With apologies to Packers and Titans supporters, the vast majority of football fans I spoke to over the past week wanted a Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl. After two impressive home victories on Championship Sunday, we're going to get that dream matchup. It's Kyle Shanahan versus Andy Reid. Richard Sherman versus Tyrann Mathieu. Patrick Mahomes versus a dominant 49ers running game and the occasional pass from Jimmy Garoppolo. There are so many fun matchups to break down over the next two weeks.
The conference title games also served as Redemption Sunday. Players and coaches on both of the winning teams had something to prove in their attempts to get to or get back to a Super Bowl. While the ultimate goal is winning the Lombardi trophy, these individuals took a huge leap toward rewriting their own story and overcoming their past.
Let's take a closer look at 10 of them and how they took one step toward a Super Bowl redemption, starting with a future Hall of Famer who has one missing item on his résumé:
Andy Reid, coach, Chiefs
I probably don't need to remind you too much of Reid's playoff résumé. One of just eight coaches in NFL history with 200 wins, Reid is just behind Marty Schottenheimer, who went 5-13 in the playoffs and never won a Super Bowl. Reid's 14-14 record is clearly better, but for a decade, it seemed like he would never make it back after losing in his lone Super Bowl appearance during the 2004 season.
Reid was 1-5 in conference title games before Sunday, and while the longtime Eagles coach seemed to revitalize his career after moving to Kansas City, his Chiefs lost playoff games in even more heart-wrenching fashion. They blew a 38-10 third-quarter lead to the Colts and lost 45-44. A game-tying two-pointer against the Steelers was called back for holding, and they eventually failed in an 18-16 loss. After blowing a 21-3 halftime lead to Marcus Mariota and the Titans in the 2017 playoffs, the Chiefs installed Patrick Mahomes as the starting quarterback and came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter the next year to tie the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, only to lose in overtime without ever touching the ball.
And Sunday, it was easy to imagine a scenario in which the Chiefs' defense would be run over by Derrick Henry as significant home favorites for yet another AFC Championship Game defeat for the 61-year-old Reid. After going down 10-0 in a matter of minutes, though, the Chiefs dominated offensively. With the Titans running off several long drives to start the game, Kansas City had only eight meaningful possessions on offense, turning those into five touchdowns.
After a pass-happy attack led the Chiefs to seven consecutive touchdowns in their comeback win over the Texans, Reid responded in the first half by leaning heavily on his passing game. He and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy dialed up just four designed runs across 27 first-half plays. Mahomes went 14-of-20 passing for 172 yards and two touchdowns before adding a third on a spectacular scramble through the Titans' defense. The star quarterback finished the day with as many rushing first downs (four) as Henry.
Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees responded after halftime by dropping his defensive backs off the line of scrimmage, playing more zone and daring the Chiefs to run the ball into friendly boxes. Kansas City did just that with a Titans-esque drive of 13 plays that lasted just over seven minutes and included 10 runs for a total of 49 yards, ending with a Damien Williams touchdown run. The Titans had stuffed the Patriots and Ravens in short yardage and held them to two touchdowns on seven red zone trips, but the Chiefs converted seven short-yardage plays with their runs and scored touchdowns on two of their red zone possessions during the game.
There were two remaining critical third downs left for the Chiefs in the fourth quarter, and Bieniemy and Reid used them to dial up shot plays. First, Sammy Watkins shook off an attempted hold by overmatched Titans cornerback Tramaine Brock and marched downfield for a 60-yard touchdown. On the second, the Chiefs isolated Brock against speedy rookie Mecole Hardman and drew a 49-yard pass interference penalty to essentially seal the contest.
Reid has always been a beloved figure within the NFL, and his offensive ideas have been hugely influential around the league for decades. Now, he's one win from finally claiming the one thing his detractors can say Reid lacks: a Super Bowl win as a head coach.
Kyle Shanahan, coach, 49ers
I have to admit that I've never agreed with the criticism of Shanahan's playcalling from that fateful night in Houston. There were plenty of reasons the Falcons blew their 28-3 lead, but the Atlanta offensive coordinator's playcalling wasn't the issue. After going up 28-3, the Falcons were still competent on offense, but their line collapsed. After Tevin Coleman ran for a yard on second-and-2, they allowed a strip sack of Matt Ryan on third-and-1. Jake Matthews committed two critical holding penalties to blow up two other drives, including one that knocked the Falcons out of what would have been game-sealing field goal range with 3:50 to go. A gassed Falcons defense gave up 31 points on five drives. You can argue that they should have run the ball on that third-and-1, but I don't think Shanahan was high on the list of problems with that team, as the Falcons have revealed quite clearly over the ensuing years.
If you thought that Shanahan didn't run the ball frequently enough to seal up that would-be Super Bowl victory over the Patriots, though, he heard you loud and clear. In Shanahan's first playoff run since that dramatic collapse, he has sealed up both of his team's victories by calling a staggering number of run plays. Since Jimmy Garoppolo threw an interception at the end of the first half against the Vikings in the divisional round, the 49ers coach has dialed up 71 running plays against just 17 pass dropbacks for his $27.5 million-per-year quarterback.
Shanahan isn't doing this as a conscious reaction to that Falcons defeat. When asked about the run-heavy offense after the game, he had a simple response. "If it's working," the 40-year-old said, "you stay with it." There will be no argument from me here; as I'll get to in a moment, the 49ers were running at a historic clip against the Packers on Sunday night and had little reason to throw the ball.
What is telling, though, is just how significant of a shift the 49ers made only after the Garoppolo interception. Before the pick, Shanahan had called close to a 50-50 split against the Vikings, with 17 runs against 15 pass dropbacks. Garoppolo nearly threw an interception earlier in that game before giving one to the Vikings when he failed to recognize Eric Kendricks undercutting his receiver's route. He nearly threw another interception in the first half against the Packers when Kevin King broke on the football.
In a way, what the 49ers are doing isn't much different from what the Titans did with Ryan Tannehill during the first two games of their postseason run, when Tennessee loaded up on running plays and Tannehill averaged 80 passing yards per contest. When the Titans ran into an offensive juggernaut and needed to keep pace in a shootout with the Chiefs, Tannehill & Co. weren't able to keep up (though they delivered arguably their best offensive performance of the postseason given field position).
Now, of course, it's Garoppolo who might end up in a shootout with Mahomes and that Chiefs offense. We've seen the 49ers rely on Garoppolo for big games this season, most notably when he threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns in the 48-46 thriller over the Saints, but it's clearly not where the 49ers want to go on offense. The Chiefs' weakness is clearly on the ground, and Shanahan will likely try to press the Chiefs there before reluctantly relying on Garoppolo if necessary in Miami.
One thing to keep in mind after all that, though: While I don't think Shanahan was particularly bad at managing the game against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, I also think he left the door open for the Packers here. He kicked a field goal up 17-0 on fourth-and-2 from the 9-yard line in the second quarter, which isn't very far off from what Bill O'Brien did last week. I'm sure people will want to claim that the Packers' offense wasn't going to do what the Chiefs' offense did, but they had just driven the ball 50 yards into scoring range before turning the ball over on an aborted snap.
It didn't matter much, because Aaron Rodgers threw an interception and the 49ers scored a touchdown to go up 27-0, but this game could have been a lot closer in the second half without that touchdown that Shanahan couldn't have expected was coming. At 34-13, the 49ers -- who were producing one of the best running performances in recent football history -- took a delay of game and then punted on fourth-and-1 from the Packers' 39-yard line. Rodgers quickly scored to get things to 34-20 before the 49ers closed things out. Maybe Shanahan manages it differently if the game is slightly closer, but those are two suboptimal decisions, especially when you consider how dominant the 49ers were as a running team on Sunday. If he continues to make choices like that against the Chiefs, they might turn out to be much more meaningful.
Tyrann Mathieu, safety, Chiefs
Mathieu has certainly had a successful football career, but even he would admit it has been star-crossed. In 2011, he broke out in an incredible sophomore season for LSU, only for the Tigers to lose in the BCS National Championship. Mathieu was dismissed from the team that August and never played a down of college football again.
After being drafted by the Cardinals, Mathieu excelled during his rookie season in 2013, only to tear his ACL. Two years later, he was in the middle of an All-Pro campaign for a 13-3 Cardinals team, only to tear his other ACL in December. The Cards sorely missed Mathieu in a blowout loss to the Panthers in the postseason, and they haven't made it back since. Mathieu returned to the playoffs with the Texans last season, only to struggle in a 21-7 loss in which Mathieu was in coverage on an early touchdown pass and juked badly on a 29-yard Marlon Mack run.
Even while teams had offered Mathieu only one-year deals the previous offseason, the Chiefs made a major investment by giving him a three-year, $42 million deal to replace Eric Berry as their star safety. (Berry, cut shortly after the Mathieu signing, did not play football this season.) Mathieu has responded with his most productive season since that 2015 campaign. He made himself conspicuous during Sunday's victory, laying out Corey Davis for a loss and breaking up a pass on Tennessee's last meaningful drive to A.J. Brown.
In my early thoughts on the 49ers-Chiefs matchup, it's difficult to imagine the Chiefs winning without getting a significant game from their star safety. Mathieu's excellent instincts and wide range of skills are going to be critical in diagnosing the 49ers' run game and holding up in coverage against star tight end George Kittle. Mathieu's best seasons have ended in either injury or disappointment. Now, he finally has a chance to be a huge difference-maker in the biggest game of his life.
Richard Sherman, cornerback, 49ers
I would like to officially not participate in the ongoing Twitter war between Sherman and Darrelle Revis, who I believe to be two great cornerbacks who played different roles. Revis criticized Sherman on Twitter for staying on one side of the field and not traveling around the formation to go up against the opposing team's top receiver, which has generally been true. Sherman stayed on one side for virtually all of his time in Seattle, with one notable game in which he shadowed Anquan Boldin in 2013 as an exception.
In 2019, Sherman has stayed on his side of the field as the left cornerback, facing the right side of the opposing offense. Here's an NFL Next Gen Stats chart of where he lined up during the regular season:
This is where Richard Sherman lined up during the regular season. He lined up on the left side of the offense (right side of defense) twice across the first five offensive snaps for the Packers. pic.twitter.com/WYGbyOxTpl— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 19, 2020
As I mentioned in the tweet, though, Sherman lined up on the left side against Davante Adams on two of the first five snaps of Sunday's game. The 49ers seemed to almost do this as a threat to the Packers that they shouldn't simply leave Adams on the left side of the field in the hopes that Sherman wouldn't move with him. After the corner lined up on the left side for four of Green Bay's first 10 snaps, he took just one snap on the left side of the defense over the ensuing 51 plays.
Adams eventually got Sherman for a 65-yard gain on a go route, but the veteran cornerback responded with an interception of Rodgers on Green Bay's final offensive snap of the game. That long completion came on Sherman's normal side of the field, and Adams basically flip-flopped back and forth between sides of the field, so Matt LaFleur didn't think much about keeping Adams away from Sherman, didn't want to adjust his offense, or didn't think there was much benefit to separating Adams from San Francisco's No. 1 corner.
The long catch by Adams was the first completion Sherman allowed all season on a throw traveling 20 air yards or longer as the nearest defender in coverage. He has been excellent, and it has served as an incredible example for players who are recovering from Achilles injuries. He has re-emerged as a legitimate elite cornerback on one of the league's best defenses.
Sunday's win gives Sherman a chance to get past what happened at the end of the game in Phoenix during Super Bowl XLIX and the most famous interception in title game history, an issue that reportedly became a huge point of contention for him during his final days in Seattle. He was carted off during the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory against the Broncos with a high ankle sprain. Now, a healthy Sherman has the opportunity to finally get that second ring. And given what we've seen from the playcalling the past couple of weeks under Shanahan, I would expect the 49ers to run the football if they get near the goal line.
Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Chiefs
It wouldn't be harsh to suggest that Watkins has been a disappointment for virtually his entire NFL career. After the Bills traded away a future first-round pick to move up and grab Watkins with the fourth pick of the 2014 draft, the Clemson star struggled to stay healthy before the Sean McDermott administration shipped him off to the Rams. Watkins had 593 receiving yards in the first year of the Sean McVay era, but the Rams let him leave and instead traded for Brandin Cooks.
Watkins signed a three-year, $48 million deal with the Chiefs in free agency, but he has again struggled to impress. He averaged just under 52 receiving yards per game in 2018, and after racking up 198 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the opening week win over the Jaguars, Watkins failed to score a touchdown over the remainder of the regular season while averaging just over 36.5 receiving yards per game. It looked like he was playing out this season with the Chiefs before being released from his deal next offseason.
Instead, Watkins responded Sunday with his best game since that Week 1 performance, racking up 114 yards and a touchdown, including a 60-yard strike from Mahomes in the fourth quarter. The Titans had no answer for Watkins' physicality, as he simply tossed Tramaine Brock to the side and sprinted upfield for a score. Throw in 76 yards against the Texans, and the only receiver who went through the AFC side of the bracket with more receiving yards than Watkins' 190 is DeAndre Hopkins at 208. Watkins is averaging 17.2 receiving yards per target, more than any other receiver in the league with 40 or more routes run during the postseason.
Just about anything is on the table for Watkins in the Super Bowl. He could get lost in the shuffle as part of the Chiefs' trips packages across from Travis Kelce and get sacrificed to Richard Sherman when the Chiefs want to try to spread their receivers out. Watkins could instead prove to be a size/speed mismatch for someone like Emmanuel Moseley or Ahkello Witherspoon downfield. After spending much of the season looking like he was anonymously floating toward a departure, Watkins has done enough this postseason to either earn his spot back with the team in 2020 or on a new multiyear deal somewhere else. He could add to that resurgence with a big game in Miami.
Raheem Mostert, running back, 49ers
Think about everything that had to happen for Mostert to do what he did on that stage Sunday night. Six different teams had to cut him without giving the Purdue back as much as a single regular-season carry. The 49ers brought him on to their roster as a special-teamer and third-string running back in 2016, but even they didn't believe he could be an impactful runner.
Mostert likely kept his roster spot in 2017 because the 49ers didn't have to carry fourth-round pick Joe Williams, a size/speed demon out of Utah. The 49ers traded up to grab Williams in the fourth round after Shanahan reportedly insisted that the team move up for the inexperienced runner. Williams had a terrible rookie camp, hit injured reserve and then lost a battle to Mostert for a roster spot in 2018 before being released. He never took an NFL snap, and the Colts used one of the picks the 49ers sent them to move up on a starting runner in Marlon Mack.
The following offseason, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch went into free agency and signed Jerick McKinnon to a four-year deal, only for the former Vikings backup to tear his ACL. McKinnon would have been ahead of Mostert on the depth chart for touches, but he hasn't played a snap for the 49ers and will likely be released after collecting more than $21 million from the organization. This spring, the 49ers added to their collection of backs by signing Tevin Coleman to a two-year pact.
The organization did see enough in Mostert to sign him to a three-year extension this March, but he was only expected to serve as a rotation back while focusing on special-teams duties. He instead averaged 5.6 yards per carry and posted the league's ninth-best Success Rate on 137 carries. The Niners promised to give Mostert a bigger role later in the campaign, but he carried the ball more than 15 times just once all season. Even as recently as the divisional round, he missed a series in the first half with a calf cramp and the 49ers inserted Coleman. When Coleman played well, the 49ers didn't bother to put Mostert back in.
On Sunday, when Coleman suffered a shoulder injury, it was Mostert's turn to become the hot hand. He and the 49ers' rushing offense delivered the game of a lifetime. He carried the ball 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns. Mostert ran for the second-most yards for any player in a playoff game since 1950, and he became the first back in playoff history to accrue 200 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the same game.
The 49ers finished with 42 carries for 285 yards and four touchdowns as a team, which is about as dominant as a running game can get. To put this into a more advanced context, the 49ers' running game generated an even 16 expected points added (EPA) to San Francisco's ledger on Sunday night. That's the second-best rushing performance by any team in a single game this season.
In terms of the playoffs, ESPN has EPA data going back through 2007, and no team had ever racked up 16 rushing EPA before the 49ers did it on Sunday. The previous record-holder is a game that will be familiar to 49ers fans ... and Packers fans, too. In the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs, the 49ers ran the ball 43 times for 323 yards and four touchdowns, with Colin Kaepernick leading the way. The 49ers star threw for 263 yards and a touchdown but more famously added 181 rushing yards and two scores, including a game-winning 56-yarder in the third quarter.
Frank Gore also added a 100-yard game that day. It was almost all Mostert on Sunday. With Coleman nursing a shoulder injury, his status for the Super Bowl is uncertain. Mostert is likely to be the starting running back in the Super Bowl for his seventh NFL team. He's lucky to be in a scheme that has made stars out of previously anonymous running backs for decades, but on Sunday, the 49ers sure seemed lucky to have him.
Mike Person, guard, 49ers
There's another cool story lurking on the 49ers' roster in the former seventh-round pick who has played for several teams. Person was cut by the 49ers in 2012, the Seahawks in 2013 and the Falcons in 2016. Shanahan must have remembered him from Atlanta and brought him to San Francisco for offensive line depth, but Person won one of the starting guard spots in 2018 and hasn't let go.
The 49ers have Person, a former draft bust in fellow guard Laken Tomlinson and a former backup center in Ben Garland all starting on the interior. They're all playing at a high level right now, and they just helped Mostert produce one of the best single-game performances in league history.
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Chiefs
While the Chiefs' first-year defensive coordinator already has his ring after famously slowing down the 18-0 Patriots as Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLII, it was (too) easy to chalk up that game plan to a dominant Giants front four. How much brilliance could it have taken to unleash Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck on an overmatched Patriots offensive line?
Spagnuolo's résumé since leaving New York hasn't been impressive. He went 10-38 in a dismal three-year stint as Rams coach, was one-and-done as Saints defensive coordinator in the year Sean Payton sat out for a suspension, and had a middling three-year stint as the Giants' coordinator. In seven seasons, he had one great year (2016, when the Giants signed a bunch of free agents and they all stayed healthy) and four in which his defense ranked 26th or worse in points allowed per game. Chiefs fans were excited when the organization moved on from oft-frustrating defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, but Spagnuolo didn't seem like an inspiring hire.
After a bumpy start to the season, the Chiefs have improved dramatically under their new coordinator. After their Week 12 bye, they allowed a league-best 10.4 points per game. While the Texans scored 31 points in the divisional round, that number included a special-teams touchdown and a touchdown set up by a Tyreek Hill muffed punt that handed the Texans the ball at the 6-yard line.
On Sunday, the Chiefs did what the Patriots and Ravens couldn't by slowing down Henry. The bruising Titans back carried the ball 19 times for just 69 yards and four first downs. Henry never broke off one of the big gains he hit over the previous two weeks, and Spagnuolo's defense limited him to a season-low average of 1.4 yards after contact per carry. And while the Chiefs got star defensive tackle Chris Jones back, they mostly saved him for passing downs; midseason additions Mike Pennel and Terrell Suggs were instead the ones making plays in the running game for Spagnuolo's defense.
The Chiefs also became the first defense in months to give the Titans problems in the red zone. Tennessee had converted an unreal 89% of its red zone trips into touchdowns since Ryan Tannehill took over, including all five of its postseason trips, but the Chiefs held the Titans to a field goal on their first trip. After an early Henry touchdown, the Chiefs actually had the Titans dead to rights for another field goal, only for Bashaud Breeland to inexplicably commit pass interference on a checkdown well short of the sticks. The Titans then scored a touchdown, but two out of three is still much better than what the rest of the league had done against Henry & Co.
Spagnuolo once had his work cut out for him in stopping one of the greatest passing attacks the league has ever seen in a Super Bowl. Now he'll need to slow down a historic running game with a defense that ranked 29th in DVOA against the run during the regular season. If he can pull it off, he'll technically become the first person to win Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator of two different teams, since Bill Belichick was never officially the coordinator for any of the Patriots' victories. It would be an impressive feat for a coach who a year ago looked like he might never be a defensive coordinator again.
Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, 49ers
Has anyone done more to advance their reputation this season than the 49ers' defensive coordinator? No one would have faulted the 49ers if they had fired Saleh after his first two seasons at the helm, given that his defenses ranked 26th and 23rd in defensive DVOA those years. The Seattle defensive structure Saleh was running on a regular basis had fallen out of vogue after the Falcons and Jaguars collapsed on defense. If the 49ers had gone after a veteran like Vance Joseph or Steve Wilks, nobody would have faulted them.
Instead, the 49ers kept the faith with Saleh, who shifted his defensive philosophy. They hired defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and incorporated more wide-nine defensive fronts to try to get new pass-rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa out on the edge to attack offensive tackles. They imported Ford, signed Kwon Alexander to what amounted to a big one-year deal and trusted that their secondary would regress toward the mean after somehow coming away with a NFL record-low two interceptions in 2018.
They've obviously improved dramatically, as only the Patriots had a higher DVOA in 2019. The defense slipped during the second half when it lost guys like Alexander, Ford and Jaquiski Tartt to injuries, and it has a weak spot at corner across from Sherman, but Saleh has done a wonderful job of getting this defense to work together. Watching the 49ers sniff out screens or successfully pattern-match attempts to flood their zone coverages is a thing of beauty. The pass rush can be inconsistent, but when it's on (as it was against the Vikings last week or against the Packers earlier this year), the defense is unstoppable.
Saleh has gone from a guy who could have been fired to a guy who probably should have a head-coaching job waiting for him when the playoffs end. If the 49ers do win a Super Bowl, you would have to hope that the 40-year-old will be one of the favorites to land a head-coaching gig after the 2020 season. The 49ers have plenty of talent, but veterans like Alexander look better here than they did in their old haunts, while the Niners have drafted and developed young talents like Bosa, Tartt and Fred Warner.
Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, 49ers
We all had that friend in our 20s who managed to get by and succeed solely because they were good-looking, and right now, that friend is Garoppolo. He was 6-of-8 passing for just 77 yards Sunday, throwing for three first downs while taking a terrible sack that nearly knocked the 49ers out of field goal range. His best play of the game might have been fielding a bad snap on third-and-8 and getting it to Raheem Mostert in time for his 36-yard touchdown run to start the scoring.
I'm being facetious here, but remember how far the public opinion of Garoppolo fell during the preseason? Making his return from a torn ACL on national television, Garoppolo went 1-of-6 for zero yards with a brutal interception. During that same week, he threw five consecutive interceptions during practice. There were reasonable questions about whether he would even be ready to play at a meaningful level in Week 1.
Instead, Garoppolo silenced the critics and got better as the season went along. The 49ers haven't needed him much during the postseason and probably don't want to rely on him to throw 50 times in Super Bowl LIV, but he has been an effective quarterback throwing off of play-action and taking shots downfield, which is what Shanahan needs him to do. Garoppolo isn't Tom Brady, and he's not the MVP version of Matt Ryan whom Shanahan had in 2016, but he's probably a better version of Matt Schaub, whom Shanahan had during his time in Houston. The 49ers have enough around Garoppolo to win a Super Bowl in two weeks.