Super Bowl LIV was decided by two third downs. The first was the absolute nadir of Kansas City's hopes, when ESPN estimates the Chiefs held just a 3.9% chance of winning their first title in 50 years. Facing a third-and-15 with 7:13 to go in the fourth quarter down 20-10, the Chiefs desperately needed a big play from Patrick Mahomes, who had thrown his second interception of the game on the prior drive. Punting the ball back to the 49ers might have let San Francisco bleed the clock and produce a game-killing touchdown.
Instead, Mahomes hit Tyreek Hill on a 44-yard bomb, as the Chiefs dialed up a play that they hit for a big gain on third-and-15 in last year's AFC Championship Game against the Patriots.
After scoring one touchdown on their first six drives, the Chiefs woke up and scored a touchdown on that drive and the following one. In the course of 12 offensive plays, they went from trailing 20-10 with a win expectancy of 3.9% to leading 24-20 with a win expectancy of 77.7%. After nearly collapsing, they became the first team in Super Bowl history to score 21 points on offense in the fourth quarter and only needed half of the quarter to do it.
The other key third down came on the subsequent 49ers drive. It would be easy to say that the 49ers were shell-shocked after blowing their lead, but they quickly picked up 41 yards on three offensive plays to move the ball into Kansas City territory. On a third-and-10 with 1:40 to go, Jimmy Garoppolo tried to win the game. Kyle Shanahan dialed up what is known as a Mills concept, named after the early '90s Florida receiver who caught a series of touchdown passes as the deep post receiver under Steve Spurrier, who popularized the route combination in his offense.
It called for Kendrick Bourne to run a crossing route and Emmanuel Sanders to run a deep post. While Sanders appeared to be double-covered on routes breaking to either side at the sticks, Garoppolo saw that neither defender had any leverage to defend against the deep post. Some quarterbacks might have gone to the underneath read and tried to work to a seemingly open Bourne, but Garoppolo correctly saw that Sanders was going to come open and took his shot to win the game and threw before Sanders was even out of his break. The veteran wideout got a step and a half on the coverage, but Garoppolo missed the throw that would have defined his life by 2 yards.
If the Super Bowl was going to come down to two deep passes on third-and-long, it feels right that the Chiefs won this game 31-20. Anyone who isn't directly related to Garoppolo would take Mahomes to complete one deep pass with the game on the line over his rival from San Francisco. The reason the game came down to two deep passes, though, has much to do with the decisions each coach made to get into those situations. Part of the reason the Chiefs won Sunday was that Mahomes was better in a big moment than Garoppolo. An even bigger reason was that Andy Reid managed this game far better than Shanahan did.
Where not to blame Shanahan
Shanahan did it again. He just didn't do it the way you think. After his Falcons famously blew a 28-3 lead in the second half of Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, the highly regarded playcaller took some criticism for not running the ball enough to try to bleed the clock. On Sunday, Shanahan's 49ers held a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter and called 13 pass plays against just four runs, with Garoppolo going 3-of-11 for 36 yards with an interception and a fourth-down sack. Same old Shanahan. Right?
I'm not so sure. Let's start by going play-by-play through those decisions in the fourth quarter and try to see whether Shanahan made obvious mistakes.
• 49ers lead 20-10
First-and-10, SF 20, 11:57 to go in fourth quarter: Raheem Mostert runs for 6 yards. The 49ers run power for 6 yards. Everyone likes that.
Second-and-4, SF 26, 11:18 to go: Garoppolo hits George Kittle for 12 yards. Shanahan uses ghost motion and a fake end-around to create a throwing lane over the middle to Kittle for a first down. This is exactly what the 49ers do best. Nobody is complaining about this pass. Garoppolo, at this point, is 9-of-10 for 106 yards in the second half. He goes 2-of-10 for 24 yards and an interception the rest of the way.
First-and-10, SF 38, 10:37 to go: Mostert runs for 1 yard. The 49ers try to run power again and it gets blown up at the line of scrimmage for a modest gain.
Second-and-9, SF 39, 9:52 to go: An incomplete pass to Deebo Samuel. Is this a situation in which the 49ers could have run? It's possible, but second-and-9 is a terrible time to run if you want to pick up a first down. Reid, in fact, was being criticized during this game for running so frequently on second-and-long. Shanahan might have sent in a run here, but Garoppolo killed the play that was called at the line and went to a pass. Pressure from Anthony Hitchens caused Garoppolo to sail his throw to Samuel, but Garoppolo also had a wide-open Bourne in the flat and never got there in his progression.
Third-and-9, SF 39, 9:47 to go: Joe Staley picks up a false start. Oops.
Third-and-14, SF 34, 9:47 to go: Garoppolo scrambles for 3 yards. No one would criticize Shanahan for calling a pass on third-and-long. Under any circumstances, the clock wound just as much anyway, since Garoppolo scrambled.
• 49ers lead 20-17
First-and-10, SF 20, 6:06 to go: Mostert runs for 5 yards. The 49ers run a pin/pull sweep with Mostert. He nearly turns upfield for a bigger gain, but after center Ben Garland knocked Derrick Nnadi several yards to the side, Nnadi goes to a knee to stop sliding and then trips Mostert up. The Niners are doing exactly what America wants.
Second-and-5, SF 25, 5:27 to go: Chris Jones knocks down a pass at the line of scrimmage. This is the playcall that has come in for the most notable criticism. Why not run the ball again after you picked up 5 yards on first down? Well, the Chiefs were selling out to stop the run with eight men in or around the line of scrimmage. Let's see what Shanahan dialed up via our friends from NFL Next Gen Stats:
After the play fake, Garoppolo has his choice of two open receivers. One is a wide-open Samuel in the flat. The other is Garoppolo's first read and an easy pick: Kittle, who is being covered by 37-year-old edge rusher Terrell Suggs. That's a dream matchup for the 49ers and it's a much better opportunity than running into a loaded box solely to chew up clock. Jones bats down the pass at the line because bad things happen sometimes.
Third-and-5, SF 25, 5:23 to go: Garoppolo throws incomplete to Bourne. Could the 49ers have run the ball here? It's debatable, especially given that this is the same team that ran for a touchdown against an exotic front on third-and-8 in the NFC Championship Game. The Chiefs overload the left side and send a five-man pressure after Garoppolo. The 49ers go to their Arches concept with Kittle running an angle route. He is typically the primary read on this concept, and well, watch No. 85:
That's one of the best players on the planet, wide-open and ready to move the chains. Garoppolo instead seemed to be on different pages with Bourne, who ran a curl instead of a corner route. Either way, Bourne was covered and Garoppolo threw an incomplete pass. He was also hit in the head by Ben Niemann and should have drawn a roughing the passer call.
Of those eight plays, I can see maybe one play -- the third-and-5 -- where the 49ers might have conceivably preferred to run the ball. Their best receiver got open on that play and didn't see the ball. I also think that we'd be killing Shanahan for being too conservative if they had run the ball there, come up short and punted to Mahomes down three points with the game on the line when the Chiefs had just scored and were smelling blood.
• 49ers trail 24-20, 2:39 to go
I don't need to go play-by-play on this drive. The 49ers actually ran on the first play and handed the ball to Mostert for 17 yards, then tried to run again, only to be whistled for a false start. Garoppolo then completed two passes in a row -- his final two completions of the game -- to get the ball to the Kansas City 49-yard line with 1:49 to go.
The 49ers then went four-and-out with incomplete passes and a sack. Could they have run the ball with three timeouts in their pocket? They could have mixed in at least one run on first or second down. Garoppolo nearly threw a pick on second down, and I thought Shanahan might consider running on third-and-10 to throw the Chiefs off and/or set up an easier fourth down. Instead, the 49ers went with the deep post to Sanders that I mentioned earlier.
Damien Woody and Tim Hasselbeck explain how the tone of the game changed in the last 10 minutes, with Patrick Mahomes leading the Chiefs to victory.
• 49ers trail 31-20, 1:12 to go
The game is essentially over and the 49ers need to throw. Garoppolo throws twice, with Kendall Fuller picking off the second pass to clinch a Chiefs victory.
Shanahan called 17 plays in the fourth quarter. Six of them came after the two-minute warning with his team trailing, when teams almost always throw the football. Four of his calls were runs, one attempt was whistled away by a false start, and it looks like Garoppolo checked out of another. I can see potentially two plays in which the 49ers would regret not running the ball given the down and distance, and on both of those plays, they had their best player wide open and Garoppolo couldn't get him the football.
Asking Garoppolo to complete the Sanders throw is a lot. Asking him to hit Kittle on two short passes over the middle isn't too much to ask, even for a limited quarterback. I don't think Shanahan blew this win with his late-game playcalling, especially given that the Chiefs scored their second and third touchdowns so quickly. The 49ers simply didn't execute.
Where Shanahan went wrong
The mistakes Shanahan made that really hurt the 49ers were earlier in the game. I wrote about his conservative decision-making on fourth down during the playoffs in my game preview, but against the Vikings and Packers, those decisions hadn't mattered given San Francisco's dominance elsewhere. On Sunday, those decisions mattered, and they cost his team dearly.
Start with how Shanahan handled the end of the first half. After stopping the Chiefs on third-and-14 at midfield with 1:47 to go and the game tied at 10, he could have chosen to use his first timeout as his team prepared to get the ball back. Instead, despite general manager John Lynch signaling for a timeout from the executive suite, Shanahan let the clock run. The Chiefs punted at 1:08. Garoppolo handed the ball off at 59 seconds and the 49ers continued to let the clock run. Curiously, the Niners then snapped the ball with 15 seconds left on the play clock and 28 seconds on the game clock and handed the ball off again for a modest gain, leading the Chiefs to call timeout.
Then, suddenly, the 49ers kicked into gear. An angle route to Jeff Wilson went for 20 yards. Now interested, Shanahan dialed up a bomb to Kittle against Daniel Sorensen. Garoppolo hit him with a perfect pass for a 42-yard completion, only for the play to be called back for offensive pass interference. (For those asking, I thought it was a close call and could have gone either way, although I was surprised that Kittle was flagged in a game in which the referees mostly swallowed their whistles on big judgment calls.) Suitably chastened, the 49ers then kneeled and went to halftime.
After the game, Shanahan said he felt "really good at 10-10." That's the wrong way to think about things in a game in which the other team has shown a propensity for getting blindingly hot on offense with no notice and is expected to score more than 28 points in the game, even if you've slowed them down in the second quarter. It's the same lack of big-picture awareness Texans coach Bill O'Brien showed in kicking a field goal on fourth-and-short against the Chiefs in the divisional round.
Teams need to score as many points as they can, and while the 49ers might have turned the ball back over to the Chiefs with a three-and-out, Shanahan simply needed to have more faith in his offense given what it was going to need to do to win this game. The two big passing plays (or nearly big passing plays) the 49ers hit afterward showed otherwise. And if they wanted to just get into halftime without trying to score, why were they snapping the ball for a running play when time was running with 15 seconds left on the play clock? Why were they even handing the ball off at all? This was the worst of both worlds and a far more egregious set of mistakes from Shanahan.
On the first drive of the second half, Shanahan got conservative again. Facing a fourth-and-2 from the Kansas City 24-yard line, the 49ers coach chose to send out Robbie Gould to kick a 42-yard field goal. The San Francisco offense was averaging 7.6 yards per play at the time and had yet to punt in the game. Playing against the Chiefs isn't about field position. It's about possession. The only way a team can ensure Mahomes isn't about to score is by leaving him on the bench. By the Edjsports model, the decision to kick the field goal dropped the 49ers' win expectancy by 5%. It was clearly the wrong move at the time and only looked worse afterward.
Shanahan could have taken a lesson from his counterpart on the opposite sideline. Reid is hardly known for his decision-making in key moments, but he got two crucial calls right on Sunday. One made a huge difference in setting up the late-game scenario for the Chiefs to pull out their victory.
On Kansas City's second drive of the game, the offense drove into the red zone and Mahomes nearly scrambled for a first down, only for Jimmie Ward to knock the ball out of his hands and set up a fourth-and-1. Ward stayed down after the play and the Chiefs initially sent their field goal unit out to kick. Reid had a change of heart and instead sent his offense back onto the field to go for it. The Chiefs had four players in the backfield who each did a pirouette before getting into position for a direct snap to Damien Williams; as offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy noted after the game, this was a concept he borrowed from the 1948 Rose Bowl.
Williams converted the fourth down and the Chiefs scored on a speed option with Mahomes two plays later. In a game in which the Chiefs were going up against Shanahan, who was lauded for calling a lowly, simple trap on third-and-8 against the Packers, it was cool to see Reid and Bieniemy respond with a single-wing concept out of the 1940s and multiple option looks in short yardage. When you remember that the Chiefs won this game with an Air Raid quarterback, it was as if Reid was finally putting to sleep every dumb argument suggesting you can't use or rely on "gimmicky" college offenses and offensive players at the NFL level. (Those arguments have realistically been naive for years and won't go away.)
The Chiefs also went for it on fourth-and-1 in the red zone and succeeded on the next drive, although they didn't move the ball much after and kicked a field goal anyway. The four points Reid gained on the first drive, though, changed the complexion of the contest. We can't know whether the game would have gone the same way, but if it had, the Niners would have been driving in a tied game around the two-minute warning as opposed to trailing by four, which would have opened up the playbook in an entirely different way. Edjsports suggested that the two decisions increased Kansas City's chances of winning by a combined 6%.
While Reid has been a widely loved figure around the NFL for years, this win seals his status as a Hall of Famer. Even more, it should lock him in as one of the best coaches in NFL history. He's already seventh in regular-season wins (207) and 19th in winning percentage among coaches with at least 100 games. Only three coaches have taken their teams on more playoff runs, and only three coaches who have suited up for 10 or more seasons have taken their teams to the playoffs more frequently than Reid.
Realistically, Reid was so involved in the Eagles' Super Bowl win that they probably should have thrown their old coach a ring. He built the organization in his image during his time in Philadelphia and even delivered after leaving for Kansas City. Philadelphia's coach was Doug Pederson, who was Reid's offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Its quarterback was Nick Foles, whom Reid convinced to keep playing football when Foles was thinking about retiring.
Reid has also consistently been ahead of the schematic curve among NFL coaches. He took heat for throwing the ball around 60% of the time when he took over as Eagles coach in 1999. Now, the NFL as a whole throws the ball about 60% of the time. When Reid went to Kansas City, he hired Brad Childress to focus on spread concepts and brought in pistol creator Chris Ault as an adviser. The Chiefs use those ideas with Mahomes and have imported option concepts to take advantage of his athleticism.
Reid has always been a genius. He won a Super Bowl ring as a positional coach with the Packers, but now he can add a ring earned as a head coach to his collection. It's unfair to compare him to Bill Belichick, who might be the greatest coach who ever lived, but Reid is the second-best coach of his generation. At 61, he finally authored a Super Bowl title run to put the final doubters to rest. And he did it by out-coaching a guy who is quickly getting the reputation of coming up just short -- the same reputation Reid just shed with his win.
How to launch a Super Bowl comeback
While the Chiefs have seemingly gone into invincible mode on offense throughout the playoffs without warning, it's worth taking a closer look at their breakout in the fourth quarter. What happened to finally get this offense going for those three critical touchdowns? And how did Kansas City stop the 49ers?
The story goes through the guys who were the two best players on the field Sunday, and it revolves around pass pressure. I'll get to the second guy in a bit, but for most of this game, my MVP pick would have been Nick Bosa. While the 49ers controlled the line of scrimmage for most of this game, he had an absolutely dominant performance. He was a mismatch for left tackle Eric Fisher and repeatedly pressured Mahomes. Bosa finished with a 33.3% pass rush win rate, which was the third-highest win rate for any rusher in a game with 15 attempts or more during the postseason (his performance against the Vikings was No. 1).
During the scoreless three-drive sequence that started in the second quarter, the dominance of the 49ers' pass rush dramatically slowed the Chiefs' offense. Before their crucial third-and-15 conversion in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were 4-for-11 on third down, and just one of those conversions came via the pass. The 49ers pressured Mahomes on virtually every one of those failed tries, with Bosa leading the way. For a stretch, the best method the Chiefs had of moving the ball seemed to be swing passes to Damien Williams and moments when Arik Armstead would get undisciplined in his rush lanes across from Bosa and Mahomes would scramble to the uncontained side of the field for first downs.
The third-and-15 changed everything. The 49ers ran a twist on the left side of their line, spinning Bosa to the inside against Stefen Wisniewski and twisting DeForest Buckner (who also had a huge game) to the outside against Fisher. Buckner came free, but with Mahomes dropping back nearly 14 yards from the line of scrimmage, the superstar quarterback created just enough time to make his move. Buckner pressured him, but his throw was on time and hit Hill for a huge gain.
From that point forward, the pass rush wasn't the same. The Chiefs ran 13 plays after the Hill bomb. The 49ers pressured Mahomes twice, producing one throwaway and one completion to Travis Kelce. They did sack Mahomes (technically), but that was really a play in which he had chosen to run with the football on an option. Otherwise, he wasn't pressured and moved the ball up the field for two quick touchdowns.
The 49ers should have been concerned about what would happen if their pass rush slowed down. As I mentioned on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt last week, the 49ers' defense ranked second in QBR allowed during the first three quarters of the game when they had a lead of 10 points or fewer, but in the fourth quarter, with the pass rush presumably slowing down, that mark fell all the way to 27th. When the Chiefs were able to block the front four, Mahomes & Co. were able to make plays.
The three biggest plays of the night for the Chiefs all came in this final window. One was the 44-yard Hill catch. The second was the 38-yard pass to Sammy Watkins, which came isolated against Richard Sherman without safety help over the top. (Darrelle Revis has chosen to play coy about this so far.) The Chiefs often used a reduced split and isolated a receiver on Sherman's side to force him to hold up one-on-one in coverage without the benefit of the sideline, but they didn't challenge Sherman much on fades before this play. Watkins had 98 receiving yards in the game and finished the postseason with 288, which is more than he racked up over the final two months of the regular season.
The play that finished the game off was a 38-yard Williams run for a touchdown. This game wasn't always pretty for the Chiefs' offensive line, but the Williams run is the play they'll talk about when they show their grandkids their Super Bowl rings. The Chiefs got Williams to the edge, Fisher sustained his block on Bosa at the point of attack, Anthony Sherman kicked out Kwon Alexander (who had a brutal day), Byron Pringle blocked Emmanuel Moseley outside and Jimmie Ward took a bad angle to the ball carrier. It was actually reminiscent of what the 49ers did to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
For all the talk (some of which was by me, admittedly) about how the 49ers were a bad matchup for the Chiefs' running game, Kansas City actually did a better job running the football with their backs than the 49ers did. San Francisco ended up having an impressive day on the ground, but a huge chunk of that came because Deebo Samuel had three carries for 53 yards on end arounds. When you compare the carries by running backs from these two teams, you have to give the nod to what the Chiefs did on the ground, especially given the respective degree of difficulty:
The real MVP?
I don't think anyone could have been too surprised when Mahomes was named MVP, given that he led his team to a fourth-quarter comeback, threw for 286 yards, ran for 29 more and accounted for three touchdowns. If Garoppolo had hit that touchdown pass to Sanders, the former Patriots backup would have been named MVP. The Giants' defensive line shut down one of the greatest offenses in league history, David Tyree made one of the greatest catches in NFL history and Eli Manning won Super Bowl XLII MVP. This happens.
Mahomes winning wasn't quite as egregious as that Eli nod, but it would be fair to say this wasn't his best game through three and a half quarters. He threw two poor interceptions and fumbled twice, although the Chiefs were able to retain the ball both times. He missed throws at times before that late run and seemed to have a lot of passes come out of his hand looking funny, to the point where I wondered whether he had been injured running during the first half. Mahomes was excellent during the comeback, though, so no one can be too mad that he was given the award.
If I had to pick an MVP for the Chiefs in this game, though, I'd have to go with defensive tackle Chris Jones. If Bosa wasn't the best player on the field, Jones was for the Chiefs. He came up with a critical play in the first half when he pressured Garoppolo, which led the frazzled 49ers quarterback to throw a truly horrific interception to Bashaud Breeland. Mike Pennel, who had been rotating with Jones the prior week, finished off the pressure to force the pick.
Like Mahomes, Jones saved his best for later in the game. Jones helped stop Mostert for a yard on the aforementioned first-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. He came up with two critical pass knockdowns, including the aforementioned second-and-5 throw to an open Kittle and a first-and-10 throw on the final meaningful 49ers drive once they had passed midfield. And while the Chiefs allowed 6.1 yards per carry with Jones on the field, they actually allowed 38 yards on five runs when Jones was resting, an average of 7.6 yards per carry. It was about as well-timed of a contract game as you'll see from the pending free agent.
He wasn't MVP, but I also need to mention Terrell Suggs' performance in the final few minutes of the game. Remember that Suggs wasn't supposed to be here. He was toiling for a going-nowhere Cardinals team when Arizona waived him in November. Suggs said he would consider not reporting if any other team besides the Ravens claimed him. The Chiefs claimed him anyway.
Guess who came up with three pressures of Garoppolo in the fourth quarter? That would be the 37-year-old Suggs, who didn't turn those into sacks but forced that Garoppolo scramble on third-and-long. Every pressure counted in a game in which Garoppolo was basically rendered irrelevant by them. He was 18-of-22 for 188 yards and a passer rating of 117.4 when unpressured, but he was a scarcely believable 2-of-9 for 31 yards with two picks and a passer rating of 1.9 when the Chiefs pressured him.
As valuable as Mahomes and the many stars the Chiefs drafted or signed in free agency were on Sunday, waiver-wire pickups and cheap additions such as Williams, Breeland and Suggs were incredibly valuable. When you throw in how Reid out-coached Shanahan in key moments, it was enough to finally bring the Lombardi trophy back to Missouri.