San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl Preview

By Thomas Willoughby

Recent history hasn’t been kind to the 49ers. I know it’s difficult to feel too sorry for a team that’s won five Super Bowls (only the Steelers and Patriots have won more), but that run came to an end in 1994. It took them 18 years from their last Super Bowl appearance to make it back to the big dance, and 7 more from then. I’m old enough to remember when the side decided to brad their 2013 season “The Quest for Six”. The quest remains incomplete a decade later.

They’re back, though. A lot has happened, globally, over the past four years, but the 49ers have come through it as good as they’ve been in a long time. Standing in their way is the foe they failed to vanquish in Super Bowl LVIII. This is a different side to the one that couldn’t get it done in Miami, though. Smarter, and certainly more talented, offensively, and capable of frustrating teams defensively. There’s a team in here, to be sure.

The question isn’t can this team win the Super Bowl? We know they’re certainly good enough to. It’s now “If not now, then when?” If they don’t win it this Sunday, what more can they actually do to win it all? Their 2023 season, however, suggests there might be an element of destiny around them.

49ers Season So Far

The San Francisco 49ers 2023 season was largely in line with what we’ve come to expect from the San Francisco 49ers in recent years. They’re good! They’re really good actually. But they have these moments that plant some seeds of doubt in the back of your mind, which tend to flower by the time the season’s end rolls around. We’ll get to that.

Starting 5-0, it felt like the regular season was simply a formality to get us to the 49ers/Eagles Championship Game rematch I’m sure some of us have been dreaming of since Brock Purdy‘s wrist snapped in January. They won by multiple scores in 4 of the opening 5 games, and the one that wasn’t (30-23 win vs Rams) was thanks to a last-second field goal. SO far so blah.

A three-game losing streak in October threatened to make things interesting, however. Trips to Cleveland and Minnesota yielded 19-17 and 22-17 defeats. And they welcomed the Bengals into their own ground only to be slapped 31-17. Cracks were showing, mainly thanks to a plethora of injuries across both sides of the ball. Fortunately, they had a bye week to heal up and get their heads back in the game. Which they did, almost exactly like one particularly smart and cool writer said they would at the time.

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Six wins in a row followed the bye week, including a 42-19 dismantling of the aforementioned Eagles. By then, the 49ers were sat firmly atop the NFC tree. Ending the season 1-2 wasn’t great, though it’s worth remembering that everyone was losing to the Ravens at that point, and all their starters were rested in week 18. Nothing to be concerned about, right?


While the NFC ran through Santa Clara, its visitors felt like they could too. Up first in the Divisional round came the 7th seed Packers, who went into the 4th quarter up 21-14, and will look back wondering what might have been. For the 49ers, just take the W and move on. Put it down to kicking off the rust and move on. A week later, the upstart Detroit Lions come in, and the same questions are being asked, on a grander scale.

Down 24-7 at halftime, incapable of stopping the run, and the season was on the line. And then they remembered they had one of the best offenses in football. 27 unanswered points in the second quarter, an all-out blitz. They did it, they’re back in the big game. Is that second quarter a return to form or a flash in the pan? We’ll find out on Sunday. But let’s make no bones about it, this could have gone another way and we could have had an alternative Super Bowl.

Star Performer

Christian McCaffrey.

Oh, you wanted a bit more? Well, what can you say? The guy is one of two 49ers to be named a finalist for league MVP, and the only non-Quarterback at that. And for good reason. 

He’s an absolute superstar in every sense but breaks the mould in many ways. Most teams’ post-boy isn’t a running back, for one. Most teams wouldn’t give up multiple early-round draft picks to acquire a running back, either, so I guess the 49ers and McCaffrey are made for each other. 

Purely from a play perspective, mind, it’s clear that he’s tailor-made for what the 49ers are trying to do. Or, rather the 49ers are tailor-made to make the most out of McCaffrey. The Kyle Shanahan offense has made superstars out of day 3 draft picks. Putting one of the most physically gifted backs in the league in it has had game-breaking results. McCaffrey leads the league in touches (339), scrimmage yards (2023), and rushing and receiving touchdowns (21). He’s a do-it-all back who literally does it all.

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More than anything, McCaffrey just being available has elevated the 49ers offense. McCaffrey is great. No question about that. He is capable of doing things that very few players can do. So, when he’s injured, as he has been for long stretches of his career, the offense as a whole takes a huge hit. McCaffrey played 16 regular season games this season, being rested in week 18 alongside the rest of his offensive starters. He’s been ever-present, and the 49ers have been better for it.

Under Rated Star

How does one go under the radar on an offense littered with stars in just about every position? How can one be considered underrated when they’re, arguably, the best player in their position, on an offense that’s a top-5 in every meaningful statistic imaginable? Not sure, but that’s something that Kyle Juszczyk has managed to achieve. 

What even is a fullback, anyway? Not quite a running back, not quite a tight end. Something of a jack-of-all-trades, master on none, in most cases. Not necessarily in Juice’s case. He can be involved as a runner, he’s absolutely vital as a blocker. More than anything, he’s a killer as a receiver. As the league forgets the position, the Shanahan offense re-invents it. Juszczyk’s role as a receiver was something that took them to the door of a Super Bowl victory in 2020, notching 39 yards from 3 catches, one of which for a touchdown. His role as a receiver was called into play again in the NFC Championship game, where his catch radius and athleticism was required to keep a vital third-quarter drive alive.

Success in the NFL is determined by how you can create mismatches. By putting an exceptional athlete in a position that most teams don’t bother putting stock into, you’re automatically in a winning position. And if he’s the one opening holes for the best running back in the league, or springing screens open for one of the better do-it-all receivers in the league, all the better for it. Keep an eye on 44, is what I’m saying. He might be the reason the 49ers lift the Lombardi on Sunday.

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Keys to Victory

The Purd is the word – A constant of the 49ers playoff run has been the conversation surrounding the 49ers signal-callers erratic play. Yes, he’s a finalist for the league MVP award. And yes, he’s overseen one of the best offenses in the NFL this season. But it feels like he has more questions hanging over him than ever. If he can channel the game-winning drive vs. the Packers and second half vs. the Lions, we’re looking at a man capable of leading the 49ers to victory, no question. Anything less? I’m not sure this Chiefs defense will allow him the opportunity to feel his way into the game.

McCaffrey and TV – Establish the run, something the Ravens decided to go out of their way to not do in the AFC Championship game. Christian McCaffrey is the best running back in the NFL. Kyle Juszczyk is the best full back in the game. Just pound the rock, man. If anyone knows the value of running the ball effectively in the Super Bowl, it’s Kyle Shannahan. Ahem.

Kill it with Bosa – Both the Lions and the Packers ran all over the 49ers. The Chiefs don’t boast a back of the standard of Aaron Jones or David Montgomery, but they’ve got an offensive mind capable of springing Pacheco and co. for big games. The 49ers have to get a handle on defending the run, and the way they do that? Line Nick Bosa over the Right Tackle. I literally messaged a friend during the Championship game that all of Montgomery’s big runs were to the right, where Chase Young was lining up. 2 plays later Bosa moved over, and notched up 2 sacks and killed the run within about 5 minutes. Just give me a headset and make me a coordinator.

Feature Image Credit: AP News

Thomas Willoughby