Advantage – San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers were not a team strongly considered to be the top seed in the NFC playoffs, much less capture its first conference title since 2012. But San Francisco put together a terrific campaign that started with an 8-0 record and a 13-3 finish that included late-season victories over the Saints, Rams, and Seahawks to secure the number one seed and home-field advantage.

Since Jimmy Garoppolo has taken over as starting quarterback of the 49ers late in the 2017 season, San Francisco owns a spectacular 21-5 record. Garoppolo won the final starts of 2017 after getting traded from New England, then went 1-1 to begin 2018 before tearing his ACL in a Week 3 defeat at San Francisco. The season went sideways for the Niners, who finished 4-12, but after Garoppolo rehabbed from the knee injury, San Francisco lost a total of three games in 2019, including two by three points each.

The defense led the way for San Francisco to begin the season, which included limiting six of their first seven opponents to 17 points or less. The 49ers posted 31 points or more four times during this early stretch, including dropping 51 points on Carolina in a Week 8 home blowout. Garoppolo threw for over 300 yards only three times this season, but all three came in victories, including in the wild 48-46 triumph at New Orleans in Week 14.

Although the defensive numbers weren’t as strong down the stretch for San Francisco (31.7 points per game allowed in the last four regular season games), the 49ers shut down the Vikings and Packers in two resounding home playoff victories. San Francisco limited those two NFC North squads to a total of 30 points, while winning each time by 17 points. The Niners allowed a total of 83 yards on the ground in the two victories, after giving up an average of 112.8 yards per game rushing (which was still 16 yards better than the Chiefs).

Since 2013, three NFC teams listed as underdogs in the Super Bowl that won both playoff games at home are 2-1. The Seahawks dominated the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8 and the Eagles outlasted the Patriots, 41-33 in Super Bowl LII. The only loser in this situation was the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, who famously squandered a 28-3 lead over the Patriots in a 34-28 overtime setback as three-point ‘dogs. NFL handicapper Joe Nelson elaborates on the dominance of the San Francisco defense through the playoffs, “Aaron Rodgers had a 22.3 QBR in the NFC Championship despite being one of the all-time greats in that metric. Kirk Cousins was one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the NFL and he didn’t fare much better vs. the 49ers with the Vikings managing seven first downs. The Chiefs have needed Patrick Mahomes to be brilliant in two playoff wins after digging early holes, he isn’t likely to have great numbers against a 49ers’ defense that held opposing quarterbacks to the seventh-worst rating in the league in the regular season.”

For as much as the Chiefs are thought of as an offensive juggernaut, the 49ers’ offense actually outperformed Kansas City this season, “Kansas City wowed with 86 points in two impressive comeback wins in the playoffs, but even with that scoring the Chiefs have been outscored by the 49ers 543-537 through 18 games. The only major team statistic that the Chiefs beat the 49ers is turnover differential at +8 compared to just +7 counting the playoff games for an inconsequential difference,” Nelson notes.

The 49ers led the NFL in passing yards allowed per game in the NFL at 169.2, while yielding 300 or more yards to a quarterback three times this season. In San Francisco’s three losses, the Niners never gave up more than 240 yards passing as they led or were tied with less than two minutes to go in each defeat.

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