LAS VEGAS — Magicians are still a marquee attraction in this town.
Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Shin Lim — the faces of these masters of the dark arts are plastered up and down The Strip, and they sell out arenas night after night.
But there’s a new magician in town this week, and he’s taken top billing in Sin City.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes defies logic on the football field, making him the main attraction for the biggest Super Bowl spectacle in NFL history.
And for 60 minutes on Sunday, the 49ers defense’s job is to find a way to limit the Houdini of Missouri’s pigskin sleight of hand.
It’s a task that no one in the NFL has quite figured out. This is Mahomes and the Chiefs’ fourth Super Bowl in the last five seasons — a run that started with a matchup against the Niners in Super Bowl LIV in 2020.
The 49ers couldn’t stop Mahomes then — his incredible fourth-quarter comeback in that game still haunts the Niners who played in it.
But they stand a better shot now.
So, how do you stop Patrick Mahomes?
You do what the 49ers have done snap after snap this season: rush four and drop seven into zone coverage.
For a defense that enters Sunday’s game of games amid a bad run of form, the fact that “doing what they do” is the best path to victory comes as a comfort.
So let’s break it down:
The first rule of playing Mahomes is that if you blitz him, you’re dead.
He’s too smart and too clever not to make you pay for being aggressive. For every person that rushes the quarterback beyond the typical four, there is a spot or player on the field left open. Mahomes always finds it.
When Mahomes was not blitzed this season, his pass rating was 92.6. (It was a down year for the quarterback.)
When teams blitzed him, however, that rating jumped to 97.
With a Hall of Fame duo of Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs can score against any defense. But with a lackluster supporting cast around that duo, the Chiefs prefer to face man-to-man defenses (often stemming from a blitz) than zone looks.
This is much different than the last time the 49ers played the Chiefs in October of last season — this year, Kansas City’s offense is more basic, and, outside of Kelce, it lacks receivers who can find the gaps that develop in zone defenses as plays are extended. (Unlike the Lions, who saw Amon-Ra St. Brown pick the Niners’ zone defense apart on third downs in the NFC Championship Game.)
This season, including playoffs, Mahomes has a passer rating of 108 against man defense, throwing 21 touchdowns to just four interceptions. That, obviously, is very good.
But against a zone defense, he only has a passer rating of 87.6, with as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns.
And no one plays more zone (80 percent) or is better in it (76.2 passer rating against) than the 49ers.
So don’t reinvent the wheel for this game — keep playing zone.
Now, success with this defensive scheme will be predicated on three things:
1. Can the Niners limit the Chiefs run game? (Kansas City won’t pass if they don’t have to.)
2. Can the Niners consistently pressure Mahomes with their four-man defensive line?
3. Can the back end remain sound and smart in coverage if Mahomes can extend plays?
The 49ers’ run defense is much maligned going into this game despite allowing the third-fewest rushing yards in the league this season. Recent middling performances against the Packers and Lions have folks forgetting that stat.
Regardless, I like how they match up against Kansas City.
The Chiefs were among the worst teams in the NFL in running the ball against nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) formations this season. The Niners prefer to play nickel, allowing cornerback Deommodore Lenoir to slide inside, closer to the ball with a chance to make more plays.
It might not be a dominant run-stopping performance on Sunday. Still, I’d bet that the Chiefs repeat their AFC Championship Game rushing performance where running back Isiah Pacheco averaged 2.8 yards per rush on 24 attempts. (Yet all I’ve heard all week is that he’s a superstar…)
Of course, this battle starts up front for the 49ers. Nick Bosa is an elite run-stopper, in addition to being an All-Pro pass rusher. But the Niners need Arik Armstead to have a massive game — the Chiefs like to run the ball right up the middle — and need whoever is opposite Bosa on the line (Chase Young, Randy Gregory, or even Armstead) to set solid edges, funneling Pacheco, who takes more steps than anyone else in the NFL but isn’t actually fast, into the heart of the Niners’ defense, where linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw can take him out.
It won’t be perfect, but the Niners can manage this task.
Stopping Mahomes in the pass game will be a bit more challenging.
The four-man defensive line has to not only compress Mahomes’ pocket — him waddling, sorry, running is a funny but dangerous sight for a defense — but they need to get home.
The defensive ends should have a field day against the NFL’s worst offensive tackle pairing. If both Bosa and Young do not take advantage of their massive mismatches, Kansas City will win. No further analysis is needed.
But interior pass-rush pressure will be the true determining factor, as those defensive ends have to think as much about containing Mahomes in the pocket as getting their hands on him.
If Young is the make-or-break player of this game, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave is right behind him on the list.
The Niners’ prized free agent signing this past offseason made an immediate impact this season, leading the pass rush as Bosa rounded into football shape after skiping the entirety of training camp.
But hamstring injuries have zapped Hargrave of the burst off the line of scrimmage that makes him a player worth an $84 million contract.
Hargrave’s second half of the season was lackluster — and that’s if we’re being nice.
“I kept feeling it,” Hargrave told me this week. “It was a mind thing.”
But he has played better in the playoffs. He credits the 49ers’ bye week for that.
“That Green Bay game, I felt like I was finally exploding out of my hips, not thinking about anything anymore,” he said.
And seeing as the 49ers had another bye week before this Super Bowl, we might just see the impact player from the fall in February.
If Hargrave can be in Mahomes’ face snap after snap — a tough challenge against Kansas City’s elite center, Creed Humphrey, and right guard, Trey Smith — the Niners could repeat Tampa Bay’s defensive performance from Super Bowl LV, when Mahomes spent all game waddling (sorry… running) for his life, throwing two picks, as the Chiefs only scored nine points.
Now, even if that pressure gets home — outside, inside, or both — it doesn’t matter if the back end isn’t doing its job.
I only need to say one word to 49ers fans to make this point:
One breakdown, one bad pass-off, or one rogue decision to carry a receiver can turn this game.
“Being able to plaster guys late in the down… It’s like playing two different plays in one,” Warner said.
The 49ers’ secondary defense must communicate at an elite level on Sunday to win.
And for all the deserved flack first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has received this season, coordinating a secondary to handle long-developing plays in zone coverage is his bailiwick.
So, can the 49ers do the three things necessary to slow down Mahomes?
Yes. Yes. And yes.
This game sets up perfectly for San Francisco. They only need to find that elite defensive form they once showed off weekly for one game, and everything says this could be that contest.
Now, will they?
We’ll find out on Sunday.