NFL Super Bowl Matchups: Who Would 49ers, Bengals, Chiefs and Eagles Prefer to Play?
Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images. Pictured: Patrick Mahomes.
We’re two games away from the Super Bowl, but still we have no real idea which team will come out of the AFC or NFC.
Chiefs or Bengals? Eagles or 49ers? Every team has a case.
Everyone’s asking those questions, but for this week’s Futures Friday, I wondered about the game after the game.
If you have a Super Bowl futures ticket on one of the final four teams, who should you be rooting for in the other game? Who’s the best remaining opponent for each team?
Let’s take a look at who the four remaining teams would pick to play in the Super Bowl and give an early look at how each matchup could play out, plus a few breadcrumbs on how we can pre-bet the Super Bowl accordingly.
which remaining NFL team are you most certain will *NOT* win the Super Bowl?
— Brandon Anderson (@wheatonbrando) January 27, 2023
The Chiefs pick … the 49ers
Kansas City entered the week as Super Bowl favorites while San Francisco is the longest shot on the board, so this selection shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
It can boil down to one pretty simple argument: Patrick Mahomes vs. Brock Purdy.
Purdy has played in fewer NFL games in his career than Mahomes has won playoff games. The seventh-round rookie has been brilliant, but come on. Who do you want on the biggest and brightest stage: The unproven Mr. Irrelevant you never even heard of two months ago or the best player in football?
It’s not just about the quarterbacks.
As nasty as San Francisco’s defense can be, its secondary is beatable. The unit gives up among the most receiving yards in the league and the corners have been the one soft spot.
Don’t forget, these teams played in the regular season (Week 7). The Chiefs had three players post at least 98 receiving yards in that game, including season highs from both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Mahomes shredded San Francisco for 423 yards and three touchdowns, and Travis Kelce had 98 yards against a defense that’s league average against tight ends by DVOA. The Chiefs rolled 44-23 in what was the most recent 49ers defeat.
San Francisco’s defense was not at full strength in that game, but contrast the 49ers with the Eagles.
Philadelphia’s pass defense ranks No. 1 by DVOA, well ahead of San Francisco at No. 10, and the Eagles have superior corners and are better defending tight ends. Philly also features the league’s fiercest rushing attack and might be able to chew up clock and keep Mahomes on the sidelines if Kansas City’s defense doesn’t measure up.
The Chiefs are all Mahomes, so the right opponent for them is the defense he can carve up the easiest. Considering what he already did against San Francisco in October, that answer should be clear enough.
The Bengals pick … the Eagles
If Cincinnati is the AFC’s representative, it might prefer to face Philadelphia for all the marbles.
Neither matchup would be easy for the Bengals with their offensive line banged up, but with the Super Bowl an extra two weeks out, the hope would be LT Jonah Williams and/or RG Alex Cappa are able to recover in time. Philadelphia and San Francisco both feature deep, talented defensive fronts, so neither choice is particularly palatable.
While not ideal on paper for the Bengals offense, their attack has already faced nine top-15 defenses this season and still ranked fourth by DVOA in those games. Joe Burrow can take down any defense with his array of weapons, and Philadelphia has been particularly vulnerable to pass-catching RBs and WR3s, so Samaje Perine and Tyler Boyd could become dangerous.
The Eagles have proven vulnerable to great rushing attacks, and that might be the key. Only six times this season did Philadelphia face a top-13 rushing offense. The defense cratered to 18th in DVOA in those games, allowing over 27 PPG.
Cincinnati started the year slowly but ranks 2nd in DVOA running the football from Week 5 forward. What was an inefficient ground game has quietly transformed into the best rushing attack in the league (outside of Philly). The Bengals might be able to beat the Eagles with their own medicine — running it right down their throats.
As for that run-heavy Eagles attack, count on Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to scheme up answers for what can be a gimmicky offense.
Philadelphia’s offense hasn’t had to face many top defenses, and Anarumo has become a new-generation Bill Belichick in his ability to put together opponent-specific game plans and adjust in-game to match the opposition.
D.J. Reader makes a huge difference in run defense and would eat up a lot of space in the middle of the field — that could help Anarumo stymie Philly’s offense before it gets going. This is also the less deadly passing opponent given all of San Francisco’s weapons, important against a Cincy defense missing its top corner in Chidobe Awuzie.
The Eagles had a great season but remain mostly untested, with one of the league’s softest schedules. Cincinnati faced one of the toughest schedules and was in the Super Bowl last year, just a play or two away from winning it.
With Burrow at the helm, the Bengals would bring a proven edge against an untested opponent, and this time they could get it done.
The Eagles pick … the Chiefs
If the Bengals would pick the Eagles, then it makes sense that Philadelphia might prefer the alternative opponent in the Chiefs.
This one’s all about team versus individual.
The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, and he can always kill you. There’s nothing he can’t do on a football field, and he’s about to win MVP for a second time, deservedly so. Mahomes can change a game any play, any time. He could shred this defense — or any other defense.
But there’s a reason no MVP has gone on to win the Super Bowl that same season anytime this century. Football is a team game, and the Eagles are the better team, with a superior, deeper and more rounded roster.
Philadelphia has the best offensive line in the game, boasting outstanding pass protection and elite run blocking. Kansas City’s O-line ranks 16th in pass protection and faced only one team ranked in the top quarter of the league in pressure rate.
The Eagles lead the league in both pressure and sack rate with a loaded defensive front built to give an inconsistent Chiefs line nightmares. That’s all the more important with a gimpy, limited Mahomes playing with an ankle injury.
But it’s not just the lines.
The Eagles have a far better rushing attack. And they have not one but two wide receivers better than any Kansas City has to offer — guys who can rip a game open on any play. Philadelphia has an elite pass defense and talented secondary, much better than Kansas City’s. The Eagles have the advantage on special teams, too, and they might even have a coaching edge given how well they’ve schemed this year.
There’s no question Mahomes is an advantage at QB, but there’s nothing quite like Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia’s offense. Remember, Hurts was the favorite to win MVP before his late injury, and Philly is 15-1 with him in the lineup. Mahomes is more valuable than Hurts, but is he more valuable than Hurts in this scheme with the roster around him? The odds said otherwise.
The Eagles would look to win in the trenches. Philadelphia is the league’s best rushing team, wearing opposing defenses down with a physical attack. Kansas City faced only two teams with a positive rushing DVOA. The Chiefs went 0-2 in those games with the No. 30 Defensive DVOA.
When the Chiefs defense faced a top offense, Kansas City’s only answer was to survive with huge offense of their own. But the Eagles’ run game could keep Mahomes the one place he’s not dangerous — on the sidelines — and Philly’s leaky run defense isn’t as much of a problem against the Chiefs, almost inviting the pass against their No. 1 passing defense.
Football is a team game, and the Eagles might have the best roster and team. Team beats individual almost every time.
The 49ers pick … the Chiefs
Surprise! Both NFC teams might prefer facing Kansas City.
Is it ludicrous to suggest both teams with a choice would openly pick a fight with Patrick Mahomes? Maybe. But Mahomes is not 100%, and he might not be even close.
It’s one thing to eke out a win at home against a flawed Bengals team, but another to face one of the league’s best defenses on a neutral field, and two extra weeks — after another full football game — does not heal a high ankle sprain.
San Francisco’s case ends up looking pretty similar to Philadelphia’s. It’s about team versus individual.
The 49ers appear to be the whole package. The team hasn’t lost since Christian McCaffrey’s full game debut, and they rank top three running and passing on both offense and defense during that stretch. They have a plethora of weapons up and down the roster on both sides of the ball, skilled players on both offense and defense who can change the game in a moment, just like Mahomes.
Kansas City has the biggest star, but San Francisco’s roster is full of them.
Nick Bosa leads a fearsome defensive front that could get after that beatable Chiefs line and make a hampered Mahomes miserable. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are among the league’s best patrolling the middle of the field, perfect for life against Travis Kelce.
San Francisco’s vulnerability to the occasional explosive pass play is muted with no Tyreek Hill around. Instead, the 49ers’ nasty physical defense could ruin Mahomes’ Super Bowl night like the Bucs did two years ago.
The defenses here would be a massive mismatch, and San Francisco would tell you to throw that October result right out the window with many key defenders missing and Christian McCaffrey only on the field for a handful of plays so soon after being traded. Kansas City by far has the worst defense left among the remaining teams, and San Francisco has had the best defense in football when healthy.
Offensively, the script probably looks similar to Philadelphia’s. Kyle Shanahan loves to run the ball and limit mistakes, getting the ball to his array of playmakers and letting them get the job done as his physical offensive line dominates and controls the clock. The Chiefs don’t have the answers to contain McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle.
Kansas City ranks bottom five defensively against pass-catching RBs and WR1s. The 49ers have the best pass-catching back in the league — maybe ever — plus effectively two WR1s, one of whom also lines up at RB and could feast as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Besides, the 49ers have relished the underdog role. Even as they roll teams, they still enter the NFC Championship Game as an underdog and would likely do the same against Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Brock Purdy’s never lost an NFL game. You think he’s gonna get scared now just because Mahomes is on the other side?
I can’t say I expect both NFC teams to willingly opt in to the Patrick Mahomes experience, and it was eye-opening that I chose accordingly.
That helped me see I should probably trust my gut and back the Bengals this week, and it makes me think the Chiefs might actually be the least likely team left to win the Super Bowl, as crazy as that sounds.
There’s not a direct way to bet “No Super Bowl” on the Chiefs, but we’ve got a chance or two to do so the next few weeks. Unless Mahomes looks like a god again on Sunday, I’ll probably like the NFC winner against the Chiefs.
In fact, that might be the biggest takeaway — I like the NFC straight up. I like how things matchup for both the Eagles and the 49ers, against either remaining opponent.
Right now, the AFC is favored head-to-head against the NFC at every book, and I think they’ve got it backwards. I like NFC to win the Super Bowl at +100 at DraftKings.
Either NFC representative could be favored against the Bengals, and our matchups tell us to like either of them against the Chiefs, even as slight underdogs because of the Mahomes factor.
Betting NFC +100 gives us an even odds moneyline on what just might be the best two teams left in the field.
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