The state of play
After 272 regular-season games and some thrilling playoff battles between the best teams in the NFL, the 2023 campaign ends with Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, with Las Vegas hosting the biggest game in American football for the first time.
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The Kansas City Chiefs are hoping to become just the eighth team to win back-to-back Super Bowls, and the first since Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
The Chiefs flattered to deceive for much of this season, posting fewer wins (11) than in any previous campaign since superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes became their starter in 2018.
Super Bowl schemin’. pic.twitter.com/zsYm0YQQwS
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) February 8, 2024
Relying heavily on Mahomes’ connection with tight end Travis Kelce, whose romance with Taylor Swift has been perhaps the story of the campaign, the Chiefs have looked one dimensional at times, lacking top-class receivers elsewhere.
However, Andy Reid’s team relish the playoffs, and they have stepped things up to beat the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens – both of whom were among the Super Bowl favourites – on the road in their last two games.
The Chiefs have poured resources into their defense in recent years, and that certainly paid dividends against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game two weeks ago, as Steve Spagnuolo’s D-line dominated newly crowned NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, forcing three turnovers in a 17-10 win.
On the other side of the ball, it’s all about Mahomes, who has carried the Kansas City offense this year. Always reliable on the big stage, Mahomes didn’t throw an interception in last year’s successful playoff run and is also yet to do so this year. The Chiefs’ hopes are certainly in safe hands.
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Mahomes’ first Super Bowl triumph came against the 49ers four years ago, and Kyle Shanahan’s team are eyeing revenge on Sunday.
They finished the regular season with a 12-5 record before overcoming the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions in the playoffs, edging two close-run games by three points. They looked like Super Bowl contenders right from Week 1, with Shanahan directing one of the most dynamic offenses in the league.
Electric running back Christian McCaffrey was the only non-quarterback among the MVP finalists after leading the league for regular-season rushing yards (1,459) and ranking fourth for rushing touchdowns (14).
The Chiefs will have to be alert to McCaffrey’s powerful running style, but the 49ers have a versatile offensive unit with Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle among the league’s best receivers.
If you like an underdog story, you might just find yourself rooting for 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, the last pick of the 2022 draft.
Having earned the unwanted moniker of ‘Mr. Irrelevant’, Purdy has been anything but this season. He ranked fifth among all quarterbacks for regular-season passing yards (4,280) and third for touchdown passes (29), and he joined team-mate McAffrey on the five-man shortlist for MVP honours.
What matters most to Purdy, though, is capturing the ultimate team prize, particularly after his elbow injury cost the 49ers a spot in last year’s Super Bowl. Surrounded by talent, he has the tools to go toe-to-toe with Mahomes.
Battling it out in the entertainment capital of the world, Mahomes and Purdy should provide plenty of fireworks.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) February 9, 2024
The quarterbacks: Patrick Mahomes v Brock Purdy
Mahomes had a down year by his lofty standards, but as is so often the case, he has looked a player transformed in the playoffs. The ultra-reliable 28-year-old completed 30 of 39 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens last time out, finding his favourite target Kelce for that score.
While the Mahomes-Kelce partnership looks like Kansas City’s main route to victory, the 49ers are less reliant on moments of magic from Purdy, who has a series of elite targets to aim for.
‘Mr. Irrelevant’ produced a talismanic performance in the NFC Championship game against the Detroit Lions, throwing for 267 yards and running for 48 as the 49ers overturned a 17-point deficit. Purdy is a threat through the air and with his feet, and the Chiefs’ defense must get to him quickly.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) February 9, 2024
The tight ends: Travis Kelce v George Kittle
Kelce’s love life has made headlines this season and attracted a swathe of new fans to the league, but on the field, he’s one of the best to ever play the role of tight end.
Like Mahomes, Kelce has had an up-and-down season, but he has his own love story with the playoffs and was back to his best in Baltimore last week, making 11 catches including one for a touchdown.
Kelce’s 984 receiving yards put him second among all tight ends in 2023, with San Francisco’s Kittle leading the way with 1,020. A survivor of the 49ers team beaten by Kansas City at Super Bowl LIV, Kittle is a larger-than-life character and will be determined to play a central role on Sunday.
The running backs: Isiah Pacheco v Christian McAffrey
One of the NFL’s most powerful running backs, Pacheco rushed for a game-high 68 yards against the Ravens in the AFC Championship. While the Chiefs are not known as a run-heavy team, he could have a crucial role to play if Sunday’s game becomes a tense, low-scoring affair.
If the 49ers are to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Offensive Player of the Year McAffrey will certainly be at the forefront of their success.
San Francisco’s move to trade him from the Carolina Panthers in 2022 has been a masterstroke; he led the league for regular-season rushing yards by a huge margin this season, finishing nearly 300 clear of the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry in second.
“This has been the most fun I’ve ever had playing football.” –@CMC_22
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) February 9, 2024
What they said
Chiefs head coach Reid on the 49ers being slight favourites:
“I understand why we’re the underdog – I get that – we had some ups and downs during the season. I never feel like an underdog going into a game, but I understand why it’s been situated that way. It is what it is.
“It’s crazy how, in the playoffs, every game’s a little faster, the higher you go up in the playoffs. It’s fast, but it’s still the game. You’re professionals, arguably one of 32 guys at your position in the whole world, so you go play and do your job.”
Kelce on whether questions about Taylor Swift are a distraction:
“I think it’s fair. I mean, everyone’s having fun with it. Everybody’s having a good time with it. So, how could I be upset about it? She’s unbelievable. She’s rewriting the history books. I told her I need to hold up my end of the bargain and bring home some hardware too.”
Anyone recognise that shirtless guy chugging a beer behind Taylor Swift? 😂 pic.twitter.com/1h4FhGD8Mx
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 26, 2024
Purdy on his journey from ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ to Super Bowl starter:
“It’s been crazy, just how it’s unfolded over the last two years of playing, being drafted last, becoming starter and now playing in the Super Bowl.
“It was just about taking it one day at a time, trying to learn the playbook, compete and see if I could play well in this league. I focused on that and everything else fell into place.”
When, where and how to watch
Sunday’s game will take place at Allegiant Stadium – home to the Las Vegas Raiders – and will kick off at 11:30pm UK time. Both Sky Sports and ITV are broadcasting the game live in the UK.
Usher will be the star of the half-time show, after the likes of Rihanna, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd took centre-stage in recent years.
Sunday’s game is a difficult one to call, pitting perhaps the NFL’s most well-rounded offense against the single most talented player of his generation.
The 49ers looked far more impressive during the regular season and can blow any team away with their varied offensive approach, but the Kansas City defense has frustrated three elite units in the playoffs, giving Mahomes a platform to work his magic against the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo and Baltimore.
It’s tough to look beyond Mahomes, Kelce and Reid in the biggest game of all, so we’re backing the Chiefs to cement their legacy with a 24-21 win. If the 49ers get going early on, though, they might be best-placed to edge an offensive shoot-out.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) February 8, 2024