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Our Guide To Super Bowl LIV

Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers is one of huge contrasts: Patrick Mahomes vs. Jimmy Garoppolo. Passing vs. rushing. Offense vs. defense. Legendary barbecue vs. legendary burritos. (We can only hope the game itself proves to be just as legendary.)

We’ve broken down the contest using our Elo ratings — which track each team’s form, with adjustments for each starting quarterback — and also compared the teams in each phase of the game according to ESPN’s expected points added (EPA)1 during the season.2 So who will emerge as champion in this battle of divergent playing styles?

Tale of the tape: Kansas City vs. San Francisco

6:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Kansas City Category San Francisco
14-4 Record 15-3
3rd Schedule strength 10th
1743 Elo rating 1671
1st League rank 3rd
Patrick Mahomes Starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo
2nd QB Elo rank 23rd
3rd QB’s supporting cast 1st
5th Avg. QB Elo defense 7th
63.0% 538 forecast 37.0%

The Chiefs are the superior team on paper, coming into the game ranked first in Elo by a healthy margin. Long gone are the days of Kansas City relying on recycled 49er QBs to lead the charge — it now has Mahomes, who currently rates higher relative to a league-average starter (+119) than any other quarterback in franchise history, according to Elo. His rating is much higher than that of Garoppolo, about whom Elo remains very much unsure despite San Francisco’s great season.


Hot Takedown’s Super Bowl Breakdown

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Overall, Jimmy G. was relatively efficient this year when asked to pass the ball, but he faded down the stretch of the schedule — he has a 49.2 Total QBR since Week 15 — and his workload was minimal by modern Super Bowl QB standards. (Culminating in Garoppolo seldom being called upon to even throw the ball in San Francisco’s NFC championship victory against Green Bay.) As a result, Elo considers Garoppolo to be 27 rating points worse than an average starter. The good news for the Niners, however, is that they don’t need their QB to be great, given that they have the No. 1-ranked supporting cast3 in the league, including a top-flight pass defense and a productive rushing attack.

EPA breakdown: Kansas City vs. San Francisco

Leaguewide ranking in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, 2019 season

When K.C. has the ball
Chiefs Offense Category 49ers Defense
1st Passing 2nd
11th Rushing 5th
When S.F. has the ball
49ers Offense Category Chiefs Defense
7th Passing 6th
13th Rushing 28th
Other categories
Kansas City Category San Francisco
20th Special Teams 25th
5th Penalties* 19th

*A better ranking means the team was better at avoiding being penalized.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Speaking of which, one of the biggest things that makes this Super Bowl matchup fascinating is the interaction between the two teams’ strengths and weaknesses. The Chiefs have the best EPA passing attack in the league … but the 49ers have the second-best passing defense to potentially neutralize it. Meanwhile, Kansas City has the league’s fifth-worst rushing defense by EPA, to go up against the Niners’ 13th-ranked rushing offense. (EPA doesn’t think as highly of the Niner run game as something like pure yards per game does, though it is still above-average.)


How this Super Bowl compares to others in the past

Although K.C. does come out ahead in other categories such as special teams and avoiding penalties, the head-to-head particulars tend to generally break in San Francisco’s favor, which could give it more of a chance than Elo expects. To that point, two of the historical Super Bowl matchups most similar to SB LIV were Super Bowls XLVI (with Garoppolo and Co. cast as Eli Manning and the Giants) and 50 (with the Niners as Peyton Manning and the Broncos), both of which were won by the underdog. The 49ers are in the same spot, and Elo favors K.C. for a reason. But it’s also not hard to see San Francisco using its strengths to turn the odds around. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -3½

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) Here’s what Elo’s predictions were against the field two weeks ago:

Recapping Elo’s picks for the championship round

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 20 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
SF 64% SF 68% SF 37, GB 20 -6.5
KC 69 KC 69 KC 35, TEN 24 -11.3

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

The last time games were played, Elo beat the field in both contests, winning by an average overall margin of 17.8 points. This happened despite the fact that the average reader prediction was as or more confident in each winner than Elo was. What’s up with that? As we’ve explained before, the game is nonlinear — so even if the average picks are the same, a few disastrous (or amazing) picks on either side can heavily swing the point totals. We’re guessing that enough readers took fliers on the Titans and Packers that it dragged down the overall score for the entire field.

Still, plenty of readers did well. Congratulations to Jordan Sweeney, who leads all (identified) readers in the postseason with 225 points, and Jan Hájek, who continues to lead the full-season contest with 1,097.7 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo in the Super Bowl, even if you missed Week 20.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Adjusted for strength of schedule by comparing an opponent’s EPA performance against the team in question with how it played against every other team on its schedule.

  2. Including the playoffs.

  3. Measured by what we call “QB-neutral Elo,” or a team’s Elo rating if its quarterback were replaced with a league-average starter.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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