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What To Look For During The 54th Super Bowl


About a hundred million people are expected to watch Super Bowl 54 tonight, and some of them might even care about the game. What's expected, though, is a clash of two big offenses - the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. To help us break things down and to get us fired up, we're joined by NFL instant replay hater and host of The Gist podcast from Slate, Mike Pesca. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hello, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's start with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He's the reigning MVP. He's 24 years old. He really is the heart and the engine of this KC offense. What makes him so good?

PESCA: Well, he was coming into the season as not just a great quarterback. But how does he do that? Are humans supposed to throw like that? And in - the answer is no, for the most part. But Patrick Mahomes is - he experiments with arm angles and throws at side arms and uses his legs. He's fantastic. I mean, I can't tell you how good he is in a way that quarterbacks haven't been good before. And he has weaponry around him. I don't think it's too highfalutin to call them that - just the speediest cadre of receivers. Combine that with Andy Reid, the offensive genius who is the coach of the Chiefs, putting these guys in a position to catch and run with the ball. This has been giving NFL defenses more than headaches, nightmares for years. And now the nightmare is visited upon the 49ers.

FOLKENFLIK: Now, of course, the Niners, also, we are told, have a quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. He was supposed to be the next big thing for the Patriots before he headed West. And to be fair, last game, he threw the ball about eight times, which is what Mahomes might toss in a single quarter. How does Garoppolo and the Niners' offense get the job done?

PESCA: Yeah. So the thing about Garoppolo is if you look at his stats during the playoffs, they don't seem impressive. But is that because he's not a great quarterback, or is that because the running game from the 49ers was doing so well? And their offensive coach, their head coach, who is an offensive genius - by the way, both head coaches call the plays for their teams, which is kind of unusual. And look. These are the two teams in the Super Bowl. Other coaches, maybe take note of that.

So Kyle Shanahan knows all - so many different ways for his team to win. And if it relies on Jimmy Garoppolo throwing the ball, then Garoppolo will throw the ball. And he has been able to do that. But they also run in a way that is a throwback to yesteryear in the NFL. And I say with the San Francisco offense that just like a war is often won before the first bullet is fired, their plays are often a success before the ball is snapped. Even though as we watch the game - and there are gigantic bodies blasting each other back and forth, it is these two men on the sidelines who have, you know, thought through a way to torture the other guy. That's where this game will be won.

FOLKENFLIK: We've heard a lot about the San Francisco defense. For those teetering between casual fandom and armchair expert, what are one, two things for viewers to watch for?

PESCA: Well, San Francisco doesn't blitz a lot. So if San Francisco is putting pressure on Mahomes, that will be something you could say at your Super Bowl party. Oh, look. They're getting pressure without a blitz. I mean, that alone will mark you as a genius. And on the other side of the ball, you could note when the big fullback, Juszczyk - whose name includes Ys and Cs and a Scrabble board full of goodness - you could see what - how he's used and how he's deployed, another way that you could trick fellow guests at the party into thinking that you're the smartest person there.

FOLKENFLIK: Mike, before I let you go, we have to mention the halftime show. Two superstars, J-Lo and Shakira, are performing. But 50 years ago, the last time Kansas City made the Super Bowl, halftime was even more explosive. Mike, do you have any guesses on what transpired?

PESCA: Well, I know they used to come up with people, but was it Herb Alpert? He's played some Super Bowl halftimes.

FOLKENFLIK: To my knowledge, Herb Alpert played exactly no role in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. They had a reenactment, involved muskets, involved cannons, horses. There's no good audio to play you, but I swear we're going to post the video of this thing on all our social media feeds. That, too...

PESCA: And like the real Battle of New Orleans, the war was already over.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, and, apparently, the battle not won before the first shot was fired. We've been talking to Mike Pesca. He hosts The Gist podcast from Slate. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.
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