Have the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs traded places since their title matchup in Miami to close the 2019 season?
The team with the prolific offense ultimately beat the team with the better defense in the 49ers-Chiefs pairing at Super Bowl LIV, played four years ago.
Kansas City won, 31-20, behind a 21-0 fourth-quarter flurry that erased a 10-point 49ers lead. For over three quarters, San Francisco’s No. 2-ranked defense kept a lid on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his cohorts, but Kansas City’s high-powered attack proved too overwhelming down the stretch.
Entering this rematch in Super Bowl LVIII, though, the 49ers are actually more statistically resemblant of that 2019 Chiefs team, while Kansas City’s profile — less explosive, but more balanced — looks much more like San Francisco’s used to.
To visualize the reversed dynamic, here’s a look at where the teams stood in that 2019 season, with offensive expected points added (EPA) plotted on the X-axis and defensive EPA plotted on the Y-axis.
The 49ers, thanks to their balance, placed themselves in the coveted upper-right quadrant that season, which saw them breeze through the NFC playoffs to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs, meanwhile, played generally mediocre defense throughout much of the 2019 campaign but made up for it with supersonic performances from Mahomes, speedy receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, which fueled three straight multi-score comebacks in the postseason.
It’s the 49ers who have instead had to charge from behind and make up ground for a shoddy defense this postseason. The Chiefs did win a see-saw game in the divisional round against the Buffalo Bills, but they’ve generally controlled flow throughout the playoffs — thanks in large part to a significantly improved pass defense that forced Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson into inefficient January performances.
The trends jive with this season’s larger statistical profiles.
So, what roster dynamics have been behind the evolutions of both the 49ers and Chiefs since their Super Bowl meeting four years ago?
The 49ers, of course, have replaced quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with Brock Purdy. They traded for star left tackle Trent Williams after his predecessor at the position, Joe Staley, retired following Super Bowl LIV. They’ve also supercharged their offense with running back Christian McCaffrey, acquired in a 2022 trade from the Carolina Panthers, and receiver Brandon Aiyuk, a 2020 first-round draft pick. Both are All-Pros.
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It’s all led to that surge to the top in offensive efficiency. The 49ers’ offense ranks No. 1 DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), and its explosive pass rate, 21.4 percent, also tops the NFL.
Meanwhile, this season’s Chiefs have languished at No. 24 — 12.3 percent — in explosive pass rate. It hasn’t been much better in the playoffs, where Kansas City has delivered an explosive pass rate of just 13.6 percent.
Hill and Sammy Watkins, the leading wide receivers of the 2019 team that was able to ultimately blow the lid off the 49ers’ defense, are both gone. Mahomes has still managed to efficiently guide the Chiefs, thanks largely to the fact that Kelce — his favorite target in both 2019 and 2023 — is still around. Despite significant midseason drop issues from receivers, Kansas City’s pass offense ranks No. 8 in DVOA, and Mahomes certainly brought stability to playoff games that his QB counterparts on the AFC side of the bracket were unable to match.
The Chiefs also seem to have a more punishing run game than before thanks to second-year back Isiah Pacheco, who gave the 49ers some problems during Kansas City’s 44-23 regular-season victory at Levi’s Stadium in 2022.
“We’ve said all week we need to gang tackle this guy,” 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Friday. “Because he’s not going to go down on first contact.”
Pacheco is key to watch, simply because the 49ers’ run defense has been their most pronounced weakness. The Detroit Lions racked up 148 yards on 21 carries against the 49ers in the first half of the NFC Championship Game, so it would be foolish for Kansas City coach Andy Reid — whose team rushed for 112 yards on 21 carries against the 49ers last season — not to test the Niners on the ground at some point in this Super Bowl.
The Chiefs have scored good marks in pass protection, ranking No. 1 in ESPN’s pass block win rate this season, but tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor have racked up a considerable number of penalties, and the team’s best lineman, left guard Joe Thuney, appears unlikely to play due to a pectoral injury. That puts added emphasis on the 49ers’ run defense, because San Francisco might be in position to inflict real damage with pass rushers Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave — an interior defensive lineman who joined the 49ers this season — if given favorable down-and-distance situations.
Notably, both teams are delivering much better pass defense than run defense this season, which wasn’t true for either unit in the 2019 season.
The 49ers rank No. 4 DVOA against the pass and No. 15 DVOA against the run. They played Super Bowl LIV with Richard Sherman, who lost a key fourth-quarter rep to Watkins, as their top cornerback. This time, that job belongs to Charvarius Ward — who played for the Chiefs in that game.
Meanwhile, Kansas City has successfully reloaded at cornerback even after Ward left for the 49ers in free agency. L’Jarius Sneed, Jaylen Watson and nickelback Trent McDuffie have all registered successful seasons. Linebacker Nick Bolton, a second-round pick in the 2021 draft, has given the Chiefs’ coverage efforts on the second level — a key against an offense featuring the likes of McCaffrey and George Kittle — a huge boost.
And while the Chiefs haven’t fielded an overpowering pass rush, they do still have defensive tackle Chris Jones, who led all interior linemen in Pro Football Focus’ measure of pass rush productivity this season.
“He’s one of the best players in the NFL,” Kittle said. “You have to account for him on every play. You have to treat him Aaron Donald-ish, because he can wreck any drive.”
But as is the case with Donald, the best way to attack Jones — and the entire Kansas City defensive front, for that matter — seems to be the run game. That’s where the Chiefs have truly struggled, ranking No. 27 in DVOA.
And that might be precisely where the 49ers’ biggest upgrade since 2019 lies. They now have McCaffrey, the NFL’s rushing champion and all-purpose yardage leader. He seems to be the type of weapon — like Hill was in Super Bowl LIV — who can push an offense to a distinct advantage.
The 49ers enter Super Bowl LVIII happy that they now have this offensive edge, at least on paper. But they’re also wary of the fact that Mahomes, the game’s best quarterback, can quickly erase it. And because of that, they realize that pairing the type of defense that controlled such a long stretch of Super Bowl LIV with their No. 1-ranked offense might be necessary to knock off the defending champions.
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It’s best to be balanced and explosive, after all.
“That’s a Super Bowl defense right there,” Bosa said, referring to the 49ers’ performance for that large chunk of Super Bowl LIV. “And we have to take a page out of that if we want to go win it.”
(Top photo of Nick Bosa chasing Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LIV: Tom Pennington / Getty Images)