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
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
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
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
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
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
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?