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Super Bowl 54 preview, prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs, On Paper

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Our statistical breakdown and prediction for Chiefs vs. 49ers.

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-Commissioner Roger Goodell Press Conference Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve followed Pride of Detroit for a long time now, you know that there is always an On Paper encore for Super Bowl week. There is always hope that one day, this will just be a typical Detroit Lions preview, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s kind of nice to cover two completely different teams for once. By Week 12 or so, we pretty much know who the Lions are and these previews can be a little stale. So I welcome getting to know the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs a little better this Friday.

If you’ve stumbled onto this preview from another fanbase or are unfamiliar with our On Paper previews, here’s a quick couple paragraph to explain our methods:

Each chart represents one unit of a team (e.g.: Bucs Pass Offense, Lions Run Defense, etc.). Therefore, there are eight total charts (four units, two teams). Each chart lists the opponents the team has played, their performance that week and season averages to compare their performance for that week.

The purpose of this is because stats can be very misleading without the proper context. If the Lions give up 250 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT through the air, that looks bad. But if it’s against the Packers, who are hypothetically averaging 290 yards and 3 TDs, that is actually a very good performance. So if the team performs better than average on a given week, the cell is highlighted green, a bad performance is red and a yellow cell means the team performed within 5 percent of the team average. The color-coding system is based on the team being analyzed, so green doesn’t necessarily mean good for the Lions. Confused? You can check out my past previews, but you’ll get used it.

After analyzing each chart, I give a matchup edge to one team on a 0-5 scale. The scale is based not only on which team looks better in this matchup, but how likely this edge will affect the final outcome of the game. A +5 advantage would predict that this matchup is key and likely to win the game for the team.

One note before we get into it, statistics listed are based on regular season averages only, unless otherwise stated.

49ers pass offense (8th) vs. Chiefs pass defense (6th)

Jimmy Garoppolo may not have had to do much so far this postseason, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of it. Though the 49ers obviously prefer to run the ball more than the normal team, Garoppolo has been plenty efficient when needed. In games in which he’s been forced to throw the ball 30 times, the 49ers are still 5-2 and the young quarterback is averaging a passer rating of 100.3 in those games.

Overall, the 49ers rank second in yards per attempt (8.4), third in completion percentage (69.2) and seventh in passer rating (103.1). They may throw the ball as often as some of the “higher-octane” offenses in the league (29.9 pass attempts per game, 29th), but when they do throw the ball, they’re more efficient than almost any other team in the NFL.

This is the biggest difference between the 2018 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs: now they can play a little defense. Prior to last game against the Titans, the Chiefs hadn’t allowed a quarterback reach a passer rating above 100 since... well, since the last time they played the Titans, way back on November 10.

They haven’t been quite as dominant in the playoffs these past couple games, but overall, their regular season statistics are far too impressive to gloss over. They’re fifth in passer rating allowed (80.8), fourth in completion percentage (60.5) and t-sixth in yards per attempt (6.7).

Key to their success is a solid pass rush. They created 45 sacks in the regular season (t-11th) even with just the 19th-best pass rush win rate (per ESPN). They also force a good amount of turnovers with 16 interceptions on the year (t-fifth).

Player to watch: Deebo Samuel. When you think about the 49ers pass offense, you think George Kittle. However, the Chiefs have done a pretty solid job defending against tight ends this postseason. Meanwhile, Samuel is nicely building on his rookie season, pulling in 88 receiving yards (and 49 rushing yards) in two playoff games.

Advantage: Draw. Much of the focus in this game is on Patrick Mahomes vs. the 49ers tough defense, but this is almost as good of a matchup. The 49ers are crazy efficient while the Chiefs have quietly stifled some of the best passing offenses this year. If I had to go based on feeling, I have a little more confidence in Kyle Shanahan drawing up something to beat this Chiefs defense, but on paper, this is as even as it gets.

49ers run offense (13th) vs. Chiefs run defense (29th)

Raheem Mostert has given the impression this 49ers run offense is among the league’s elite, but it really hasn’t been that way all year. Granted, they’ve been on an absolute tear in the past two months, but they truly struggled midseason.

However, I tend to value recent results more than anything, and this has absolutely been an elite unit in the past eight games. They haven’t averaged under 4.0 yards per carry since mid-November, and they’ve had at least 100 yards in every game over that span, including over 160 yards in four of their last seven games.

Since Week 12, they’re averaging 5.5 yards per attempt (second best), have 10 rushing touchdowns (second) and are averaging 135.8 rushing yards per game (fifth).

If you’ve watched only the playoffs, you may think the Chiefs run defense is elite. They stymied King Derrick Henry in the conference championship round, and made the Texans beat them through the air.

However, those games were more the exception than the rule for the Chiefs this year, and they didn’t finish the regular season particularly strong, either. To use the same data, since Week 12, the Chiefs are allowing 4.4 yards per carry (15th).

This week, you’ll undoubtedly see some analysts try to convince you that their run defense got better in the final stretch of the season. In fact, they allowed the second-fewest rushing yards over the last six games of the season. But that’s misleading, because the Chiefs faced the fewest rushing attempts over that span by nearly 20 rushes.

Overall, the Chiefs allowed the seventh-most rushing yards in the league despite facing an average amount of rushing attempts. Their 4.9 yards per carry allowed ranks tied for 28th.

Player to watch: Raheem Mostert. He’s a great story, but he also has the legitimate talent to continue his marvelous run right now. Some act like Mostert came out of nowhere this playoff season, but during the regular season Mostert was first among running backs in yards per carry (5.6).

Advantage: 49ers +3. This is the only true lopsided matchup in this game. And while I’d love to give the Chiefs more credit for stopping Derrick Henry last game, the truth is that is only one data point amongst many that suggest this is the Chiefs’ achilles heel. Even against the Titans, the Chiefs struggled against Henry in the first half, who rushed for 62 yards in the opening two quarters. The 49ers are going to try to stuff the ball down the Chiefs throat through the ground, and history suggests they’ll succeed.

Chiefs pass offense (2nd) vs. 49ers pass defense (2nd)

** Mahomes left this game early with an injury
* No Mahomes

Mahomes or no Mahomes, this passing offense is just as threatening as its reputation. They’ve had less than 250 net passing yards in just seven games this year, including the playoffs. They’ve had a sub-100 passer rating in just six games. They throw the ball a ton, and they usually get a ton of yards when they do. I know that sounds simplistic, but look at the data, it’s ridiculous.

The Chiefs rank fifth in passer rating (104.4), fourth in yards per attempt (8.1) and 11th in completion percentage.

They live off the long ball, however. They lead the league in 40+ yard passing plays (18) and have the seventh-most 20+ yard plays (59).

Just as importantly, the avoid negative plays. Their five interceptions is the second-fewest and their 25 sacks allowed are the third-fewest.

Make big plays, and don’t create negative plays. It sounds so easy when you put it like that.

Just three teams all year earned a passer rating above 100 against this San Francisco 49ers defense, and in two of those instances (Cardinals both times), they could only manage an average of 167.5 net passing yards. The only time this defense has been truly beat is against the Saints—a game in which they still managed to out-shoot Drew Brees.

For the season, the 49ers rank seventh in passer rating allowed (83.0), first in yards per attempt allowed (5.9!!!), and seventh in completion percentage (61.3). They get after the quarterback (48 sacks, t-fifth) and they get their hands on balls (75 passes defended, t-ninth).

The one thing to keep an eye on, however, are those games they struggled. The Cardinals—and to a lesser extent, the Seahawks and Ravens—were able to find some success against the 49ers. The common thread there: mobile quarterback. Hmmmmmmm.

Player to watch: Travis Kelce. If the 49ers have a weakness here, it’s defending tight ends. They’ve allowed seven touchdowns to tight ends this season (postseason included) and Kelce is playing out of his mind lately.

Advantage: Draw. Yeah, this one is also just too close to call. While the Chiefs probably have too many weapons for any team to cover, the 49ers pass rush is the ultimate equalizer. Mahomes obviously counters with mobility that San Francisco has struggled to deal with in the past, but even in those games, San Francisco wasn’t truly torched. This is a thrilling matchup, but the stats don’t really provide any clarity on who has the edge.

Chiefs run offense (14th) vs. 49ers run defense (11th)

The Chiefs rushing attack has been okay, but it has never really been in the elite category. They’ve only surpassed 150 rushing yards once all year, but when they throw the ball as often as they do, that’s not all that surprising.

The overall statistics point to a pretty average unit here. They’re averaging 4.2 yards per carry (20th) but earn first downs on 24.8 percent of rushes (eighth). Despite leading in so many games, they finished the season just 27th in rushing attempts, so running the ball is generally an afterthought in Kansas City.

For as dominant as the 49ers overall defense is, their run defense has actually been fairly pedestrian most season. There was a stretch in which they allowed over 100 yards in 10 straight games, and in each of those games the opponents rushed for at least 4.0 yards per carry. In fact, in that 10-game stretch the 49ers ranked 29th in yards per carry (4.97) and allowed the seventh-most rushing yards in the NFL (129.1 yards per game).

However, they have mostly cleaned it up in the final two months of the season. They’re still susceptible to allowing a big game on the ground, but they’ve been strangely dominant in the playoffs against two pretty darn good running backs. I’m still skeptical of this unit, but they are certainly trending up.

Player to watch: DeForest Buckner. Let’s give some big men a little love. Buckner is one of the 49ers’ best interior defenders, and one of the league’s most well-rounded DTs. While many will be wowed by his 8.0 sacks, his run defense is just as solid.

Advantage: Chiefs +0.5. Kansas City is fairly efficient when they run the ball, but don’t expect them do it all that often on Sunday. They’re a team that’s perfectly fine being one-dimensional, even against a team as defensively good as the 49ers. I just don’t think this matchup will have a big impact on the game, but I also don’t trust the 49ers defense enough to give them an edge here.

Overall:

The 49ers come out with a +2.5 advantage. However, there is plenty of room for the Chiefs to overcome this. Just about every matchup outside of the 49ers running the ball is even. If the Chiefs can somehow take the edge in any or all of those other matchups, they’ll win.

But ultimately it comes down to how many paths to win does each team have? To me, the only way I see the Chiefs winning this game is via a shootout. Granted, they have won plenty of games that way over the past two seasons.

However, the 49ers can also sling the ball and win via a shootout (see their 48-46 win over the Saints or 34-31 win over the Rams). Additionally, the 49ers can suffocate you and win a low-scoring game, too. They’re well-equipped to eat up clock and keep Mahomes at bay. They’ve just got more paths to win this game, and that’s why I think they do. 49ers 27, Chiefs 21.