LAS VEGAS — Let's get this out of the way: Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Kyle Shanahan and Brock Purdy are the four most important people in determining the Super Bowl LVIII winner. There's a reason we spend most of our time talking about coaches and quarterbacks.
That doesn't mean they're the only four that matter.
When the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers meet in Sunday's Super Bowl, we'll see some other stars take center stage, and other players we never expected will find the spotlight too. Last season, Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton, a fairly unknown second-year player, had a key role in his team's win by leading all players with nine tackles and returning a fumble for a touchdown.
Who will be this year's key figures in determining a champion? Here are the 10 most important players and coaches, excluding the quarterbacks and head coaches from the list (rest assured, they'd have held the top four spots):
10. Chiefs RB Isiah Pacheco
This is not a typically great Chiefs passing offense. Patrick Mahomes was sixth in the NFL in passing yards but 19 quarterbacks (minimum 200 attempts) ranked ahead of Mahomes' seven yards per attempt. Mahomes and the Chiefs are still good at passing the ball, but Pacheco has been a big part of the offense by necessity. He has averaged 21 carries per game in the playoffs. Derrick Henry led the NFL with 280 carries, and that was just 16.5 per game for him. Pacheco has become a workhorse and the Chiefs need him to keep the 49ers defense honest.
9. 49ers TE George Kittle
The Chiefs have good cornerbacks (we'll get to them), which could be a factor against 49ers star receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. But the Chiefs don't allow much to tight ends either. Other than a Week 18 game in which the Chiefs rested starters against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Chiefs didn't allow any opponent's tight ends to combine for more than 100 yards in a game this season or catch multiple touchdowns. Kittle might need to break through that and have one of his big games if the 49ers are going to find some success in the passing game against a very tough, well-coached defense.
8. Chiefs WR Rashee Rice
At this time last season, Rice was coming off his senior season at SMU. The second-round pick had a huge impact on the Chiefs' season, partially because Kansas City didn't have any receivers more reliable than the rookie. For Kansas City's first six games, Rice didn't play more than 51% of the snaps in any game. He never went below that mark from Week 7 on. From Week 7 to Week 18, Rice had a 58-693-5 line (that's a 99-1,178-8 total extrapolated over a 17-game season) and a 20-223-1 mark in three playoff games. He's the one wideout Patrick Mahomes can trust.
7. Chiefs DL Chris Jones
This spot could have gone to George Karlaftis, a 2022 first-round pick who tied Jones for the Chiefs' team lead with 10.5 sacks this season and added 2.5 more in the playoffs. But we'll stick with Jones, who for years has been one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. The Chiefs had a big improvement on defense this season and it starts with Jones, the foundation on that side of the ball.
6. 49ers DE Nick Bosa
Bosa won't win NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as he did last season, but he's still dominant. His 35 quarterback hits this season were 21 more than any other 49ers player. He led the team with 10.5 sacks. If there's one defensive player who could have a monster game and steal Super Bowl MVP, like Von Miller back in Super Bowl 50, Bosa is probably the pick. Bosa getting heat on Patrick Mahomes is enormous for San Francisco.
5. (tie) Chiefs CBs Trent McDuffie and L'Jarius Sneed
There aren't many cornerback duos in the NFL better than Kansas City's stars. In Pro Football Focus's grades, McDuffie ranked fourth among cornerbacks and Sneed was 28th. Sneed didn't allow a touchdown on 81 regular-season targets, according to PFF (he did allow one in the divisional round against the Buffalo Bills). It's also possible the 49ers have the best set of wide receivers in the NFL. If the Chiefs corners can have a big day against Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, that will be huge for Kansas City's chances of winning.
4. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo
Spagnuolo has been a fantastic coordinator for years, but this season might have been his best. The Chiefs defense was much improved and dominant in the playoffs.
"It seems like when the games get bigger, when the challenges get higher, [Spagnuolo] performs even better," Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said after the AFC championship game.
Spagnuolo has been on fire calling the defense, with well-timed blitzes and mixing coverages. Spagnuolo matching wits against Kyle Shanahan is a football nerd's dream.
3. 49ers WR Deebo Samuel
By now we know the splits for the 49ers with and without Samuel. The 49ers were 12-1 in the regular season when Samuel played most of the game. They were 0-4 when Samuel played less than half of the snaps or didn't play at all. The offense simply wasn't the same when Samuel was out due to injury. The 49ers did overcome a Samuel shoulder injury in the divisional round, but he was back and a big part of the offense for the NFC championship game. A couple weeks to rest will be huge for Samuel.
2. Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Kelce was good in the regular season but not up to his usual standard. He failed to reach 1,000 yards for the first time since 2015. He had an 11-game streak without 100 yards, including playoffs, and seven straight games without a touchdown. In the playoffs, he has been great. Kelce has 23 catches for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason. He was a force in the AFC championship game win. If the Chiefs can squeeze one more vintage performance out of Kelce in the Super Bowl, it could be the difference in another title.
1. 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey
If there's one player whose importance might rank above the head coaches or quarterbacks in this game, it would be McCaffrey. He had a great case to be MVP of the league after leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns. He has been dominant in the playoffs (and he's a great value on the salary cap too). The Chiefs have a very good defense but they're much better against the pass than the run (their 4.5 yards per rush allowed was 24th in the NFL). If the 49ers win, it would be no surprise if McCaffrey is the Super Bowl MVP.