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Fantasy Index Weekly

Super Bowl Preview: San Francisco

Overall talent edge favors 49ers

49ers: San Francisco's status as slight favorites surprises us, as noted yesterday, but we're not underestimating the NFC champs. On paper, they're better at a lot of positions: running back, receiver, and on defense. Four years ago they were winning in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV.

Christian McCaffrey is the key player. The game's best running back the past few years is finally on the NFL's biggest stage, and he's sure been great getting there -- especially the last two weeks. McCaffrey has run for 90-98 yards and 2 TDs in each playoff game, while also catching 11 passes for 72 more. Dipping back into the regular season he's gone over 125 total yards in seven of his last eight games, with 11 total touchdowns.

Further good news for those lucky enough to have McCaffrey on their side this week is that Kansas City has been vulnerable to the run. During the season they were just 18th in run defense, allowing an average of 132 rushing yards in their five losses, but half (5) of the 10 touchdowns they gave up on the ground. They've tightened things up some in the playoffs, holding Miami and Baltimore to 76-81 yards, but the Dolphins fell way behind and the Ravens curiously didn't even attempt to run the ball. Buffalo ran for 182 (110 if you remove Josh Allen from the equation). Regardless, San Francisco (3rd in rushing during the season, and averaging 133 yards on the ground even while trailing most of their playoff games) should emphasize the run, and have some success doing it. Even if it didn't, McCaffrey's involvement as a receiver (averaging 4 catches for 35 yards during the season, with 7 touchdowns) would ensure he'd finish with the week's best running back numbers.

Elijah Mitchell scored a late touchdown against Detroit, but doesn't look particularly likely to have much of a role in this game. Mitchell played only one snap against Green Bay, and didn't touch the ball until the final minutes against Detroit, getting his first carry (the touchdown) a play after McCaffrey got shaken up on a 25-yard run to the 3-yard line, then the final three carries with San Francisco's sole aim to take 40 seconds off the clock on the final series. If the game is close, McCaffrey won't necessarily come off the field at all. Only the thought that San Francisco will emphasize the run more than usual has us thinking Mitchell could maybe get a few carries along the way, but San Francisco would need to take a sizable lead to really think Mitchell will be busy.

Brock Purdy had an MVP-caliber season, then made plays late in both playoff wins. He's not just a game manager or along for the ride, as some of his critics would charge. But in general, he's been shaky down the stretch, starting with the 4-interception faceplant against the Ravens, and continuing through a pair of playoff games where he mostly struggled for a half to three quarters, before pulling it out in the end. Even if he were playing as well as he was for most of the season, this is a very tough matchup. Kansas City ranked 4th in pass defense, allowing just 197 yards per game and 19 touchdown passes, and it's kept that going in the playoffs. Tua Tagovailoa and Josh Allen both finished under 200 yards. Those guys and Lamar Jackson (272, most of which came in the second half with Baltimore down two scores) each threw only 1 touchdown. Kansas City ranked 2nd in sacks (57), though it had only 8 interceptions. But a very tough group to pass against, and a lot more likely San Francisco emphasizes the run. About 240 yards and 1 TD sounds fair; he averaged 268 and 2 during the season, and 260 and 1 the last two weeks. Tough matchup, and definitely a week to lean on the ground game as much as possible. Purdy himself has carried 11 times for 62 yards in the postseason, though that's not usually a big part of his game (9 per game during the season, with 2 TDs).

With the receiving corps, there are three elite talents, and any one of them could be the most productive pass catcher. During the season, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle each led the team in receiving yards five-plus times. Aiyuk averaged 84 yards per game, Samuel (including rushing) averaged 75 and Kittle 64. All three averaged 4-5 receptions and caught 6-7 touchdowns. Kittle (4 for 81, TD) was best against Green Bay, with Samuel getting hurt early, but Samuel returned to lead the way against Detroit (8 for 89), while Aiyuk went for 68 yards and a touchdown while Kittle caught only 2 for 27. Samuel ran for 5 touchdowns during the season, making him look like the best scorer, although there's also greater potential for him to leave with an injury. Not much separation between these players in the rankings, but we're making Samuel the best bet.

Jauan Jennings caught 5 for 61 against Green Bay, but that was with Samuel leaving early. More commonly, he's the 5th target (behind McCaffrey, Kittle and the top 2 wideouts); during the season he caught 19 passes and 1 TD in 13 contests. Unlikely he's a big factor, and the other wideouts who might play a few snaps (Chris Conley, Ray-Ray McCloud) aren't considerations -- weren't targeted against the Lions.

If fullback Kyle Juszczyk cracks the box score, it's more likely to be as a receiver than runner. He caught 2 for 33 against the Lions, with a critical sideline grab, and 14 passes and 2 TDs during the season. Just 6 carries all year (including the playoffs), and he didn't touch the ball at all in about half (9) of his games. (San Francisco threw only 5 passes in the direction of the other tight ends on their roster all season, so they can be disregarded for fantasy purposes.)

If the game comes down to a late field goal attempt, how confident can the 49ers be in rookie Jake Moody? He missed from 48 yards (one blocked) in each of the previous playoff games. Only three teams allowed fewer field goals than Kansas City during the season, so Moody won't necessarily be getting on the field much anyway.

The 49ers Defense can perhaps draw optimism from the Super Bowl encounter with Patrick Mahomes four years ago. Though it lost that game, it sacked him 4 times and recorded 2 interceptions. This postseason, however, Mahomes hasn't turned it over in three games while taking a total of 2 sacks. San Francisco had a top-10 pass rush (48 sacks) and shared the league lead with 22 interceptions, but Mahomes is a bad matchup for sacks (29 in 19 total games) and though he threw 14 interceptions, the last of those was 5 games ago. Definitely seems like the less favorable defensive matchup in this game. San Francisco used Deebo Samuel some on returns this season, but judiciously scrapped that against Detroit, putting Ray-Ray McCloud back deep (and he's not a weapon in that regard).

Next: Super Bowl Rankings.

--Andy Richardson

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