This is a strange Super Bowl. The Patriots aren’t in it, which complicates everything. For whom do we root when there’s nobody to root against? The teams who are in it aren’t new – one of them graced the first Super Bowl, even though that game wasn’t officially called the Super Bowl – but they’re different enough that they might need some introduction. Glad to be of service.
The favorite, though only just: The Kansas City Chiefs are favored by 1.5 points, not that anybody scores .5 of a point. They were double-digit underdogs in two of the first four Super Bowls. The first, in January 1967, was known as “The AFL-NFL Championship Game” and was broadcast by both CBS (the NFL network) and NBC (the AFL carrier). The Chiefs were squashed that day by Lombardi’s Packers, who were handed a trophy not yet named after Lombardi. When the Chiefs made it back in January 1970, they upset Minnesota in a game remembered most for the NFL Films clip of coach Hank Stram calling a play known as “65 Toss Power Trap,” and then, when Mike Garrett scored, fairly cackling: “65 Toss Power Trap, yee-hah! Hahahaha! Yeah! I told you that baby was there! Yessir, boys!”
The underdog: The San Francisco 49ers have made the Super Bowl six times, winning the first five behind different quarterbacks (Joe Montana, Steve Young) and different coaches (Bill Walsh, George Seifert). They lost the sixth, in which their quarterback was Colin Kaepernick, of whom you’ve heard, and their coach was Jim Harbaugh, of whom you’ve heard too much. The 49ers’ most memorable Super moment came when Montana, readying for the last-gasp drive that would undo the Bengals, delivered this stirring call to duty. “Look,” Montana told his teammates, nodding to the stands. “Isn’t that John Candy?”
The K.C. coach: Andy Reid is 61 and bears a resemblance to Captain Kangaroo. (Kids, ask your grandparents.) He’s sixth all-time in wins. He has taken teams to the playoffs 15 times in 21 seasons. His only Super Bowl is remembered for Eagles, who trailed the Patriots by 10 points inside the final five minutes, taking so long between plays that Bill Belichick asked his assistants: “Do I have the score right?” Reid is among the world’s nicest guys. As a 13-year-old, he appeared in a Punt, Pass and Kick competition during a 1971 Rams game. Reid – misidentified as “Andrew Ried” in the ABC graphic – is two feet taller than others in his age group. He was wearing a No. 34 jersey borrowed from Rams running back Les Josephson.
The S.F. coach: Full disclosure: In September 2016, this correspondent declared Kyle Shanahan a bad fit as Falcons offensive coordinator; three months later, this same correspondent offered a mea culpa apparently so moving that Shanahan’s wife shed happy tears. That offense became one of the NFL’s 10 best ever and carried the Falcons to a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl over the Patriots. (Belchick might well have asked if that score was correct, too.) Alas, the play-caller who’d barely put a foot wrong all season wound up calling plays as if his team was in arrears. The astonishing victory led those sportsmanlike Pats to inscribe “28-3” on their Super Bowl rings. In sum, this game matches a coach whose previous Super appearance saw his team go too slow and another whose team went too fast.
Quarterbacks: K.C.’s Patrick Mahomes is the next Tom Brady. If you’ve never seen Mahomes play, your initial response will be, “Does he throw like that all the time?” The answer is no. Sometimes he throws while falling backward. Sometimes he throws while leaning sideways. Usually he throws sidearm. Once he completed a pass with his left hand. Not long ago, Jimmy Garoppolo was positioned to be the next Tom Brady, but Belichick traded the heir apparent – some say the deal was forced by Pats owner Bob Kraft, who cared only about placating Brady – Jimmy G. to San Fran. It’s possible, though not entirely pertinent, to deem Garoppolo more handsome than Brady.
Styles of play: You can tell the teams apart by how they align themselves. If there are two running backs, that’s S.F. The 49ers deploy two backs and one tight end – a personnel grouping known as “21” – 33 percent of the time. That’s a league-high. In an era when everybody throws it all the time, the Niners are bringing back blood and thunder. In the NFC title tilt against Green Bay, Garoppolo slung the pig eight times, matching the second-lowest number of passes by any playoff team ever. The Chiefs work with one back, one tight end and three wide receivers – “11” – on 60 percent of their snaps. They’re so fast they’ll make you nauseous, so go easy on the Super Sunday salsa. In the divisional round, they trailed Houston 24-0 in the second quarter led at halftime.
Tight ends: There’s no Gronk – the almost-lovable lunk Rob Gronkowski retired after the Pats won here last year – but George Kittle of S.F. and Travis Kelce of K.C. are the best of the post-Gronk bunch. Even with all the Chiefs’ quick little receivers, Kelce is the guy to whom Mahomes looks first on third down. Kittle might be the NFL’s best player at any position. His fourth-down catch and run against the Saints is why YouTube exists.
The Ivy Leaguer: Harvard grad Kyle Juszczyk is on a contract that pays $21 million over four seasons. He was among Shanahan’s first signings after leaving the Falcons for San Francisco. Juszczyk is a fullback. He has run the ball three times this season, playoffs included. Two carries were against the sub-.500 Falcons, to whom the 49ers lost. You won’t hear his name -- “YOOZ-check” -- called much, but he can block anybody. He’s the reason for those two-back sets
Defenses: Both teams have one. The 49ers’ is better.
Local angles: There’s Shanahan. There’s Tevin Coleman, who scored the touchdown that made it 28-3. He’s a Niner now. So is Richard Sherman, who as a Seahawk interfered with Julio Jones and got away with it. As for the Chiefs: Receiver Mecole Hardman played at Georgia; Harrison Butker kicked a 53-yard field goal to send Georgia Tech into overtime, where it won, at Sanford Stadium in 2014.
Halftime entertainment: J-Lo and Shakira. J-Lo’s partner is A-Rod, who played baseball. Shakira’s partner is Gerard Pique, who plays football. He’s a central defender for Barcelona.
National anthem: Demi Lovato. I’ve seen her in concert. I have daughters.
Ads: You’ll hate all of them. Except the one you kind of like.
Prediction: The smartest guys writing about the NFL are Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders and Bill Barnwell of ESPN. Schatz picks the Chiefs; Barnwell picks the Niners. I flipped a coin. It came up Chiefs.
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