What will happen in Super Bowl LVIII? Let’s dig in…
Statistically, we have a fairly classic offense vs. defense battle here. San Francisco was second in offensive scoring this season, putting up 28.9 points per game behind a bevy of offensive threats. They put up 30+ points ten times this season, including in the Conference Championship vs. Detroit. In that game, they scored 27 points in the second half. Kansas City brings in the #2 scoring defense, allowing 16.8 points per game. They held seven opponents to 14 or fewer points. It’s a bit strange to be leading a discussion about Kansas City with defense, but this team this year is a defensive force - not an offensive one.
On the year, playoffs included, San Francisco won their games by an average score of 28.9 to 18.4 (10.5 ppg margin), while Kansas City won by an average score of 22.1 to 16.8 (5.3 ppg margin). Based on those numbers, it looks like the Niners are the more dominant team. Should we expect anything different in this game?
My computer pick has the Niners winning by 2 points - roughly the same as the consensus spread for this game at the time of this writing.
Of course, computer picks have their place, but they only tell a part of the story. What do I think will happen?
When San Francisco has the ball
The Niners’ offense looked dead to rights in the first half of the Championship game, putting up just seven points against the worst defense in the playoffs - a Lions team that was in the bottom quarter of scoring defenses this season. The 49ers offense found their legs in the second half, but that first half has to be a concern. San Francisco put up some massive offensive numbers in games this season scoring 42, 42, and 45. But they also had some stinkers in which they managed 17 points in three straight games. The trend has been downward. In their first 14 games, the Niners averaged 30.4 points per game. But it’s dropped to 24.8 per game over their past five. Kansas City’s defense this season was second-best, just a notch behind Baltimore’s. The Chiefs put up several very impressive performances against explosive offenses this year. In two games, Miami’s high-flying offense (ranked 3rd) scored just 14 and 7 points. Baltimore (ranked 4th) scored only 10 in the Conference Finals. Detroit (#5) scored 21. Buffalo, ranked 6th, managed 20 and 24. Against playoff teams overall this year, Kansas City allowed just 18 points per game.
Like their offense, KC’s defense has been consistent all season long including into the playoffs. When facing great offenses like San Francisco's this season, KC allowed around 18 points per game. The only top defense that the Niners faced this season was Baltimore’s and in that game San Francisco scored only 19 points. But do we really think Kansas City can stop this dynamic Niners offense? Given that the Chiefs allowed 16 points per game to the top six offenses in the league, the answer is a resounding yes. This is clearly the biggest game of young Brock Purdy’s career. He has performed admirably under pressure, but we saw signs of nervousness vs. Detroit in the first half of the last game. It would not surprise me if he looked rattled at the start of this game at a minimum, especially with Steve Spagnuolo and Andy Reid having two weeks to prepare schemes for him. It seems likely to me that the 49ers will score in the high teens to low 20s in this game. I’d be very surprised to see them explode into the 30s.
When Kansas City has the ball
The Chiefs enter this game in a very un-Chief-like way. What had been one of the most explosive offenses in the last six years became middling this year. Since Mahomes took over in 2018, Kansas City has produced a top-6 offense every single year and owned the top spot twice, including last year. Prior to this season, Mahomes’ offense never scored less than 28.5 points per game. This season the KC offense is ranked 15th in the league, scoring just 22.1 points per game. That’s a massive drop-off. Will that be their demise in this game?
Mahomes went a long way in cementing his legacy last season with yet another Super Bowl win. He’s magic and hard to stop. He is very calm, cool, and collected. Last year in this game, he made the right choices at the right time and was a key reason Kansas City won the championship despite a lot of signs they were going to lose. Travis Kelce is making a claim as an all-time great and he has the fire to inspire his team. The KC offense has been consistent all year, averaging 22 points per game on the season and in the playoffs. San Francisco’s defense is ranked 3rd in the league this season in points allowed. However, there’s a pretty big drop-off after #2 (Baltimore at 16.2 and Kansas City at 16.8) to San Francisco at 18.4. Baltimore’s defense was 3.7% better than Kansas City’s, but KC’s is 10% better than San Francisco’s. Of course, the Niners have the qualifications to slow down Mahomes and this KC offense. The concern for San Francisco, however, is the trend. While they gave up just 15.8 points per game through the first 13 games of the season, they have allowed 24.2 per game since - a whopping 42% increase. Over their last six games, this Niners defense would rank 27th in the league in points allowed! I can see Mahomes licking his chops as I write this. In the playoffs, the Niners gave up 21 to Green Bay and 31 to Detroit. The only defense that Kansas City faced this season similar to San Francisco’s was Baltimore (the top defense in the league) and the Chiefs scored 27 points in that game. When facing offenses similar to Kansas City’s, San Francisco gave up around 17 per game. It’s reasonable to see Kansas City scoring around their average here, in the low to mid-20s.
So what is going to happen?
Like most Super Bowls in recent history, either team can definitely win this game. Based on season-long numbers and most people’s gut feel, San Francisco probably feels like the play. They have a very good defense and a top offense. And from a season-long perspective, of course this team deserves to be here and be the favorite. Right? From a Pythagorean wins perspective, which predicts records based on points scored and allowed, if we look at season-long numbers, the Niners are the better team.
But folks, if you are paying attention, things have changed. If we look at recent performance, the script flips. Over their last five games, San Francisco has looked barely better than a .500 team, winning by just 1.5 points per game on average. San Francisco underperformed significantly in both playoff games, needing to come from behind to win both. In watching those two games, I was nervous for the Niners and was asking myself where the dominant 49ers team I saw most of the season was. Meanwhile, Kansas City has turned things on at the right time. Over their last seven games, KC has won by an average of six points per game, holding opponents to just 15.3 points per game.
Kansas City brings into this game an outstanding defense, which is what wins championships. High-powered offenses like San Francisco’s often fall flat in the big game. I think it’s extremely unlikely that the Niners and young Purdy go crazy here and score at will. And Super Bowl favorites that score less than 30 points are just 4-20 ATS.
The way the San Francisco defense has been playing to end the season, combined with the magic of Mahomes and Reid, tells me it’s very likely that the Chiefs can get 20 or more points in this game. With that in mind, know that Super Bowl underdogs of less than a touchdown that score more than 19 points are 21-3 ATS.
If I regret missing something last season in handicapping the Super Bowl, it was underestimating the impact of a Hall of Fame QB + Coach combination. Just ask opponents of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. In a game where Philly had the strength edge, HC Reid’s play calling last year was the difference. It was brilliant. Before last season's Super Bowl, the Eagles were 7-0 vs. playoff teams and 16-1 with Jalen Hurts in the lineup. How did they lose? Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
As head coach of the Chiefs, Reid is 43-22 ATS in expected close games (line of -3 to +3) and 27-14 ATS as an underdog. He’s also 30-18 ATS when facing top offenses (those averaging 6+ yards per play). And he’s 22-7 straight-up when he has two weeks to prepare. QB Mahomes is 11-1-1 ATS in his career as an underdog.
My pick for Super Bowl LVIII is Kansas City plus the points. I found some great bets that I like better than the +2.5 (-115) that's available at FanDuel at the time of this writing. While taking KC +2 or +2.5 or even on the moneyline is a very reasonable approach and one I wouldn't argue against, TopBet is offering an alternate line of +3.5 at -150 odds. To jump fully across a key number here of +3 is definitely worth it to me for the extra 40 points in juice.
Also take the UNDER. As you know, after reading this far, I think KC’s defense is for real — and underrated. I think Purdy and the San Francisco offense, which has been struggling of late, will feel the strain here, especially early on. And Kansas City is winning games this year in a low-scoring fashion (average score of 22.1 to 16.8). Overall on the year, the Chiefs are 14-6 UNDER including a 12-2 UNDER mark in games played on grass. The average total points in those games was 37.0. Under Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers are 26-16 UNDER in expected close games (-3 to +3), and he’s 16-7 UNDER following a game in which his team allowed 30+ points. Under HC Reid, the Chiefs are 12-3 UNDER when they have two weeks to prepare.
Finally, take the UNDER in the first quarter as well, buying it from 9.5 to 10. Play calling in Super Bowls tends to be very conservative to start, as neither team wants to lose the game in the first quarter. Nerves are high. Out of the last 25 Super Bowls, only four have seen more than 10 points scored in the first quarter. And I expect this game to be a lower scoring Super Bowl than most in recent history, especially with this KC defense. While you may have to shop for an alternate line of 10, it's worth it if you can find it as landing on 10 is a fairly common occurance in the Super Bowl. Bovada and GTBets have UNDER 10 at -165 odds.