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The 49ers can’t afford to look past the NFC Championship game and to Super Bowl LIV in Miami, but that won’t stop everyone else.
And assuming the 49ers win next Sunday in the NFC Championship at Levi’s Stadium, the best match-up for viewing purposes is the one they want the least.
Better to have Derrick Henry coming straight at you with the Tennessee Titans than Patrick Mahomes attacking from every conceivable angle for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the wake of Kansas City’s 51-31 win over the Houston Texans at Arrowhead Stadium, there can be no doubt that Mahomes is the NFL’s transcendent talent and his appearance on the NFL’s biggest stage against a very good 49ers team would be must-see T.V.
It would also be the biggest headache in terms of preparation for 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
There’s no minimizing what Tennessee has accomplished, with Henry putting the Titans on his broad shoulders and bowling over everything in his wake, including the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night. Tennessee owns a 35-32 regular-season win over the Chiefs in Nashville, so it’s not as if Kansas City coach Andy Reid is a lock to get a crack at his first Super Bowl win.
Henry is on an unprecedented run, racking up 195 yards on 30 carries in a 28-12 win over the Ravens one week after gaining 184 yards on 32 carries in a 20-13 win over the New England Patriots.
But postseason football is about quarterbacks. If the 49ers play the Titans, Saleh and his staff can zero in on Henry and force the game into the hands of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Tannehill would love nothing better than to return to Miami, where the Dolphins discarded him as their franchise quarterback.
But there’s reason to believe the 49ers can do a better job handling Henry than either the Patriots or Ravens. They’re coming off bottling up Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota Vikings to 21 yards and 2.1 yards per carry.
And while Cook isn’t Henry, the finally healthy 49ers defense would stand a good chance of keeping Henry from taking over the game.
Mahomes, who was 23 of 35 for 321 yards and five touchdowns against the Texans, would be a much, much more difficult challenge.
All Mahomes’ brilliance was on display Sunday in the face of a 24-0 deficit that had nothing to do with his play. By the time the score was 21-0, the Chiefs had dropped three passes past the stake on third down plays.
Much of the blame for the Texans collapse will be heaped upon coach Bill O’Brien, and he made some questionable decisions.
But the game’s dominant force wasn’t O’Brien’s momentum-killing calls on fourth-and-1 and an ill-advised fake punt. It was Mahomes, who plays with a combination of execution and creativity which hasn’t been seen in the NFL.
The Chiefs scored touchdowns on seven straight red zone possessions, and all O’Brien’s calls did was forestall an inevitable end result.
Since Rich Gannon took the Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002, the AFC quarterback in the Super Bowl has been one of three men — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger. The only outlier was 2012, when Joe Flacco and the Ravens beat the 49ers in New Orleans.
“Tom Brady made a living doing it his way,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said last season. “But Mahomes is on the cutting edge of different, that’s for sure.”
Mahomes would be a welcome fresh face and present the 49ers with their most formidable challenge of the season.
He may be known for throwing downfield, but Mahomes made throws in traffic to tight end Travis Kelce that defied description. They were plays that looked as if they originated on a playground rather than a blackboard or I-pad.
It’s not an original idea, but Mahomes is the closest thing to Steph Curry on a football field. Who else but Mahomes has a play walled off rolling to his left and managed to shotput a touchdown to Kelce through the tightest window possible.
Somehow, Mahomes, whether it was instinct or luck, knew exactly when to throw the ball before crossing the line of scrimmage for the touchdown that put the Chiefs up 28-24 at halftime.
O’Brien had nothing to do with the Chiefs dropping passes early at a ridiculous rate, with Mahomes going to the bench and giving a fire and brimstone talk to his offensive teammates.
The NFL’s MVP in 2018, Mahomes play was in contrast to MVP-to-be Lamar Jackson the previous night in the Ravens loss to the Tennessee Titans. Jackson piled up numbers after Baltimore made mistake after mistake in the first half, couldn’t get the Ravens in the end zone, an will wear the mantel of coming up short in the playoffs until he reverses the tide.
Mahomes has the look of a quarterback who can pull out just about any game, although he knows from experience how difficult it can be.
Just last year, Mahomes had the Chiefs up 28-24 against the New England Patriots. He would have won too, had not Chiefs edge rusher (and current 49er) Dee Ford had not been called for lining up in the neutral zone on a play in which Brady was intercepted by Charvarious Ward.
The turnover nullified, Brady put the Patriots back on top, only for Mahomes to come back with passes of 21 and 27 yards to set up a field goal and send the game into overtime. The Patriots drove for a touchdown after winning the toss, and Mahomes never saw the ball.
Based on what went down Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, Mahomes has no intention of letting it happen again.
The beauty of facing the 49ers is Mahomes would be playing against a team under Kyle Shanahan that could conceivably match them score for score.
Seeing Mahomes attempt to escape, find seams and deliver passes anywhere from sidearm to straight overhand against the 49ers pass rush would be a sublime match-up as well as the toughest one for San Francisco.
Bring it on.