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The Most Balanced Team In The Super Bowl Isn’t The Favorite

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).

San Francisco is elite on offense and defense

Super Bowl teams since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger that ranked in the top five in both yards gained and yards allowed for the regular season

League rank
Season Team Yards gained Yards Allowed SB Result
2019 San Francisco 4th 2nd ?
2007 New England 1st 4th L 17-14
2001 St. Louis 1st 3rd L 20-17
1997 Denver 1st 5th W 31-24
1996 Green Bay 5th 1st W 35-21
1992 Dallas 4th 1st W 52-17
1991 Washington 4th 3rd W 37-24
1989 San Francisco 1st 4th W 55-10
1988 San Francisco 2nd 3rd W 20-16
1979 Pittsburgh 1st 2nd W 31-19
1978 Dallas 2nd 2nd L 35-31
1977 Dallas 1st 1st W 27-10
1975 Dallas 3rd 5th L 21-17
1972 Miami 1st 1st W 14-7
1971 Dallas 1st 3rd W 24-3
1971 Miami 5th 5th L 24-3
1970 Dallas 4th 4th L 16-13

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

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.

The 49ers are historically good in one key stat

NFL teams since 1966 by the differential in net yards per pass attempt on offense and defense in the regular season

Net yards per attempt
Rank Team Season Offense Defense Diff. Record
1 Washington 1991 8.10 4.93 +3.17 14-2
2 Baltimore 1968 7.40 4.27 +3.13 13-1
3 Miami 1984 8.56 5.51 +3.06 14-2
4 Green Bay 1966 7.46 4.48 +2.97 12-2
5 New Orleans 1992 7.21 4.35 +2.86 12-4
6 Miami 1972 7.41 4.59 +2.82 14-0
7 San Francisco 1989 8.15 5.33 +2.82 14-2
8 Washington 1972 7.43 4.63 +2.80 11-3
9 Cincinnati 1975 6.94 4.16 +2.78 11-3
10 Atlanta 1971 7.14 4.38 +2.76 7-6-1
11 Oakland 1969 7.25 4.50 +2.76 12-1-1
12 N.Y. Jets 1968 7.58 4.86 +2.71 11-3
13 Cleveland 1968 7.44 4.83 +2.61 10-4
14 St. Louis 2001 7.89 5.29 +2.61 14-2
15 San Francisco 2019 7.38 4.77 +2.60 13-3
16 Green Bay 1967 6.36 3.76 +2.59 9-4-1
17 Oakland 1968 7.10 4.56 +2.54 12-2
18 New England 2007 7.79 5.31 +2.49 16-0
19 N.Y. Jets 1967 7.08 4.62 +2.46 8-5-1
20 San Diego 2010 7.77 5.32 +2.45 9-7

Net yards per attempt is passing yards per play (sacks are included).

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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.

Footnotes

  1. As of Monday afternoon.

  2. This is tougher to do in today’s game, with 32 teams, than at the dawn of the merger, when there were only 26.

  3. The 1971 Cowboys and 1971 Dolphins both met the thresholds on each side of the ball en route to Super Bowl VI.

  4. Number of passing plays include sacks.

  5. Washington in 1991, Green Bay in 1966, Miami in 1972, San Francisco in 1989, the New York Jets in 1968 and Green Bay in 1967.

  6. Minimum 100 attempts.

  7. Obviously the eras are different: Teams this year averaged about 32 more passing yards per game than teams in the 1981-1990 seasons, when Montana was the 49ers’ primary starter.

  8. This Super Bowl features the two highest-ranked teams in the statistic since Super Bowl VII, won by undefeated Miami over Washington, 14-7.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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