Are the Chiefs Really Underdogs?
Why the Vegas books differ from the sports media (and the public)
America’s foremost football writer checking in.
A long time ago, before the sports gambling boom, we had a good idea of what “underdog” meant. The underdog was the team considered less likely to win. Perhaps we looked to Vegas for quantification, but I don’t recall the “Who’s the favorite?” conversations being that Vegas-anchored, given that the gambling odds mostly approximated conventional wisdom. Usually we knew who the favorite was, intuitively, and didn’t pause for affirmation of that knowledge from the state of Nevada.
Now we have this bizarre circumstance where the gambling odds are, well, at odds with seemingly everyone else. The San Francisco 49ers are favored in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, at -2 as of this writing. This fact has led to a lot of incredulous coverage over the great Patrick Mahomes and his reigning champion Chiefs getting categorized as “underdogs.” It’s been all over the sports talk shows and brought to the Chiefs themselves in media availability. The situation is not completely without recent precedent because, in 2021, Vegas favored Tom Brady whereas the sports media favored Mahomes. But back then, it wasn’t seen as insulting to be a gambling underdog against Brady. This time, it’s different. Mahomes now has two Super Bowl victories and he’s up against a quarterback who’s best known for having once been the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. “Underdogs” is disrespect. “Underdogs” is a headline.
So now there’s an almost schizophrenic conversation in sports media because few seem to believe that the Chiefs will lose, but there’s this discussion on how they aren’t favored. “Everyone is picking the underdog” feels like a modern day Yogi Berra quote come to life.
What does it mean to be an “underdog” if everyone talking expects you to win? Jason Mcintyre of The Herd has a running commentary on the oddness of being the only person in media backing the Niners, despite their status as favorites. And while he’s not literally the only person backing San Francisco, he’s getting at a real dynamic. For example, ESPN posted that 49 of their 64 experts are picking the Chiefs:
Of the 64 experts who weighed in, the Chiefs were favored by 49 of them (76.6%), while the 49ers claimed 15 votes (23.4%).
The most common predicted final scores were 27-24 (picked by eight of our experts) and 27-21 (seven). The lowest combined total was 37 (20-17). The highest was 64 (34-30). The largest margin of victory predicted was 20 points (34-14). And 52 experts said this game will be decided by a touchdown or less.
That’s just one publication, but I could cull other examples. The Chiefs are clearly the favorites if we’re having a conversation divorced from betting lines. It’s just that, post sports gambling explosion, there are no big game conversations divorced from betting lines.
And to be clear, you can see why the media (and public) leans the way it does. Patrick Mahomes is the greatest quarterback many of us have seen. The Kansas City Chiefs defense has looked a lot better than the 49er defense in these playoffs. San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy threw four interceptions on Christmas. The lizard people have teamed up with the illuminati to rig the Super Bowl for the purpose of Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift brainwashing you towards political ends.
For these and other reasons, much of the public money has sloshed towards the Chiefs’ side. And yet…the line remains in favor of the Niners. There’s a wrinkle to why the line holds, apparently.
But as it currently sits, oddsmakers at BetMGM will need some more money to come in on the Chiefs despite 78 percent of the money being on Kansas City already. BetMGM tells The Post that a whopping 16.7% of all Super Bowl futures bets were on the 49ers this season, the most of any team in the NFL.
This might be a good example of why it’s folly to take single game gambling odds as an objective reflection of probability. The books have considerations beyond simply projecting likelihood.
At the same time, the line couldn’t hold on the strength of futures-protection alone. A lot of sharps are betting Niners, apparently.
One $1 million wager and eight six-figure bets have been placed at sportsbooks so far on the Super Bowl spread and money line.
All nine major wagers are on the 49ers over the Chiefs in Sunday’s game at Allegiant Stadium.
I’m sure this is all more complicated than sharps backing one team and squares backing another, but this game, as much as any, seems to be presenting that easy narrative.
Sharp bettors last week laid the 1.5 at market-making books in Las Vegas, where the spread was nudged up to San Fran -2. The Niners were up to -2.5 at FanDuel Sportsbook the week of the game, and the Westgate Superbook is showing -2.
Public bettors are mostly taking the Chiefs plus the points.
This dichotomy piqued my interest, so I’ve dug into the why of it. Yes, the 49ers were better in this regular season and we could reason that the bettors are relying on a larger sample size vs. the public reacting to the postseason. The counter to this would be that the Chiefs have the largest sample size of success, given that it’s happening across a few seasons, but I don’t even want to get into this aspect of the conversation.
I believe that, if we are to anchor the conversation in the present, the 49ers are favored over the Chiefs for two main reasons.
Injuries to unsung but important players have left the Chiefs vulnerable.
San Francisco’s strongest advantage attacks a key Kansas City weakness.
These two reasons are somewhat connected, by the way.
First, the injuries, and maybe you’ve heard about them. Chiefs All Pro left guard Joe Thuney probably will miss the game, but I won’t spend too much time on this because backup guard Nick Allegretti seems competent. Thuney’s absence is bad for the Chiefs, and maybe the sharps care, but I find it a little difficult to gauge its impact. The main take is that the Chiefs offensive line is stretched thin, and could be an in game injury away from the kind of collapse we saw in Super Bowl LV.
The potential major issue for Kansas City is that Chiefs defensive end Charles Omenihu is out due to tearing his ACL last game. It happened shortly after Omenihu strip sacked Lamar Jackson, a display of his postseason prowess (Last playoffs, when he was on the 49ers, Omenihu strip sacked Geno Smith). Omenihu is good. He pressures the quarterback and plays the run well. He’s massive (6′ 5″, with a 7′ 1.5″ wingspan). To quote KC’s genius defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo:
I’ll tell you, you don’t replace that height and that length that he has but we’ll get guys to step in there.
There’s no obvious solution to losing a guy like this. Rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah should get increased playing time. In the Baltimore game, Spagnuolo reacted to the Omenihu injury by shifting Chris Jones, Kansas City’s superstar Defensive Tackle, to Defensive End. Jones plays DE on occasion, but designating him there can be a strategic concession. If Jones is on the edge, he’s usually lined up all the way on the other side from legendary 49er left tackle Trent Williams. The Niners love running the ball behind Williams and probably would enjoy a scenario where that means Christian McCaffrey gets aimed at a 256 lbs rookie while completely avoiding 310 lbs, 6′ 6″ Jones.
Which brings us to what is, in my opinion, the main reason many sharps like the Niners. You may have heard it discussed a bit, but far less so than a lot of other storylines. The Kansas City Chiefs have the 27th ranked rush defense. The 49ers have, in my opinion, the best rushing offense. I say “my opinion” because the Ravens technically performed better, but a running game anchored by Lamar Jackson is its own idiosyncratic attack.
Much was made of how the Ravens abandoned the run too early against the Chiefs in that AFC Championship game, though I’m sympathetic to that choice considering how many KC players were stacked near the line of scrimmage. I think the correct takeaway from that game is that Spagnuolo dared Jackson to make basic pro level throws and Lamar couldn’t consistently do it. For example, Spagnuolo used a Cover 0 blitz with two quarterback spies against Jackson. Against an average quarterback, a defense like this means a significant risk of conceding a walk in touchdown. There are no safeties back, and two defenders are up near the line, guarding against a QB scramble. Jackson turned down the TD opportunities and got hit while throwing the ball away.
I don’t think Spagnuolo can flood the line of scrimmage like this against Purdy, or almost anyone else, frankly. The Kansas City Chiefs have excellent defensive backs, but there’s a difference between briefly being left on an island and being stranded on one. Spags is brilliant, but if the Niners establish running dominance early, I’m not sure there’s a method for scheming away blunt force. I’m reminded of crazy Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky joking about how Angela Merkel’s ancestor had a fancy toilet with many dials, but shat her pants when the Soviets crashed through Berlin.
As an aside, this perspective is an odd one for me to take because I’m not huge on running the ball. I’ve argued that quarterbacks are ridiculously important relative to running backs. It just so happens that this matchup is the perfect showcase for a dominant rushing attack. The media talks a lot about Brock Purdy, as does this website, but this should be McCaffrey’s game. KC is great against the pass and theoretically highly vulnerable to the run. So run the ball until play fakes are devastating.
Does the Niner advantage on running guarantee victory? Of course not. We’ve already seen instances where San Francisco falls behind early and has to abandon the run. Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, you know the deal. But the 49ers have a really good shot at making some main attractions less relevant to the outcome than many might expect. Though NFL superstars are marketed like they’re NBA players, football is still, at bottom, a team game. When one team’s strength is perfectly suited to attack the other team’s weakness, the sharps take notice even if the media is unmoved.