Path to Super Bowl 58 victory? Running the ball with Isiah Pacheco and Christian McCaffrey



Prepare for your grandpa’s Super Bowl, where the champion may **gasp** run to win.

Yes, the passing game dominates in the modern NFL. And this game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers features one quarterback in Brock Purdy, who is coming off an MVP-caliber passing season — against the defending MVP in Patrick Mahomes.

The run defenses in this game are among the worst in Super Bowl history, based on their postseason performances to date. The 49ers are on pace to be the worst Super Bowl-winning defense in history, measured by their 5.6 yards allowed per carry. San Francisco has also allowed five rushing TDs in two playoff games vs. 10 in the entire 17-game regular season.

On the other side of the field, only six Super Bowl winners, including the 2022 Chiefs, allowed more than Kansas City’s current 4.6 yards per carry in their successful postseason runs.

The average Super Bowl-winning defense has allowed an average of 3.8 yards per rush to opponents and a median of 3.7. Only two have allowed at least 5.0 per rush, both this century: the 2009 Saints (5.2) and 2014 Patriots (5.0). Run defense is an afterthought in Super Bowls in modern times. But this game shapes up as the exception to that rule.

The 49ers — favored by two points — don’t want to lean on their passing game. They’d rather play around Purdy. Witness the NFC Championship, where they were trailing by 17 points at halftime and still ran on 53 percent of plays in the second half. Overall, this postseason, in games where they were trailing by seven in the fourth quarter and 17 at halftime, they ran more in the second half (45 percent) than in the first half (42 percent runs). And again, this is an in-game script that strongly dictated second-half passing.

The underdog Chiefs are not the passing-dominant team we’ve come to expect in the Patrick Mahomes Era. Here are their rush splits by playoff year:

Season Run Rate

2021

35.6%

2020

33.7%

2018

36.0%

2019

39.3%

2022

40.9%

2023

46.2%

Given the game is expected to be decided by less than a field goal, the running game is likely to be in play, game-script-wise, for both teams.

We know that Christian McCaffrey is the Niners MVP and probably would have won the award the prior two San Francisco playoff wins. But we’re not hip to the fact that the Chiefs offense now flows through Isiah Pacheco and the running game. Kansas City is not a committee-running team at all. Since November, Pacheco is averaging 20.7 touches per game, a 351 full-season pace. That’s firmly in the rarified bell-cow range.

Yet Pacheco’s MVP odds are 28-to-1. Of course, Mahomes is such a public player that if the Chiefs win, he’s likely to be the MVP with even a middling game, assuming no one else does anything worthy of a headline.

But could that be Pacheco? His rushing O/U is 65.5 yards. In the playoffs so far, he’s averaging 19.5 carries. He’s averaged 4.2 yards per carry. Split the difference between what he’s averaged and what the 49ers allow and that’s an expected 4.9 per carry. At 19.5 carries, that would be 96 yards. He’s also scored a rushing TD in both games and the 49ers have allowed 2.5 per game (though one was on a WR reverse).

He’s minus-120 to score one TD and +475 to score two. Does this seem like it should be 28-to-1 to be the MVP? Does this feel like a RB with an average-ish 65.5 O/U prop, if we accept his recent usage and the Niners’ recent struggles in stopping the run?  Forecasting Pacheco for 100 rushing yards and two scores is hardly a stretch. And that puts him just one highlight play away from history.

The last running back to win Super Bowl MVP? Terrell Davis in 1998 with the Broncos. Davis rushed for 157 yards on 30 carries and scored three touchdowns.

(Photo of Isiah Pacheco: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)





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