February 4, 2021 - by Jason Lisk
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are two major reasons to like Kansas City to repeat as Super Bowl champs (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire)
You will hear a lot of different stats quoted as reasons why you should pick Kansas City or Tampa Bay to win the Super Bowl.
Some of these reasons will be sound, but most of them you should ignore. The fact is, most statistical sound bites quoted by the sports media are based on small sample sizes of data that are unlikely to be predictive. In other words, just because something interesting happened, doesn’t mean it’s meaningful. (If you flipped a coin five times and heads went 5-0 vs. tails, would you bet your house on heads the next flip?)
While it’s certainly the case that an NFL season of only 16 regular season games constrains the potential for meaningful data analysis, we’ll at least try to raise the bar by providing some insights about this year’s Super Bowl matchup that are supported by multiple data points, and not just one cherry-picked random trend.
Below are three data-driven reasons why Kansas City can prove the oddsmakers right for making them the favorite to win Super Bowl LV. In the spirit of analytical fairness, we’ve also published three counter-arguments supporting the Buccaneers.
We know, “duh,” right? But Mahomes’ winning nature still needs to be stressed. Kansas City is 25-1 in the last 26 games that Mahomes has started; that stat alone is remarkable. Mahomes is only the third quarterback in NFL history to accomplish that feat, with the most recent being … wait for it … Tom Brady in 2003-2004. (The other was Jim McMahon in 1985-1987.)
This stretch began after a relatively rough start to the 2019 season when the Chiefs had numerous offensive injuries, WR Tyreek Hill got injured, and Mahomes suffered a dislocated kneecap that cost him two games in the middle of the season. Kansas City lost its first game after Mahomes’ return from that injury, but has won 25 of 26 games since then.
(And it’s not like the Chiefs were bad before that. Patrick Mahomes is 44-9 — an 83% win percentage — as a starting quarterback, including playoff games. That works out to 19-8 before this most recent stretch.)
The Chiefs don’t just win when they jump out to big leads and rack up gaudy offensive stats. They also win when they fall behind. Last season, Kansas City trailed by double digits in all three of its playoff games. They won all of them. In fact, the biggest margin of defeat in Kansas City’s 53 games with Mahomes at QB is 8 points. That’s right, Patrick Mahomes has never lost an NFL game by more than a one score margin.
So it’s not a stretch to say that Kansas City is a pretty good bet to be in the game with a chance to win, even if things don’t go perfectly at first, or ever. Great coaching certainly plays a role, but a core trio of superstars is also a big reason.
In addition to Mahomes, Hill is a matchup nightmare, and opponents who don’t find a way to account for his speed and playmaking tend to get burned quickly. Tampa Bay found that out in the regular season matchup with KC, as Hill had 7 catches for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first quarter. TE Travis Kelce presents a different matchup problem, chewing up zone coverage and being a difficult cover assignment for most linebackers and safeties.
Together, Mahomes, Hill, and Kelce make for an offensive juggernaut that has proven its ability to deliver wins and overcome mid-game deficits at a historically impressive rate.
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The Chiefs aren’t known for their defense, but Kansas City wouldn’t be in the Super Bowl if its defense was too porous. While KC’s overall defensive numbers may not jump out at you, the unit has played pretty well in its most difficult matchups this year.
Excluding the Week 17 game against the Chargers when starters rested, Kansas City has played nine games this year where the point spread was 7.5 points or less (KC was favored in eight of the nine). That includes seven road games (four of them facing teams that made the playoffs), plus two home playoff games against Buffalo and Cleveland.
Here were the passing defense numbers from those nine games:
When playing against better competition and teams considered to be more of a threat, Kansas City’s defense had more interceptions, a better completion percentage allowed, and lower yards per attempt allowed than in games against weaker opponents.
Kansas City’s completion percentage allowed has been stellar in their biggest games, and they rank 4th-best overall for the year, while Tampa Bay ranks just 25th. As we noted in our Super Bowl Point Spread Trends article, the team with the better defensive completion percentage allowed has won 18 of 23 Super Bowls since 1995.
The Chiefs offense rightly gets a lot of attention, but the pass defense can’t be discounted. It also shut down Josh Allen and the Bills in the AFC Championship game, limiting Allen to 4.6 net yards per pass in a year where he had over 4,500 yards passing in a breakout season.
If you look at season stats including the playoffs, the Tampa Bay has scored more points per game than Kansas City. The Bucs have also given up fewer points per game than the Chiefs, and therefore have the better overall point differential.
Generally speaking, scoring differential is a more predictive metric than win-loss record, which might suggest that Kansas City is overvalued and the Bucs undervalued.
Kansas City, though, is a better team than its raw point differential might suggest. Here are some reasons why:
That last category merits some further explanation, because both of the metrics mentioned (red zone scoring and fourth down conversions) involve small sample sizes of high leverage plays and are subject to a lot of noise. Kansas City, as mentioned above, ranks very well in opponent completion percentage, but has given up completions on 71.4% of fourth down attempts by desperate opponents trying to get back in the game so far this year.
Kansas City’s opponents also have converted 10 of 11 times this season on 4th down and 1 or 2 yards to go, a higher rate than the league average (66.7% on 4th and 2 or shorter). This unfortunate combination of yielding 4th down conversions and more completions in the red zone enabled several KC opponents to hang around late in games this year after trailing by more than one score.
In short, there are multiple indicators here that some bad luck on high-leverage plays on both offense and defense over the course of the 2020 season could be leading some popular stats to underrate Kansas City.
In fact, Kansas City has been even more dominant in the second half of the season, though it may not appear so if you look at scoring margins. Excluding the Week 17 game, the Chiefs have finished with more yards than their opponents for eight straight games. Over that stretch they averaged an incredible 27.4 offensive first downs per game; for context, the all-time regular season NFL record belongs to the 2012 New England Patriots at 27.6 per game.
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