The San Francisco 49ers earned their first Super Bowl appearance since 2012 with a dominant 37-20 win over the Green Bay Packers. The defensive front played like the elite unit they have been all year, and Raheem Mostert proved his previous six teams very wrong by ripping apart a solid Packers defensive front to the tune of 220 yards on the ground and four TDs.
Then there's Jimmy Garoppolo, who was definitely the most handsome man on the field, but far from the most impactful. He threw eight times on 55 offensive snaps and completed six passes for a whopping 77 yards.
This isn't really a knock on Garoppolo; why would Kyle Shanahan go away from the run game when they were doing whatever they'd like to Green Bay's defensive front? If it ain't broke, as the saying goes. But with the fire power the Niners will see on the opposite sideline in Miami, Garoppolo will need to be more than the guy who hands the ball off to Mostert-- and it's fair to wonder if he's up to the challenge. Jimmy G will need to be the guy Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch believed he was when they inked him to his five-year, $137.5 million extension in 2017 if the Niners are to win the Super Bowl.
Garoppolo showed up in what was probably the best game of the regular season between San Fran and New Orleans. He was nearly immaculate in a 48-46 shootout, completing 26 passes on 35 attempts for 349 yards and four touchdowns with only one interception. It's the game Niners fans will point to in order to reassure themselves that, should the defense fail to deliver, Garoppolo can still win the game. And while this defensive front is indeed the best in the league, Patrick Mahomes is just as good, if not better, than the version of Drew Brees that gave them the business back in December.
That doesn't mean Kansas City is a lock to drop a 40-burger on Super Bowl Sunday, but I think it's safe to say they'll put up more than the 30 points combined that the Vikings and Packers mustered during the Niners' run to the big game. San Francisco will need another big day from Jimmy G to keep up, even if their run game remains as effective as it has been all season.
He did it in December. Can he do it under the brightest lights in the world in Feburary? It's no sure thing. Garoppolo has had more performances that warrant concern than confidence this season. We mentioned the Saints game, but in the Niners' two matchups against another playoff team in Seattle, for example, Garoppolo threw for a combined 533 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He picked on lower-level competition (his two best performances of the year other than the Saints game came against the Cardinals and Bengals), but even when faced with an average defense like Kansas City presents, he wasn't consistently good; against the Bucs, ranked slightly ahead of the Chiefs in yards allowed per game, Garoppolo threw for 166 yards on 18 completions with a touchdown and a pick.
In the regular season, the Chiefs gave up more rushing yards per game than all but seven teams in the NFL. They did step up to do what many assumed was impossible and hold Derrick Henry to less than 100 yards rushing last week, but the run defense is a weakness. Shanahan won't be afraid to do what he's done over the last two games and continuously pound the rock. But the likely scenario is the Niners will have to air it out more than eight times to keep pace with Kansas City-- made even more likely by Kansas City's improved run defense over the last half of the season.
Garoppolo will need to hit on the play-action passes, which Tennessee had success with early on in the AFCCG. But making $27.5 million a year means you have to be more than a guy who can hit the easy throws. He's had moments this season where he's shown he can thread the needle when it matters most, but he's also had moments where he forces the issue and it results in a turnover. One poor decision could prove to be the difference between a win and a loss in the Super Bowl, and he wasn't put in a position to even make that decision in either the divisional or championship round.
The Chiefs' defense certainly is not elite, but they have playmakers (they averaged 1.3 turnovers a game in 2019), and Garoppolo gave the ball away 19 times this season between fumbles and interceptions. San Francisco knows it absolutely cannot afford to give Mahomes more possessions than necessary if it wants to win this game, and Garoppolo is definitely turnover-prone.
So the question remains-- will the version of Garoppolo that tore up one of the NFL's better defenses at the Superdome show up in Miami? Or will it be the Garoppolo who threw for 243 yards and had two turnovers with zero touchdowns against the Rams, a league-average defense? Garoppolo hasn't had his defining moment in his young career. Super Bowl LIV will grant him that opportunity. It remains to be seen if he's up to the task.