Kansas City Chiefs (14-4) vs. San Francisco 49ers (15-3) in Super Bowl LIV
The more hyped matchup in this game is the matchup between the Chiefs’ offense and the 49ers’ defense and rightfully so, as they are the top offense and defense in the league in my opinion. Neither unit finished the regular season first in the league in first down rate (or first down rate allowed), but regular season injuries played a big part in that. The Chiefs managed to finish in 2nd in first down rate at 40.53%, despite 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes missing two and a half games with injury and playing at less than 100% in several others. They also had injuries on their offensive line, most notably left tackle Eric Fisher (8 games), and they were without top wide receiver Tyreek Hill for a big chunk of the first half of the season.
The Chiefs’ offense was able to tread water when Mahomes was out, but they’ve unsurprisingly been much better with Mahomes in the lineup, even playing at less than 100%. With backup Matt Moore in the lineup, the Chiefs had a 32.47% first down rate, as opposed to 43.86% with Mahomes, which would have led the NFL by a pretty wide margin over the Ravens (41.73%). The Chiefs’ offense has been especially good down the stretch with Mahomes getting closer to full strength, with a 45.39% rate in their past 7 games. It might seem like that’s an unsustainable high rate, but they had a 45.18% first down rate last season across 16 games with Mahomes healthy.
They’ve been even better offensively in two post-season games, as the first round bye seems to have done Mahomes a world of good. They’ve picked up 56 first downs and scored 12 offensive touchdowns on 121 snaps, a ridiculous 56.20% rate, including a 63.16% first down rate in their win over the Texans, the highest single game mark in the league this season. For comparison, the Chargers had the best single game mark in the regular season with a 56.90% first down rate in a 45-10 week 14 win in Jacksonville. The Chiefs have maintained that level of play for two weeks in the playoffs.
Mahomes didn’t quite have the same regular season in 2019 as he did in 2018, but he did cut down his giveaways significantly (1.0% interception rate vs. 2.1% in 2018), despite playing banged up, and now fully healthy, he’s arguably playing the best football he’s ever played, still somehow only in his 36th professional start. With another week off before the Super Bowl, expect a nearly unstoppable level of play from Mahomes.
I say nearly unstoppable because if any defense can at least slow him down and keep the Chiefs to a manageable point total it’s this 49ers defense. They finished “just” 6th in the NFL with a 32.95% first down rate allowed in the regular season, but like the Chiefs’ offense not finishing first in first down rate, that was largely due to injuries. Through the first 7 games of the season, the 49ers had a ridiculous 24.67% first down rate allowed. By comparison, the Patriots led the NFL with a 29.64% first down rate on the season and no other team was below 32.43%. Unfortunately, top linebacker Kwon Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while dominant edge rusher Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9.
The 49ers faced a relatively easily schedule during those first 7 games, but still allowed a first down rate that was more than 10% below what would have been expected based on competition. With Ford and Alexander back for the 49ers’ two playoff games, the 49ers have held the Vikings and Packers to a combined 31.07% first down rate, though there was a pretty drastic difference between the Vikings’ 7 first down performance and the Packers’ 21 first down performance, even if most of the Packers success came with the game out of hand. Ford and Alexander haven’t even been at full strength or played a full snap count and should be closer to 100% after the extra week off before the Super Bowl. With those two back, the 49ers are dominant in all 3 levels of the defense and lack an obvious weakness for the Chiefs to exploit.
As exciting as it will be to see the Chiefs’ offense square off against the 49ers’ defense, the matchup that may end up deciding this game is the matchup between the 49ers’ offense and the Chiefs’ defense. The 49ers’ aren’t known for their offense the way the Chiefs are, but they still finished the regular season with a 9th ranked 38.24% first down rate and that rate is even higher since acquiring Emmanuel Sanders during week 8, as they have a 39.94% first down rate since then, which would have been 3rd in the NFL this season. With Sanders coming in and rookie Debbo Samuels coming on in the second half of the season, the 49ers have a lot more aerial firepower now than they did at the start of the season and they also have offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey healthy after they missed time in the regular season.
The Chiefs’ defense, meanwhile, is probably more known for negative things than positive things, but that hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, as they have a 33.77% first down rate allowed since week 7. However, that comes after a 40.91% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season and a league worst 42.20% first down rate allowed last season. Overall, the Chiefs finished just 19th with a 36.34% first down rate allowed this season. The question that I think will decide this game is which version of the Chiefs’ defense is for real, the strong unit they’ve been in recent weeks, the weak unit they were for all of last season and early this season, or somewhere in between.
On paper, they seem more similar to the unit that struggled early in the season, as outside of obvious stars like Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Tyrann Mathieu, this is a pretty underwhelming unit, especially with talented rookie safety Juan Thornhill out for the season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has gotten them to play much better than the sum of their parts in recent weeks, but even a little regression to their early season habits from the Chiefs’ defense could lose them the game, with the 49ers being strong on both sides of the ball.
In particular, the Chiefs could have trouble with the 49ers’ run heavy offense because their run defense is significantly worse than their pass defense. They were able to handle the run heavy Titans in the AFC Championship, but that was largely because they were able to get a lead and force the Titans out of their gameplan. The 49ers are a more complete team and this should be a close game either way, so I wouldn’t expect them to be forced out of their game plan at any point in this game.
Ultimately, this seems like a matchup between a team with a better quarterback and a team with a better overall roster, which is often the case in Super Bowls. Mahomes is the kind of quarterback who can take over a game by himself because he can make plays other guys can’t, but historically speaking the team with the better regular season quarterback actually loses the Super Bowl more often than not. All-time, the quarterback with a higher regular season adjusted YPA wins just 37.7% of the time, including an 0-9 record in the past 9 Super Bowls.
That alone isn’t a reason to pick the 49ers, but it suggests that historically a better team will beat a team with a better quarterback. Mahomes is historically on a different level than most quarterbacks, even among quarterbacks appearing in the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs’ defense could continue to perform at a high level within Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme, so I wouldn’t bet on the 49ers if this was a random week 9 game, but they’re worth at least a small bet in the final game of the season.
San Francisco 49ers 26 Kansas City Chiefs 24 Upset Pick +105
Pick against the spread: San Francisco +1.5