This is it, the last week of the football season (apologies to the UFL, EFL, and all other vowel starting football leagues across the world). A time for celebrating the season that was, and a marking of the long offseason to come. This year's matchup has its share of storylines. Can Patrick Mahomes add another Super Bowl title to his quickly growing resume? Can Andy Reid catch Bill Belichick now that the Patriots have moved on from the historic coach? Will Taylor Swift catch the 13-hour flight from Tokyo to Las Vegas to attend the game? And yes Swifties, I’ve seen all the 13-themed things involved in this game and I am here for all of them, however, if any of you need an analytical primer for the Super Bowl, keep reading!
In a league with constant turnover, and a quest for parity each season, this matchup has an oddly steadying feeling to it. This is only the 8th time a super bowl rematch has happened, and only the 4th time the two teams have matched up again within 5 years of the first game. For the 49ers, Kyle Shanahan has consistently produced productive offenses no matter who is starting at QB. On the other side, Andy Reid is one of the most productive offensive coaches in NFL history. Each team features one of the two best Tight Ends in the league. Even with a lot of focus on the offenses, each defense ranks in the top 10 in EPA/play against. Let’s take a quick look at an overview of each team.
Kansas City Chiefs
Starting with the offense: everyone knows about Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes, and for good reason. They are responsible for the most TD’s of any QB-Receiver duo in NFL playoff history. They each are rewriting the record books for their position, and show no signs of stopping. One thing that makes Mahomes one of the top QB’s in the league is his pressure to sack ratio. The Chiefs are middle of the road in pressure % allowed (#14), but are 2nd in sacks allowed. They lead the league in pressure / sack ratio at 4.8. Just unreal stuff by Mahomes. His ability to change his arm angle on throws, move around inside the pocket, and scramble outside the pocket is huge.
Travis Kelce ranked 3rd in the NFL for EPA/target for Tight Ends. His usage has continued to evolve over the past few seasons as the Chiefs personnel has changed. His average depth of target has dropped each of the last 5 seasons from 9.2 in 2018 to 6.8 this season. His feel for the game has helped him become the king of finding the zones in the short passing game, and combined with Mahomes arm strength, this has been a potent weapon for the Chiefs in 2023.
Defensively, the Chiefs have been one of the top units this season ranking 4th in EPA / play against. From the radar above, it’s easy to see where the Chiefs have been so dominant this season. They are one of the best teams at getting pressure on the QB, and turning those pressures into sacks. Chris Jones has been worth the money the Chiefs paid him to return on a one year deal. He’s been one of the most disruptive Interior Defensive Linemen this season, and his pressure rate of 7% ranks 7th among qualifying IDL. The Chiefs will however miss Charles Omenihu who tore his ACL against the Ravens, but not before he was able to make a huge play on his strip sack of Lamar Jackson.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are led by Mr Irrelevant. And no, that’s not because many think Brock Purdy is a game manager. The nickname given to Purdy as the last pick in the NFL draft seems to fit how he is perceived by many though. On the contrary, Purdy led the NFL in EPA / play this season, and yards / pass. If not for a great season by Lamar, and some potential spotlight stealing from teammate Christian McCafffrey, Purdy would be the favorite for league MVP this season.
Speaking of McCaffrey, his versatility makes him an ideal weapon for Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He is an incredible RB, but looking at his radar, he also is put into some really good scenarios when he rushes. His yards before contact and stuff rate show what a great run game the 49ers have. From the offensive line, to the scheme set up, the 49ers are putting McCaffrey in some great situations. And then, when he does line up at WR, he is a Yards after catch and contact king. He also has great hands shown by his high CROE and Catch %.
The 49ers defense has a lot of stars: Fred Warner, Nick Bosa, Chase Young, and Charvarius Ward were all selected to the Pro Bowl this season. Because of the star power in the front 7, the rest of the secondary can get overlooked. Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson both played great this season and were part of a secondary that shut opposing pass games down.
Another strength for the defense is creating turnovers. They take the ball away better than almost anybody (2nd to the Buffalo Bills). So far the Chiefs have done a good job in the playoffs holding on to the ball. Mahomes has yet to throw an interception, but they did fumble it away in each of the first two games. If the 49ers can force the Chiefs to cough up the ball a few times it can be the difference maker on Sunday. The 49ers defense will have their hands full against the potent Chiefs attack, but have the playmakers in the LB group and secondary to match up with the Chiefs personnel.
Matchup to watch
Travis Kelce vs Fred Warner
There are very few defenders that have the combination of size and speed to cover Travis Kelce. Kelce’s ability to create a little extra separation at the top of routes, and to make plays in contested situations, make him a matchup nightmare. And then, even if you guard him well, he can still make a great play for a TD (see the first TD for the Chiefs against Kyle Hamilton).
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce connected on the @Chiefs two most unlikely completions of the season on Sunday.
1. The 3rd down scramble and flip to a diving Kelce - 20% Comp Prob
2. The 19 yd TD on an out and up - 29% Comp Prob
Full extension on display in the chart 👇👇 pic.twitter.com/Gq99br946R
— StatsBomb Football (@StatsBomb_FB) February 2, 2024
If there is a Linebacker that can stay with Travis Kelce, it’s Fred Warner. Fred Warner has that rare combination of speed and football intelligence to match up with Kelce. He can run with WR’s (Even when he is bluffing a blitz while lined up on the line of scrimmage), and is physical enough to disrupt the shorter routes over the middle that Kelce loves so much.
Potential Key Players
Lenoir was a Pro Bowl alternate, but with all the other superstars on the 49ers, Lenoir often gets overlooked for his outstanding play. One of Lenoir’s strengths is his physicality and tackling. Below is an example of where his tackle attempts are from this season. Only times when he is the initial tackler are shown. The Chiefs are one of the top teams in screen usage this season, so Lenoir should have lots of chances to show off his tackling ability.
Travis Kelce is great, and he deserves all the praise he gets for his skill set. As one of the best receiving Tight Ends in NFL history, he creates a lot of matchup problems for opposing offenses. Noah Gray is one of the keys to unlocking Kelce’s brilliance for the Chiefs. For all of his greatness in the receiving game, Kelce is just an adequate blocker. Because of his blocking deficiencies, this allows defenses to stay in base personnel when the Chiefs are in 11 personnel with Kelce as the lone Tight End. When Noah Gray joins Kelce on the field, it allows the Chiefs to get into 12, and even 13, personnel groupings, and they can deploy Kelce mainly as a receiver. The Chiefs formation summary below shows the frequency of personnel distribution for the Chiefs this season.
Gray fits a more “traditional” Tight End role for the Chiefs. He does just about everything at a good level. He can be used in the passing game as a downfield threat or a pass protector/safety valve, in the running game as an attached Tight End, and even in the backfield as a change of pace. Gray is often asked to do the un-sexy things a Tight End is often asked to do, but when he gets his shot he still is able to make plays.
The anticipation for the Super Bowl is as big as it gets. The two week break between the Conference Championship and the Super Bowl feels like an eternity. The media firestorm on site is unlike anything anywhere else. And all of this is just exacerbated by the fact that the game is in Las Vegas. These two teams were among the favorites all season to meet up in the Super Bowl. The coaching matchup is superb, and there are playmakers on both sides of the ball that should make this an exciting game.