Determining the winner of Super Bowl LIV essentially comes down to one simple question: will a great defense beat a great offense?

The San Francisco 49ers have the NFC’s top-ranked defense, as well as one of the best defenses the NFL has seen over the last few years. Not only do the Kansas City Chiefs have one of the most explosive offenses in recent memory, but they are led by a quarterback that appears to be well on his way to becoming an all-time great.

Those facts have been highlighted in the playoffs, making the final game of the NFL season so difficult to predict. It’s why the betting line is just a single point in favor of the Chiefs.

San Francisco finished the regular season ranked second in total defense and second in yards allowed per play. The 49ers were first against the pass. Only this year’s New England Patriots and the 2017 Minnesota Vikings have allowed fewer yards per game than San Francisco over the last five seasons.

Amid several key injuries, the 49ers’ defense struggled down the stretch and finished eighth in points allowed. Fully healthy in the postseason with the likes of Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander making their return, San Francisco’s defense is back to looking like the dominant unit that helped the 49ers win their first eight games.

Minnesota was held to 147 total yards of offense in San Francisco’s 27-10 victory in the divisional round. The 49ers’ 37-20 win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game was even more one-sided than the final score indicates. The contest was over at halftime when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers were being shut out 27-0.

Likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa has 10 tackles and three sacks in the playoffs. San Francisco has nine sacks after ranking fifth in the regular season with 48 sacks. NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November Fred Warner leads the 49ers with 13 tackles this postseason. 

As terrific as San Francisco’s defense has been, that’s how unstoppable Kansas City’s offense was in the team’s two postseason games.

The Chiefs overcame a 24-0 deficit in the divisional round to beat the Houston Texans 51-31, scoring 41 unanswered points. Kansas City climbed out of a 17-7 hole in the AFC Championship Game to defeat the Tennessee Titans 35-24.

Patrick Mahomes was sensational in both games. He went 23-35 for 321 yards and five touchdowns against the Texans, leading the Chiefs with 53 rushing yards. The quarterback’s 27-yard touchdown run sparked Kansas City’s comeback against Tennessee, which saw Mahomes go 23-35 for 294 yards and three passing touchdowns. 

Even as Mahomes missed two full games and most of another contest in the regular season, the Chiefs ranked second in yards per play, fifth in points per game and sixth in total offense. Kansas City led the NFL in all three categories last year as Mahomes won the 2018 MVP award. 

There are multiple examples over the last several seasons of the league’s best quarterback coming up short against the No.1 defense in the Super Bowl.

Peyton Manning had a historic 2013 season, setting records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards. The Denver Broncos averaged 457.3 yards per game, which is the most of any team in the last eight years. That Denver team was blown out 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII by the Seattle Seahawks and the No.1 ranked defense.

Two years later, Denver had the top-ranked defense. The Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50. Carolina led the league in points scored and Cam Newton won the regular-season MVP award.

San Francisco has made its share of great quarterbacks look ordinary. Rodgers was held to 104 passing yards when the 49ers beat the Packers in Week 12. MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens’ No.1 scoring offense were limited to 20 points, their lowest total of the regular season, by the 49ers. Russell Wilson had a 91.3 passer rating in two matchups with San Francisco.

Kansas City has played five games against top-eight defenses. The Chiefs are 5-0 in those matchups, averaging 27.4 points per game.

Patrick Mahomes is all smiles after leading the Kansas City Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years Patrick Mahomes is all smiles after leading the Kansas City Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years Photo: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / JAMIE SQUIRE

It has been virtually impossible to force Kansas City’s offense into having a bad game with Mahomes under center. In the quarterback’s 35 career starts, the Chiefs have scored at least 23 points 34 times. Kansas City is averaging 32.6 points when Mahomes plays.

Those numbers include Mahomes’ four playoff starts. The signal caller has somehow been even better in the postseason.

Mahomes has 11 passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns and no turnovers in the playoffs. He’s averaging 297 passing yards per game. Even in his one postseason loss, Mahomes led the Chiefs to 31 second-half points in the 2019 AFC Championship Game as Kansas City was beaten by the eventual champion Patriots in overtime.

The 49ers probably aren’t the 2013 Seahawks or the 2015 Broncos. The better comparison is the 2014 Seahawks, who took on New England in arguably the greatest Super Bowl of all time. 

Just like this year’s 49ers, that Seattle team had the NFC’s No.1 ranked defense. The Legion of Boom, led by current 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, ranked first against the pass. 

Seattle had the NFC’s No.1 rushing attack in 2014. San Francisco led the conference in rushing yards in 2019 before blowing past Minnesota and Green Bay with 235.5 rushing yards per game.

The Seahawks’ elite defense and ground game wasn’t enough to defeat the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes, including two in New England’s fourth-quarter comeback that gave the Patriots a 28-24 victory.

Even though he was a Super Bowl champion, Russell Wilson had yet to become a top-tier quarterback. He completed just 12 passes in Super Bowl XLIX and threw the game-ending interception.

Jimmy Garoppolo put up some impressive regular-season numbers. He was third among all quarterbacks with 8.4 yards per attempt. He ranked fifth in completion percentage (69.1) and touchdown passes (27). Garoppolo also led several fourth-quarter comebacks, proving he can make big throws in the most important moments.

Garoppolo is also wildly inconsistent, despite shouldering less responsibility than most starting quarterbacks. Eighteen quarterbacks attempted more passes in the regular season than Garoppolo, but only six signal callers threw more than his 13 interceptions. 

The 49ers’ quarterback completed 11 passes with an interception in the divisional round. He only had to attempt eight passes in the conference title game.

Mahomes never has a bad game, and he enters Super Bowl LIV playing better than ever. 

Mahomes threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns when he returned from his knee injury on Nov. 10 in a 35-32 loss in Tennessee. Kansas City has since gone 8-0 with Mahomes throwing 16 passing touchdowns and four picks. The Chiefs have won each game by at least a touchdown, defeating their opponents by an average of 16.1 points.

The best comparison for Mahomes might be Aaron Rodgers in the 2010 season. Two years after making his first start, Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl championship, arguably becoming the NFL’s best player along the way. Green Bay defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV, beating the league’s No.2 ranked defense.

An improved defense has been a major contributor to many of Kansas City’s lopsided victories. Safety Tyrann Mathieu was a First-Team All-Pro selection. Defensive tackle Chris Jones also made the Pro Bowl.

The defense is good enough to support Mahomes. It doesn’t hurt that Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill probably make up the league’s best tight end-wide receiver tandem.

Mahomes is the best player in football, playing at a level that few, if any, quarterbacks have ever reached. He will be the difference in a competitive game, bringing the Chiefs their first Super Bowl championship in 50 years.

Prediction: Kansas City over San Francisco, 27-24, MVP Patrick Mahomes