Eager's Football Friday - Big Game Sunday

by Eric Eager|February 9, 2024

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Check out our FREE Big Game Breakdown sent directly to your inbox by clicking HERE. Take a look at the most important advanced data that could decide the matchup while reading through the biggest questions going into the last game of the season.

Happy Football Friday. 

We took last week off after 21 straight weeks of writing this column. As you’ll see below, we had some pretty good insights as to what would happen this season, but some interesting misses as well. The Chiefs punched their ticket to their fourth Super Bowl in five years, beating a favored Ravens team 17-10 at M&T Bank Stadium, while the 49ers held off an upstart Lions team after trailing 24-7 at halftime. The two teams, who have long been linked since the Joe Montana trade in 1993, will face each other in the Super Bowl for the second time in four years Sunday in Las Vegas. 

Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week. Instead of buy and sell this week, we’re going to go over how these two blue blood franchises got here and review the various buys and sells that we had in this column this season.  

Let’s dig in.

How did the 49ers get here?

The 49ers, with five Super Bowl rings, are one of the most successful franchises in the history of the NFL. However, since 1994 they have had just two appearances in the Big Game, with two close losses to show for it. After taking the reins in 2017, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have done what many analysts have considered improbable; they’ve built a consistent winner without elite quarterback play. From 2019 to 2023, the 49ers have compiled a 54-29 regular season record, appearing in four Conference Championship games and two Super Bowls, all with Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy taking most of the reps at the league’s most important position.

How have they accomplished this? 

First, when they haven’t contended, they’ve bottomed out and acquired elite talent. One of the interesting quirks about San Francisco is that since 2011 they’ve lost 10 or more games in each of the seasons they didn’t reach the Conference Championship game, except for 2014. This has afforded them the opportunity to acquire premium players like DeForest Buckner (7th overall, 2016) and Nick Bosa (2nd overall, 2019). They turned Buckner into the 13th overall pick in 2020 via a trade with the Colts, continuing a roster renewal that has served them to this day and included 2020 first-rounder Brandon Aiyuk and 2019 second-rounder Deebo Samuel. They’ve also struck gold with late-round picks in All Pro linebacker Fred Warner, superstar tight end George Kittle, safety Talanoa Hufanga, and linebacker Dre Greenlaw. This is not to mention 2022 Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy, who led the NFL in 2023 with 9.9 yards per pass attempt, the second Shanahan quarterback to lead a team to the Super Bowl with a mark over nine yards (Matt Ryan, guided by SumerSports CEO Thomas Dimitroff’s Falcons, with a 9.3 mark in 2016 was the other).  

Ultimately, what has set the 49ers apart from their contemporaries in the NFC, roster-wise, has been that when they’ve had courage of conviction, they’ve been right more than they’ve been wrong. When Joe Staley retired after the 2019 season, they were able to pick up all-world tackle Trent Williams after a tumultuous finish to his career in Washington. He’s been a rock for an offensive line that has largely bled talent next to him over the past few seasons. In 2022 they were able to acquire Carolina’s star running back Christian McCaffrey without giving up a first-round pick, and he led the NFL in rushing yards and total touchdowns in 2023. When they took the biggest swing of all in 2021 by moving up from the 12th pick to the third pick to acquire quarterback Trey Lance of North Dakota State, they missed. Still, the preponderance of their other moves was able to overcome that miss to put them in the position they are in today. 

Of course, the best groceries don’t always make the best meal, but in San Francisco Kyle Shanahan is a chef worthy of the city. Whether it’s spamming the league with motion and deploying players in interchangeable personnel groupings or through cutting-edge play design, Shanahan has managed to stay one step ahead of modern defenses. He has avoided the valleys that have served as momentary setbacks for teams like the Chiefs and Bills over the past few years all without the services of what many consider to be an elite quarterback. Even as his staff continues to move talent to the rest of the league, the 49ers’ alpha is their head coach’s ability to get the most out of his players, which doesn’t seem to be showing signs of slowing down any time soon. 

Which NFL offenses use the most unique schemes? | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

As we wrote about in the Big Game Breakdown, this could be the 49ers best chance to take home a Lombardi for a couple of years, though, with five non-quarterbacks earning cap hits of over $20 million in 2024 and middling results in the past few drafts. Aiyuk is on his fifth-year option in 2024 and will be difficult to retain along with Samuel, Kittle, and McCaffrey, while a decision will eventually have to be made on Purdy, who has earned at least an opportunity to be considered the long-term answer in San Fran. As short favorites in the first-ever Vegas Super Bowl, a lot is on the line for the boys from the Bay.

How did the Chiefs get here?

It’s easy to say the Chiefs got here by trading the 27th and 91st pick in the 2017 draft, along with their 2018 first-rounder, to move up and select Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick. That’s a big part of it, but to stop there is lazy. 

Mahomes won his Super Bowl on a rookie deal and made another one while making rookie money. However, last year he became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl earning more than 14% of the salary cap, and this season he’s going to be the first quarterback to start the Big Game while carrying the highest cap hit in the league. This has been made possible by the systematic brilliance of Andy Reid, Brett Veach, and the Kansas City organization.  

After losing to the Bengals in the 2021 Conference Championship game, they moved on from Tyreek Hill for five draft picks in the 2022 draft, a draft that would see them acquire six contributors to the league’s second-best defense in total yards in 2023. This was an offseason after they needed to adapt to changing circumstances in the form of their stalwart tackles, Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, being released due to injuries that effectively ended the career of Schwartz and the Chiefs career of Fisher. In the 2021 offseason they acquired Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown, and drafted Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith, and now have one of the better offensive lines in football. In the 2019 offseason they traded for Frank Clark and signed Tyrann Mathieu, who won the team’s MVP award when they took home their first Lombardi trophy in 50 years. 

The common theme of the answer to the question of “how did the Chiefs get here?” is ruthless adaptation. In the Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes era, the Chiefs have won with a high-flying offense and a defense that was a liability, with good and bad offensive lines, with elite receiving corps and those that analysts would rank among the league’s worst. They’ve won with non-existent running games and running games that have been a focal point of the offense. They have fielded special teams units that have struggled and those that have been a weapon, like this year.  

In 2023 they’ve made their fourth Super Bowl in five years on the back of a defense that has surrendered 41 points in the AFC playoffs against quarterbacks that were all in consideration for the league’s MVP at one point during the season and one who will win the award in Lamar Jackson. Mahomes himself has adapted; after setting a career high in interceptions, the seventh-year pro has not so much as thrown an interceptable pass in the playoffs so far and didn’t take a sack until the second half of the AFC Championship Game last Sunday.  

The Chiefs are simultaneously the counterexample to the adage that there are many ways to win in the NFL and themselves an example of it while having the league’s best player at its most important position. Unlike San Francisco, they are one of the league’s younger teams, and appear to be ascending through some kinks as they compete for their third Super Bowl in five years Sunday, almost in a spoiler role.  

Eager’s Football Friday – Year in Review

Now, for our predictions: 

Buys

Hits (7): Zay Flowers (Week 2), Sack rate as a quarterback stat (Week 4), C.J. Stroud and Houston Texans (Week 5, +225 to make playoffs, +460 to win division), Chiefs defense (Week 6), A lot of trade deadline deals (Week 7), Kansas City Chiefs in general (Week 14), and Tampa Bay beating Philly (Week 18). 

Misses (7): Buffalo Bills (Week 1), Cardinals taking two quarterbacks in round 1 (Week 3), Josh Allen MVP (Week 8), Kevin O’Connell Coach of The Year (Week 9), Lions top seed in the NFC (Week 11), Belichick getting traded this offseason (Week 15), and Seahawks to make playoffs (Week 16, -150). 

Inconclusive (6): Intangibles in coaching (Week 9), Trade for disappointing big contract players (Week 13), Interior DL being a premium position (Week 17), Sean McVay’s HOF case (Week 19), Arizona Cardinals (Week 20), and Brian Callahan in Tennessee (Week 21). 

My bullishness on the Bills and Lions, who were my Super Bowl picks heading in the season, was almost rewarded, as both teams held the second seed in the conference going into the second week of their respective conference’s playoffs. Unfortunately, both ended up bowing out by a field goal with Buffalo in the Divisional Round and the Lions in the Conference Championship Round. Be that as it may, I also bought into the Chiefs, first their defense and then them collectively, which were both hits. Jumping on Houston early feels like a quality choice. All in all, not bad for the buys, with late-season fall offs by Minnesota and Seattle making me look a little foolish. 

Sells

Hits (11): Positionless football (Week 1), Brandon Staley (Week 2), Kyle Pitts’ usage (Week 3), The tush push needing to be outlawed (Week 4), Kenny Pickett having the “it” factor (Week 6), Desmond Ridder being a quality NFL quarterback (Week 8), the Montez Sweat trade being awful for the Bears (Week 9), The Jaguars passing game (Week 11), the Denver Broncos (Week 13), the Cincinnati Bengals (Week 15, -355 to miss playoffs), and the Packers (Week 20, -470) 

Misses (3): New York Giants (Week 5), NFC South having an above average team (Week 7), and Caleb Williams as a lock to be the first pick (Week 17),  

Inconclusive (6): The NFL has been a poor product (Week 10), there will be free agent wide receivers this offseason (Week 14), Bears keeping Justin Fields (Week 16), Interim coaches being promoted to head coaches (Week 18), Linebacker as a premium position (Week 19), and Jim Harbaugh and the Chargers in 2024 (Week 21).  

I was on a bit of a heater here, from the early dismissal of positionless football, specifically that of Jahmyr Gibbs who mostly played running back for the Lions and lined up just 100 times at a position other than running back and did so just seven times in the entire postseason. Desmond Ridder, Kyle Pitts, and the Falcons were an easy fade, as were the Chargers.  

We went against the analytical grain on Montez Sweat, who had the Bears defense playing in the upper half of the NFL by season’s end. We are counting Tampa Bay as an above average team because they finished the season 13th in Sumer Elo, even though there are other metrics that have them as a below-average team. Similarly for the Giants, who were quite competitive down the stretch, covering in four of their last five games post-bye all against teams that finished with winning records and all without starting quarterback Daniel Jones. Even with this harsh grading, we did well here. It will be interesting to see how some of the pending calls will go, especially the Justin Fields one (we are grading the Williams one a miss as well, since some books have him -1000 or better to be the first pick).  

We appreciate you checking out this column all year. Let’s all get excited for what should be a great game on Sunday. 

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