San Francisco 49ers enter NFL playoffs as Super Bowl favorites
Niners are more likely than not to reach the Super Bowl, according to oddsmakers; Ravens, Bills and Cowboys have next best chance to win it all.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers didn’t finish the regular season with the best record in the NFL, but that isn’t stopping oddsmakers from slating them as the most likely team to win Super Bowl LVIII.
In one of the most anticipated games of the season, the Niners (12-5) avenged last year’s NFC Championship game loss with a complete team victory in Philadelphia in Week 13. It helped them supplant the Eagles (11-6) for best odds to win the Super Bowl at that point in the season, and all they did since was solidify their case for title frontrunners.
The Baltimore Ravens (13-4) were the only team able to make the Niners look beatable down the stretch after defeating them 33-19 on the road on Christmas. Those two teams will be considerable favorites no matter who they play on their way to the Super Bowl in Las Vegas this year.
The Eagles, for their part, have gone in the complete opposite direction having lost five of their last six games headed into the playoffs.
The final 42-19 scoreline in the Eagles game makes it hard to believe San Francisco’s offense started with negative six total yards in the first quarter. But the 49ers flipped the script and scored a touchdown on their next six possessions. In fact, they didn’t have a single set of downs that didn’t earn a first down or a touchdown the remainder of the game, setting the theme for the rest of their season — elite offense, led by QB Brock Purdy, that can thrash you with myriad of weapons, either through the air or on the ground.
“Our guys were ready for the challenge, and when you come out with that much energy and that ready to go and things don’t go well for a quarter, that was what I was most proud of. Our guys were able to weather the storm, I know it seems like there was panic but you never felt it when they came to the sidelines. And usually when you carry yourself that way, if you can just stick in it, usually good things happen…”, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the Eagles game.
That game was significant because Philadelphia is where last year’s campaign stalled for the 49ers. Breakout quarterback Purdy’s first career loss came at the hands of the Eagles in last season’s NFC Championship game when Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick slammed into his elbow early in the game — which eventually needed surgery — rendering Purdy unable to throw the football. To that point he had won every start of his young career.
He wound up torching Philadelphia in his return in 2023 to the tune of four touchdowns and no interceptions on 314 yards passing. So much for the intimidating environment Lincoln Financial Field is known for.
Thanks to that win, a demolishing of the Cowboys earlier in the year and a handful of other utterly dominant performances throughout the season, San Francisco now holds the No. 1 seed in the NFC which earns them a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. There’s no team in the NFL they wouldn’t be considered a favorite against — even the Ravens.
That’s in part because the 49ers boast the league’s most efficient offense, averaging 0.18 Expected Points Added (EPA) per play and have a top-five defensive unit to boot1. Their EPA per pass is a whopping 0.30 with a success rate2 of nearly 55 percent, best in the NFL. They’ve also outscored teams by 193 points (around 11 points per game) in the regular season, which ranks third in the NFL behind only Baltimore and Dallas.
All said San Francisco is in a tier of its own at the moment.
The Ravens, Cowboys and Bills join the Niners in teams deserving of even better records than what they boasted at regular season’s end. Based on pythagorean expectation3, an estimate of a team’s win-loss record given the number of points its scored and given up throughout the season, we would expect those four teams to have one less loss than they do.
In other words, regression for these teams would mean more wins than what we’ve already seen out of them.
For the Niners they wouldn’t be where they are had it not been for last year’s Mr. Irrelevant. Most of the football universe expected Purdy to come back down to earth this season, because, well, it was too much of a fairy tale story to continue much longer.
Purdy meanwhile went on to lead the league in pass EPA (143.8), EPA/dropback (0.3) and yards per attempt (9.6) among qualified quarterbacks in 2023. He was second in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) at +5 percent and third in passing touchdowns thrown (31). He’s even third in MVP voting odds as of this week.
Not bad for a guy no teams wanted save the Niners with the last pick of the draft.
“He's a silent assassin but competitive, he's growing but he's also playing at such a high level all the time,” star running back Christian McCaffrey said after a Week 14 win against the Seahawks. “If he just continues to be him, we're in the right spot.”
Purdy’s magic is often attributed to coach Kyle Shanahan’s system. The scheming he puts together allows skill players like Deebo Samuel, McCaffrey and George Kittle acres of space once Purdy gets the ball to them downfield to make big plays. If you watched 49ers games this year and thought they had a knack for breaking off chunk yardage you weren’t wrong — they led the league in the amount of explosive plays created by a longshot.
When looking at a variety of prognosticators’ models the Niners grade as the top team on average. Composite ratings of multiple publicly available models gives San Francisco a 28 percent chance at winning the Super Bowl and a 51 percent chance of at least reaching it.
Baltimore comes in second with a 25 percent shot at winning the Big Game and a 47 percent chance at playing for the NFL’s ultimate prize. The Bills and Cowboys are the only other teams with at least a 10 percent chance at the Super Bowl. The Steelers, Bucs and Texans have the lowest odds.
There's about a 1 in 4 chance San Francisco will get to avenge its home loss to the Ravens by playing them for the Lombardi Trophy. They exorcised last year’s demons against Philadelphia with a thrashing of the Eagles earlier in the season, and I’m sure Shanahan’s team would relish an opportunity to get payback against Lamar Jackson and company in the season’s final game.
For more check out my NFL analytics website where I update graphics similar to the ones above every week.
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EPA is a measure of the change in Expected Points (EP) from one play to the next, and is meant to yield a single measure of the value of every play. The Expected Points model I’m using is the one created by the nflfastR team which uses a statistical model trained on historical data, and takes into account features like down, distance, time remaining, whether the game is being played indoors, etc. It helps answer the question “How good of a position is my team in to score as of now?” Higher EPA on offense is better, while a lower EPA on defense is more desirable.
EPA helps provide better context around what plays are more valuable. For example, a five-yard completion on third-and-4 is better than an eight-yard completion on third-and-9, despite the fact that the latter resulted in more yards.
Success rate in this context is defined as the percent of plays with positive EPA.
The pythagorean expectation formula states that the percentage of games a team will win across a given season should be proportional to the ratio of the square of the points scored by the team in that season, divided by the sum of squares of the points scored by the team and allowed across the whole season. It’s a concept which can help explain not only why teams are successful, but also can be used as the basis for predicting results in the future, and evaluating which teams are over-performing and under-performing. The principle was made famous in analytics circles by baseball sabermetrician Bill James.