After 272 regular season games, 12 postseason games and one worldwide obsession with Taylor Swift, the 2023 NFL season has come to this.
The Kansas City Chiefs will get a chance to defend their crown against a loaded San Francisco 49ers squad at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, where underdog stories fade away and the house always wins.
The Chiefs have been an inevitable participant in late playoff games throughout the Patrick Mahomes era and opened the season as the betting favorite to win a third Super Bowl in five seasons.
Super Bowl LVIII (on CBS) is a rematch from four years ago, when Kansas City rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit for a 31-20 victory for the first Super Bowl title in the Mahomes-Andy Reid era.
Mahomes, Reid and Co. won a second ring last year with a 38-35 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and now they can become the first franchise to win back-to-back championships since the New England Patriots turned the trick in 2003 and ’04.
Prior to the start of the 2023 season, our supercomputer gave the Chiefs a 29.2% chance of reaching the big game and a 14.8% shot of repeating. The only team we gave a higher probability to win it all was the Eagles at 20.8.
This postseason, Kansas City has already beaten the high-powered Miami Dolphins, the ever-hopeful Buffalo Bills and a Baltimore Ravens team fueled by likely MVP Lamar Jackson.
The 49ers opened the season with the second-shortest odds among NFC teams of winning it all. And with the exception of a three-game losing streak in October, San Francisco has looked the part all season.
With dramatic, late-game victories over the upstart Green Bay Packers and the Cinderella-story Detroit Lions, the 49ers have also broken their fair share of hearts this postseason.
Sportsbooks show a slight lean toward the 49ers, with San Francisco listed as either a 2.0- or 2.5-point favorite by most Super Bowl odds. Our supercomputer also favors the 49ers as the best bets, giving them a 65.1% chance of winning their first Lombardi Trophy since the 1994 season.
With the stage set, all that remains is to see whether the Chiefs cement their dynasty, or the 49ers get back on top and perhaps begin their own run of dominance.
San Francisco’s Keys to Victory
In many ways, the 49ers are a team of unfinished business. Last year’s squad rode a 12-game winning streak into the NFC title game before an elbow injury knocked Brock Purdy out, leaving the team without a viable option at quarterback. The 49ers insist they could have won it all if not for that untimely injury.
Kyle Shanahan has his own Super Bowl demons to exorcise. Widely regarded as one of the game’s best coaches and perhaps the best play-caller in the NFL, Shanahan’s first Super Bowl appearance as a head coach was a loss to the Chiefs four years ago. He was also the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons team that blew a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl 51.
The good news for fans in the Bay Area is that the 49ers are equipped with more high-end talent than any team in football, making them more than capable of reversing their recent Super Bowl fortunes.
The San Francisco offense has been humming all season and led the league in scoring at 28.4 per game and in offensive EVE with an average of 1.6 yards gained over expected. The team’s 46.5% success rate also led the NFL.
At the center of that offensive machine is Brock Purdy, yet fans and analysts alike can’t seem to agree on how much credit to give to the second-year quarterback. He was named an MVP finalist but has virtually no chance of beating out Jackson. Earlier in the season, however, Purdy was briefly the odds-on favorite to win MVP, sparking a debate among observers.
Purdy is surrounded by All-Pros. Fellow MVP finalist Christian McCaffrey is at running back, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel are running routes and Trent Williams is protecting his blind side. Even Kyle Juszczyk was named an All-Pro at fullback.
Purdy has been placed in an ideal situation to succeed, but he’s also passed every test, and his production warrants its own recognition. His 9.64 yards per attempt are the most since Kurt Warner’s 9.88 in 2000. Purdy’s 113.0 passer rating not only led the NFL this season but is a franchise record and the 14th-highest rating ever recorded in a season.
Purdy further shed the “game manager” label in the NFC championship game, leading Niners back from a 17-point halftime deficit.
One key pivot point in Super Bowl LVIII could be whether or not Purdy can continue to carve up defenses with the deep ball. He has a league-leading 142.0 passer rating on throws more than 20 yards downfield, including nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Kansas City’s defense, however, is allowing a rating of 67.3 on deep passes, ranking sixth in the NFL.
Fewest Opponent Completions of 20+ Yards
- T-1. Carolina Panthers (39)
- T-1. Cleveland Browns (39)
- T-1. Kansas City Chiefs (39)
- T-1. New York Jets (39)
- T-5. Las Vegas Raiders (43)
- T-5. New York Giants (43)
If Purdy is unable to connect for huge chunks of yardage, San Francisco’s offense will be more than content to piece together methodical drives. Using a league-leading run-pass balance, the 49ers can keep the Chiefs guessing if they win on first down.
Average Yards Gained on First Down
- San Francisco 49ers (6.98)
- Detroit Lions (6.61)
- Miami Dolphins (6.53)
- Green Bay Packers (6.00)
- Baltimore Ravens (5.94)
The 49ers should have opportunities to stay on schedule by running on first down against a Chiefs defense that has allowed 4.6 yards per designed run play on first down – the 25th-highest mark in the league.
San Francisco should have opportunities to stay on schedule by running on first down against the Kansas City defense that has struggled at times in the trenches. The Chiefs have allowed 4.6 yards per designed run play on first down, ranking 25th in the league. Their 3.0 yards before contact allowed on first-down runs rank 29th.
That matchup could open up some opportunities for the 49ers to call play action on early downs. San Francisco’s 8.6 yards per first-down pass play easily lead the league.
The 49ers need to stay ahead of the chains with balance and avoid third-and-long situations. The Chiefs were second in the league with 57 sacks and have a 46.9% pressure rate on third-down passes.
Lowest Opponent Third-and-10+ Conversion Percentage
- Kansas City Chiefs (3.4)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (5.7)
- Cleveland Browns (9.7)
- Baltimore Ravens (10.6)
- Carolina Panthers (10.7)
Kansas City’s Keys to Victory
Kansas City had an uneven 2023 season, looking like a title contender one week and a team jockeying for draft positioning the next. But come playoff time, it’s hard to pick against the Mahomes-Reid tandem.
With Kansas City’s 17-10 win over the Ravens in the AFC championship game, Mahomes and Reid improved to 14-3 together in the playoffs. Two losses to Brady and one to the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime in the 2021 AFC title game are the only blemishes on the record.
Another Super Bowl title would move Mahomes and Reid into sole possession of second place on the QB/coach combo postseason wins list.
Starting QB/Coach Combos: Most Playoff Wins
- 1. Tom Brady/Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (30-11)
- T-2. Patrick Mahomes/Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs (14-3)
- T-2. Terry Bradshaw/Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers (14-5)
- 4. Roger Staubach/Tom Landry, Dallas Cowboys (11-6)
- T-5. Joe Flacco/John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
- T-5. Joe Montana/Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers (10-4)
After racking up 361 yards on just 47 offensive snaps (an average of 7.7 yards per play) in their 27-24 victory over the Bills in the divisional round, the Chiefs grinded out a win at Baltimore, gaining 319 yards on 73 plays (4.4 yards per play).
Although the offense only had two explosive plays of 20+ yards against the Ravens after notching a season-high eight such plays against the Bills, it also didn’t turn the ball over, ending an eight-game stretch with at least one giveaway.
And not only did the Chiefs take care of the ball, but they also controlled the clock, holding a 37:30-22:30 advantage in time of possession – their most time with the ball since Week 9 of 2022.
Struggling to move the ball on the ground against Baltimore’s formidable defense (averaging 2.8 yards on 32 running plays), Kansas City used the pass as an extension of the run, calling a higher percentage of short passing plays.
All but five of Mahomes’ passes were 10 yards or less, as he averaged 5.59 air yards per attempt after averaging 8.05 in the first two playoff games. Against the Ravens, 87% of the two-time Super Bowl MVP’s passes went for 10 yards or less compared to 73.4% of his throws during the regular season.
On his way to beating Baltimore, Mahomes completed 76.9% of his 39 attempts for 241 yards and a touchdown and, once again, didn’t throw an interception.
Mahomes had a down year by his standards, with a career-low 92.6 QB rating and career-high 14 interceptions, but has now thrown 203 postseason passes since his last interception in the 2021 AFC championship game. Only two QBs in the last 30 years have thrown more consecutive passes in the playoffs without a pick.
Most Consecutive Postseason Attempts w/o an Interception (Since 1991)
- Tom Brady, New England Patriots (237)
- Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (226)
- Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (203)
- Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (197)
- Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (179)
While Kansas City’s offense sputtered throughout the regular season, getting back to the basics in the playoffs has led to wins.
They’ve shown a commitment to the ground game with Isiah Pacheco carrying the ball 24, 15 and 24 times in the three playoff games after never rushing more than 20 times a game in the regular season. And although he carried only 15 times against the Bills, that still made up more than a third of Kansas City’s total offensive plays, excluding their quarterback kneel downs.
Against the Ravens, Pacheco finished with 68 rushing yards and another 14 yards on four receptions, as the Chiefs improved to 12-2 this season when he gains at least 60 scrimmage yards. They’re 0-3 when he fails to reach that mark.
Feeding the ball to Travis Kelce also spells success. After averaging 6.2 receptions and 65.6 receiving yards per game with five touchdowns in the regular season, Kelce is averaging 7.7 receptions and 87.3 yards with three TDs in the playoffs.
Since Kansas City’s run began in 2019, seven receptions for Kelce is the magic number for the Chiefs, as they’re 38-9 when he catches seven or more passes. That .809 clip is the highest team winning percentage among the 20 players with at least 20 games of seven or more receptions since 2019.
Mahomes targeted Kelce 11 times in the conference championship game, and the nine-time Pro Bowl tight end hauled in all of those passes for 116 yards. With his seventh catch, he broke Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s NFL career record for most receptions in the playoffs.
In 21 playoff games, Kelce now has 156 receptions – five more than Rice had in eight more postseason games. The Chiefs star caught a 19-yard touchdown pass against the Ravens for his 19th TD in the playoffs, which are three fewer than Rice for the most in the postseason.
While Kelce has long been Mahomes’ most trusted target, the KC QB is throwing to rookie receiver Rashee Rice nearly as much. In the playoffs, Kelce has been targeted 27 times – two more times than Rice – as more than half of Mahomes’ passes have gone to one of those two (50.5%). The only other Kansas City receiver to be targeted more than five times in the playoffs is Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has had eight passes thrown to him.
In his first career playoff game, Rice had eight receptions for 130 yards in the 26-7 wild-card win over the Dolphins. He’s caught 12 more passes in the last two games, and with just two receptions in the Super Bowl, Rice will set a rookie record for receptions in a single postseason.
While the offense seems to have found its groove during its march to the Super Bowl, the defense has picked up right where it left off in the regular season. The Chiefs entered the playoffs ranked second in scoring defense (17.3 points per game), total defense (289.8 yards per game) and adjusted defensive rating (minus-5.27). They also ranked fifth in defensive EVE (-0.5) and eighth in percentage of successful plays allowed (36.2).
This is a far cry from previous Kansas City defenses that Mahomes has worked with. Since their run began five years ago, the Chiefs had never finished in the top third in total defense, ranking 17th in 2019, 16th in 2020, 27th in 2021 and 11th last year, when opposing teams were running successful plays 39.7% of the time – 20th in the NFL.
Mahomes won a pair of Super Bowls paired with those defenses, and now he’s complimented by one of the best in the league. In the playoffs, the Chiefs held Miami to 2.0 yards below its season average of 6.5 yards per play, limited Josh Allen to 4.8 yards per pass and bottled up Jackson, sacking him four times and intercepting him once.
Through three playoffs games, the Chiefs have surrendered just 41 points – 34 fewer than last season. The defense held the Dolphins and Ravens to a combined 17 points, and when allowing 17 or fewer in a game this season, the Chiefs are 11-0. When giving up more 17, they are 3-6.
The 49ers, meanwhile, haven’t scored as few as 17 points since Week 8 and Kansas City will have to face this offensive juggernaut without a key part of its defense after Charles Omenihu suffered a torn ACL against the Ravens.
Before his injury in the conference title game, Omenihu sacked Jackson once after registering a career-high 7.0 sacks in 11 regular-season games. Suspended for the season’s first six games for violations of the league’s personal conduct policy, the 26-year-old had an adjusted sack rate of 4.6 – above the league average for edge rushers of 3.3.
His loss will be hard for the Chiefs to overcome, given that their pass rush flourished after he joined the team in Week 7. Through six weeks, Kansas City ranked 15th in pressure rate (37.4) and 16th in sack percentage (7.1) but with Omenihu, it had the sixth-best pressure rate (39.5) and third-highest sack percentage (8.3).
The Chiefs still have Chris Jones on the defensive front, but the All-Pro hasn’t had much of an impact in the playoffs. After recording an adjusted sack rate of 6.0 during the regular season – the best among 57 interior linemen with a minimum of 200 pass rushes – he has an adjusted sack rate of 1.2 in the playoffs. (The league average for interior linemen during the regular season was 2.2.) He’s also seen a significant decrease in his pressure rate, dropping from 21.3 in the regular season to 11.6 in three playoff games.
Defensive end George Karlaftis has continued to produce in the playoffs, recording 15 QB pressures and 2.5 sacks through three games after matching Jones for the team high for sacks during the regular season with 10.5. During the regular season, Karlaftis’ adjusted sack rate of 5.9 ranked fourth among the 48 edge rushers with a minimum of 250 pass rushes.
Defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton has also stepped up during Kansas City’s run, sacking Jackson once last week and registering a pressure rate of 14.6 in the playoffs. He had a pressure rate of just 8.7 in the regular season, while the NFL average for interior linemen was 10.2.
While much of Kansas City’s defensive success starts from the pressure generated up front, L’Jarius Sneed has been a lockdown corner in coverage – and excels at chasing down ball carriers as witnessed in the AFC title game. He made the play of the game against the Ravens, tracking down Zay Flowers and punching the ball out of his hands just shy of the end zone late in the final minute of the third quarter to preserve a 10-point lead.
While fellow corner Trent McDuffie earned All-Pro honors in 2023, Sneed has been sensational defending the pass. His burn-allowed percentage of 39.8 during the regular season ranked second among the 46 corners targeted a minimum of 65 times.
This may be the most complete Kansas City team in recent years, and one poised to leave Las Vegas with another Lombardi Trophy. A third Super Bowl title would further immortalize the legacy of Mahomes and enshrine the Chiefs as a modern dynasty.