce and rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice. Those are now the three most vital weapons in Kansas City's attack, and there's no question Mahomes has bought into that approach. Don't get it twisted, though: Mahomes is always capable of delivering a spectacular performance because of who he is. It's just that his numbers in both of his Super Bowl wins have been modest -- 286 passing yards in that win over San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV and 182 in last year’s victory over Philadelphia -- so you'd expect the 49ers to try to contain him as well. The Chiefs got here with stingy defense and efficient offense. That same formula can turn them into a dynasty.
2) Are there any more questions about Brock Purdy? There used to be a lot of questions about whether the 49ers' second-year quarterback was built to handle comeback situations. Now it's fair to ask if he's ever going to start losing in those moments again. One week after leading San Francisco on the game-winning drive in a Divisional Round win over Green Bay, Purdy rallied his team from a 17-point deficit to help the 49ers reach the Super Bowl. He accomplished that with his arm (20-of-31, 267 yards, one touchdown and one interception) and his legs (48 yards on five carries) -- and just as importantly, with his poise. This is no longer the same quarterback who would press when his team trailed in high-pressure situations. Purdy pushed the ball downfield, completed big throws and benefitted from the brilliance of running back Christian McCaffrey and an opportunistic defense. If beating Green Bay in the Divisional Round boosted his confidence, earning this victory had to change the narrative about how he handles those gotta-have-it moments. This easily could've been a game that the 49ers blew because of the energy Detroit created in the first half. Instead, it was another chance for Purdy to shine. He's about to face another tough challenge in the Chiefs' defense -- and prepare to hear a lot about how the Ravens dominated Purdy back in December -- but he looks more than ready for the moment.
3) Can the 49ers solve Kansas City's defense? For all the talk about the Ravens' defense, the Chiefs' defense wound up being the unit that dominated the AFC Championship Game. It amassed four sacks, three turnovers and thoroughly frustrated Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, a player on the verge of winning his second league Most Valuable Player award. How did Kansas City accomplish that? By using the same formula that has worked for this bunch all season. The defensive line is relentless and led by a monstrous interior presence in All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones. The linebackers are versatile and athletic, and the secondary is adept at locking down receivers, largely because of the cornerback duo of L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie. When you combine such personnel with an aggressive, veteran defensive coordinator like Steve Spagnuolo, you create a lot of problems for opposing offenses. The Chiefs rattled Jackson with constant pressure and then forced him to hold the ball too long because he couldn't find open receivers downfield. In the rare instances when Baltimore did have opportunities to make key plays, it too often failed to execute or made crucial mistakes (such as wide receiver Zay Flowers fumbling at the goal line in the fourth quarter). The 49ers represent the most diverse offense the Chiefs will have seen this season, with San Francisco boasting weapons like McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. The question is whether that group -- which wasn't doing much of anything in the first half against Detroit -- can avoid the mistakes that plagued the Ravens on Sunday.
4) Can Kyle Shanahan outwit Andy Reid? The whole game probably comes down to this matchup. Reid has been stellar in the postseason, both with his preparation and play-calling. The Chiefs won in Buffalo in the Divisional Round by scoring 27 points in 23 minutes of possession. They did just enough to get the lead against Baltimore in the first half before playing like a team that wasn't going to beat itself in the final two quarters. The most impressive play call of the game was easily Reid’s decision to attempt a pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on third-and-9 that resulted in a game-clinching, 32-yard completion. Reid could've run the ball in that late-game situation, but he called the passing play with the belief that he could exploit man coverage in that situation. It was a ballsy decision made by a coach who had to check his ego this season, especially when he couldn't scheme up a way to maximize underperforming talent. Shanahan has been impressive in his own right this postseason. His teams have been known for clobbering opponents when they get early leads and wilting when they trail big in the second half of games. That hasn't been the case in these playoffs. The 49ers have shown tremendous character and poise in handling adversity, which should serve them well in the Super Bowl. Shanahan also has plenty of demons to slay when it comes to this game. He was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta when the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead and lost to New England in Super Bowl LI. The 49ers also had a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl LIV when the Chiefs stormed back to win that contest, 31-20. Shanahan said after the NFC title game that this team has been built to win a title for a few years. It's time to find out if its coach is finally ready to make that happen.
5) Will Travis Kelce remind us once again that he still has plenty left in his tank? We already can expect to hear Kelce answering more questions in Las Vegas about his relationship with Taylor Swift than actual football topics. That comes with the territory he's been living in this season. The crazy thing is that his football journey has become far more interesting over the past month than most people likely expected. It seemed that age was finally catching up with the 34-year-old Kelce in the second half of the regular season. He had one touchdown reception in his final nine games and only 88 receiving yards combined in his final three contests. That was before he sat out the regular-season finale against the Chargers and recharged his batteries. Kelce now has 23 receptions for 262 yards and three touchdowns this postseason, and he just became the all-time receptions leader in postseason history on Sunday. It's true that he feasted on injury-depleted defenses against Miami and Buffalo, but the Ravens were plenty healthy. They even had a supposed cheat code in All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton to match up with Kelce at times. How did that work out? Kelce caught a touchdown pass against Hamilton on Kansas City's first series, and the Chiefs never trailed after that point. We all know the saying that Father Time is undefeated. Kelce clearly is playing like somebody who has no idea what that means.