Fantasy Questions: The Biggest Questions for Super Bowl 58.
- What’s different about Patrick Mahomes this season?
- Could this shape up as an Isiah Pacheco game?
- Where does this playoff run rank for Travis Kelce?
- Just how special has Rashee Rice’s rookie campaign been?
- Who will Mahomes look to beyond Kelce and Rice?
- Is Brock Purdy just a ho-hum game-manager?
- Does Christian McCaffrey have a legit chance to win MVP?
- What 49ers pass-catchers will most likely be featured?
- How key is 49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk to this offense?
- Should Jauan Jennings be celebrated for everything he does?
Super Bowl Sunday. What an elite name for an occasion that rivals any single day during a calendar year.
Let’s celebrate what has the chance to be an electric matchup between the AFC champion Kansas Chiefs and the NFC powerhouse San Francisco 49ers with 10 key questions and answers.
As always: It’s a great day to be great.
What’s different about Patrick Mahomes this season?
Fun fact: Mahomes (5.9) was the only QB to NOT post an average target depth north of nine yards on Championship Sunday.
While No. 15 has still flashed plenty of big-play ability throughout the season, his average target depth as a whole has never been lower:
- 2023: 6.9
- 2022: 7.5
- 2021: 7.4
- 2020: 8.5
- 2019: 8.5
- 2018: 9.7
Of course, the Chiefs haven’t exactly made life easy for Mahomes when he has gone deep. The Chiefs had the league's third-best overall catchable pass rate this season (PFF), but were also one of just three teams to flat-out drop at least five targets thrown 20-plus yards downfield.
Seriously: Can you blame the man for maybe thinking twice about going deep these days?
While this newfound lower aDOT has knocked a few yards off Mahomes’ yards per attempt, his completion rate has soared. The ceiling hasn’t been quite as high — but we also haven’t seen this group helplessly crater like they did in their 2020-21 Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers.
Accordingly, I’m in agreement with Betting Life’s Matthew Freedman on his “Mahomes under 21.5 DraftKings points” bet. Mahomes has gone a whopping 12 consecutive games without scoring 21.5 DraftKings points. His previous career-long streak was just three games.
Only Josh Allen has been better at not letting pressures get converted into sacks this season: Mahomes has consistently kept this offense on schedule and saves the Superman act for when it’s really needed — and hey, it’s worked!
Another ring would give Mahomes his third, placing him on a short list with Troy Aikman (3), Terry Bradshaw (4), Joe Montana (4) and Tom Brady (7). Throw in the statistical advantage that Mahomes has over Brady at this point in their careers, and it’d be hard to watch ESPN on Monday without seeing the GOAT conversation thrown around should the Chiefs find a way to eat this W.
Could this shape up as an Isiah Pacheco game?
I do love his alternant rushing line of 80 yards (+170) over at DraftKings (Fantasy Life projects 80.2 yards).
Similar to the Chiefs: This San Francisco defense has been far better when defending the pass (No. 5 in EPA allowed per dropback) compared to the run (No. 27 in EPA allowed per rush).
This isn’t to suggest that Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and company CAN’T stop the run — but in 2024 it’s common to see pretty much all of the league’s best overall defenses also happen to feature the game’s most elite groups at defending the pass.
Still, the 49ers have allowed five different RBs to clear this number against them this season — and each did so on 18 or fewer carries. Pacheco has ripped off totals of 68, 97, 89 and 130 rushing yards during his last four games.
Yes, the former mark featured his most recent performance against the Ravens. Also yes, Pacheco at least received a whopping 24 rush attempts in that game, reflecting the reality that he’s been an absolute WORKHORSE in recent weeks.
The potential return of Jerick McKinnon (groin, IR) would likely do more to hurt Pacheco’s receiving upside than anything; the backfield’s early-down work has largely belonged to the second-year talent all season long.
While it’d be silly to expect Kansas City to completely lean on Pacheco over Mahomes’ right arm, the second-year talent has totaled at least 20 touches in six of his last eight games as THE running back, ya'll; don’t be surprised if he sees enough work to at a minimum keep the San Fran pass rush honest.
Where does this playoff run rank for Travis Kelce?
It’s up there! 2023 remarkably marks the sixth consecutive postseason that Kelce has averaged at least one TD per game without even rounding up.
- 2018: 5 receptions-66 yards-1 TD
- 2019: 6-69-1
- 2020: 10-120-1
- 2021: 8-100-1
- 2022: 9-86-1
- 2023: 8-87-1
The new all-time postseason leader in receptions, Kelce has saved his finest performances for January and February over the years.
But will it continue against a 49ers defense that has been pretty, pretty, pretty damn good against opposing TEs this season?
49ers vs. TEs:
- Yards per attempt: 6.7 (No. 3)
- Yards after the catch per completion: 4.0 (No. 3)
- Explosive pass play rate: 13.9% (No. 11)
- Passer rating: 88.3 (No. 5)
Kudos to Sam LaPorta (9-97-0) on his stellar NFC Championship performance; just realize he joins Trey McBride (10-102-0) and T.J. Hockenson (11-86-0) as the only TEs to clear 60 yards against this group this season.
Jan 28, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens during the first half in the AFC Championship football game at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
While the 49ers haven’t exactly played their best defense in back-to-back wins over the Packers and Lions, those are also objectively two of the game’s better offenses. This same sentiment certainly applies to Kelce and company when clicking; just realize we still haven’t exactly seen this Chiefs offense fire on ALL cylinders anytime recently. Overall, Kansas City has gone nine consecutive games without scoring 30-plus points — tied for the fifth-longest active streak in the league, and a mark THREE TIMES as long as their previous long streak during the Mahomes era.
Just how special has Rashee Rice’s rookie campaign been?
Rather spectacular. Puka Nacua (understandably) has gotten most of the shine this season when it comes to rookie WRs, but Rice’s per-route performance is also up there with some legit studs.
However, Rice has gone about picking up his yardage a bit differently. His 5.2-yard average target depth is easily the lowest mark of that above-esteemed group and ranked dead last in 2023 among 80 WRs with at least 50 targets.
The Chiefs haven’t made a habit of asking the YAC-merchant to operate too far past the line of scrimmage, but maybe that’s because Rice has been rather incredible with the football in his hands.
- Yards after the catch per reception: 8.3 (No. 2 among all WRs with 25-plus targets)
- ESPN Analytics YAC Receiving Rating: 73 (No. 3)
- Next-Gen Stats yards after the catch above expected per reception: +1.9 (tied for No. 9)
There have been a few glimpses of Rice winning downfield, although more highlights than not feature the rookie simply winning on quick-hitting screens or by finding the soft spot in zone coverage.
Ultimately, Rice has been incredibly consistent in racking up receptions, totaling at least six catches in seven of his last nine games. Only Kelce (103) has more total targets than Rice (78) against primary zone-coverage looks; no other Chiefs player has reached even 50-such opportunities. Don’t be surprised if more quick-hitting opportunities keep coming Rice’s way against a 49ers defense that has run the 10th-highest rate of zone coverage this season.
Who will Mahomes look to beyond Kelce and Rice?
Recently the answer has been their $30 million WR, as Marquez Valdes-Scantling actually led all WRs in route participation rate during the AFC Championship.
While this regular season (21-315-1) was a big step back from what Valdes-Scantling accomplished in 2022 (42-687-2), “Playoff MVS” has become a real phenomenon. Consider: Valdes-Scantling caught just three passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield all regular season — only to match that total over the past two weeks alone against the Ravens and Bills.
It’s not like MVS hasn’t missed in the playoffs — he’s still finished with under 10 receiving yards in three of his six postseason games with the Chiefs — but his other 6-116-1, 2-62-0 and 2-38-0 performances have gone a long way toward providing a real semblance of a deep threat. Let’s face it: The bar hasn’t been too high at the position in the absence of Tyreek Hill.
I doubt anyone expected Valdes-Scantling to ice the AFC Championship with a downfield contested catch against the best defense in football — but that happened! Kudos to MVS for overcoming some truly brutal drops in the regular season; don’t be surprised if he gets at least one or two downfield shot plays this Sunday.
Is Brock Purdy just a ho-hum game manager?
That said: Talking Purdy is like talking politics.
Supporters can simply point to our most trusted efficiency metrics that paint him as a legit top-five QB in the league.
Meanwhile, critics can lean on the reality that this offense is absolutely LOADED at essentially every position. Purdy probably has the position’s best combination of Jimmy’s and Joe’s as well as X’s and O’s.
At the end of the day, the Shanahan-Purdy pairing has produced legit S-tier results: The 49ers rank first in EPA per play (+0.141), yards per play (6.3) and TD drive percentage (32%) since he took over in Week 13 of 2022.
But will the good times keep on rolling against the NFL's only team to not allow 30-plus points in a game this season? The 2023 Chiefs currently join the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers and 2013 Seahawks as the best postseason defenses in terms of points allowed per game. Pretty good company!
My favorite Purdy prop for Sunday actually has to do with his legs; don’t be surprised if the Chiefs make life TOUGH on this passing game. After all, only the Browns, Ravens, Jets and Panthers held opposing QBs to fewer DraftKings points per game this season.
Does Christian McCaffrey have a legit chance to win MVP?
While the award is certainly QB heavy, “only” 32 of 57 (56%) of Super Bowl MVPs have gone to the position, including 14 of the last 24 (58%) since the new millennium.
Maybe just maybe the artist known as Run CMC has something to say about this. As Fantasy Life’s Dwain McFarland noted in his critically acclaimed Utilization Report: McCaffrey has the strongest Super Bowl RB utilization profile we have seen in 23 years.
Jan 28, 2024; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions during the second half of the NFC Championship football game at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Seven RBs have taken home Super Bowl MVP honors with the most recent being Terrell Davis. They averaged 160.7 total yards and 1.7 TDs in their award-winning performance. Consider, CMC has averaged 126.8 total yards and 1.4 TDs this season while managing to attach 115-plus total yards to two TDs on six separate occasions throughout the year (33% of his games!).
Who would you have picked to win MVP in the 49ers’ last two games?
- Divisional Round: Purdy (252 pass yards, 1 TD), McCaffrey (128 total yards, 2 TD)
- NFC Championship: Purdy (267 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), McCaffrey (132 total yards, 2 TD)
Throw in the reality that this Chiefs defense has been far more elite against the pass (No. 3 in EPA allowed per dropback) than the run (No. 28 in EPA allowed per rush) this season, and it would hardly be surprising to see Kyle Shanahan and company embrace more of run-first game plan centered around their workhorse RB.
What 49ers pass-catchers will most likely be featured?
The Chiefs play man coverage at a top-10 rate BUT also provide plenty of safety help over the top: This is the league’s only defense to spend at least half of their snaps with the middle of the field open, which accounts for most traditional two-high looks such as Cover-2, Cover-4, Cover-6 and 2-Man among others.
Purdy's target distribution against defenses leaving the middle of the field open:
We see the same story/order when looking at the target distribution vs. the specific coverages independent of the safety alignment: Kittle has usually been the odd man out in these sorts of circumstances.
This is one of a few reasons why I’m a big fan of Kittle going UNDER 23.5 receiving yards (+475 at DraftKings): Obviously, the 49ers’ stud TE is awesome, but he’s also seen fewer than five targets in eight games this season inside this crowded passing game, leading to him finishing under this mark on four separate occasions. This Chiefs secondary was a top-10 group at limiting opposing TE receiving yardage; these odds seem steep for someone who could simply be game-planned into more of a block-first role this week.
Only the Ravens allowed fewer yards per pass attempt to WRs aligned out wide than the Chiefs this season; it’d make sense if the sledding is tougher than usual for Aiyuk, even if the stud fourth-year WR is certainly capable of making the most out of potentially limited opportunities.
Look for CMC and Deebo to lead the way this week. The latter player certainly looked healthy in the NFC Championship despite playing through the pain of a shoulder injury, as Deebo forced a whopping eight missed tackles on 11 touches. Not too shabby!
How key is 49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk to this offense?
Well, they have averaged a whopping +0.148 EPA per play when he’s been on the field this season — a mark that tops every other offense in the NFL.
Part of the allure here is the FB’s ability to accomplish just about anything on a football field. Juszczyk has truly been head coach Kyle Shanahan’s queen chess piece; the man lines up EVERYWHERE.
- Backfield: 187 snaps (33.3%)
- Inline: 183 (32.6%)
- Slot: 112 (20%)
- Wide: 78 (14%)
Hell, in Week 8 Juszczyk even took a snap under center at QB and converted a tush push for the first down. The husband of the year also made waves with his unrelenting support of his wife’s objectively dope jackets; Kristin has since landed a licensing deal with the NFL.
While the eight-time Pro Bowler and 2023 first-team All-Pro has only received 22 touches this season, his blocking has remained an integral piece of Shanahan’s ever-efficient rushing attack. Throw in some legit smoothness as a receiver both on the sideline and downfield — and you have one pretty, pretty, pretty important cog inside of the league’s third-ranked scoring offense.
Should Jauan Jennings be celebrated for everything he does?
Abso-lutely. Will you just look at this man block?
Jennings has only caught 25 total passes this season, but that’s mostly because Brock Purdy generally has a ton of other avenues to go with the football.
As the third-year receiver has demonstrated in the playoffs: Jennings (5-61-0 vs. the Packers) is capable of making some big plays as a receiver when forced into a bigger role, while his remarkable one-handed catch against the Lions last week reinforced the “3rd and Jauan” nickname.
Only two WRs received a run-blocking grade of at least 80.0 in 2023 from PFF: Puka Nacua (80.4) and Jennings (80.1). Whether it’s leading up into the teeth of the defense, or putting in all the effort in the world to get his teammate an extra few yards of YAC: Jennings is a big reason why the 49ers ranked first and fourth in explosive pass and run play rate this season.
I’m backing the Chiefs to win this one 20-10 in a rather boring affair defined more by defensive excellence than anything else. But then again, what the hell do I know?
Enjoy the game everyone and may the betting gods be in your favor!