One team competing this weekend in Super Bowl LIV has proven all season that it is one of the most dominant, well-balanced squads in NFL history.
It’s the team widely expected to lose.
The San Francisco 49ers are 1-point underdogs in the early line on the game, which opened with the Kansas City Chiefs as 1.5-point favorites. But the FiveThirtyEight Elo model gives the Niners a 37 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, installing the Chiefs as a nearly 2-to-1 favorite. The majority of the public wagers1 are being placed on Kansas City, too.
Given the defensive reputation of San Francisco, it shouldn’t be a shock that the Niners allowed far fewer yards than the Chiefs did this season. But you may be surprised that the 49ers narrowly edged out the Chiefs in terms of total yards gained. In fact, the 49ers are the first Super Bowl team since the 2007 New England Patriots — unbeaten in the regular season — to rank in the top five in both most yards gained (6,097, fourth) and fewest yards allowed (4,509, second).
|Season||Team||Yards gained||Yards Allowed||SB Result|
|2007||New England||1st||4th||L 17-14|
|2001||St. Louis||1st||3rd||L 20-17|
|1996||Green Bay||5th||1st||W 35-21|
|1989||San Francisco||1st||4th||W 55-10|
|1988||San Francisco||2nd||3rd||W 20-16|
Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, San Francisco is just the 17th Super Bowl team (out of 100) to have shown this level of strength on both sides of the ball.2 The 16 previous teams were 10-6 in the Super Bowl.3 From 1979 through 1997, the seven Super Bowl teams that were top five in yards on both offense and defense all walked away with the Lombardi Trophy.
While the strength the 49ers have shown on both sides of the ball separates them from the vast majority of Super Bowl teams, it’s arguably not even their most impressive achievement.
I wrote in October about the 49ers’ dominance in a key team statistic. For the regular season, they gained 7.38 yards per passing play4 and allowed just 4.77 yards per attempt, for a net yards per attempt differential of plus-2.6. No other team came close to that in 2019. Here’s how it ranks among all 1,578 NFL team seasons in the Super Bowl era, starting with the 1966 regular season.
|Net yards per attempt|
Among the top 20 are six Super Bowl winners5 and two more clubs (Baltimore in 1968 and Washington in 1972) that lost the Super Bowl to other top-20 teams (the Jets and Dolphins, respectively). The combined regular-season record of these 20 teams was 236-56-4 (.804).
Teams that win the battle of the passing game this way win about three-quarters of the time. And the Super Bowl teams that win net yards per pass attempt in the game itself are 41-12 (.774).
Complicating this analysis, though, is how San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has seemingly shackled quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the postseason. In the NFC championship win against the Packers, Garoppolo threw just eight passes — the fewest by a team in a postseason win since the early-1970s Dolphins. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Patrick Mahomes, is carrying his team: The third-year quarterback has the highest career QB rating in postseason history since the merger.6 But don’t discount Garoppolo’s ability: It’s worth noting that, during the regular season, Jimmy G. threw for more yards than Joe Montana ever did,7 and the 49ers finished just behind the Chiefs in offensive net yards per attempt.
Yes, the Chiefs’ pass defense has gotten stronger as the season has progressed. And the team’s overall plus-1.8 net yards per attempt vs. opponents in the regular season ranks an impressive 78th since 1966.8 Yet it’s almost impossible to imagine the Chiefs winning the big game without a dominant performance by Mahomes.
The 49ers, comparatively, are a complete wild card. There’s no one way they have to beat you because they can beat you in a multitude of ways. While Mahomes can fairly be called an extraordinary player, the same can be said of the entire team wearing scarlet and gold.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.