Why 49ers' Super Bowl fate could lie on Warner, Aiyuk's matchups

Why 49ers' Super Bowl fate could lie on Warner, Aiyuk's matchups originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

Individual matchups and defenses are what tend to define the outcome of any football game – meaningful or not.

That said, the key factors behind the 49ers walking away from Allegiant Stadium as Super Bowl LVIII champions likely will boil down to a couple of specific matchups: Fred Warner’s coverage of Travis Kelce in the middle of the field, and Brandon Ayiuk’s potential matchup with L'Jarius Sneed.

Kelce, the Chiefs' All-Pro tight end, has caused havoc for opposing defenses this season, specifically when the nearest defender following a reception was a linebacker.

With the ball in his hands and the nearest defender a linebacker, Kelce led all NFL tight ends with 393 receiving yards in 2023, per Next Gen Stats.

And while Kelce’s effectiveness might statistically sound like a lock-in for Sunday, Warner’s coverage in the heart of the gridiron could serve as the kryptonite that stumps Kansas City's tight end from bulldozing his way down the field.

This season, Warner allowed a 61.9 passer rating as the nearest defender in coverage -- the lowest among NFL linebackers, per NGS.

On the other side of the ball, San Francisco’s key to victory also could depend on Aiyuk’s ability to continue squeezing yardage out of his 10-plus air yard targets.

During the regular season, the 49ers wide receiver trailed only Miami Dolphins star Tyreek Hill in receiving yards on 10-plus air yard targets, per NGS.

The journey won’t be easy, however, as Aiyuk likely will be covered by Chiefs cornerback Sneed, who allowed the lowest completion percentage against targets over 10 air yards in 2023 -- 24.4 percent, minimum 25 targets.

Sunday also will feature one of the best defensive matchups in Super Bowl history.

Kansas City, second best in the league, allowed just 17.3 points per game during the regular season, while the 49ers followed closely behind in third, allowing an average of 17.5 points per game.

As the saying goes, defense wins championships.

That, like the matchup outcomes, won’t be the exception in Las Vegas.

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