Super Bowl LIV Will Show How Football’s Variety of Playing Styles Keeps It On Top.
This past Sunday, the stage was set for American sports’ biggest matchup of the year. Super Bowl LIV will feature a marquee matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. The NFL could scarcely have asked for a better showdown to sell its signature event to the public. The event will pit the 49ers, one of the league’s most storied and celebrated franchises, against a team led by arguably the most exciting player in American sports, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
The matchup will also feature two of the league’s best coaches yet to win a Super Bowl, Kansas City’s Andy Reid against San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan. Both coaches will be seeking redemption for past defeats; Reid for a loss to the Patriots in 2005 while head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Shanahan for the Atlanta Falcons (where he was the offensive coordinator) infamously giving up a 28 to 3 lead to those same Patriots in 2017. But beyond all of this, what makes the matchup so compelling is the fact that both teams play in such starkly contrasting styles of play, especially on offense. And in an American sports landscape where the top teams of the NFL’s rivals are more similar than ever, that lends for a compelling product that keeps the NFL at the apex of the sports media food chain despite the league’s myriad issues.
Kansas City’s offense features a high-octane passing game built around the explosive talents of Mahomes. Only twenty-four years old, the Texas Tech product has already shown that he is one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever set foot on a field. In the 2018–19 season (his first as Kansas City’s starting quarterback), he threw for over 5,000 yards and fifty touchdown passes, joining Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as one of only three quarterbacks in history to accomplish the latter feat.
In 2019–20’s regular season, he missed four games due to a knee injury, but still put up strong numbers including a crucial lowered interceptions rate. In the playoffs so far, he led the Chiefs to come from behind wins twice, including a 24–0 deficit against the Houston Texans that Mahomes almost single handedly overcame by halftime, with the Chiefs ultimately scoring forty one unanswered points. This broke Kansas City’s franchise record for most touchdown passes in a single playoff game, and one week later Mahomes led the Chiefs to victory over the Tennessee Titans, securing them their first Super Bowl berth in exactly fifty years.
The playing style that the San Francisco 49ers used to overcome their opponents en route to the Super Bowl could not have been more different than Kansas City’s. Although the franchise’s turnaround, fully realized this year, arguably began with the infamous acquisition of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots, San Francisco’s signal-caller was a glorified extra in the story of their victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. Garoppolo made only eight passes during the entire game, going for over an hour and a half in real time without making a single throw.
And, at the end of the day, it made no difference. The 49ers jumped out to a 27–0 lead at halftime and never looked back; there would be no blown lead for Kyle Shanahan’s team this time. In stark contrast to the Mahomet-Led Chiefs, the Niners accomplished this by running the football, with their devastating attack being led by running back Raheem Mostert. Mostert was a career journeyman who had previously been cut by six NFL teams (he recites their names and the dates he was cut before each game for motivation). Mostert put on a superstar performance, rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns. Mostert set a 49ers franchise record for most rushing yards and touchdowns, and his total was also the second most in NFL postseason history. Shanahan’s offensive system had transformed Mostert into an unstoppble offensive weapon.
Part of the reason that the 49ers were able to hold the lead that they had built was due to the strength of their team defense, particularly their defensive line, featuring stars such as Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and second overall draft pick Nick Boss, frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The secondary is anchored by veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, who sealed the victory last Sunday with an interception of Aaron Rodgers. If any team’s defense is perfectly designed to stop Mahomes, it would be this one. And that is what makes the tension and drama of the upcoming Super Bowl so compelling.
For years it was common wisdom that the NFL was on the way out as America’s top sports league, most likely to be replaced by the insurgent NBA. Basketball had more marketable stars, it was argued, and the NFL’s public image was being irreversibly tarnished by the issue of player concussions and CTE. But the NBA may have an achilleas heel; the 3 point revolution has increasingly taken over more and more team’s playing styles, to the point where a shot that was once thrilling has reached its point of diminishing marginal return when it comes to appealing to the average fan.
When Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry came onto the scene shooting three pointers at a rate no one had ever before seen, it captivated fans around the world. But when every team is building their offense around the three point shot to the exclusion of all else, the sameness of the play can begin to wear on the average fan, and it may be a cause of the recent drop in NBA’s TV ratings. But what this Super Bowl proves is that the NFL does not have this issue- at least not yet. And by providing the biggest possible showcase for this, the Super Bowl should help to ensure that the NFL retains its place at the apex of American sports popularity, at least for the time being.