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Super Bowl LlV... how we Got Here

 

by jeff beyel
Super Bowl LIV is upon us and, arguably, the two best teams in football will be facing off against each other. Gone are most of the favorites of many pundits: The Baltimore Ravens and LeMar Jackson, the Tom Brady/Bill Bellicek Patriots, Drew Brees and the Saints, and the Aaron Rodgers' led Packers.
The run heavy Titans could not hold off the hard charging Chiefs, fell behind, and could not recover. Kirk Cousins and his Vikings could not play defense and they got trampled by San Francisco. The Houston Texans? Philadelphia and Carson Wentz? Seattle? Buffalo? All gone.

The questions are why were these clubs wiped out, why is San Francisco and Kansas City in the Super Bowl, and who will win the 54th edition of the event in Miami in two weeks?

Many, so called experts, espouse a myriad of mythical formulas and roll out tons of computer generated analytical and saber metric data. One expert will profess that a team must have a great pass rush from its defensive line; another will demand that a team must be able to defend the pass, and yet another will pontificate about how the game has "evolved" where any successful team must have a mobile quarterback who can keep plays alive. The analysis and predictions never end and neither do the results. The real key, however, are the main questions sited above: Why, Why, and Who?
Why were the Ravens, Patriots, Texans, Bills, and Titans eliminated from the AFC tournament? What happened to the Packers, Vikings, Saints, Seahawks, and the Eagles in the NFC? Let's examine each team shall we?

Patriots (12-4 1st in AFC East): I cannot tell you how many times I heard an expert hedge his or her bet with this line "I would never bet against Tom Brady and Bill Bellicek. I have seen this scenario too many times before..." Blah, blah, blah. Well, I did bet against them and I have never seen this scenario before! The Patriots led the entire NFL in interceptions with 25 and were tied for second in sacks with 47 so they clearly had the necessary ingredients on defense checked off correct? Well, what happened is much lauded Titan QB Ryan Tannehill threw the ball a whole 15 times while Derrick Henry stomped over every Patriot in sight. This was an obvious offensive game plan and it worked brilliantly. But was that the real factor? No. Upon a careful examination, one will see that the :Patriots simply could not consistently convert on 3rd down, losing that battle 38% to Tennessee's 50%. They did not convert on 3rd downs.

Buffalo Bills (10-6 2nd in AFC East): Yes, they lost and all we heard about was the play(s) of Texan QB Deshaun Watson. Ugh. This was a down to the wire contest eventually won by Houston, 22-19. But, again, when we check all the data we see that Watson was sacked 7 times, that Buffalo actually threw for more yards, and that both teams ran the ball pretty well against each other. But, again, when one checks the third down conversion rates, one will see that Buffalo converted 52% of the time compared to Houston's healthy 46%! In this case, both teams did well on 3rd down leading to a nail biter of a game.

Houston Texans (10-6 1st in AFC South): A week after winning their nail biter against Buffalo, the Texans converted on 3rd down just 33% of the time, gave up 5 sacks, and were penalized 7 times. While it is true the Chiefs converted on only 25% of their third downs, the fact is Kansas City was rarely in a third down situation scoring touchdowns on drives of 2, 3, 3, and 4 plays. It seems evident that head coach Andy Reid is well aware of the problems teams must confront when consistently placed into third down positions (more on this fact in the later game prediction segment).

Baltimore Ravens (14-2 1st in AFC North): After a few weeks had unfurled, all we hear about was how QB Lemar Jackson and coach John Harbaugh had revolutionized the game. That Jackson was the prototype for how future signal callers would have to look etc.. Good luck finding a quarterback out there with that type of athleticism and 40 time and, of course, keeping that player healthy while also having a backup in the same mold...That being said, the Ravens had the second best 3rd down conversion rate in the NFL during the regular season at 47% and even converted a staggering 61% of the time while piling up an incredible 530 yards of offense in their perplexing 20-12 loss to the Titans! Losing the game is one thing, but to post these types of numbers and tally just 12 points is nearly impossible. Again, though, upon careful examination of the game, we see that Baltimore was stopped, not once, not twice, not three times but some 4 times on 4th down! And, of course, that would obviously mean that they did not convert on the third down plays prior to those fateful miscues.

Tennessee Titans (9-7 2nd in AFC South): This team quickly became the darling squad of so many supporters. The ole "street fighters" label was placed upon their mantel after stunning (not really) wins over New England and Baltimore. But, guess what? In their AFC Championship tilt with Kansas City, they took a 17-7 lead before getting utterly demolished and losing, 35-24. In that one, the Titans converted on just 30% of their third down ventures.

And what about the NFC teams that were eliminated you ask?

Philadelphia Eagles (9-7 1st in NFC East): Ugh. QB Carson Wentz was simply coroneted during his team's "run" to the playoffs and some have pointed to his early departure of the wildcard loss to Seattle due to injury as a major reason for defeat. We will never know the validity of that claim but we do know that the Eagles converted at a woeful 27% rate in that defeat.

New Orleans Saints (13-3 1st in NFC South): True, it was amazing how a 13-3 team even ended up in a wild card situation but there they were. Countless prognosticators selected these Saints to win it all pointing to some mystical impact the Saints home field supposedly had or how the noise would win the day. The silence inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome following the crushing reality of defeat spoke volumes to that concept. The saints converted just 36% of their third downs.

Minnesota Vikings (10-6 2nd in NFC North): We had listened to the intriguing debates about Viking QB Kirk Cousins and have been listening to these same debates since his successful days with the Redskins. The facts are that Cousins has always been good and will remain so. But , in the Vikings' 27-10 ripping by the 49ers in the Divisional contest, Minnesota was a horrendous 16% on third down conversions!

Seattle Seahawks (11-5 2nd in NFC West): Seattle is a perennial pain in the neck. Each season we are inundated with information centered around the, seemingly, God-like skills of QB Russell Wilson. One would think that Seattle has 1 player and he plays 1 against 22 each game! It is true that they lost their top running backs and had to reach into yesteryear and snag retired RB Marshawn Lynch in some bizarre idea that "Beastmode" would silently resurface. 12 carries for 34 yards and a pathetic 2.8 YPC average later, it is safe to say this insane move failed miserably. Still, Seattle converted 33% of the time compared to Green Bay's 64%.

Green Bay Packers (13-3 1st NFC North): Poor, poor, poor Aaron Rodgers and the other 52 rarely mentioned members of the Green Bay Packers. One week after winning the third won battle against the Seahawks, they convert only 33% of the time and go down to defeat.

So, this beings me to Super Bowl LIV...

It is always hard to try to break down teams. Lord knows, by the time the game is actually played, the favorite ice cream flavor of some third string offensive linemen will have become come household knowledge. Andy Reid and his Kansas City Chiefs seem to be acutely aware of the dilemma third downs present. Their offense is, correctly, viewed as a quick strike attack that can find the end zone in a matter of seconds. All of this is true. Checking how Kansas City performed during the regular season, they were tied for third in the FEWEST third downs attempted behind Washington and Tennessee and even with the Ravens! Of those top 4 teams, though, Kansas City reigned supreme converting 48% of the time followed by Baltimore at 47% and Tennessee at 38%. San Francisco, by the way, was tied for 4th at an excellent 45% conversion rate.
So, both KC and San Fran are, basically, equal when it comes to 3rd down conversion rates. However, Kansas City and their quick strike concepts faced 187 3rd down situations contrasted to the Niners' 200. While this number might not seem much, consider that this amounts to nearly 1 more third down situation per game.
San Francisco finished 2nd in the NFL in defensive third down conversion rates at 33% while Kansas City came in at #12 at 37% so both teams have been consistently good on that down but, in terms of time of possession, the Chiefs actually allow opponents to control the ball over 50% of the time at 30:33 TOP per game which was 18th in the league while San Francisco was 7th at 29:00 TOP per game. Much of the Chiefs' stats, though, reflect their string desire to stay away from 3rd downs with their quick strike, deep ball and super athletic offense and that is where this game will be won or lost.


Kansas City: The stats tell us that KC wants to score, score fast, and avoid third down. TE Travis Kelce has been a playoff monster but was the club's top receiver all year long hauling in a team high 97 balls for 1129 yards and 5 TDs. That total reflects an average of over 6 receptions per game! Super speedster Tyreek Hill had 58 catches with 7 TDs and a 14.8 average and his post-season stats are about the same. The main X-factor has to be second wide Sammy Watkins. This guy never has gotten the credit he probably deserves. He averaged 15.1, 17.5, 15.4, and 15.2 YPR during his four seasons with Buffalo and the Rams but has seen those numbers cut to 13 and 12.9 YPR in his two campaigns with the Chiefs. The fact is, though, Sammy Watkins is a major deep ball threat at any time and at 6'1" 211 lbs he is a big time matchup problem for any #2 CB or a slower safety. In these playoffs, it has been Watkins, and not Hill, that has been a massive game changer with 9 receptions for 190 yards and a stunning 21.1 YPR average!
How can San Francisco combat the three quick strike elements the Chiefs possess knowing that KC simply wants to avoid third downs?

CB Ahkello Witherspoon has to be considered the most stressed player on the Niner's team. At 6'3" he is a very tall player but at 195lbs he is very light meaning he could get overpowered in close quarter plays. Interestingly enough, though, it is the very type plays where he would struggle that the Chiefs usually do not utilize! On top of Witherspoon's obvious height weapon, consider he had an eye popping 40.5" vertical leap at the 2017 combine which was the best among all CBs. His combination of natural height, awesome vertical leap, and 4.45 speed make him ideal to cover either the #1 or #2 wide receiver allowing the Niners a lot of defensive flexibility. 31 year old Richard Sherman is listed as the opposite CB...Like Witherspoon, Sherman is big at 6'3" and a bit light at 195 lbs making him and Witherspoon, oddly, near clones of each other physically. However, it is doubtful Sherman runs as fast as he did 9 years ago now having to use his experience along with his physical tools to make plays. Still, these two corners, along with a big and physical tandem of safeties, is considerably larger than the secondaries the Chiefs have faced thus far. The Titans. for example, came with Adoree Jackson and Logan Ryan. Jackson is 5'11" 185lbs while Ryan is listed 5'11" 195lbs. Neither of those two have anywhere near the size that San Francisco brings to the table.

It can be expected that Hill and Watkins are going to make some big plays but the possibility of throwing the ball up for grabs around the end zone or trying to win any leap ball type plays probably will be ineffective in this game. That gets us back to TE Travis Kelce. At 6'5" 260 pounds, with great hands, and among the fastest tight-ends (if not the fastest) in the NFL, Kelce is nearly impossible to cover. He led the team in catches during the regular season and has continued to do so in the post-season. I really see no player on the 49er roster that can play with this guy so I do expect him to have a big day. It is my guess that KC moves Kelce further downfield on some of his routes to escape the lightening quick speed of San Francisco's line backer corps and then hoping QB Patrick Mahomes can freeze those same line backers from dropping back into coverage by moving outside the pocket and allowing Kelce to slip behind them for big plays.
A concern for Kansas City has to be their running game, or more accurately, their lack of one. RB Damien Williams has been mostly ineffective rushing 29 times for 92 yards (3.2 YPC). he has gotten into the offense a lot, however, with 7 catches for 65 yards and his ability to float into passing zones is a troubling problem for San Francisco. Still, this all gets down to whether or not the Chiefs can just keep doing what they have been doing which is moving the ball fast and efficiently downfield on first and second downs and, consequently, avoid third downs.

San Francisco: The Niners, like every other team, have some major matchup problems with the super fast Chiefs and there does not seem to be any answer for that speed especially with Kelce. San Fran's secondary is big and talented and they hit hard but it is much harder to hit what one cannot catch and it is just as hard to hit a 260 lb rambling wreck like Kelce once he gets the ball into his hands. This reality might force the Niners more into a zone/man defensive posture but my experience tells me that teams that get to the Super Bowl believe, at this stage, that they are the best team on earth and that what they have done up to this point will work in the final game as well. So, I am not sure I see San Francisco changing much in this one and that likely means Kelce has another big game.
Another key element of this game is the simply stated facts from above: Kansas City does not get into a lot of third downs. That fact, if the trend continues in this one, means that obvious passing situations will not occur thus taking some pieces like Nick Bosa off the field more than desired. Bosa has a team high 3 sacks but mostly when the Niners can really get after the quarterback. If KC does not have a lot of second and long or third downs period, Bosa gets limited in his effectiveness.
Offensively, I doubt San Francisco can even come close to matching the Chiefs point for point if this one becomes a shootout in the manner of the type game Kansas City has been involved in so far in the playoffs. I do not believe the Kansas City defense is going to play any better than it has so far. It will perform well but I do not see that unit shutting the door completely on a Niner team that has shown it can run the ball and pass it if necessary. That being said, the KC defense only needs to be good enough to allow the offense to outscore the opponent.

Final Analysis: The Chiefs seems an near impossible team to stop scoring but the reality is they have no choice but to throw the ball and attack with big play efficiency. They have been deadly at doing this but the entire offensive concept is much more fragile than meets the eye. If the Chiefs can be compelled into longer drives with a necessity to convert on third downs often, they will be in trouble real fast. They do not have a running game and will not in this one as well and San Francisco knows this. That means the four players mentioned earlier, Kelce, Watkins, Hill, and Williams will all have to contribute mightily if they wish to keep scoring as much as they have. I think it is very possible that San Francisco can limit the big plays downfield to Hill and Watkins with their height and speed matching up well. If the KC wides have to run more crossing routes then the quick strike attack begins to dissolve. On the other hand, if they are also forced to run longer deeper routes to create separation then QB Mahomes may have to do a lot more scrambling than he desires against a SF defense that can flat out hunt him down.
In the end, this one is fairly easy to dissect. Kelce will probably have a big game, Hill and Watkins will make some big plays but, if the WRs cannot make TD type plays and KC is forced into small red zone quarters, the only real weapon left will be Kelce.
I see Mahomes having to scramble and run more in this one. San Francisco is not a scoring machine and cannot get into a shootout and win. Going out on a big limb here and pick Niners to limit the KC wide receivers, give up a lot to Kelce but stuff the run, get a few sacks or drive killing holding penalties, and win a very tight and exciting Super Bowl LIV, 27-24?
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
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