Super Bowl LVIII Preview: Will Chiefs Secure NFL Dynasty Status?

By Scott Kacsmar

We have reached the end of the 2023 NFL season with Super Bowl LVIII set for Sunday night. Either the San Francisco 49ers will tie the Steelers and Patriots with their sixth Super Bowl championship, or the Kansas City Chiefs will end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. The 2003-04 Patriots were the last team to repeat.

This is a rare rematch of a recent Super Bowl with the Chiefs having won Super Bowl LIV by a 31-20 final just four years ago. But these teams are fairly different this time around. There won’t be a 44-yard completion to Tyreek Hill on 3rd-and-15 this time, and you won’t see Jimmy Garoppolo miss Emmanuel Sanders on a deep ball in a 4-point game.

Last week, we looked at the main difference maker for each team compared to four years ago.

For the 49ers, Brock Purdy is not just Jimmy Garoppolo 2.0. While they have the same record as a starter (21-5) going into this matchup, Purdy has had one of the best two-year starts to a quarterback’s career in NFL history. He can overcome the stigma of Kyle Shanahan’s system by helping that system win the first Super Bowl ring for its coach.

But Purdy is facing the best Kansas City defense of the Patrick Mahomes era. We looked at how an awful defense in 2018 quickly led to the Chiefs turning things around after hiring Steve Spagnuolo as the new defensive coordinator. This year has been his best job yet, but Sunday’s final boss is the most talented opponent and the best scheme he’s seen all year.

We will return Friday with Super Bowl props and picks extravaganza. But today, this is a definitive preview for the game of the year with the storylines to watch for both teams, the paths to victory, and a final score prediction.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (+2.5, O/U 47.5)

The No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs (14-6) will take on the No. 1 San Francisco 49ers (14-5) this Sunday evening in Las Vegas. Perfect conditions indoors and hopefully a quality playing surface should lead to an excellent game where the Chiefs are still a 2.5-point underdog with a total of 47.5 points.

The Last Matchup

Week 7, 2022: Chiefs 44, 49ers 23

It’s not too recent, but at least a lot of the same key players will be in the game on Sunday. The 49ers started this one hot with a 10-0 lead after getting an early interception of Patrick Mahomes from safety Talanoa Hufanga, a player they wish they still had healthy for this weekend.

But that only made the Chiefs angry as they ripped off 6 touchdowns over the next 7 drives. Their only stop was a 73-yard drive that ended with a missed field goal. But this was a 28-23 game in the fourth quarter before the Chiefs put it away with more big plays. Marquez Valdes-Scantling had a 57-yard catch, then JuJu Smith-Schuster got loose for a 45-yard touchdown as the Chiefs pulled away 44-23.

An unknown rookie named Brock Purdy entered the game with 3:39 left and threw his first NFL passes. The drive also ended with his first interception in the red zone.

Mahomes finished with 423 yards and 3 touchdown passes. Mecole Hardman scored 3 touchdowns. JuJu (124) and MVS (111) were both over 100 yards. Travis Kelce had 6 catches for 98 yards.

The 49ers’ quarterbacks combined to throw for 369 yards, but Jimmy Garoppolo took 5 sacks, including one in the end zone for a safety. Christian McCaffrey had just joined the team that week via trade and only played 23 snaps. He finished with 10 touches for 62 yards. George Kittle matched Kelce with 6 catches for 98 yards (and a touchdown).

It may not mean much for Sunday, but the 49ers are 3-7 ATS against AFC teams since 2022, including losses this year to the Browns, Bengals, and Ravens.

Injury Watch

Many Super Bowls feature a star player trying to work their way back from injury, but this does not look like it will be one of those games. If there is a team with an edge here, it is clearly San Francisco. Tight end George Kittle reportedly had a toe injury against the Lions, but he should be fine.

The Chiefs are unlikely to have All-Pro guard Joe Thuney (pectoral) again, but Nick Allegretti did a good job in his place against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. This is not like Super Bowl LV when the Chiefs lost left tackle Eric Fisher and had to reshuffle the line, which was a mess against Tampa Bay. They should be more than adequate without Thuney.

The Kansas City pass rush lost one of their top edge rushers in Charles Omenihu, who tore his ACL against the Ravens. He had a strip-sack of Lamar Jackson and was third on the team with 7.0 sacks this year, so that’s not a good development for the No. 2 pass rush in the league. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. is expected to return to action this week.

Finally, the Chiefs are thinking about activating wide receiver Kadarius Toney for the first time since Week 15. This is one of those rare cases where you kind of wish a player was still too injured to play. Toney has hurt the team with huge drops and penalties in multiple losses this year, but maybe if they limit him to punt returns, he could have a positive impact. Toney had a 65-yard punt return in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LVII against the Eagles.

Stats to Know

For the Super Bowl, we are switching things up and presenting stats and information for both sides of the matchup.

Stats to know that lean towards a Kansas City victory:

  • As an underdog in his career, Patrick Mahomes is 9-3 SU and 10-1-1 ATS.
  • The underdog is 7-4 SU in Super Bowls since 2011 (2014 Seahawks-Patriots was a pick’em).
  • This is the fourth Super Bowl that is a rematch between two head coaches (Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan). In the previous rematches, the coach who won the first game was 3-0 in the rematch (Chuck Noll’s Steelers over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys over Marv Levy’s Bills, and Tom Coughlin’s Giants over Bill Belichick’s Patriots).
  • Quarterbacks with at least 3 more Super Bowl starts than their opposing quarterback are 7-3 in the Super Bowl.
  • Mahomes is 3-0 against the 49ers with over 300 yards of offense and at least 3 total touchdowns in each game.
  • Mahomes has not thrown an interception in his last 6 playoff games, an NFL record.
  • Since 2022, Mahomes is 24-0 when he completes at least 64% of his passes in a game (note: some sportsbooks have set his completion percentage prop at over/under 65.5% in this game).
  • Chiefs led the league in dropped passes in the regular season, but their 1 drop over the last two games is their best 2-game stretch of the year.
  • Chiefs were minus-11 in turnover differential in the regular season but are plus-2 in the playoffs.
  • Chiefs still have a winning record (5-4) this year when turning the ball over multiple times.
  • The 49ers are 1-8 with multiple giveaways since 2022 (1-3 this year).
  • Chiefs have 3 games with no turnovers this year, including their last game (AFC Championship Game at Baltimore) and their two road games played indoors (Minnesota and Las Vegas; the latter the site of the Super Bowl).
  • Chiefs had 3 takeaways in Baltimore in the AFC title game, their first game with multiple takeaways since Week 7 against the Chargers.
  • The Chiefs ranked No. 2 in sacks (57) and No. 2 in defensive pressure rate (27.8%) according to Pro Football Reference.
  • Brock Purdy has 7 games with a bad throw rate of at least 20%, including both playoff games and 5 road games (source: Pro Football Reference).
  • Purdy’s bad throw rate is 26.9% this postseason after it was 16.3% in the regular season. For reference, Bryce Young (21.5%) was the only quarterback above 20% this year.
  • Quarterbacks starting their first Super Bowl before their 25th birthday like Purdy are 3-5. The only two to lead their team to more than 21 points were Jalen Hurts (lost to Mahomes) and Mahomes (beat San Francisco).
  • Mahomes has led the Chiefs to at least 22 points in 15-of-17 playoff games.
  • The Chiefs have not allowed more than 27 points in any game this season.
  • The Chiefs have held 19-of-20 opponents under 25 points, tied for the most games in a season in NFL history (playoffs included) with the 1925 Frankford Yellow Jackets and 2000 Ravens.
  • Eight of the 9 teams in the Super Bowl era to have at least 18 games where they held opponents under 25 points won the Super Bowl that year. The lone miss was Andy Reid’s 2001 Eagles (lost in NFC Championship Game).
  • The under is 14-6 (70%) in Kansas City games this year, the third-highest rate.
  • The 49ers are 0-5 when scoring under 24 points this year and were held under 21 points in every loss.
  • The 2006 Colts and 2023 Chiefs are the only defenses since the merger to allow under 260 net passing yards in all 20 games they played in a season.
  • The 2023 Chiefs’ streak of 20 straight games without allowing 260 net passing yards is the longest in the NFL since the 2015-16 Texans.
  • Mahomes is 11-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 31 points in the playoffs.
  • The 49ers have allowed 6 teams this year to score at least 21 points and rush for at least 100 yards, and 5-of-6 of those games have come since Week 15 (everyone but Washington).
  • The 49ers are 0-38 under Kyle Shanahan when trailing by 8-plus points in the fourth quarter, the only team without a win since 2017.
  • The Chiefs allowed the fewest points after halftime this season (126 points).

Stats to know that lean towards a San Francisco victory:

  • Race to 24? Since 2022, the 4ers are 25-0 and the Chiefs are 23-1 when they score at least 24 points.
  • The Chiefs are 3-6 when allowing more than 17 points and 1-4 when allowing more than 20 points this season.
  • The 2023 49ers won 11 games by at least 12 points, tied for the second most in a season in NFL history.
  • The 49ers were 1-4 in close games in the regular season, but in the playoffs, the 49ers have come back from a 21-14 deficit to start the fourth quarter to beat Green Bay, and they erased a 17-point deficit in the third quarter against Detroit in the NFC Championship Game.
  • The 49ers scored the most points after halftime this season (224 points).
  • The 49ers allowed the second-fewest points in the fourth quarter this season (60 points).
  • Brock Purdy is 4-0 in playoff games he’s finished, and he has led a game-winning drive in his last 3 full playoff games.
  • The 49ers are the No. 1 offense in the red zone at scoring touchdowns (67.2%) while the Chiefs are only No. 17 (54.1%).
  • The Chiefs had the highest rate of dropped passes (7.3%) this season while the 49ers had the lowest (1.9%).
  • The 49ers are 22-4 in games where Brock Purdy throws at least 10 passes, including a 16-0 record when he throws at least 2 touchdown passes and 16-0 when his passer rating is above 95.0.
  • Purdy is 22-1 when he doesn’t throw multiple interceptions (min. 10 passes), and in the only loss, kicker Jake Moody missed a 41-yard game-winning field goal in Cleveland.
  • The 49ers are 26-6 with Christian McCaffrey, including a 19-2 record when he rushes for at least 55 yards (19-1 when the quarterback doesn’t injure his elbow on the opening drive too).
  • Patrick Mahomes has two games in his career where he’s thrown multiple interceptions and taken at least 4 sacks, and Super Bowl LIV vs. 49ers was the first time it happened (2 interceptions, 4 sacks).
  • Mahomes has thrown multiple interceptions in 2-of-3 Super Bowl starts, and the 49ers have intercepted him 3 times in their last two meetings.
  • The 49ers tied for the league lead with 22 interceptions on defense.
  • Mahomes has 1 start in 113 career games where he’s taken 5 sacks, and that was in 2018 against Arizona, the only time he has faced 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was the head coach of the Cardinals.
  • The Chiefs have gone scoreless after halftime in 4 games this season, including the AFC Championship Game in Baltimore (it happened twice to the Chiefs in 2018-22 combined).

Paths to Victory

We have a main storyline for each team and another for both of them in outlining their paths to victory in this Super Bowl. Let’s start with the 49ers.

49ers: Is Christian McCaffrey the Key?

Can you believe no running back has won Super Bowl MVP since Terrell Davis for the 1997 Broncos? But Christian McCaffrey is going to have a real shot in this one as he could be the key to the whole game.

When these teams met four years ago in Super Bowl LIV, the strength vs. strength matchup was the Kansas City offense against the San Francisco defense. That proved to decide the game too as the play of the game was Mahomes finding Tyreek Hill for 44 yards on 3rd-and-15. If the 49ers stop that play, they are the champs that year.

Four years later, the situation is reversed. The San Francisco offense against the Kansas City defense is the real strength vs. strength matchup that should decide this game, and how McCaffrey plays is going to be crucial to how that one goes.

The Ravens made such an egregious mistake by trying to make Lamar Jackson a pass-first quarterback in the title game as they handed off to their running backs just 6 times for 23 yards. That’s never been the way to beat Kansas City, and especially not in 2023.

The Bills showed a bit of a blueprint against these Chiefs in the divisional round when Josh Allen controlled the clock with a ton of short passes, and they ran the ball well in a variety of ways. It was very effective for three quarters too, then a couple of run stuffs and failures to catch deep balls in the final quarter changed everything for Buffalo. Throw in a missed 44-yard field goal and that was a wrap.

But the reason you want to shorten the game and limit possessions is so you can maximize the damage of those mistakes by the Chiefs (the penalties, drops, and turnovers). If Mahomes touches the ball only 8 times and three of those drives are ending because of a drive-killing holding penalty, a fumble, and a drop on third down, then that’s going to be an easier game to win than if you give him an extra 2-to-4 possessions to mitigate those mistakes.

This also means you have to play close to mistake-free football yourself, but that should already be a team goal for the Super Bowl. Fortunately, the 49ers have a low turnover count and are usually good at doing that. They will not make the mistake the Ravens did. They will run McCaffrey in this game even if it’s a slow start. They won’t abandon him, and he also can have huge value as a receiver as we have seen the Bills and Ravens have some success with throws to their backs against this defense, and their backs can’t sniff McCaffrey’s talent. That is a more ideal way to attack them than throwing to a covered Brandon Aiyuk against L’Jarius Sneed.

While Purdy isn’t going to run a dozen times for 70 yards like Josh Allen did, he can scramble effectively as he showed against Detroit. But that just means more carries for McCaffrey, and they can also get the ball in the backfield to Deebo Samuel, a very physical runner who should be feeling better with a week off after his shoulder injury to start this postseason run.

The 49ers have better skill players and a better scheme than the Bills and Ravens. They can get this done, but it will come down to making sure Purdy doesn’t end up looking like a deer in the headlights on the big stage. You just never know how a young quarterback is going to fare in the Super Bowl, but you should expect there will be some nerves and mistakes. Even the youngest quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Mahomes) all had some big hiccups in those wins.

Comparatively speaking, Jalen Hurts handled it very well last year for the Eagles, but his second quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown was still a huge error that went a long way in the Chiefs eventually winning that game. Purdy can’t make that kind of mistake.

That’s why featuring McCaffrey and safer throws that get the ball out quickly is so critical for the 49ers in this matchup. Don’t let Chris Jones and that pass rush wreck this game as the offensive line, save for Trent Williams, is not that great for the 49ers, and we know Spagnuolo is likely going to bring some real heat at the young quarterback.

If McCaffrey isn’t getting at least 25 touches and 125 yards from scrimmage, it’s probably not going to be a successful night for the 49ers. This game is why they made that trade. Use him accordingly.

Chiefs: Protect the Ball

We sound like a broken record as we said this in the wild card round, the divisional round, and for the AFC Championship Game. But for the last time, if the Chiefs want to repeat, they have to protect the ball and stop killing themselves with mistakes.

Why did the Chiefs only win 11 games and have mediocre scoring statistics? Well, they didn’t protect the ball and they had too many turnovers and penalties. We saw it since Week 1. When this team lost, they usually just had themselves to blame:

Week 1 vs. Detroit (L 21-20): Kadarius Toney turned a catch into a pick-six for the Lions, then dropped a pass that would have put the Chiefs in game-winning field goal range. The defense (without Chris Jones) only gave up 14 points. The offense could have easily had 27-30 points that night without Travis Kelce playing.

Week 8 at Denver (L 24-9): Mahomes had the flu, and it was a sloppy day with the Chiefs turning it over 5 times, including a huge muffed punt from Mecole Hardman when it was 14-9 in the fourth quarter. All 24 of Denver’s points came on drives that started in Kansas City territory.

Week 11 vs. Philadelphia (L 21-17): Tough game in the rain, but Kelce lost a fumble in the red zone when the Chiefs led 17-14 in the fourth quarter. Down 21-17, Mahomes threw a perfect bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who dropped the go-ahead touchdown.

Week 13 at Green Bay (L 27-19): Most legitimate loss of the season as the Chiefs played their worst defense all year and the Packers sacked Mahomes multiple times on third down in the red zone. Had some chances for penalty calls on the final drive that never came, but it was the only loss this year that was more about the opponent taking it to the Chiefs than the Chiefs shooting themselves in the foot.

Week 14 vs. Buffalo (L 20-17): Down 20-17, it looked like the Chiefs made the play of the year with Kelce throwing a lateral to Toney for a go-ahead touchdown in the final 90 seconds, but Toney was flagged for offensive offsides, a penalty that sometimes never gets called in an entire NFL season. Like in previous losses to Detroit and Philadelphia, the offensive line completely fell apart after the Chiefs botched a game-winning type of play, and the drive stalled from there in another loss.

Week 16 vs. Las Vegas (L 20-14): The Chiefs lost this game early when back-to-back turnovers were returned for touchdowns in 7 seconds. The Raiders didn’t even complete a pass in the final three quarters and still won. But the Chiefs got too cute with play calling on a horrible gadget play that kicked things off with a fumble for a touchdown. Then Mahomes compounded it by throwing a pick-six. The Raiders treated Christmas like their Super Bowl while the Chiefs never matched their intensity that day.

But the Chiefs haven’t lost since they cleaned up their act. It also helps that Toney has been inactive since he turned another catch into a pick against the Patriots in Week 15. They have tried keeping the gadget receiver gaffes alive with Mecole Hardman, who fumbled on 1st-and-goal in Buffalo on what could have been a killer turnover in the playoffs. But for the most part, the Chiefs are protecting the ball better. You still worry about the offensive tackle penalties, but hopefully they have the egregious drops under control, and this game will be played in perfect conditions instead of extreme cold or rain.

But if the Chiefs can get out of their own way with the drops, penalties, the obligatory fumble, and the asinine trick plays they don’t need, they should be a force in this game. Sure, it stinks that they refuse to call the quarterback sneak, but they know how to play winning football this time of the year.

You just hope the season doesn’t come down to Nick Bosa chasing Mahomes on a 4th-and-15 before he throws to a wide-open Hardman, and Hardman cuts off the route halfway to complain to an official for a flag when he could have just caught the ball.

Maybe we are just caught in a timeline where things work out for the Chiefs, but there has to be some parallel universe where this team’s 2023 season ends with an egregious mistake like that.

Can San Francisco Flip the Script on the Comeback Kings from Kansas City?

Finally, we just wanted to draw some attention for both teams to the fascinating possibilities for the game script about to unfold in this one. Which direction is it going to go this time?

Traditionally, the Chiefs are the comeback kings, no double-digit deficit worries them, and no one forgets how they stormed back from a 20-10 deficit to win 31-20 in Super Bowl LIV against these 49ers.

Meanwhile, the 49ers are viewed as the front-running team that can’t come back, and this regular season, they did little to change that reputation. We had a lot of these stats listed above for both teams, but the 49ers were 1-4 in close games and had almost all of their wins by 12 points or better.

But the script has really changed this postseason with slow starts by the 49ers leading to big second-half comebacks and 3-point wins. Very unorthodox for Shanahan’s 49ers. But now we get to see the best scoring offense after halftime against the best scoring defense after halftime, and it should be fun. Throw in the Chiefs’ struggles to score after halftime, and it could be a total reversal with the 49ers being the team that has to come back from a double-digit deficit late in the game.

Or it could be a low-scoring dud like we have seen many times in 2023 when we got our hopes up for a marquee island game. Again, the possibilities are plentiful, but the shift of the Chiefs to a defensive-led team and the shift by the 49ers towards offense makes this a lot more interesting of a matchup than it was four years ago.

Also, if it comes down to a kicker, you have to give the edge to Harrison Butker and the Chiefs. He has been clutch in his career, including the playoffs. Rookie kicker Jake Moody has been a liability already this year for the 49ers, missing a game-winning field goal in Cleveland and a miss in each playoff game so far. Just something else to consider for this one.

Final Prediction

Normally, it has been easy to build up the underdog angle for the Chiefs going into a big game for the last several years. The NFC had the better team, the better defense, but the Chiefs had the best quarterback in Mahomes. You could even frame this game the same way as we have talked up the 49ers having the most talented roster in the NFL.

But I have been struggling to do anything but pick the Chiefs to win this game.

The defense has proven itself legitimate since Week 1, and it is clearly the best unit Mahomes has ever had. His offense has come on down the stretch, they are protecting the ball better and getting it to the right players. You like Reid and Spagnuolo with a bye week to prepare.

You don’t know what to expect from Purdy in the biggest game of his life, but some mistakes will likely happen against an elite pass rush and set of corners. The San Francisco defense has not been great at all down the stretch, and we might be talking about the Lions right now if Josh Reynolds could just catch a ball in that third quarter. I am still skeptical of Shanahan’s game management in both holding onto a lead and making a comeback.

It just feels easier to trust the Chiefs this year than it was in 2019 when the 49ers had a truly elite defense and an offense that could score like a machine even with Garoppolo and without McCaffrey there.

It feels less daunting for the Chiefs to take on this defense without Joe Thuney than it was to deal with the 2020 Buccaneers in their home stadium with the offensive line reshuffle and Mike Evans able to draw phantom pass interference penalties. I don’t think Purdy has Tom Brady’s dark voodoo magic or else he wouldn’t have been injured on the opening drive of last year’s NFC title game, his only playoff loss so far.

I also expect the referees to swallow their whistles and let them play to temper down “fixed” allegations from people who think the NFL wants Taylor Swift’s boyfriend to win this game for whatever nonsensical reason they have.

Last year was supposed to be Philadelphia’s amazing pass rush with 70 sacks attacking Mahomes on a high-ankle sprain, and yet the Chiefs took no sacks and came back to win 38-35 with Mahomes scrambling for 26 yards as the decisive play.

By comparison, this looks easier for the Chiefs, though winning the Super Bowl is never an easy accomplishment. The game will still likely go down to the fourth quarter as 18 of the last 20 Super Bowls have. I just think in the end, Mahomes and Kelce pull it out, the 49ers don’t reach those critical numbers of 24 or 27 points, and Kansas City can call itself a dynasty with a third ring in five years and back-to-back championships.

Secure the ball, secure a dynasty.

Final Score Prediction: Chiefs 27, 49ers 23

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