PICK SIX – Super Bowl LVIII

That’s it. The 2023 NFL season is in the vault and the big finale at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas rounded it all off in style. Super Bowl LVIII had it all. Travis Kelce screaming into Andy Reid’s face. Taylor Swift downing a beer. Christian McCaffrey and Isaiah Pacheco coughing up fumbles. Mecole Hardman, who started the season with the Jets, catching the winning TD pass seconds away from double-overtime. Back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs for Patrick Mahomes. Talk of footballing dynasties. And while we can’t hope to cover everything from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 25-22 win over the San Francisco 49ers, Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler have picked six talking points for one last time this season.

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Taylor Swift is the NFL’s MVP

We can talk about game-changing plays or poor coaching decisions all we like. The reality is, the NFL is a business, a huge money-making business at that. At the heart of that business is its audience and this year’s Super Bowl attracted the highest US TV audience since Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Bear in mind that 50+ years ago, there were no streaming platforms, no cable TV and far less other entertainment avenues for the average consumer. So the question is, what made this year different? Enter Miss Swift.

It is estimated that as many as 20% of fans tuned in to cheer on the Chiefs just because of Taylor’s connection to Travis Kelce, based on a flash poll conducted by Variety. The TV coverage certainly made sure the pop superstar was featured heavily entering the arena, during the game (chugging a can of beer no less) and of course, the post-match celebrations sealed with a kiss. It may have become a bit of a bone of contention for avid fans but for the casuals, or what the NFL hopes will be ‘new fans’, the impact has been invaluable. 

The league will not be concerned how invested in the actual game these fans are at the moment but will be revelling in the buzz of the product hitting the eyes of an entire new genre of people. Sponsorship money will go through the roof, the international audience will grow and importantly, the sport will make headlines on front pages along with back pages of news coverage. I would warn anyone wanting to see less of this ‘distraction’ next season to be prepared for an awful lot more.

Lamar Jackson may have won the official hardware but have no doubt about it, there really is only one MVP in the eyes of the league this year and she didn’t ever see the field. I would suggest Travis Kelce is under enormous pressure to make that relationship work for a while to come yet. [SB]

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Butker enhances his leg-acy

As well as being an attritional defensive battle, Super Bowl LVIII was also a special teams showcase. In particular, the kickers on both teams excelled.

Although he ended up on the losing side, Jake Moody, the 49ers’ rookie kicker, still had himself a day to remember. In the second quarter, he set a new record for the longest field goal in Super Bowl history when he drilled a 55-yarder between the uprights (a yard further than the previous record). Moody then became the first kicker to make multiple field goals of 50+ yards in a Super Bowl when he banged another one home from 53. He ended up with three FGs in total but did see one of his point-after attempts blocked.

However, his opposite number for the Chiefs had a perfect night. Harrison Butker went 4 for 4 on field goals and nailed his only PAT kick too. As well as successful chip shots from 24, 28 and 29 yards, including the one that took the game to overtime with three seconds on the clock, his tally also included a 57-yarder midway through the third quarter. That set an even-newer benchmark for the longest field goal in Super Bowl history, beating the record that Moody had held for about 25 minutes.

Butker now has nine Super Bowl field goals to his name, which breaks the previous career high of seven, held by both Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski. Butker’s pre-game odds for Super Bowl MVP were even longer than Sam Darnold’s 20,000-1, as he wasn’t even on the list that I saw, but I’d say he gave Mahomes a good run for his money. [ST]

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Niners’ unexpected dual threat

If I’d said before the game that a Niners’ player was going to be a key dual-threat contributor in both of their touchdowns, you may have guessed that Christian McCaffrey had posted rushing and receiving touchdowns, or that Brock Purdy had thrown and rushed for scores. But in fact, despite his team falling short, it was wide receiver Jauan Jennings who came up big when it counted most, with a TD pass as well as a TD reception.

He provided a major spark to the San Francisco offence when the threw the game’s first TD pass on a trick play. Midway through the second quarter, Jennings – out to the left – took a lateral from Brock Purdy but then threw a pass straight back across the field to a waiting Run CMC, who ran it in with ease from 21 yards.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, Jennings capped a 14-play, 75-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown catch from Purdy. He ended the game with four catches for 42 yards and a score, but that lob to McCaffrey makes him just the sixth non-QB ever to throw a TD pass in the big dance. Furthermore, he became only the second player ever with both a passing and receiving TD in a Super Bowl, joining Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in a very exclusive club.

When asked to sum up his reaction to the loss, Jennings told a reporter that it was similar to “someone putting a nail in front of you and then having to step on it.” So we can confirm, the pain of losing as a team overrides the personal joy gained from any individual accomplishments. [ST]

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Will Shanahan feel better over time?

You’ve got to feel for Niners Head Coach Kyle Shanahan. He’s now been to three Super Bowls and lost them all, thanks to two all-time greats in Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Back in the 2016 season, he was the Atlanta Falcons’ OC when they let a 28-3 lead slip, the largest collapse in Super Bowl history, to TB12’s New England and in both games against the Chiefs over the last four years, the 49ers blew 10-point leads. 

On Sunday, the big one went into overtime for only the second time ever (that Falcons v Patriots classic did too), creating one of the game’s biggest talking points: why did Shanahan elect to receive the ball first when the 49ers won the coin toss? Ironically, the Chiefs were the last team to benefit under the old overtime regulations (against the Bills in the famous ‘13 Seconds’ AFC title match in 2022) but this was the first time the new overtime rules had been called into action since they were introduced two years ago. Under the new format, both teams have an opportunity to possess the ball regardless of what happens on the first possession, unless there’s a defensive score. If it’s all-square after those first two possessions, the game continues till someone scores.

Shanahan’s decision to take the ball first was seemingly locked in days before and based on the analytics behind having the third ‘sudden-death’ possession if the scores were level after a drive each. But his logic might be flawed; if the scores aren’t level, that crucial third possession is irrelevant. The argument in favour of deferring is that if your opponent’s offense has the ball first, you then know what is required to win… and you can play four-down football if necessary.

Here’s an example of how it played out on Sunday. During KC’s first overtime possession, after the Niners had kicked a FG in the opening drive of OT, they faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 34-yard line. Had they taken the ball first, they probably would have punted at this point (because had they gone for it and failed, the Niners would’ve been in range of a game-winning field goal). But because the Chiefs were trailing by three, punting wasn’t an option: conceding possession would have automatically handed the Lombardi trophy to their opponents. They had to go for it and, of course, an 8-yard scamper from Mahomes kept the drive alive.

Interestingly, had Mahomes won the OT toss rather than Fred Warner, the Chiefs would have let the 49ers have the ball anyway. As Chris Jones confirmed afterwards, “We’d talked for two weeks about the new overtime rules. Give the ball to the opponent. And if we score, we go for two.” Which is another reason why Shanahan’s plan might be considered misguided. Andy Reid wasn’t planning on letting the 49ers have another possession. If San Francisco scored seven points, the Chiefs would score eight – or go down trying. 

In another twist to the tale, it seems that while the Chiefs were all fully clued up, some 49ers players weren’t even aware of the new postseason OT rules. “I didn’t even realize the playoff rules were different,” Kyle Juszczyk confessed after the game. Yikes! Whatever you think of Shanahan’s post-coin-flip choices, that’s just unforgivable. Surely, when you’re competing for your sport’s greatest prize, everyone on your team should know the rules and understand the repercussions of any situations that might arise. This oversight only compounds the questions surrounding Shanahan’s OT tactics and it’s something that must be addressed before he reaches a fourth Super Bowl. [ST]

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Shanahan has the wrong answers… again

There is a giant monkey on the back of Kyle Shanahan. Without question, he is one of the premium coaches in the NFL but the nagging conundrum is can he win the big one? Here was another brilliant opportunity to get the job done and had you offered any Niners fan the ability to hold the Chiefs to 19 points in regulation, I am sure they would have snapped your hand off. That was the reality on Sunday evening and when San Francisco ultimately fell short, how does Kyle respond? By firing his defensive coordinator!

They didn’t lose the game because of their defense. Their offense was sluggish and largely ineffective. The defense gave the offense multiple opportunities to emerge from the first half with more than a seven-point lead. But the offensive coordinator can’t be fired by the head coach, because the offensive coordinator is the head coach. It just seems like an overreaction that’s possibly a reflection of the mounting pressure on Shanahan to win a championship.

Presumably, Shanahan already knows who will take over the defense. Will he look to bring in a big name such as Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick or Mike Vrabel to take over? Regardless, the timing stinks for Steve Wilks who has had a rough few years with circumstances seemingly conspiring against him wherever he has landed.

Wilks had led a top three defensive unit throughout the season and the decision has been widely criticised by pundits and players alike. NFL safety Tre Boston chimed in with “If y’all can’t see what’s going on with Steve Wilks! Open your (eyes)! There’s a target on his back which I truly don’t understand! Not one player who’s played for this man has had anything bad to say about him as a man, his coaching nor schemes! HE JUST LED HIS DEFENSE TO THE SB!”

It is hard to disagree with the sentiment. [SB]

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Please be better

Having written countless articles for Full 10 Yards over the years, it would seem appropriate for my final couple of paragraphs to probably be the most poignant. Football is a game, a game we all love, a game we debate, a game that frustrates us and a game that brings us joy. It is almost unfathomable to me that 22 people were injured, with one poor victim killed, in a shooting at the Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade.

This column has concentrated on play on the field throughout the season. To sign off the 2023/24 campaign, however, we have one ask. Thank you America for bringing this wonderful game into our lives but please realise that guns are a problem and never part of the solution. Do better, so that fans all over the world can celebrate their team’s ultimate success without fear of a lunatic running around with a deadly weapon. [SB]

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We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our Pick Six lists as much as we’ve enjoyed putting them together. Thank you for sticking with us every week. Keep your eyes peeled for more F10Y content throughout the off-season.

Shaun and Sean

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