Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have been oh so close to Super Bowl victories twice in the 21st century with their last win coming in the 1994 season. 

Their 2012 run came closer to snapping their Super Bowl dry spell with future Hall of Fame running back Frank Gore leading the charge in Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens. Trailing 34-29 with just under 4:30 left in the game, the 49ers had a chance to score the go-ahead touchdown. Gore, who led all players that night with 110 rushing yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, barreled San Francisco down near the end zone, setting up a first-and-goal at the 7-yard line with 2:47 left to play. 

Four plays came and went without Gore touching the ball again as his backup LaMichael James had a 2-yard carry followed by three consecutive incompletions by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco came up 5 yards short. The Ravens prevailed 34-31 after taking a safety as a mechanism to burn time off the clock. 

In 2019, against their current opponent the Kansas City Chiefs, they led 20-10 entering the final quarter, but the Chiefs outscored them 21-0 to secure the win in Super LIV. 

Here are their three key reasons why the 49ers can come out on top in the big game for a change. 

3. Kyle Shanahan's improved game management 

The 49ers head coach is clearly an offensive savant. In the Super Bowl era, since 1966, Shanahan's offenses average the most yards per play (5.9) and yards per pass attempt (8.1) of any head coach, minimum 100 games as a head coach.  

However, his game management for the vast majority of his tenure leading San Francisco since 2017 has been somewhat questionable. Entering this postseason, the 49ers were 0-31 down five or more points entering the fourth quarter. That was a situation they faced against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round, and they came back to win 24-21. They were also 0-19 down 17 or more points in the second half entering this postseason. The 49ers overcame that margin to win the NFC title game against the Detroit Lions 34-31. 

Now he has just one more hurdle to overcome: his game management in the Super Bowl. Shanahan has made the big game twice, once as the offensive coordinator of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons and as the head coach of the 2019 49ers. Those teams combined to score ZERO points in the fourth quarter and/or overtime of those two games while their opponents (the 2016 New England Patriots and the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs) combined to score 46 points (Patriots 25, Chiefs 21). Shanahan presided over the Falcons blowing the largest Super Bowl lead ever, 28-3 against the Patriots, and the 49ers allowing a 20-10 fourth quarter lead turn into a 31-20 Chiefs victory. 

The play-calling issue for Shanahan once achieving those leads is obvious: not trusting his run game. He called pass plays on a 2:1 or higher ratio on his offensive plays in both of those games. Atlanta famously suffered a sack on second-and-11 up eight points in the final four minutes of their Super Bowl meltdown, which pushed them out of field goal range and prevented them from going up two scores with three minutes left to play. In the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl, Shanahan called 12 passes to just four runs after reaching a 28-3 lead. In the first 49ers-Chiefs Super Bowl, he called 12 passes to five runs after reaching a 20-10 advantage. 

Shanahan coaching like he did when mounting the comebacks against the Packers and Lions and not like he has in Super Bowls past will be a critical factor in the 49ers' success. 

2. Keeping WR Deebo Samuel involved all game

Screens and yards after the catch have been go-to's for the 49ers offense because of their cast of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros at their offensive skill position groups. Quarterback Brock Purdy led the NFL in yards per pass attempt on screens (8.8), and San Francisco led the NFL with 28 plays with 20 or more yards after the catch.  

No one on the 49ers embody the team's explosive ability with the football in their hands quite like Deebo Samuel. He led all NFL wide receivers in yards after catch per reception (8.8) this season, something he has done four seasons in a row. No other receiver has done so more than twice in the last 30 seasons. Samuel is the only player in the Super Bowl era with 4,000 or more receiving yards and 1,000 or more rushing yards in his first five seasons. He is also dynamic as a rusher as the previous stat indicates. He leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.3) since entering the league in 2019 among 129 players with at least 150 carries in that span. 

The last time San Francisco lost a playoff game with a healthy quarterback was the 2021 NFC championship game, a 20-17 loss against the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. The 49ers actually led 17-7 that day, but they struggled to score in the fourth quarter as Samuel didn't have a carry or a target in the game's final 12:30. 

Deebo needs to be involved and dominant for the 49ers to beat Mahomes and the Chiefs. 

1. RB Christian McCaffrey going off

He is the best running back in football, the 2023 NFL Offensive Player of the Year and the most important piece of the 49ers offense. The NFL's leader in rushing yards (1,459), scrimmage yards (2,023) and co-leader in scrimmage touchdowns (21) earned both Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro selections for his production this season.

He became just the fourth player since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger to lead the NFL in rushing yards wire to wire, meaning he was atop the league's rushing yards leaderboard every week following the conclusion of Week 1. The other three players in this club are all Hall of Famers: Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson. 

Wire-to-wire rushing titles since 1970


Christian McCaffrey


Emmitt Smith


Walter Payton


O.J. Simpson

1973*, 1975

* Won NFL MVP that season

McCaffrey has kept it going this postseason, rushing for 90 or more yards and two or more touchdowns in each of San Francisco's playoff wins against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. It won't be easy against a Chiefs defense that limited the AFC's top seed, the Baltimore Ravens, to a season low in rushing yards (81) and carries (16) in the AFC Championship. However, they were movable in the regular season, allowing 113.2 rushing yards per game, ranking slightly below average (18th) in the NFL. 

Should the 49ers win on Sunday, CMC would be the first rushing title winner to win a Super Bowl in the same season since Hall of Famer Terrell Davis did so with Mike Shanahan's Denver Broncos in the 1998 season. Now, McCaffrey has the chance to do the same with Mike's son Kyle as his head coach and play-caller, and his team's opportunity to win it all for the first time since the 1994 season rests on what he can do with his legs.