One of the reasons that Jim Kelly went 0-for-4 in Super Bowls in a four-year stretch is that the Buffalo Bills couldn’t catch a break. All four teams they lost to were among the best teams of the era.
The 1990 Giants had Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick running the number one defense in the NFL, allowing only 13.2 points per game; the 1991 Washington Redskins went 14-2 and beat their opponents by an average of 16.3 points per game as Joe Gibbs won his third Super Bowl; the 1992-1993 Dallas Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowls and ranked top-five in offense and defense both years.
Winning a Super Bowl is never easy, but sometimes you run into the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals and all they’ll ever say about you in the future is “Ben Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls”. Kelly didn’t get so lucky.
Now Patrick Mahomes will be playing in his fourth Super Bowl on Sunday and no, you can never say “he got lucky”. But if Mahomes beats the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years, you can say he’s a three-time champion.
Is this the toughest opponent he and the Kansas City Chiefs have faced in that stretch?
2019 – Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) vs. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Having gone 10-22 in Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons as head coach, the 49ers nobody knew what to expect from San Francisco going into the year. In fact, nobody at ESPN predicted they would make the playoffs and they were projected with 7.7 wins, which you might have forgotten given how much success they’ve had since then.
But then the Niners got off to an 8-0 start (including a 51-13 win over Christian McCaffrey’s Panthers) and earned the NFC’s top seed by winning a three-way tiebreaker over the Packers and Saints. San Francisco’s defense had the seventh-best DVOA of the decade, as even though they were eighth in points allowed, they were first in net yards per pass attempt allowed and had the second-best third down defense.
The 49ers beat both the Vikings and Packers by 17 points in the divisional round and NFC Championship, respectively, as for the first and only time in his career, Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t miss a game.
San Francisco’s roster was not as loaded as they are today, splitting the backfield between Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida, featuring no real number two receiver, preceding the trade for Trent Williams, and Nick Bosa was only a rookie. However, they did have DeForest Buckner, Richard Sherman, and were efficient on offense, ranking second in points and rushing yards, and third in net yards per pass attempt.
In the Super Bowl, the 49ers had a 20-10 lead when Tarvarius Moore intercepted Patrick Mahomes in the red zone with only 12:05 remaining in the game. Then it fell apart.
The offense stalled, the defense let Tyreek Hill go 44 yards on third-and-15, Travis Kelce cut the lead to 20-17 with a one-yard touchdown, and Kansas City’s defense forced a three-and-out. Getting his confidence back, it took no time for Mahomes to lead another touchdown drive to give the Chiefs a lead, then the defense exerted dominance when Frank Clark sacked Garoppolo to force a turnover on downs. An immediate 38-yard touchdown run by Damien Williams sealed a 31-20 win.
That’s a 21-0 run in five minutes of game time.
The 2019 49ers had a great defense and an efficient offense, but when they needed an explosive offense that’s when the gap between Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo, as well as the difference between Hill and San Francisco’s top weapons at the time, really showed itself.
2020 – Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
If there was ever a Super Bowl in which you would assume that Mahomes had an advantage, it would be when they were 3-point favorites going against an 11-5 wild card out of the NFC and on paper not being dominant at anything except run defense. Why should the Chiefs worry about run defense when at the time they didn’t really run the ball very much?
Yet somehow this turned into Kansas City and Mahomes’ worst playoff performance—not just Super Bowl—during this championship stretch, losing 31-9.
Analytics favored the Bucs more than traditional stats, as they ranked fourth in DVOA, including third on offense and fifth on defense. They had the number one run defense by any measure, but Bruce Arians didn’t even try the run game, as Tampa Bay ranked 29th in attempts and 28th in rushing yards. At 43, Tom Brady aired it out for the second most passing yards and touchdowns in the NFL, but didn’t make All-Pro or Pro Bowl and received no votes for Offensive Player of the Year or MVP.
The Buccaneers had one Pro Bowl player on the entire roster, the nearly forgotten 31-year-old edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul.
But there were times when the Bucs could absolutely light it up and Tampa Bay went 15-0 that year, including playoffs, whenever they scored at least 25 points. They went 0-5 when they didn’t reach 25 points. If you let Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski get going, there was almost nothing you could do to prevent your demise. Then when the team added Antonio Brown in November, it took them to another level.
The Bucs won their last eight games, including playoffs, needing to win every game on the road as an NFC wild card.
You would assume that as an 11-5 wild card that Tampa Bay must have been the worst team that Mahomes has faced in the Super Bowl. But they were playing better in December and January than any team Mahomes has ever faced in the playoffs, period.
2022 – Kansas City Chiefs (14-3) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)
Hindsight on the 2022 Eagles could blur our perception of how good they were a season ago because Philadelphia had almost any advantage you would want against a Mahomes, Andy Reid team. By DVOA, the Eagles ranked first against the pass, and they were second overall, by ranking third on both offense and defense. The only team better was the Bills, a team that Kansas City didn’t end up even facing in the playoffs.
Not only did they have the best pass defense, the Eagles were an historically efficient and dangerous team in converting third-and-short, fourth-and-short thanks to the ‘tush push’: Of the 20 teams to attempt at least 20 fourth downs, Philadelphia’s 68.8% conversion rate (on 32 attempts) was 11.7% points petter than second place. It wasn’t even close.
The Chiefs had the second-fewest fourth down attempts in the NFL, converting 9-of-12.
The Eagles also converted 40-of-59 red zone trips into touchdowns, the third-highest rate in the NFL. The Chiefs were in second place, converting 50-of-72. No team scored more rushing touchdowns than Philly, they had eight more than second place Dallas.
The 2022 Eagles represent the best trenches of any team that the Chiefs faced in the Super Bowl, boasting three Pro Bowl players on the offensive line, two of whom made first team All-Pro. The defensive line featured the likes of Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave starting inside, plus Haason Reddick, Brandon Graham, and Josh Sweat each getting at least 11 sacks from the edges.
Add to those groups a secondary with Darius Slay, James Bradberry, and C.J. Gardner Johnson, and a receivers/tight end unit with A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert, and a 1,200-yard rusher with Miles Sanders.
The Eagles have an argument as the most talented team that Mahomes has faced in the Super Bowl, but like the 49ers in 2019, not built to keep up with him in the fourth quarter.
Philadelphia took a 27-21 lead into the fourth quarter, but Mahomes threw touchdowns on back-to-back drives to take a 35-27 lead and the Chiefs methodically drove down the field to kick a game-winning field goal to seal a 38-35 win. Jalen Hurts gave his best effort, but something as innocuous as a third-and-short incomplete pass in the fourth quarter, leading to a 65-yard punt return by Kadarius Toney, was the difference in losing an edge to the best player in football.
Best team? Maybe. But they didn’t put up the best fight.
2023 – Kansas City Chiefs (11-6) vs. San Francisco 49ers (12-5)
As it stands, no team the Chiefs have faced in the Super Bowl has a DVOA nearly as high as San Francisco’s 39.4%, which would lead the NFL most years if not for the Baltimore Ravens posting a remarkable 45.5%. For comparison, the Bills were in third place with 24.1% and Kansas City’s ranked fifth at 17.9%.
If those numbers are meaningless to you, a clearer way to put it would be: Niners really good.
They had the number one offense and the number four defense, ranked third in points scored and points allowed, ranked first in net yards per pass attempt, fourth in yards per carry, fifth in net yards per pass attempt allowed, sixth in turnovers, fifth in takeaways, fourth in third down conversions, first in red zone offense, and first in points and yards per drive. The 49ers boast two of the five MVP finalists (Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey), seven All-Pros, and seven other players who received All-Pro votes.
Niners really good.
But in a way, San Francisco is up against the same problem that they were up against in 2019 and the same problem that the Eagles had in 2022, which is that on the surface they appear to be severely outmatched at the sport’s most important position: No matter what Brock Purdy turns out to be, right now he is still a very boom-or-bust passer when chucking it downfield.
Almost every QB in the NFL who had a higher turnover-worthy play percentage this season was either a backup or got benched. The only exception is Geno Smith, who came very close to being benched.
Turnover-worthy throw vs actual interception rates. Above the line means “unlucky”, vice versa for names below
Will Levis chucking rocks into the ocean pic.twitter.com/ERfIdNK3MC
— Football Insights (@fball_insights) February 8, 2024
Purdy led the NFL in a number of major categories, including passer rating (113), net yards per attempt (8.74), yards per attempt (9.6), QB (72.7), and TD% (7%), but over his last three games against playoff teams (Ravens in regular season, Packers, Lions in the playoffs), we’ve seen just how much worse the Niners are when he’s going against stiff competition.
Purdy has two touchdowns and five interceptions (four in blowout loss against Baltimore) in those three games and San Francisco only barely got by the Packers and Lions.
For the 49ers to prove, “Yeah, we’re the best team Kansas City has faced in the Super Bowl”, the defense must shutdown Mahomes for four quarters and successfully run the ball to take an early lead and hold it. We know how Kyle Shanahan does with holding fourth quarter leads. We know how unbothered Mahomes is with fourth quarter playoff deficits.
The 49ers can’t say where they rank on this list until they prove themselves in the Super Bowl. Or until the Chiefs prove they’re not that different than they were in 2019.
Who is the best team Mahomes has faced in Super Bowl?
Despite having the worst regular season of the four teams, it has to be Tom Brady’s Buccaneers because not only did they blowout Mahomes in the Super Bowl, they really were a formidable offense and defense in the last two months of the season and playoffs. Having Brady’s Super Bowl experience against Mahomes proved invaluable, so until someone else beats Kansas City in this game, the Bucs continue to be the surprise of the postseason.