Sunday's conference championship games couldn't have delivered a better matchup for Super Bowl LIV: the Kansas City Chiefs vs. the San Francisco 49ers.
The league's best quarterback -- both in the pocket and as an off-schedule playmaker -- will face a terrifying defense sporting the league's best pass rush.
And the NFL's best ground game faces a defense that struggles stopping the run but has improved significantly down the stretch.
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan has been on fire with his run-game designs through two playoff games, but his battle with Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will take a back seat. That's because the main event is Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid against 49ers coordinator Robert Saleh and his outstanding defense.
The 49ers are certainly sharp in coverage, but their pass rush makes them special. Given Mahomes' deadliness both in and out of the pocket, that frames the Super Bowl's biggest question: Can San Francisco pressure Mahomes while also containing him in the pocket?
The Tennessee Titans proved unable to do either in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
The Chiefs' offensive line was outstanding in protection, and Mahomes moved beautifully in the pocket. Both aspects were on display on Kansas City's first third down, when the line picked up a five-man rush and passed off a stunt while Mahomes slid to maximize his room to throw. Travis Kelce couldn't quite squeeze it for the conversion.
Tennessee had occasional success penetrating on the interior, as Jeffery Simmons beat center Austin Reiter badly on one snap, and DaQuan Jones whipped right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif once or twice. But the Chiefs' O-line was otherwise very sharp.
The Titans' most effective pressure came from late, disguised blitzes, mostly off the slot. One late rotation to show a blitz even caused Reiter to give an early snap, which Mahomes initially fumbled. But those moments were rare.
Aside from sporadic blitzes, head coach Mike Vrabel and coordinator Dean Pees aimed merely to contain Mahomes, repeatedly using three-man rushes, with a fourth -- usually a linebacker or edge rusher -- spying and rushing once Mahomes left the pocket. The three rushers often stunted, but Kansas City's line handled them with ease.
The result was at least a dozen snaps where Mahomes had all day, often without scrambling. The spy never really factored, either, usually arriving late after Mahomes rolled out and fired. Mahomes escaped several times anyway, including on his dazzling 27-yard touchdown run.
Other than that run, the three-man rush tactic surprisingly didn't burn the Titans most of the game, but the dam broke eventually. Sammy Watkins' 60-yard touchdown came after Mahomes had five seconds against a three-man rush on third-and-6, with spy Derick Roberson arriving too late to disrupt the throw.
The 41-yard pass interference penalty drawn by Mecole Hardman on third-and-10 the next drive was practically a carbon copy.
Tennessee simply gave Mahomes too much time too often. That's not to criticize the Titans' plan -- the Chiefs' offense provides very few appealing ways to defend.
But the 49ers' pass rush allows them perhaps the most appealing option: To rush four (and occasionally more) and hope to pressure AND contain Mahomes.
San Francisco did just that to Mahomes' closest stylistic comparison, Aaron Rodgers, twice this year.
The 49ers didn't hound the Green Bay Packers quarterback as often in Sunday's NFC Championship Game (three sacks, only two hits) as in Week 12's rout (five sacks, 10 hits), largely because of the Packers' plan. Head coach Matt LaFleur and Rodgers emphasized quicker distribution Sunday, limiting the Niners' chances.
Nick Bosa & Co. still worked their way into Rodgers' face often, and yet rarely let him out of the pocket. That's extremely hard to do, but the 49ers excel at it.
Bosa, defensive end/tackle Arik Armstead and tackle DeForest Buckner can each win with speed or power, and they prioritize power against a QB like Rodgers. Dee Ford also has some power -- which he creates with speed and leverage from his short stature -- but his speed functions as a finishing weapon, helping clean up when others flush the QB.
All four show a feel for each other's assignments and whereabouts, maintaining rush lanes without providing scramble outlets, including on stunts and twists. That's a credit to the players and also D-line coach Kris Kocurek.
The first sack of the game was a great example. Buckner had a two-way go -- meaning he could rush either side -- against rookie left guard Elgton Jenkins, which meant Bosa had to rush outside left tackle David Bakhtiari. Buckner went outside Jenkins with a hand swipe, winning but drifting a tad wide.
Seeing the lane that Buckner opened, Armstead fought back through a double team toward that side, while Ford was ready to play either side of right tackle Bryan Bulaga after bull-rushing close to Rodgers. That closed the QB's potential escape lane up the middle.
Rodgers spun away from Buckner's initial tackle attempt, but Bosa was in perfect position. Rather than rushing wildly upfield, Bosa had worked through Bakhtiari while staying free to the outside, allowing him to clean up when Rodgers spun out.
The pressure averted a potential big play, as Jimmy Graham got behind Jaquiski Tartt after Tartt jumped his initial route.
The second sack -- the first of two strip-sacks -- was a credit to coaching. Saleh brought six rushers on a zone blitz, which got home despite Rodgers revealing the disguise presnap. Armstead's wide rush opened a lane for slot corner K'Waun Williams' blitz, and linebacker Fred Warner's slant inside of right guard Billy Turner made Turner a hair too slow to pick up Williams, who flew in and swatted the ball out of Rodgers' hand.
The third sack was another team effort. Bosa ran the loop outside of Bakhtiari, brushing Rodgers and causing him to step up into Armstead, who had bull-rushed right through Turner.
As they have all year, the 49ers got pressure in a variety of ways and from all over the formation. No other defense can match San Francisco in that regard, which will be critical in the Super Bowl
One thing the 49ers can be sure of in Miami: They'll get plenty of chances to rush Mahomes. Reid runs the pass-happiest offense in the league, and while many throws are quick or gimmicky -- screens, pop and shovel passes, etc. -- plenty feature deeper drops.
Through the first drive of the third quarter against Tennessee, the Chiefs had called 32 passes (27 pass attempts, four scrambles, one sack) and just five runs. That sort of split will give Bosa & Co. ample opportunities to rush and Saleh chances to get creative with various packages.
Can they convert those opportunities? The answer will go a long way toward deciding Super Bowl LIV.
--By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media