The 2023-24 Chiefs have rebounded from their early to midseason struggles (thanks to coaching legend and world-renown offensive genius Matt Nagy, the guy who made the Bears offense look so good, remember? When he had a winning record 25% of the time and never won a playoff game? “Good times” – per Chiefs management) and record-setting drop numbers (certain sites list 35-45 drops for Kansas City in 2023).
Mahomes looks back to his old self, confidently smacking his receivers’ jerseys with the football and evading rushers with ease.
Don't forget, QB1 can run ????♂️???? pic.twitter.com/Y3oRwx0yLu
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 15, 2024
But the most significant factor in the Chiefs unlocking their full 2023-2024 potential arguably lies in SMU product and 2023 rookie, wide receiver Rashee Rice.
Rice’s monumental progression over just one season, which is also his NFL-first, is one of the most impressive single-year developments I’ve ever seen at the WR position and has become one of the defining storylines of the 2023-24 season.
His skills with the ball in his hands rival opposing WR1, Deebo Samuel, as 70% of Rashee Rice’s receiving yards during the regular season came after the catch, which was the highest mark for any 2023 WR (Deebo Samuel ranked 4th in percentage of yards coming after the catch).
Rice’s vision and awareness as a runner using angles is elite, as it feels like he’s constantly splitting arm-tackling defenders. It’s not a surprise Rashee Rice leads all playoff WRs in YAC, ranks 3rd in receptions resulting in 1st downs, and is tied for 4th in catches for 20+ yards (per ESPN).
During the regular season, Rice finished (among WRs):
- 2nd in average separation (per Next Gen Stats)
- 2nd in YAC per reception (per Pro Football Reference)
- 3rd in catch % (per Next Gen Stats)
- 3rd in YAC
- 5th in receiving success % (per Pro Football Reference)
- 6th in passer rating when targeted (per Pro Football Reference)
Rice’s recent production explosion has also enabled Travis Kelce to find open seams in the defense and return to his former self, and we’ve seen Mahomes and Kelce back in their backyard football bag of tricks with scramble drills and back-shoulder balls.
Speaking of Kelce, a key element to a Chiefs win will have to be him continuing his stellar level of play he’s consistently shown in clutch moments throughout this year’s playoff run despite his regular season inconsistency.
It doesn’t help that Kelce knows he’ll have a best-selling revenge album written about him if his current relationship ends for any reason. That’s too much pressure for any man (as history has proven).
Among all players in the 2023-2024 playoffs, Kelce ranks:
- 1st in receptions
- 1st in TD catches
- 2nd in receiving yards
- 2nd in catches for 1st downs
- Tied for 4th in catches for 20+ yards
Each elite QB (yes Purdy is now officially elite) faces the toughest defense they’ve faced all season while each top-5 defense battles against one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL.
Might be cold… BUT THIS RICE IS ALREADY COOKIN' ???? pic.twitter.com/w9N8NgcBSc
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 14, 2024
Key Chiefs stats
- Chiefs had the 5th-worst turnover differential in the regular season (per ESPN)
- Chiefs allowed the 2nd-lowest sack % in 2023 (per Pro Football Reference)
- Chiefs allowed the 2nd-fewest PPG during the regular season (per ESPN)
- Chiefs ran the ball on 1st down the 8th-most in 2023 (per NFL.com)
- Chiefs missed the 3rd-fewest tackles in 2023 (per Pro Football Reference)
- Mahomes is 3-1 and has thrown for at least 300 yards in every game vs Jackson
Key 49ers stats
- 49ers had the 4th-highest third down conversion % in the regular season
- 49ers ranked 2nd in YPG in 2023
- 49ers allowed the 3rd-fewest rush YPG during the regular season (per ESPN)
- 49ers defense had the 3rd-most QB hits in 2023
- 49ers had the fewest passing attempts during the regular season but still finished (per NFL.com):
- 6th in passing yards
- 2nd in passing TDs
- 1st in passes for 20+ yards and tied for 1st in passes for 40+ yards
- 1st in passer rating
- 3rd in completion %
- 1st in YPA
Brock Purdy to CMC for his 19th TD of the season! pic.twitter.com/3KVGsOUiA1
— OurSF49ers (@OurSf49ers) December 17, 2023
On the 49ers’ side, CMC, Kittle, Aiyuk, and Deebo are all absolute YAC mavins, who with the exception of Aiyuk are all unidsputed top-10 talents at their respective positions. Uncoincidentally, the 49ers and the Chiefs rank first and second in YAC this season.
Brock Purdy put up what many sports analysts argue are MVP-caliber numbers during the regular season and threw the ball with elite anticipation, awareness, and vision (especially for a young, nearly-undrafted quarterback).
But the storyline for the 2023-2024 49ers can’t be written without the 49ers’ do-it-all running back, who himself has made a rare RB MVP case with his performance this year which included over 2,000 total scrimmage yards.
During the regular season, CMC ranked (among RBs):
- 1st in rush yards with 1459 (no other RB even broke 1,200)
- 1st in rushes for 1st downs
- 1st in rush yards over expected (per Next Gen Stats)
- 1st in total scrimmage yards
- 2nd in rushing TDs
- 2nd in yards per touch (per Pro Football Reference)
- 3rd in rushes for 20+ yards
Deebo Samuel is also the best RB/WR hybrid the NFL has to offer, and there’s a reason #19 consistently lines up in the backfield despite the fact that he is listed at receiver, as evidenced by him always finishing strongly through contact and the fact that Samuel led all players in YAC per reception during the regular season.
Christian McCaffrey with the incredible TD run! pic.twitter.com/uzF3bmZXK3
— Coach Yac ???? (@Coach_Yac) November 24, 2023
Shanahan’s creative run schemes constantly impress every week, and Trent Williams is the most complete left tackle in the league in terms of his athleticism on the edge as a lead blocker, his dominance as a pass-blocker, and his ability to be an earth-mover in the interior run game.
While CMC has run like LT reincarnated in 2023, it helps that his offensive line is maybe the most athletic and dominant in the league (as evidenced by the fact that the 49ers ranked 5th in rushing yards before contact during the regular season, per Pro Football Reference).
Brandon Aiyuk has also massively improved his route-running, blocking, and has shown trustworthy hands while becoming a top-20 talent at the WR position.
Plus, George Kittle is an undisputed top-5 TE in terms of his sheer talent level, and he’s one of the best do-it-all TEs in the league in terms of his blocking, hands, speed, and relentlessness physicality after the catch.
Despite how much the 49ers spread the ball around, Kittle’s efficiency is off the charts. Kittle leads all playoff TEs in yards per catch and ranks 4th among all players. He also ranks 2nd to only Kelce in catches for 20+ yards among playoff TEs (per ESPN), led all TEs in YAC per reception during the regular season (per Next Gen Stats), and finished 2nd in average targeted air yards among regular season TEs (per Next Gen Stats).
Finally, the 49ers have a smothering defense that almost never makes mistakes as they missed the 2nd-fewest tackles in the regular season (per Pro Football Reference), and Nick Bosa will make Patrick Mahomes feel more uncomfortable than he’s felt all season.
While Bosa’s talent level leaps off the film, the 49ers have more cap space invested in their defensive line than any NFL team, so another Super Bowl loss in the Shanahan era could lead to the 49ers taking a long look in the mirror that results in a significant restructuring of the entire team.
Christian McCaffrey with a massive TD!!! pic.twitter.com/HOhIXwcFLo
— OurSF49ers (@OurSf49ers) October 24, 2023
On the Chiefs defense, they probably the most talented unit in the league.
To call out a few key elements, L’Jarius Sneed showed three weeks ago that his lockdown ability enables all-around defensive creativity when he put the clamps on Tyreek Hill, and he and the rest of the Chiefs DBs wrote a similar script when they frustrated Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen the following week, only to completely shutdown Baltimore’s receivers in the AFC Championship – aside from one broken play courtesy of Lamar breaking out of a sack and being a pure magician.
Sneed also made perhaps the most critical play of the entire game when he forced Zay Flowers to fumble right at the goal-line, turning a sure Ravens touchdown into a touchback and the most important Chiefs turnover they’ve forced the entire season.
Sneed can play in the slot as well as outside, and is fearless when it comes to helping out in the run game. Whether it is Aiyuk or Deebo, Sneed should be a proverbial wrecking ball when it comes to the 49ers game plan and overall passing strategy.
Moreover, Chris Jones is an absolute people mover, and Nick Bolton might be the most underrated middle linebacker in the NFL. Bolton’s combination of strength and speed is ideal for the modern NFL LB who’s tasked with both smashing into offensive lineman and covering the most athletic tight ends in the league, and Bolton has been able to do both in spades.
Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill are top-20 for their respective positions too, and the Chiefs have devised unique blitzes and do a phenomenal job of winning one-on-one matchups as pass-rushers when they get them. Steve Spagnuolo always puts his plays in the best position to succeed, and he showed last week with the complete dismantling of one of the top-3 offenses (and a potential MVP candidate) that no “unstoppable” offense is a match for the creative mind of Spags.
He blitzes a variety of defenders, sometimes drops defensive lineman in coverage, and puts together defensive formations and strategies that are unique on a weekly basis. If the Chiefs are able to win another Super Bowl in the Mahomes era, it will be in large part because they have the best defensive coordinator in the league.
The Chiefs had the 2nd-most QB hits (per Pro Football Reference) during the 2023 regular season – trailing only the Dolphins, who they blew out in their first playoff game.
Stop playin' with him. pic.twitter.com/ZZK7Q7cPq5
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 15, 2024
This game will likely come down to one possession, but also likely a Chiefs win despite Matt Nagy’s FTX-like management style, drops, and offensive holds (courtesy of Juwan Taylor) on crucial Chiefs plays (per usual).
There is the possibility that the Chiefs regular season league-leading drop % might finally bite them in the ass, but the reason they have made it this far and Mahomes still managed to drag this team into the top-10 in point differential despite their regular season struggles is due to the fact that Mahomes is still the best overall player the NFL has to offer, and he’s not slowing down anytime soon.
Mahomes is maybe the most adept at breaking tackles and buying an extra look that he’s been in his entire career, a terrifying component of his game for defensive coordinator around the league.
Mahomes was sacked at the 2nd-lowest rate in 2023, and the Chiefs ended the season tied for 3rd in yards per scramble (per Pro Football Reference), so they have the potential winning solution required for reducing Nick Bosa’s impact on the game.
Furthermore, Chiefs WRs are finally starting to catch the majority of their passes and Mahomes is throwing the ball as confidently as ever. Mahomes currently has a postseason streak of 203 straight attempts without an INT (which leads all current NFL QBs and ranks 3rd all time).
Mahomes’ 203 straight attempts without an interception trail only Tom Brady and Drew Brees all-time, and he’ll pass them both as long as he throws 35 more passes without an INT.
Prediction: Chiefs win