Home Sports First look at 49ers-Chiefs: Early Super Bowl picks, big questions and matchups to know

First look at 49ers-Chiefs: Early Super Bowl picks, big questions and matchups to know

First look at 49ers-Chiefs: Early Super Bowl picks, big questions and matchups to know


The San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs are officially headed to Super Bowl LVIII, which kicks off Sunday, Feb. 11, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

With two weeks until the big day, we’re taking an early look at what you can expect in the matchup. Stephen Holder sets it up with what to know, and our NFL Nation reporters Nick Wagoner and Adam Teicher look closer at each team. Seth Walder crunches the numbers to give you some key stats to know, Matt Bowen dives into the game plan with a key matchup and Eric Moody pulls out an X factor. Aaron Schatz answers big questions surrounding the final game of the season, and Jason Reid explores the quarterback matchup. And finally, we have early gut-reaction predictions from our experts. Let’s dive in.

Note: Game lines are via ESPN BET. Predictions are from ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).

Jump to:
49ers | Chiefs | Key stats
Matchup keys | Big questions
Quarterbacks | Betting | Predictions

When: Sunday, Feb. 11, 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS
Where: Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas | Tickets
Opening line: SF -2.5 (O/U 47.5)
FPI prediction: SF, 59% (by an average of 3.1 points)

Few teams have become more synonymous with the Super Bowl than the Chiefs and 49ers. Kansas City is headed to its sixth Super Bowl, including a remarkable fourth in the past five seasons. If that isn’t a dynasty, what is? For the 49ers, they are making an eighth appearance in the Super Bowl, but have a chance to win their first since 1994.

This matchup of Super Bowl LIV after the 2019 season, won by the Chiefs, provides a chance at immortality for all involved. But, more specifically, it gives the Chiefs the opportunity to continue a run that has been rarely seen in the NFL. Winning back-to-back Super Bowls has proved to be incredibly difficult, but the Chiefs can accomplish the feat for the first time since the 2003-04 Patriots did it nearly two decades ago. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes becomes the youngest quarterback to start his fourth Super Bowl, while coach Andy Reid prepares for his fifth Super Bowl, trailing only Bill Belichick (9) and Don Shula (6) in appearances.

For the Niners, it’s a chance to finally break through after advancing to the NFL Championship Game seven times since 2011 without a single Super Bowl title. As great as the franchise has been, the reality is it has been 29 seasons since the 49ers last won a championship, with Steve Young winning MVP in Super Bowl XXIX. Brock Purdy is no Steve Young, but winning his first Super Bowl would be a big first step for the young 49ers quarterback. — Holder

Regular season: 12-5 | NFC seed: No. 1

Reason for hope: Experienced star power. No team in football has a bigger galaxy of stars than the Niners. They had a league-high nine players selected to the Pro Bowl, 12 more chosen as alternates and seven players who earned first or second-team All-Pro honors. What’s more, the Niners have plenty of players and coaches who have participated in deep playoff runs, including eight players who played meaningful snaps in Super Bowl LIV. When they’re rolling, the Niners look every bit the part of a juggernaut, winning their 12 regular-season games by an average of 19 points, second best in the league.

Reason for concern: Recent history. The 49ers don’t exactly have fond memories of playing the Chiefs on a big stage. The Niners lost to the Chiefs in their last Super Bowl appearance four years ago. And while the Niners haven’t played the Chiefs since Oct. 23, 2022, they lost by three touchdowns that day and have not defeated Kansas City in a game with Mahomes at quarterback. None of that should prevent the Niners from turning the tables, but there’s something to be said for the idea that the Chiefs are simply a bad matchup for them. — Wagoner

Regular season: 11-6 | AFC seed: No. 3

Reason for hope: They have Mahomes and he plays at his best in the postseason. In his past six postseason games, Mahomes has completed 70% of his passes with a yards-per-attempt average of 7.0 and 11 touchdowns without throwing an interception. And the rest of the offense has shown signs of life recently. They’re getting more big plays and had a season-high eight plays of more than 20 yards in the divisional round win over the Bills.

Reason for concern: Sloppy offensive play. The Chiefs during the regular season led the league in dropped passes, were second in offensive penalties and tied for seventh in turnovers. They have won in the playoffs despite their sloppiness. Inside the red zone alone in the wild-card win over the Dolphins, they dropped a pass, botched a shotgun snap and had a penalty that wiped out a TD on three different drives, leading them to kick field goals. Mecole Hardman Jr.’s goal-line fumble in the divisional round allowed the Bills to stay close. How much longer can the Chiefs continue to beat good teams by playing this way? — Teicher



Chiefs top Ravens in AFC title game to earn spot in Super Bowl LVIII

Patrick Mahomes leads the Chiefs to another AFC title, defeating the Ravens 17-10.

Stats to know

San Francisco’s plethora of playmakers is a huge reason why the team is not only in the Super Bowl, but has boasted the best offense all season. ESPN’s receiver tracking metrics show the domination, as each of their top targets leads their position in at least one category. Brandon Aiyuk leads all receivers in catch score (96) and overall score (98), Deebo Samuel leads all receivers in YAC score (83), George Kittle leads all tight ends in overall score (84) and Christian McCaffrey leads all running backs in catch score (99). Maybe a defense can take away one of them, but it’s almost impossible to stop them all.

Mahomes had the worst statistical regular season of his career in 2023, ranking 19th in QBR on passing plays. So how did the Chiefs make it to the Super Bowl? Well, throwing is only part of the way Mahomes affects the offense. And in 2023, playing with the worst receiving corps in the league in terms of RTM’s catch score, it’s the other types of plays where Mahomes has excelled. He has avoided sacks (second-lowest sack rate behind Josh Allen) and scrambled incredibly well (second most scramble EPA, again behind Allen). Of course, a high-end Kansas City defense has made all of the difference, too. — Walder

Inside the matchup

Chiefs LB Nick Bolton vs. 49ers RB McCaffrey

The run game is a foundational part of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, so I’m focusing on Bolton’s ability to limit McCaffrey in early-down situations. Bolton is quick to key and diagnose and has the play speed to scrape to the edges. That’s a critical element against a 49ers unit that will use formations and motion to gain number advantages to the play side. McCaffrey averaged 5.4 yards per carry this season with 44 rushes of 10 or more yards. He makes this offense go. — Bowen

X factor: Isiah Pacheco, RB, Chiefs

Pacheco has become the undisputed leader of the Chiefs’ backfield, and his workload reflects it. Over the course of six career postseason games, he has averaged 18.7 touches and 90.5 total yards. There is a perception that the 49ers’ defense is among the best in the league. But in their path to the Super Bowl, they have given up a lot of rushing yards to running backs such as Aaron Jones, David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. Pacheco is the second Chiefs player with a rushing touchdown in four consecutive playoff games. His streak could continue against the 49ers behind a Chiefs offensive line that has been superb this postseason. — Moody

Answering big questions

What’s the biggest difference with Steve Wilks as 49ers defensive coordinator?

The difference for the 49ers’ defense this season has been a greater struggle with stopping the run. The 49ers ranked 15th in run defense DVOA during the regular season after ranking second and first in the previous two seasons.

The biggest issue has been stopping runs that get downfield rather than stopping runs right up front. The 49ers’ run stop rate is the same as it was last season, 32%. But in 2022 the 49ers were the best defense in the NFL, preventing second-level runs (5-10 yards) and open-field runs (11 yards or more). This season, they rank seventh and 21st in those categories, respectively.

Last season, the one place the 49ers had a problem against the run was short yardage. They allowed a 71% conversion rate on these runs (third down, fourth down or goal line with 1-2 yards to go). This season, they allowed a 79% conversion rate on these runs.

Did Travis Kelce take a step back from his usual Hall of Fame play in the regular season?

Yes, absolutely. But he hasn’t taken 20 steps back into the land of “average tight end.” He’s still one of the best in the business, even if he couldn’t match his previous awesome performances.

This season, I introduced a new version of my receiving DYAR metric based on routes rather than targets. It does a better job of valuing the ability of receivers to get open and attract targets on a steady basis. Kelce led the NFL in 2022 at 642 yards above replacement. No other tight end was above 450. This season, Kelce led the league again, but only with 399 DYAR. Kittle was right behind him at 395.

ESPN’s receiver tracking metrics tell a similar story of a lesser, but still strong, 2023 season. Last season, Kelce was second behind Kittle with a 75 RTM score. This season, Kelce dropped to seventh with a 58 RTM score. His open score and YAC score dropped slightly, and his catch score dropped significantly.

We always had to expect some decline from Kelce this season. The man is 34 years old! He just set the record for receiving yards by a tight end at age 34 or higher with 984. Tony Gonzalez was the only other tight end to have at least 850 yards at this age. (He did it three times.)

However, so far in the 2023 playoffs, Kelce has caught 16 of 17 targets for 191 yards and three touchdowns. That’s certainly better than his performance during the regular season. — Schatz

Quarterback matchup

Purdy vs. Mahomes

Selected by the 49ers with the final pick of the 2022 NFL draft, Purdy was that draft’s Mr. Irrelevant. But Purdy has been anything but irrelevant to the 49ers. He has been highly efficient and at times spectacular while directing the offense. In only 26 career starts (including playoffs), Purdy has a record of 21-5. That’s a sparkling .808 winning percentage. By making sound decisions with the football, Purdy quickly earned the trust of Shanahan and the team’s many talented playmakers on offense. With the 49ers trailing the Lions by 17 points at halftime in the NFC Championship Game, Purdy stayed cool and led the 49ers’ impressive comeback victory that puts them back in the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.

Already an all-time great, Mahomes will be vying to become only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to have at least three Super Bowl championships, following Tom Brady (six), Joe Montana (four), Terry Bradshaw (four) and Troy Aikman (three). Mahomes, Brady, Peyton Manning and Montana are the only QBs to have at least two Super Bowl championships and two Associated Press MVP awards. For the sixth consecutive season with Mahomes as their starting signal-caller, the Chiefs reached the AFC Championship Game. The only streak longer is the New England Patriots‘ remarkable run of eight in a row from 2011 to 2018. — Reid



49ers rally past Lions to win NFC title, book trip to Super Bowl

The 49ers overcome a 24-7 halftime deficit to defeat the Lions and set up a showdown with the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.

Betting nugget

The Chiefs are the ninth team in the past 20 seasons to pull off upsets in the divisional round and conference championship. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, six of the previous eight went on to win the Super Bowl. Overall, the Chiefs are 12-8 against the spread this season, while the 49ers are 9-10. Since 2001, underdogs are 11-11 outright and 15-7 ATS in the Super Bowl.

Gut reaction predictions

Aaron Schatz, NFL analyst: Chiefs. Their defense is playing very well, while the 49ers’ defense has declined in recent weeks. Both running backs should have nice games, but only the Chiefs have Mahomes.

Dan Graziano, NFL national reporter: Chiefs. Every time I don’t pick them, they seem to make me feel stupid. They keep finding ways to win.

Dan Orlovsky, NFL analyst: Chiefs. Mahomes always gives them an edge, and the defense is excellent.

Field Yates, NFL analyst: Chiefs. The Lions did a solid job of protecting Jared Goff in the NFC Championship Game, which I expect the Chiefs to be able to replicate. Even if they are unable to, Mahomes is undeterred by pressure and will lead the Chiefs to their third Super Bowl win in five years.

Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst: Chiefs. San Francisco is looking to avenge its loss to the Chiefs from Super Bowl LIV, but I think Kansas City will once again be too much for the 49ers as they go on to win back-to-back titles.

Lindsey Thiry, NFL national reporter: Chiefs. You simply can’t pick against Mahomes.

Marcus Spears, NFL analyst: Chiefs. Again, Mahomes is their QB …

Matt Miller, NFL draft analyst: Chiefs. I like some of the situational matchups for San Francisco, but the playoffs are about the team with the best quarterback and head coach duo — and that’s Kansas City.

Seth Walder, analytics writer: 49ers. San Francisco’s playmakers will be too overwhelming for Kansas City. There’s a reason the Niners were the best offense all year long — and they will be again on Super Bowl Sunday.

Seth Wickersham, NFL writer: 49ers. Shanahan’s scars are finally healed.

Stephania Bell, NFL injury analyst: 49ers. Shanahan will use the lessons learned from giving up a lead (as well as the confidence gained Sunday night that they can come back from behind) to pull out a win.


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