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Super Bowl Cheat Sheet: The 25 Things You Need to Know About the Chiefs-49ers Matchup

This is your analytical deep dive into every aspect of the Super Bowl LVIII game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to Super Bowl LVIII week at The Ringer! In the days ahead, we’ll cover every aspect of the San Francisco 49ers–Kansas City Chiefs matchup in Las Vegas, Nevada. Let’s get started with a table setter: I’ve watched the film, crunched the numbers, and sorted through the noise to identify the 25 most important things you need to know about this game. Let’s get to it!

Numbers are courtesy of TruMedia and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.

1. At the risk of jinxing it, I think we’re going to get a competitive Super Bowl for the third straight year. The 49ers finished the regular season second in total DVOA, and the Chiefs were fifth. Four teams finished in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive DVOA, and these are two of them (sorry, Cowboys and Ravens, hope you are enjoying Cancún).

The Chiefs are 88-25 with Patrick Mahomes as their starter. And among those 25 losses, just four have been by more than eight points. Let me say this a different way just to get the point across: In the 113 games that Mahomes has started, just four opponents—only 3.5 percent!—have managed to beat him by more than eight points. Now if you’re a hater, you can point to the fact that one of those losses came in the Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But you get the point. It doesn’t happen often.

2. Blowouts are rare for this iteration of the 49ers, too. They are 21-5 with Brock Purdy as their starter, and just three of those losses were by more than one possession. We saw it in the NFC championship game against the Lions. They can get down big (it was 24-7 in that game)—but because of how explosive the offense is, they can catch up in a hurry. Typically, when they’ve been in shoot-outs, they’ve won. Is there some randomness with the small sample? Sure. But the 49ers have not lost a game with Purdy (20-0) when they’ve scored at least 20 points.

3. The matchup that has the football nerds salivating is 49ers head coach and offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan versus Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. These two have faced off twice in recent years—once in Super Bowl LIV (a 31-20 Chiefs victory), and once during Week 7 of the 2022 season (a 44-23 Chiefs victory). Here’s a look at how Shanahan’s offenses performed in those two games:

Shanahan’s Offense Vs. Spags

Game EPA/Drive Success Rate
Game EPA/Drive Success Rate
Super Bowl LIV 70th percentile 91st percentile
Week 7 2022 60th percentile 71st percentile

The percentiles show how the 49ers offenses performed against the Chiefs in comparison to all the games in the NFL those two seasons. Success rate is a metric that puts less weight on explosive plays and turnovers. In other words, a 9-yard completion on third-and-7 is treated the same as a 50-yard completion on third-and-7. Both are deemed successful for the offense. This is a way to measure down-to-down efficiency. As you can see, based on success rate, the 49ers offense was elite in that Super Bowl matchup. Even in 2022, when San Francisco got blown out, the offense still performed at an above-average level.

4. Here’s how the 49ers offense matches up with the Chiefs defense overall:

49ers Offense Vs. Chiefs Defense

Unit DVOA EPA/Drive Success Rate
Unit DVOA EPA/Drive Success Rate
49ers offense 1st 1st 1st
Chiefs defense 7th 5th 11th

It’s worth reemphasizing just how dominant the 49ers offense has been this season. Not only were they first in DVOA during the regular season, but there was a sizable gap between San Francisco and everyone else. The difference between the 49ers and the no. 2 Miami Dolphins was the same as the difference between the Dolphins and the Chiefs at no. 8.

If we’re measuring by offensive success rate, this is the best offense that Shanahan has ever produced. Based on EPA per drive, it’s second to only the 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense he coordinated that went to the Super Bowl.

5. But don’t sleep on this Chiefs defense! They’ve allowed just 15.6 points per game through 20 games; that’s the lowest average for any Chiefs defense since Andy Reid became their head coach in 2013. Based on expected points added per drive, it’s the second-best defense that Reid has had in Kansas City (his 2015 Chiefs were slightly better). Late in the season, I complimented the Ravens for their ability to win any type of game. Well, guess what we’ve seen with the Chiefs? They can do that too. The divisional-round game against the Bills required elite offensive efficiency. They were able to deliver. The AFC championship against the Ravens required a lights-out defensive performance. And they delivered that as well.

6. One of the challenging aspects of facing the 49ers is their diversity of personnel usage. San Francisco is one of only two teams to use 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) on over a third of its offensive snaps, employing fullback Kyle Juszczyk along with Christian McCaffrey or another tailback. The 49ers have used 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver) on a league-high 10.9 percent of their snaps.

The Chiefs defense has faced 122 total snaps of 21 and 22 personnel this season. They’ve played in their base defense—four defensive linemen, three linebackers, four defensive backs—on 74.6 percent of those snaps. They’ve been in sub packages (with five or six defensive backs) roughly a quarter of the time. This isn’t how the Chiefs prefer to play. Their strength is in the secondary. They want to flood the field with defensive backs. But that’s impossible to do when the 49ers play with their heavy personnel packages.

7. Leaguewide this season, there have been 76 different personnel groupings that were used on at least 100 offensive snaps. Here’s where the 49ers’ four main groupings rank among those 76 in EPA per play:

49ers Main Personnel Groupings

49ers Personnel Grouping EPA Rank (Out of 76)
49ers Personnel Grouping EPA Rank (Out of 76)
22 1st
11 2nd
12 6th
21 18th

Yup, they were excellent regardless of personnel grouping. But their 22 personnel was the most efficient grouping in the NFL. It’s not the biggest sample, but the Chiefs have held up well against those 21 and 22 personnel looks, ranking seventh in the NFL in EPA per play. The questions for Kansas City as they prepare for this 49ers offense are simple: If the Chiefs are in their base defense, can they hold up against the pass? And if they’re in their sub packages, can they hold up against the run? The answers will go a long way in determining who wins the matchup on this side of the ball.

8. The biggest matchup advantage for the 49ers on paper is their running game against the Chiefs run defense. San Francisco finished second in rushing efficiency during the regular season, while the Chiefs run defense ranked 27th. If you’re thinking, “You’ve been harping on the Chiefs run defense all postseason and it hasn’t hurt them yet. Give it a rest, bald man!” … well, you’re not entirely wrong. Here’s how the Chiefs run defense has performed against three strong rushing offenses in the playoffs:

Chiefs Run Defense Performance

Opponent Rushing Efficiency
Opponent Rushing Efficiency
Dolphins 57th percentile
Bills 99th percentile
Ravens 57th percentile

The metric we’re using here is success rate, and, again, the percentiles compare the single-game performances to all the performances we’ve seen in the NFL this season. The Dolphins and Ravens were slightly above league average against the Chiefs when running the ball. But look at that Bills number. Of the 568 rushing performances we’ve seen this season, Buffalo ranked fifth overall! They gashed the Chiefs on the ground, but it didn’t matter because they couldn’t produce enough explosive plays and their defense couldn’t get stops.

Buffalo’s run game is obviously different from San Francisco’s, but I have no doubt that Shanahan is going to look at the film and believe strongly that the 49ers can similarly gash the Chiefs on the ground with McCaffrey. One specific area to keep an eye on: how the Chiefs defend the run when the 49ers are in 11 personnel. The 49ers have the best success rate in the NFL when running the ball out of 11 personnel, while the Chiefs defense ranks 31st in success rate defending the run out of 11 personnel looks.

9. The 49ers’ passing game versus the Chiefs’ passing game is strength-on-strength. Let’s start with an absurd table that illustrates how Purdy performed based on various splits:

Purdy’s Performance in Different Splits

Split Purdy's Rank (by Success Rate)
Split Purdy's Rank (by Success Rate)
Vs. Man Coverage 2nd
Vs. Zone Coverage 1st
Vs. 1-High Coverages 2nd
Vs. 2-High Coverages 1st
Vs. Blitz 1st
Vs. No Blitz 1st
Play-Action 1st
No Play-Action 2nd
Pressured 3rd
Not Pressured 1st
Under 3 Seconds to Throw 1st
3 Seconds or More to Throw 1st

Based on the numbers, there is just no evidence of a single area where Purdy and the 49ers’ passing game has struggled. They have had answers against every kind of look.

10. There are a couple obvious parts of Purdy’s game that differentiate him from his predecessor, Jimmy Garoppolo. One, Purdy likes to push the ball downfield. His average pass has traveled 8.3 yards, which ranks eighth out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Purdy has produced the highest success rate in the NFL on throws that travel at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. And two, he can make split-second reaction plays—what he does when his first read isn’t available. We saw that in the NFC championship game. Purdy’s legs were a big factor on scrambles, and he also had a couple plays where he escaped pressure and found Juszczyk for big completions.

11. So how do we expect the Chiefs to play against Purdy and the pass game? One, they’ll mix it up. They’ll disguise and rotate safeties to try to confuse Purdy and force him into mistakes. That’s the one area where Purdy can be had. Pro Football Focus charts turnover-worthy plays. These include plays like dropped interceptions—cases where the quarterback makes a mistake, but gets lucky. Among the 39 quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks this season, Purdy’s turnover-worthy play rate (3.5 percent) ranks 14th. We’ve seen this over and over again. Purdy is not a conservative player. He’ll take chances. He’ll put the ball in harm’s way. But opposing defenses have to make him pay for those mistakes. Against the 49ers, it’s not about shutting them down completely and forcing three-and-out after three-and-out. That’s nearly impossible to do. They’re too talented, and Shanahan’s too good. It’s about forcing negative plays and capitalizing on turnover opportunities.

12. The Chiefs are not going to be afraid to play man coverage in this game. They’ve played man at a top-10 rate this season, and they’re quite good at it. Among the 28 teams that played at least 100 snaps of man coverage this season, the Chiefs ranked second in EPA per pass play. They trust their corners (L’Jarius Sneed, Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson) to hold up, and those guys have done an excellent job. How will the 49ers attack them? Here’s a look at who San Francisco has targeted most often against man coverage:

49ers Snaps Vs. Man Coverage

Player Targets Receptions Yards
Player Targets Receptions Yards
George Kittle 25 19 417
Brandon Aiyuk 34 21 416
Christian McCaffrey 23 19 183
Jauan Jennings 13 9 132
Deebo Samuel 16 7 131

Kittle and Aiyuk have easily been the 49ers’ most productive receivers against man coverage. Among 63 wide receivers who ran at least 100 routes against man coverage, Aiyuk ranked fourth in yards per route run, behind only CeeDee Lamb, Tyreek Hill, and DJ Moore. Kittle, meanwhile, led all tight ends by a wide margin in yards per route run against man coverage. Chiefs safety Justin Reid will be a key player in this game. He can match up to tight ends, blitz, and play the run. Reid’s matchup against Kittle is worth circling. The ability of all of the 49ers—but specifically Aiyuk and Kittle—to win against man coverage figures to be a huge factor in this game.

13. Kansas City’s goal will be to force the 49ers into obvious passing situations. The Chiefs love flooding the field with defensive backs. During the regular season, only three teams played more dime (six defensive backs) than the Chiefs. I mentioned above that Purdy likes to push the ball downfield, but the Chiefs rank fourth in DVOA against deep passes this season. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens took their shots downfield against the Chiefs in the AFC championship game but failed (for the most part) to convert. This is another area where it’s strength-on-strength. Purdy will likely take a handful of shots downfield. Whether he’s able to connect could go a long way in determining who wins this game.

14. But the 49ers don’t just rely on those downfield throws to create explosives. They led the NFL with 75 completions of 20-plus yards, and 49 of those were throws that traveled fewer than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Shanahan does a brilliant job of getting his playmakers the ball in space and on the move. The 49ers led the NFL in yards after the catch per reception. We saw it in the NFC championship against Detroit. McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Aiyuk, Kittle—the first defender is rarely able to bring them down. Ready for the most boring analysis you’ll ever hear? Tackling is going to matter a lot in this game! During the regular season, the Chiefs allowed just 39 completions of 20-plus yards—tied for the fewest in the NFL. But, in terms of yards after the catch, they were right around league average. In this game, they’ve got to be able to prevent those 11-yard completions from becoming 25-yard gains because of missed tackles.

15. And then there’s the battle up front. Here’s what the matchup looks like by the numbers:

49ers Offense Vs. Chiefs Defense Pressure and Sack Rate

Unit Pressure Rate Sack Rate
Unit Pressure Rate Sack Rate
49ers offense 27th 9th
Chiefs defense 11th 1st

The 49ers have a great left tackle in Trent Williams, but they do not have a great offensive line. They are vulnerable on the right side specifically. You’ll notice that there’s a big difference between San Francisco’s pressure rate allowed and sack rate allowed. That’s a credit to Purdy. Pro Football Focus charts a metric called pressure to sack rate. It’s straightforward: What percentage of a quarterback’s pressures turn into sacks? For Purdy, that number is just 13.8 percent, which ranks fifth-best among all starters. It’s not always that he escapes pressure. Oftentimes, Purdy stands in, absorbs a big hit, but gets off an accurate pass just in time. As the table shows, the Chiefs have sacked opposing quarterbacks at the highest rate in the NFL (8.6 percent). Their ability to finish when they get close to Purdy is another big factor in this game.

16. The Chiefs have blitzed (defined here as five or more pass rushers) on 28.3 percent of opposing dropbacks—the 12th-highest rate in the league. Based on EPA per pass play, the Chiefs have been the most effective blitzing team in the NFL. Among the 25 quarterbacks who have been blitzed at least 100 times this season, Purdy ranks first in both EPA per pass play and success rate. Again: strength-on-strength! Spagnuolo is always going to be aggressive, but he will have to decide how much he needs to blitz in this game. When rushing four or fewer, the Chiefs have still produced the highest sack rate (8.3 percent) in the NFL. A big part of that is forcing opposing quarterbacks to hold on to the ball. The Chiefs are already sticky in coverage—and when they can commit seven players to coverage, they’ve given opponents a hard time. On snaps where the Chiefs don’t blitz, opposing quarterbacks have held on to the ball for 3.02 seconds—the fourth-highest average in the NFL. That could be a winning formula for the Chiefs in this matchup.

17. The 49ers need to have a plan for trying to block Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones. Jones, as we saw against the Ravens, is capable of wrecking entire possessions. His 32 quarterback hits are 13 more than any other Chiefs player. Jones will line up in different spots, but look for Kansas City to match him up against right guard Jon Feliciano or right tackle Colton McKivitz. The other player whom the Chiefs need to show up is defensive end George Karlaftis. Karlaftis has produced a team-high 13 sacks and should have a favorable matchup against McKivitz.

18. Here’s how the Chiefs offense matches up with the 49ers defense overall:

Chiefs Offense Vs. 49ers Defense

Unit DVOA EPA/Drive Success Rate
Unit DVOA EPA/Drive Success Rate
Chiefs offense 8th 11th 13th
49ers defense 4th 15th 23rd

This would be a good time to remind you that numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Chiefs offense has been up and down for most of the season, and they struggled in the second half of the AFC championship against the Ravens. But overall, Kansas City has found another gear in the playoffs. If we take their performance in terms of EPA per drive in their three postseason games, it would translate to the third-best offense in the NFL if sustained for the entire 17-game season. Bigger samples are more useful than smaller ones, but it’s fair to say that the Chiefs offense has operated at a higher level in the playoffs than it did during the regular season.

And then we have the 49ers defense. You might be confused by the disparity in the table above, so let me explain: The DVOA rank is only for the regular season and does not take the two playoff games into account. DVOA also adjusts for opponent strength, while EPA and success rate do not. The 49ers defense has produced a success rate of just 53.6 percent in two playoff games against the Packers and Lions. To put that into context, a 53.6 percent success rate would’ve ranked 32nd if extended throughout the entire regular season. Again, bigger samples are more useful than smaller ones! It’s possible that the 49ers will play better in the Super Bowl than they did against the Packers and Lions; they had stretches of really good defensive football at times in the regular season. But the way they’ve performed in the last two games is concerning.

19. The Chiefs have used three different personnel groupings for at least 100 snaps this season: 11 (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), 12 (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers), and 13 (one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver). Among the 76 personnel groupings that have been used on at least 100 snaps leaguewide this season, here’s how the Chiefs have performed:

Chiefs Main Personnel Groupings

Chiefs Personnel Grouping EPA Rank (Out of 76)
Chiefs Personnel Grouping EPA Rank (Out of 76)
11 24th
12 42nd
13 48th

None of the Chiefs’ three main personnel groupings performed at an elite level, but overall they were best out of 11 personnel. As for the 49ers defense, overall they didn’t perform much differently against 11 personnel as opposed to 12 and 13 personnel.

20. Any way you slice it, the Chiefs’ run game has been average to below average this season. They finished the regular season ranked 17th in rushing DVOA, and through the playoffs are 27th in success rate. But Kansas City has shown that in a one-game sample, their backs can do some damage. The Chiefs had their most efficient rushing game of the season in the divisional round against Buffalo, and there should be a chance to run the ball here against the 49ers. San Francisco was mediocre (15th) against the run in the regular season, and the 49ers have been gashed on the ground in the playoffs. The Packers and Lions combined to rush 57 times for 318 yards—5.6 yards per carry—against the 49ers. One specific area to watch: the Chiefs running the ball out of 11 personnel. This has been a consistent problem area for the 49ers this season. They ranked 28th in success rate when opponents ran out of 11 personnel. In other words, the Chiefs might not want to lean into those multiple tight end sets in this game. Playing with three wide receivers, spreading the 49ers out, and running it might be a better option.

21. The Chiefs passing game has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride this season. I buried them in late December because I didn’t think Mahomes could trust his wide receivers, and I thought Kansas City was shaky at offensive tackle. But overall, Mahomes is fifth in success rate and 10th in EPA per pass play. Even during a season in which it’s felt like the supporting cast has hamstrung Mahomes, he’s still found a way to elevate this unit as a whole. Here’s how Mahomes has performed in a number of different areas:

Mahomes’s Performance in Different Splits

Split Mahomes's Rank (by Success Rate)
Split Mahomes's Rank (by Success Rate)
Vs. Man Coverage 5th
Vs. Zone Coverage 7th
Vs. 1-High Coverages 6th
Vs. 2-High Coverages 9th
Vs. Blitz 3rd
Vs. No Blitz 8th
Play-Action 8th
No Play-Action 5th
Pressured 11th
Not Pressured 11th
Under 3 Seconds to Throw 5th
3 Seconds or More to Throw 7th

The numbers might not be as impressive as previous seasons, but if you’re looking for some piece of kryptonite that works against Mahomes, you’re not going to find it. He still has the ability to solve pretty much every type of problem.

22. So, what will the 49ers’ defensive plan be? Generally speaking, San Francisco is a line-up-and-play defense. Coordinator Steve Wilks mixes in disguise and some wrinkles, but for the most part, the 49ers believe in playing zone coverage, protecting the middle of the field, and getting to the quarterback with four pass rushers. If we zoom out and look at the entire season, that plan has been pretty effective. They rank ninth in defensive success rate when playing zone.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, have become a team that funnels pass targets to two players: tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Rashee Rice. That’s especially true when opponents play zone. Kelce has 962 yards receiving against zone coverage, while Rice has 852. No other Chiefs player has more than 260. Kelce has a special gift for recognizing what the defense is doing and finding open space. During the regular season, the 49ers ranked fourth in DVOA against tight ends, but Kelce was fantastic in the AFC championship (catching all 11 of his targets for 116 yards and a touchdown), and has shown he can still dial it up to an elite level when the spotlight is at its brightest.

23. There is one very specific way where this goes horribly for the Chiefs offense: 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa wrecks the game. Bosa will line up on both sides, but when he’s at left defensive end and going up against Chiefs right tackle Jawaan Taylor, that’s a big mismatch in San Francisco’s favor. Taylor has been whistled for a whopping 24 penalties in 20 games, and he struggled in the AFC championship against the Ravens. The Chiefs cannot afford to let him take on Bosa one-on-one all game in pass protection. I would expect this matchup to be the focus of Kansas City’s game plan. Expect them to use every tactic in the book—moving the pocket, play-action, misdirection, quick throws to the perimeter, screens—to neutralize Bosa. In the NFC championship game, the Lions did an excellent job on perimeter runs that took advantage of the aggressiveness of San Francisco’s defensive ends. I would expect the Chiefs to try some of the same—especially early in this game.

24. Here’s how the battle up front looks overall:

Chiefs Offense Vs. 49ers Defense Pressure and Sack Rate

Unit Pressure Rate Sack Rate
Unit Pressure Rate Sack Rate
Chiefs offense 19th 2nd
49ers defense 7th 20th

The numbers suggest that the 49ers’ pass rush has impacted games more than their sack total reflects. But Mahomes is just an absolute wizard at sack avoidance. It might be his most underrated skill. Just 10.4 percent of pressures on Mahomes have turned into sacks this season. That’s second in the NFL behind only Josh Allen.

I mentioned Bosa above, but the rest of the 49ers pass rushers have been somewhat underwhelming. Bosa’s 41 quarterback hits are 27 more than any other player on the team. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave had moments during the regular season, but he has zero sacks and zero quarterback hits on 59 pass-rush snaps through two playoff games. The 49ers traded for defensive end Chase Young during the season, but he’s been a disappointment. Young has zero sacks and zero quarterback hits on 51 pass-rush snaps in the postseason and has struggled against the run. Overall, the 49ers have 11 quarterback hits in two playoff games, but Bosa has accounted for nine of them. Whether it’s Hargrave, Young, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, or someone else, San Francisco needs other pass rushers to step up and win their one-on-ones in this game.

25. Let’s close it out with a thought on Mahomes. During his most prolific seasons, we marveled at Mahomes’s ability to make the 1 percent plays. The Houdini-like escapes. The high-degree-of-difficulty throws. The creativity and magic. But this postseason run has required something different. Mahomes has shown an ability to decipher exactly what is needed to win each game. And the playoffs have, in many ways, been defined by his focus on avoiding mistakes. Per PFF’s charting, Mahomes has not had a single turnover-worthy play on 114 postseason dropbacks. He’s committed no turnovers and has taken only two sacks in three games with the stakes at their highest. This is not even close to the best team that the Chiefs have had with Mahomes, but finding a way to still get it done with this group would perhaps qualify as his most impressive accomplishment yet.