Super Bowl LVIII preview: Key storylines, X-factors and more for 49ers-Chiefs showdown

The Kansas City Chiefs have dominated the AFC in the 2020s. The San Francisco 49ers have been the most successful franchise in the NFC during this decade, too.

It’s only fitting they get to meet on the NFL’s biggest stage.

That will happen in Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas on Sunday, Feb. 11, after the Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday and the 49ers overcame a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat the Detroit Lions 34-31 in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers will be looking for their first championship since the 1995 season. The Chiefs will be trying to win their third in the last five years.

And oh, by the way, the game is a rematch of the one played four years ago — Super Bowl LIV in Miami, when the Chiefs beat the 49ers 31-20 to win the first championship for quarterback Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid.

How will this one go on the field at Allegiant Stadium? Here’s a first look from FOX Sports AFC South reporter Ben Arthur (covering the Chiefs) and NFC East reporter Ralph Vacchiano (covering the 49ers):

THE BIG STORY

Chiefs: The Chiefs are in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years, including back-to-back seasons, further cementing their dynasty. Despite an inconsistent offense throughout the 2023 season, one lacking the explosiveness and pizazz we’d grown accustomed to from the last several years, Kansas City has shown its championship pedigree this postseason. 

Before this year, the Chiefs hadn’t played in a true road playoff game in the Patrick Mahomes era. They’ve now won back-to-back to reach Super Bowl 58. —Arthur

49ers: It might be 29 years since the 49ers’ last championship, but they’ve been knocking on the door in recent years. They lost in the NFC title game each of the past two seasons, but this will be their second trip to the Super Bowl in the last five years. And while the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes duo will get all the headlines, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is one of the NFL’s best offensive minds and he’s somehow built the NFL’s No. 2-ranked offense around a quarterback, Brock Purdy, who was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 NFL Draft. —Vacchiano

49ers postgame trophy ceremony after defeating Lions in NFC Championship Game

49ers postgame trophy ceremony after defeating Lions in NFC Championship Game

HISTORY LESSON

Chiefs: The Chiefs hope to become the first team in 19 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls. Just eight Super Bowl champions have successfully defended their title: the 2003-04 Patriots, 1997-98 Broncos, 1992-93 Cowboys, 1988-89 49ers, 1978-79 Steelers, 1974-75 Steelers, 1972-73 Dolphins and the 1966-67 Packers. 

Since Mahomes became the Chiefs’ starting quarterback in 2018, Kansas City has won two Super Bowls. —Arthur

49ers: The 49ers still rank second in all-time Super Bowl wins with five (in seven trips), but their dynasty years were a long time ago. Four of their wins were in the 1980s and their last championship was in 1994, when Kyle Shanahan was just 15 years old. They’ve been close over the last decade, though. They went to three straight NFC Championship Games from 2011-13, another in 2019, and then three in the past three years. This is just their third Super Bowl trip in that span, though, and they’re still looking for their first win. —Vacchiano

QUARTERBACKS

Chiefs: Mahomes is widely regarded as the best quarterback in the NFL and already considered to be a firstballot Hall of Famer, but he had one of the worst statistical seasons of his career in 2023. 

Since becoming a starter in 2018, he posted career lows in touchdown rate (4.5 percent), interceptions (14), yards per attempt (7.0) and passer rating (92.6) this regular season. He’s also registered the second-worst marks of his career in touchdown passes (27) and interception rate (2.3 percent).

Mahomes’ greatness, of course, cannot be discounted in the playoffs. He’s at his best on the biggest stage. This postseason, he’s completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 718 yards and four touchdowns against zero interceptions. —Arthur

49ers: Yes, Brock Purdy was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 NFL Draft. But he was also an MVP candidate for most of this past season. Though he still draws way too much criticism as a supposed “game manager,” he completed 69.4 percent of his passes this past season for 4,280 yards, 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

He’s probably not going to win the MVP, but he’ll get some votes. And in the playoffs, he’s been rock solid. In two games, he’s been picked off just once. He gets a lot of help from a talented 49ers team, but he’s shown he’s capable of carrying them, too. —Vacchiano

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs shut down Lamar Jackson, Ravens

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs shut down Lamar Jackson, Ravens

COACHES

Chiefs: One of the most respected offensive minds in NFL history, Andy Reid is making his fifth Super Bowl appearance as a head coach, including his fourth with the Chiefs. His first came in 2004 with the Eagles. He has a 2-2 record in the Super Bowl. —Arthur

49ers: Kyle Shanahan has long been considered one of the best young offensive minds in the NFL, right up there with his California neighbor, Sean McVay. He’s proven that by taking teams with Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy at quarterback to four NFC Championship Games and, now, two Super Bowls in the last five years. All that’s missing is the one thing McVay has that he doesn’t — a championship. Shanahan surely knows that his father, Mike, also won two. —Vacchiano

OFFENSIVE WEAPONS

Chiefs

TE Travis Kelce: Like most of the Chiefs offense, Kelce had a slow start to the year. He finished the regular season with 93 receptions for 984 yards and five touchdowns, his first time finishing below 1,000 receiving yards since 2015. But he’s reminded the NFL world why he’s Mahomes’ favorite target and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer this postseason, with 23 receptions for 262 yards and three touchdowns in three playoff games. 

WR Rashee Rice: Amid a brutal year for the Chiefs’ wide receivers — they led the NFL with 22 dropped passes, according to Next Gen Stats — the rookie second-round pick out of SMU has been a bright spot and emerged as WR1 of the future. Rice had 79 receptions for 938 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. 

RB Isiah Pacheco: Since taking over as Chiefs’ RB1 midway through his rookie year last season, Pacheco has been a much-needed sledgehammer in the trenches for Kansas City. The former seventh-round pick carried the ball 205 times for 935 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season. —Arthur

‘We knew we had doubters’ – Isiah Pacheco on Chiefs clinching second straight Super Bowl appearance

'We knew we had doubters' – Isiah Pacheco on Chiefs clinching second straight Super Bowl appearance

49ers

RB Christian McCaffrey: He is the counterargument to everyone who says that running backs aren’t worth big money in today’s NFL. He not only led the league in rushing yards with 1,459 and was second among running backs with 14 rushing touchdowns, he was also second on the 49ers with 67 catches for 564 yards and seven touchdowns. And he had a streak of 17 straight games with at least one touchdown snapped in mid-November.

WR Brandon Aiyuk: He ranked seventh in receiving yards (1,342) despite having just 75 catches. That’s an impressive 17.9 yards per catch, which ranked second in the NFL. So much of that is yards after the catch, too. He’s turned himself into one of the best big-play threats in the league.

WR Deebo Samuel: He has the ability to be more dangerous as a receiver than Aiyuk — as his 8 catches for 89 yards in the NFC Championship Game showed — and he’s used like a Swiss Army knife in the 49ers offense. He not only caught 60 passes for 892 yards and seven touchdowns, but he also ran 37 times for 225 yards and five touchdowns. The defense needs to know where he is on every single play. —Vacchiano 

‘A ladybug landed on my shoe’ – Brandon Aiyuk on incredible catch, 49ers clinching Super Bowl appearance

'A ladybug landed on my shoe' – Brandon Aiyuk on incredible catch, 49ers clinching Super Bowl appearance

DEFENSE

Chiefs: The Chiefs have what’s indisputably their best defense of the Mahomes era. It ranked second in the league in points (17.3) and yards allowed (289.7), plus seventh in DVOA, in the regular season. 

Kansas City has All-Pros up front and in the back end in defensive tackle Chris Jones and slot cornerback Trent McDuffie, respectively. L’Jarius Sneed is also a Pro Bowl talent on the outside for the Chiefs and one of the most underrated defenders in the league. Look no further than his terrific forced fumble at the goal line in the team’s AFC Championship Game victory over Baltimore on Sunday. 

49ers: This isn’t quite the No. 1 ranked defense the 49ers had one year ago, when Nick Bosa was the Defensive Player of the Year with 18.5 sacks. But they’re still pretty good. Led by Bosa, who had 10.5 sacks, they ranked eighth. And with the addition of big DT Javon Hargrave in the middle, they gave up just 89.7 rushing yards per game (though the Lions did get 182 against them on Sunday). Cornerback Charvarius Ward and linebacker Fred Warner were Pro Bowlers too, joining Bosa and Hargrave, from the 49ers stout defense. —Vacchiano

THE X-FACTOR

Chiefs Rashee Rice

Including the postseason, Kansas City is 5-1 when Rice has at least 70 receiving yards. When he gets going, it takes pressure off Kelce in the receiving game by giving the Chiefs more offensive balance and making them more difficult to cover. —Arthur

49ers: George Kittle

He’s been pretty quiet in the playoffs so far (9-137-1 in two games) and receiving stats didn’t rank him among the 10 best tight ends in the NFL this year (65-1,020-6). But he is still very capable of big games and big plays. He topped 100 receiving yards three times season, and his 15.7 yards per catch was 12th in the NFL and tops among tight ends. He’s a huge mismatch for any defense and could draw attention away from all the other 49ers weapons — just like Travis Kelce, who’ll get all the attention on the other side. —Vacchiano  

Brock Purdy, 49ers survive vs. Jared Goff, Lions

Brock Purdy, 49ers survive vs. Jared Goff, Lions

WHY THEY CAN WIN

Chiefs: For the Chiefs, priority No. 1 should be stopping Christian McCaffrey and the 49ers’ run game. Kansas City was 6-0 in the regular season when it held opponents under 110 rushing yards. 

Mahomes and Kelce will need to be great as they’ve typically been on this stage, but defense is where the Chiefs have been most consistent this season. The unit will likely need to come up huge one final time, particularly against an all-time great running back in McCaffrey, to secure the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl victory. —Arthur

49ers: Teams have proven they can run on this Chiefs defense, so the 49ers need to play to their strength in Super Bowl LVIII. Let McCaffrey lead them both in the run game and the passing game and sprinkle in as many creative sweeps and end runs as Kyle Shanahan can come up with over the next two weeks. They have always been a run-first offense and they shouldn’t stray from that now. If they do that and keep Brock Purdy protected so he’s not forced into big mistakes they’ll have a shot. 

They certainly have the defense to stop what is not a typically great Chiefs offense. But their ticket to this title is running the ball and eating up the clock. The longer Patrick Mahomes is off the field, the better the 49ers chances are. —Vacchiano

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.


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