by Eric Fulton
Super Bowl LIV, the final game of the National Football League’s 100th season on February 2, sees the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers take on the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
The 49ers, looking for their sixth Super Bowl win (which would tie the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots for the most ever in the Super Bowl era), are making their first appearance in the Super Bowl since losing to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. For the Chiefs, Super Bowl LIV will be their first appearance in 50 years when they defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Let’s take a look at the matchups and see where each team has the advantage …
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes v. Jimmy Garoppolo
Super Bowl LIV sees two great young quarterbacks facing off for the second time. The last time they were on the field together, Garoppolo injured his knee forcing him to miss the rest of the season in 2018. Patrick Mahomes, a former MVP in the 2018 season has continued to be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He had a scary knee injury earlier this season, but came back to help lead Kansas City to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years.
Garoppolo: 3,978 yards passing, 27 TDs 13 INTs. 102 passer rating.
Mahomes: 4.031 yards passing, 26 TDs, 5 INTs, 105.3 passer rating.
Advantage: While the passing yards and touchdown passes are nearly even, Mahomes has thrown less picks, plus he can been a major factor running the football. Mahomes and the Chiefs have the advantage.
Running Back: LeSean McCoy v. Raheem Mostert
A veteran player versus a player who did not have a home until he joined the 49ers. McCoy, who played under Andy Reid in Philadelphia is making his first trip to the Super Bowl. While he did not have many rushing attempts this season, he is helping with pass blocking game. Mostert was cut by five other NFL teams before finding a home with San Francisco. He had a breakout game in the NFC championship game rushing for 220 yards, the second most rushing yards in a playoff game behind hall of famer Eric Dickerson.
McCoy: 101 carries, 465 yards, 4.6 yards per rush 4TDs
Mostert: 137 carries, 772 yards, 5.6 yards per rush 8 TDs
Advantage: Mostert’s performance in the playoffs has been huge for the 49ers’ run-first offense. With Tevin Coleman possibly unavailable for the Super Bowl due to a shoulder injury, Mostert will have to carry the load for San Francisco. If Mostert plays well again, the 49ers will have a great shot winning the Super Bowl.
Wide Receivers: Sammy Watkins & Tyreek Hill vs. Emmanuel Sanders & Deebo Samuel
Both the 49ers and Chiefs have wide receivers that can make plays. The question will be which quarterback will make the fewest mistakes when it comes to getting the ball to their playmakers. Hill is obviously dangerous because of his speed to run after the catch. Watkins is pretty fast himself. Samuel has had a great rookie season in San Francisco and it helps him having a veteran like Sanders, who was acquired by the 49ers via a trade midseason from the Denver Broncos.
Watkins: 52 receptions, 673 yards 3 TDs, Hill: 58 receptions, 860 yards, 7 TDs.
Samuel: 52 Receptions 802 yards 3 TDs, Sanders: 66 receptions, 869 yards, 5 TDs.
Advantage: While numbers advantage the 49ers, the abilities of the Chiefs receivers when it comes to making big plays with Mahomes as their quarterback gives them the edge. Garoppolo only threw the ball eight times in the NFC Championship game. So it looks as though the 49ers will be committed to running the ball more in the Super Bowl.
Tight End: Travis Kelce vs. George Kittle
You don’t hear this much, but tight end is by far the best matchup in the Super Bowl. It is strength vs. strength. Most people will tell you that Kelce and Kittle are the two best tight ends in the NFL today and both players are valuable to their respected quarterbacks. Expect both players to have a big play or two in Super Bowl XLV.
Kelce: 97 receptions, 1229 yards 5 TDs.
Kittle: 85 receptions, 1053 yards, 5 TDs.
Advantage: This is as close as you can get. Both are All-Pro caliber tight ends. For this game, I think Kelce will have more catches, but Kittle will be the bigger force in the game.
Both teams have familiar names on defense who have played in Super Bowls such as Terrell Suggs for Kansas City and Richard Sherman in San Francisco. Players who are key contributors are Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu for the Chiefs. For the 49ers, Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner provide a one-two punch on the defensive front. While Dre Alexander and Kwon Alexander are a big strength on the linebacker side.
Chiefs – Allowed 394.6 yards per game (17th best in the NFL)
49ers – Allowed 281.8 (2nd best in the NFL)
Advantage: For the 49ers, they have to limit the big play ability of Patrick Mahomes. With better defensive players, the 49ers do have an advantage to dominant the line of scrimmage and be able to shut down the Chiefs’ passing game.
Special Teams: Harrison Butker & Dustin Colquitt vs. Robbie Gould & Mitch Wishnowsky
Two of the NFL’s best kickers will be in the big game as both Butker and Gould have shown to come through for their teams in the clutch. Colquitt has the experience over the rookie Wishnowsky, but Wishnowsky has a 65 yard punt and 23 punts inside the 20 to his credit.
Butker: 34 of 38 FGs made, 56 long. Gould: 23 of 31 FGs made, 47 long.
Colquitt: 48 punts 44.3 yard average. Wishnowsky: 52 punts 44.9 yard average.
Advantage: The Chiefs have the advantage in this one because of the great one two punch of Butker and Colquitt. If the game is really tight, it may come down to a field goals and punting that could win the game.
Coaching: Andy Reid vs. Kyle Shanahan
Two great offensive minds collide in the Super Bowl in a classic “Youth vs. Experience” game. Each has experienced heartbreaking losses in a Super Bowl. Reid, while the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles lost Super Bowl XXXIX to the New England Patriots. While Shanahan was the offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons as they also lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI in stunning comeback fashion.
Advantage: Shanahan can prove he can call a really good game, but it was not all his fault the Falcons blew an epic 28-3 lead in Super Bowl XLI. For him, this is redemption as he looks to join his father, Mike as a Super Bowl winning head coach. For Reid, this is all about winning one Super Bowl to solidify his place as one of the greatest head coaches ever. He is going to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. All he needs now is a Super Bowl to crystalize the legacy. I would say experience has the advantage on this one.
Prediction: This has the potential to be a classic Super Bowl. San Francisco is 2-0 in Super Bowls held in Miami, while Kansas City has the coaching and quarterback advantage. However, I think the 49ers have a stronger running game and the better defense.
Final: 49ers 30, Chiefs 27.
by Preston Tolliver
On Dec. 13, 2013, I drove a few hours to visit a friend in Stillwater, Okla. We had tickets to see the Oklahoma City Thunder host the Los Angeles Lakers. We were big Thunder fans, but the obvious reason for making the drive was to see a basketball legend play before he left the court for good.
For those who have slept too much or drank heavily since then, 2013 was not Kobe Bryant's best year. He had by that point entered the twilight of his career, and as I wrote during his last year in 2016, he was flaring out more than he was fading away from the game gracefully. That night in December 2013, he scored only four points but notched 13 assists. It wasn't the most exciting performance to watch, but I earned a badge of honor: I got to see the Mamba play.
I didn't grow up a Lakers fan. Quite the opposite, actually. I was raised on the Chicago Bulls, and when I reached the age of being able to think for myself and look past the legacy Michael Jordan left in Chicago, I became a Boston Celtics diehard. I fell away from basketball after Jordan's retirement and picked it back up around 2008, falling in love with the Celtics core of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Lakers were the obvious enemy, and Kobe their general. Every Finals series between the sworn rivals were wars, and Kobe came out on top more than my Celtics crew. To be frank, I hated the man.
But there's a line between hate and respect. I respected how good Bryant was at what he did; I just despised that he kept doing it to my favorite team. Over time, as the Celtics descended into a D-League team built around Kelly Olynyk and I began to see my enemy not the Lakers, but the Celtics management, I began to even like watching Bryant play. Love him or hate him, he made each game special.
Kobe Bryant's legacy is controversial, both on and off the court. On the court, he was the greatest guard we've seen this side of Michael Jordan (and arguably the only player who matched Jordan's intense desire to win), but he also wasn't shy to shoot the ball more than he should (his legendary swan song, his last game, he scored 60 points on 50 shots). Off the court, he was a philanthropist and a leader for up-and-coming players (including his daughter, Gianna, who was also killed in Sunday's crash), though he could never escape questions surrounding his rape allegations.
Those questions and criticisms will forever be branded on Bryant's legacy, but what's indisputable is what he meant to the game of basketball. He wasn't just the successor to Michael Jordan, and he wasn't just the face of an organization with one of the most storied histories in the league. For a long time, he was the face of the league, and his impression lives in it. He was the inspiration for players the league over, and continued to train players after retirement (he even crossed battle lines to help Celtics star Jayson Tatum). Without Kobe Bryant, the NBA doesn't exist as it does today.
Bryant was a 5-time NBA champion, a 2-time Finals MVP, the 2008 league MVP, an 18-time All Star (even getting voted in by fans during those horrid final years), and a 2-time Olympics gold medalist. Even though he's been off the court for almost four years, his death still leaves a giant hole in the NBA.
Following his death, L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers - who previously coached the Celtics - said, "We're all Lakers today." I never thought I'd say that, much less hear the coach of the Lakers' two biggest rivals say it, but he's right: We're all Lakers today.
by Julian Spivey & Preston Tolliver
David Stern's Legacy
David Stern, who served as the NBA’s Commissioner from 1984-2014, died on January 1 at the age of 77. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage on December 12, 2019 and never recovered.
I’m sure a lot of people don’t remember this – it was before mine and Preston’s time – but it wasn’t all that long ago (less than half a century) when the NBA Finals were shown on television via tape delay. Because the professional sport of basketball wasn’t important enough in the TV ratings to show it over regularly scheduled programming. In 2020 that seems ridiculous. Now, some credit bringing the NBA to the forefront of the sports world to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and later Michael Jordan – and all three had an immeasurable impact on the game, but the success of the NBA not only in the U.S.A., but worldwide, happened to coincide with the commissionership of David Stern. The NBA went from something that’s biggest games could only be seen after your nightly local news hours after they ended to a must-see sport that’s second or third in the country in viewership. Now, like with any commissioner in any sport there were controversies during Stern’s tenure (which was the longest of any commissioner in the history of pro sports) that’ll also be a part of his legacy – like the trade blocking of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers or the lockouts and strikes that took place under his leadership – but, Stern was clearly one of the biggest influences and impactors in NBA history. JS
I wasn’t a fan of the NBA before David Stern took the league’s iron throne as commissioner. Actually, I wasn’t even born. I didn’t know a league sans-Stern until 2014, when he retired and handed the reins to Adam Silver.
When you’re raised in a nice house, with a sturdy roof over your head, you don’t really question how it got there, or who poured the concrete to keep it standing amid the storms. David Stern built the foundation for what the NBA is today, mostly in ways that today’s casual fans take for granted for having never known a world in which the NBA wasn’t a global powerhouse. To imagine an NBA without his influence is to imagine the world without the NBA at all. PT
Player of the Decade: LeBron or Steph
This topic was inspired by a New York Times piece deciding whether or not LeBron James or Stephen Curry was the NBA’s Player of the Decade for 2010-2019. It’s almost an impossible question to answer as the two were arguably the two best professional athletes in any team sports of the decade, not just the NBA, but ultimately the publication decided that Curry was the player of the decade.
In December, Eric Fulton and I published a 40 Best Athletes of the Decade piece for this very website. LeBron James was chosen as the greatest athlete of the decade. LeBron James was ranked as the greatest athlete of the decade. Stephen Curry was ranked sixth.
So, according to that you’re probably thinking I’m about to disagree with the New York Times’ choice of Curry as the greatest NBA player of the decade … but I’m not.
How can I choose Curry, who in a previous piece admitted wasn’t ranked as high as LBJ when it came to athletes of the decade, as the NBA player of the decade?
The reason is I agree with the New York Times’ reasoning for choosing Curry. Impact on the game.
James might have been the best player statistically in the NBA, but Curry changed the way the game was played in the NBA. Now almost every team in the league has adapted Curry’s style of three-point shooting as the way to go – you can argue amongst yourselves whether that’s a positive or negative impact on the game. It’s been a long time since the NBA has seen one athlete almost single-handedly change the way the game is played and that’s Curry, not James. JS
It’s almost unfair to try to determine the athlete of the decade when two men singlehandedly carried the league throughout the 2010s; LeBron James was the King in the first half before handing the throne to Steph Curry to finish out on top of the decade. But recency bias be damned, we cannot forget how LeBron carried the league on his shoulders, like a cyborg Atlas.
While Curry and his lights out, unreasonable and absolutely unfair shooting from behind the 3-point arc have been game-changing as we head to a new era (for more on how the game has transitioned to one with significantly more 3-pointers, check out Kirk Goldberry’s SprawlBall, or just turn your tv onto any of these 140-115 point games). But when Curry was just cutting his teeth, LeBron was winning championships, and aside from last year when the Raptors bested the Warriors, he’s been a constant foil to Curry on the road to every Warriors championship. He’s also been more durable, but you can’t blame Curry for being a human being, with human bones and human injuries. LeBron James was created in a Skynet lab and sent back in time to wreak havoc on the basketball court.
Both men bear a large amount of responsibility for how the game of basketball is played today, and it would be fair to argue that shooters like Curry (who is undeniably the best among them) have laid the groundwork for what the NBA will look like in the 2020s. But we can’t forget how LeBron reshaped the 2010s, from his time with Miami to making Cleveland a relevant sports city again to rejuvenating the Lakers today. We’ve never had an argument about Steph Curry being better than Michael Jordan - LeBron made his case for best in NBA history over the last 10 years. PT
Kawhi Leonard is arguably a top-3 player in the NBA today. He’s a two-time Finals MVP and one of the best defenders we’ve seen this side of Scottie Pippen. He’s also, speaking from experience, the worst freakin’ guy for a fantasy team.
That’s not because he’s one of those players whose impact on the court is unquantifiable in the stat book (he is). It’s because load management has made his impact on a fantasy team into a game of Russian Roulette - when he plays, he’s great. But you’re relying on a big if, especially if he’s on a back-to-back.
Fantasy sports aside, it also devalues the game for the average NBA fan. When you’re in a city like Orlando or Memphis or, God help you, Atlanta, you don’t have a lot to look forward to with your team. You’re not making a big playoff push, and you’re taking more L’s on the home court than wins. The draw, at that point is to see the stars play when they come to town: to catch LeBron drop a thousand points on your team; to see Steph Curry shoot fireballs into the net like in NBA Jam; to see Joel Embiid make fun of someone’s mom (or whatever it is he says to piss everyone off all the time). The very concept of load management is a middle finger to the fans who, unlike NBA players, aren’t swimming in vaults full of millions of dollars like Scrooge McDuck; fans who are spending their hard-earned money to see their favorite players.
So, what should coaches change to fix this problem? Not a damned thing. A coach’s responsibility is to his team and his players to ensure the best odds of raising a championship trophy at the end of the season. If a coach determines the best thing to do is to assign his star player 48 or 20 or five or zero minutes, that’s his prerogative. That doesn’t mean the league shouldn’t find a way to fix it so they can retain fans (and all their money) - they should - but a coach should take advantage of whatever rules are there to win the game.
In the old Mortal Kombat games, there was a trick to winning each fight - you got your opponent to the side of the screen and ducked down and spammed the low kick button until your opponent died of a mild shin injury. It was cheap and frustrating, but you bet your ass I did it. Was I wrong? Maybe, but it was on the game to fix it. Until the league fixes its play requirements for players, let the coaches span the low kick button. PT
The NBA considers load management one of the biggest issues it has to face. So much, in fact, that it might consider future rules to enforce teams to play athletes unless the league is certain they are unhealthy.
I’m old school in that I want players on the court if healthy, and even to some extent if just suffering from mild injuries or illnesses. I appreciate the LeBron James of the world, who even at an advanced age for the NBA, say that if they’re healthy they’re playing. That’s the kind of professional work ethic we should all strive to have. Players like Kawhi Leonard intentionally sitting so they can be in better shape for the playoffs might be a good strategy – it obviously worked out well for Leonard and the Toronto Raptors last season while Golden State Warriors stars were dropping like flies – but it makes me view Leonard as soft. As long as Leonard is hoisting championship trophies though I’m sure he’s OK with a fat guy on his couch in Arkansas viewing him as soft.
Despite the fact that load management annoys me I’m in line with Preston in viewing it as a strategy for coaches and athletes of the league to take advantage of … if it isn’t illegal, go for it. We have at least some evidence that load management is effective. And, as much as it annoys me, I don’t believe the NBA should step up and try to ensure that this doesn’t happen – even if it impacts fans spending money or TV ratings – because I just don’t believe the league should have this much control over how franchises strategize. JS
Decline in TV Ratings
The NBA is arguably stacked with the most talent in its history. Players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis make any game must-watch. So why are ratings down?
The fact that this season has been cursed with injuries to some of its biggest stars notwithstanding, the league is facing the same problem a lot of others are. We live in the cord-cutting era, and the NBA’s streaming service, League Pass, is unreliable and flaky at best. The cost alone makes it difficult for the casual fan, and blackouts for local channels and nationally-televised games makes it money not well spent, not to mention that the cost only permits the viewer to choose a couple select teams to follow. If the NBA is really concerned about ratings, it would be wise to offer a more affordable streaming service that makes games more accessible. PT
Preston makes a great point about cord-cutting, which has definitely affected the ratings for literally everything on television over the last half-decade or so. Cord-cutting has proven to be a major factor in the decline of sports viewing in this country as many in the younger generations are giving up cable and other traditional means of TV viewing for the cheaper outlets of streaming (though with some many streaming services popping up it’ll soon be less cost saving to do so if you want everything), which has harmed all live events (award show ratings have been in decline too). But I think the biggest impact this season is something Preston briefly touched upon – the injuries to major superstars. If you were to rank the most popular athletes in the NBA, I believe that LeBron James would rank first, followed closely by Stephen Curry and then probably Kevin Durant would come in third. Curry played less than four games this season before suffering a broken hand that looks to have him missing the remaining of the season and Durant was never going to set foot on court for his new team the Brooklyn Nets this season due to a major injury sustain in the playoffs last season. If two of the league’s three most popular and arguably best players aren’t able to lace up their sneakers it’s going to impact the ratings, especially in a sport that always been more athlete and personality driven than team driven. It also doesn’t help that injuries to Curry and Klay Thompson and the loss of Durant have relegated perhaps the league’s most popular and most-watched team of the last half decade in the Golden State Warriors to a league’s second worst win-loss record of the season. JS