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4 questions that will define a Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl 54

Can the Chiefs protect Patrick Mahomes? Will the 49ers finally have to throw the ball?

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

One of the premier football teams of the 1960s will take on one of the best teams of the 1980s in the first Super Bowl of the 2020s.

Welcome to Super Bowl 54 between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.

The Chiefs and 49ers each gave their home crowds a parting gift with double-digit victories in their respective conference championship games. Kansas City rode another big comeback from Patrick Mahomes, who erased an early 17-7 deficit to stop the Titans’ Cinderella run dead in its tracks. San Francisco only needed to throw the ball eight times to beat the Packers because Raheem Mostert decided to do everything himself. His 220 rushing yards were the second-most in NFL playoff history.

Those wins were emphatic reminders these two teams were the best each conference had to offer. Still, squaring two dominant teams against each other will only raise more questions in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Here’s what sticks out the most in the aftermath of Sunday’s conference championships.

1. Patrick Mahomes’ first Super Bowl will come against the NFC’s top defense

Mahomes dispatched the Texans and Titans with relative ease. In two postseason games, he’s thrown for 615 yards and eight touchdowns — all while erasing two different double-digit deficits. These are very Patrick Mahomes numbers, but they came against two teams that ranked 21st (Tennessee) and 27th (Houston) in Football Outsiders’ passing defense efficiency metric (DVOA).

At Super Bowl 54, he’ll stare down a defense that ranked second in that same metric. The Niners’ defense limited the Packers and two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers early in a scoreless first half before eventually cracking under the pressure of Green Bay’s pass-heavy comeback effort in a 37-20 win.

Davante Adams played Green Bay’s hero with an eight-catch, 160-yard, two-touchdown performance in a Divisional Round win over the Seahawks. All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman was hot and cold on him in coverage Sunday night, sticking to him early in coverage but ultimately getting roasted on a 65-yard deep ball in the fourth quarter.

Adams finished his day with nine catches (on 10 targets) for 138 yards, though not all those catches came with Sherman acting as his shadow. What can Tyreek Hill do in a similar situation in the Super Bowl? How about Travis Kelce?

2. Can the Chiefs’ offensive line keep Mahomes comfortable?

Kansas City’s offensive line ranked just 14th in the league in pass block win rate this season, per ESPN’s advanced stats. That typically didn’t matter thanks to Mahomes’ ability to improvise both in and out of the pocket. He’s always been a wizard when it comes to buying time in the pocket, typically leading to big gains to streaking targets downfield or, as we saw Sunday, seemingly effortless jaunts to the end zone.

Mahomes’ ability to move has made him the Chiefs’ leading rusher this postseason, but he’s going to be chased by a higher-caliber pass rush in Super Bowl 54. The Niners ranked second in the league in sack rate last season by dragging down opposing QBs on nearly nine percent of their dropbacks. Four different players — Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and DeForest Buckner — had at least 6.5 sacks in the regular season.

Mahomes’ magic is a function of the time he creates for his targets to find room downfield. San Francisco has the chops to cut down those scrambles and keep the Chiefs from burning them with a lineup of off-script improvisations that turn into massive gains.

3. Can Raheem Mostert do what Derrick Henry couldn’t?

A big part of San Francisco’s success this postseason has been a willingness to completely shut down its passing game in favor of a steady diet of runs. In the Divisional Round, head coach Kyle Shanahan dialed up 12 straight running plays to grind the Vikings into dust. He went back for more against the Packers, turning a short field into a 37-yard touchdown drive without a single Jimmy Garoppolo dropback in second quarter. In all, Shanahan called up 32 more runs than passes (40 to eight) in a blowout win over Green Bay.

The star of that show was Mostert, who set an NFL record by being the first player in league history to have 150+ rushing yards and three touchdowns in the first half of any playoff game. He may have to be ready for another big turn in Miami, as Tevin Coleman had to be carted off the field in the first quarter after suffering an arm injury. An extended absence from Coleman could hand the reins of the rushing offense to Mostert and Matt Breida, two complementary backs who’ve shined in stretches.

They’ll have to take on a Chiefs defense that held NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry to his least efficient outing (3.7 yards per carry) since Week 7. Kansas City limited the Titans’ star tailback by stacking its defense up at the line of scrimmage and trusting its defensive backs in man coverage with a lone deep safety behind them. Doing so again could keep Mostert from sustaining this breakout — but it could also leave massive gaps for Jimmy Garoppolo to exploit.

4. What will Jimmy Garoppolo bring to the table?

Garoppolo’s had a pretty easy postseason so far. He’s been fortunate enough to largely step back and let a smothering defense and clock-churning rushing game carry his team to the Super Bowl. After throwing the ball a shade under 30 times per game in the regular season, he’s thrown 27 total passes in two playoff wins for the Niners. He’s been mostly fine in those situations — 17 of 27, one touchdown, one interception, 208 yards — but those are numbers befitting a 1970s quarterback rather than one taking the field in 2020.

Garoppolo learned the NFL quarterbacking game under Tom Brady, who could typically turn to cheat code tight end Rob Gronkowski when he needed a clutch play. The young veteran will have his own game-breaker in at tight end George Kittle. Kittle was the Niners’ security blanket in third-down situations late, and while he’s had only four receptions in the playoffs he remains an oft-unstoppable monster once he gathers some momentum downfield.

Emmanuel Sanders adds a pair of reliable hands in the middle of the field. Deebo Samuel has proven to be a versatile playmaker Shanahan can deploy from anywhere in his lineup. Garoppolo won’t be hurting for weapons, especially if Mostert can loosen up that Kansas City secondary with some big runs.

It’s still fair to wonder how Garoppolo will react if asked to dial his passing back to regular season levels. The former Patriot had some turnover issues where dropping linebackers sloughed into his blind spot downfield, creating interception opportunities. It could only take one of those mistakes to derail the Niners’ Super Bowl bid.

There’s still plenty of time for each team to address these issues. The Chiefs will have two weeks to prepare for the San Francisco pass rush. Garoppolo will have 14 days to digest film and figure out which Kansas City weak spots he can exploit.

But in the afterglow of two conference championship wins, these are the questions that may define who hoists the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 2, and who trudges through a confetti shower and into a sad locker room.