While the Chiefs made mortal Derrick Henry, the 49ers beat up Aaron Rodgers as badly as they did in November. Niners 37, Packers 20, and it wasn’t that close. It makes for a fascinating Super Bowl: Kansas City’s franchise quarterback against the peculiar Jimmy Garoppolo; the Niners, with imaginative play-designer and play-caller Kyle Shanahan, have routed two playoff foes with a 75-25 run-pass ratio. The Niners’ strong defensive front (nine playoff sacks, 26 hits/hurries in two games) will be a nightmare for the Chiefs to navigate as they game-plan beginning this morning.
The opening line: Chiefs by 1. I have no idea what that means, or who should be favored. Just as I find it hard to think the Niners will struggle to run it and will certainly torment Mahomes, I think it’s just as hard to think that Mahomes will be shut down.
San Francisco last won the Super Bowl 25 years ago. Remember the gorilla getting ripped off Steve Young’s back?
Kansas City last won the Super Bowl 50 years ago. Remember Hank Stram yelling to matriculate the ball down the field?
You might be too young to remember either. Whatever, this should be a great football game between the 14-4 Chiefs and the 15-3 Niners, between the imaginative grandfatherly Reid, 61, and the imaginative wunderkind Kyle Shanahan, 40.
There’s a lonely little white pennant flying in the north end zone at Arrowhead Stadium, just below the American flag. The Chiefs take great pride in their lone Super Bowl championship, a 24-7 win over the Vikings on Jan. 11, 1970. But it’s been so long, and the drought so painful to the fans here, that the reminder is modest.
Looked like the dry spell, made so painful by last year’s 37-31 overtime loss to the Patriots, might stretch to 51 years when this game was midway through the second quarter. On the first three Tennessee series, the Titans generated three scoring drives and 180 yards. Tennessee 17, Kansas City 7. Derrick Henry was his usual pile-driving and crease-finding self, with 61 rushing yards. The man was on pace for a 183-yard rushing afternoon, keeping in his recent tradition.
Tennessee scored seven more points. Henry gained eight more rushing yards.
Mahomes just owned the day after that, with touchdown drives of 58, 86, 73 and 88 yards. The Titans couldn’t catch him, and they couldn’t manage to keep anything going offensively. You can say, They got away from Henry; big mistake. “We just didn’t have the opportunities,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. Tennessee ran just 14 offensive plays over the next four series, covering nearly two full quarters.
Mahomes lasered a 20-yard strike to Tyreek Hill to make it 17-14; Reid thought it was his best throw of the day. Logan Ryan, who has played great this postseason, was in close coverage down the seam with Hill. “Tyreek had a guy right on him,” Reid said, “but Patrick’s throw was just beautiful. He reared back and just said, ‘There’s no way this can be stopped.’ He threw it in a window about this big.” Reid held his hands in a small square.
The game turned for good at the end of the last KC series of the half. With 1:51 and two timeouts left before the half, Mahomes had plenty of time to drive. He didn’t waste much of it. He still had the two timeouts left when he took a shotgun snap with 23 seconds left from the Tennessee 27-yard line. As Mahomes described, Hill and Kelce each had two cover guys trailing them—Hill doing a skinny post from the left slot and Kelce running up the right seam. This left some space to his left. “I knew we had an all-go type of route,” Mahomes told me. “The offensive line shut everybody down, so I knew I could run to the sideline and get the first down.” As he turned the corner at the 32, linebacker Derick Roberson had a shot at him and missed; then Rashaan Evans did the same around the 29. Then Mahomes, getting tight to the sideline at the 25 (a tight shot of the slo-mo replay showed he was three inches from the white stripe right then), and getting pursued by hefty defensive lineman DaQuon Jones, would step out just after the first-down marker at the 17-yard line. Replays showed Reid glaring intently at the ground near the sideline to see if Mahomes stepped on any white.
Here’s where the next-level smarts came in. Mahomes told me he knew he had two timeouts left, and with the clock running down to halftime, he knew it didn’t matter if he stayed in or went out of bounds as the clock wound down. :16, :15, :14 . . .
“So I tried to cut it back, and I did, a little,” he said. “And luckily I hung onto the ball.” Cornerback Tramaine Brock tried to rip it from his grasp at the 5, and Mahomes hung on. Then, he said, “I was going for it.”
When he fell a yard past the goal line, this stadium erupted. I hadn’t heard a sound like that all season, in any stadium.
In the end zone, Mahomes was surrounded by amazed mates. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson bowed to him with both arms going north to south in an exaggerated “we are not worthy” motion. “I was like, throw your hands up for this guy!” Robinson said. “He already showed you he’s got an MVP arm. Now he shows you he’s got MVP legs.”
He might have shown the same thing a year ago today. The Patriots and Chiefs went to overtime tied at 31, and Mahomes and Tom Brady were trading big plays and shredding defenses. New England’s Matthew Slater won the overtime toss, and Kansas City never touched the ball in overtime. Pats, 37-31. After the game, Brady sought out Mahomes. They sat alone for five minutes, in a room in the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium. Brady played consoler-in-chief. Mahomes said: “The biggest thing he said was, ‘Stay with the process and be who you are.’ He didn’t want me to change at all. He wanted me to go out there and take advantage of every single day. When you hear it from a guy like that, who’s had the success at the level that he’s had for his entire career, you know you’ve got to take advantage of every single day if you want to be great.”
Mahomes almost didn’t watch the Super Bowl, but he did turn it on at his home in Kansas City. “I used that,” he told me, “to just make sure that I did everything to prepare to be in this moment now—and not be sitting at home.”
His first real bit of leadership came after 2017 rushing champ Kareem Hunt was fired during the 2018 season for lying to the team about domestic assault. This happened two days before the Chiefs were to play at Oakland in November, and before the team left on a Saturday morning, Mahomes—the fifth-youngest player on the team—asked to speak to the team, with no coaches in the room. Reid let him. Mahomes, who’d seen player leadership when he was a kid running around in baseball clubhouses with his ballplaying dad, Pat Mahomes, told the team it was okay to still love Hunt, but they’d come too far to let something, anything, derail the season. “You can’t fake that stuff,” he said. “It has to be genuine.”
“That,” Reid told me recently, “is why we’re in good shape with this kid.”
But this season is not just the Mahomes Revival Show. Reid needs some redemption. Sunday’s win was his 221st career victory (including playoffs). That’s sixth all-time. The five above him—Shula, Halas, Belichick, Landry, Lambeau—have won NFL championships, and Belichick, a good friend, has won six. Reid hasn’t won one. His lone trip to the Super Bowl, 15 years ago, came with the Eagles, who lost to New England 24-21. Maybe deep down it eats at Reid. How could it not?
But Saturday night, Reid was sharing a table and a bite at the team’s post-meeting snack with the team’s VP of sports medicine and performance, Rick Burkholder, who came from Philly to Kansas City with Reid in 2013. Burkholder said he was nervous, and Reid asked why.
“Because I want so bad for us to win it for you,” Burkholder said.
“No,” Reid said. “We need to win this for the guys, for the team. It can’t be about one guy. It’s got to be for everybody.”
Reid was the last Chief left now. There was an industrial-strength vacuum cleaning the locker room of all the random confetti from the celebration out on the field. I asked Reid what he’d do to celebrate this second Super Bowl trip, and first for the Chiefs since the Nixon administration.
“Go get a cheeseburger,” he said.
The guy fits pretty well in Kansas City. As does his quarterback.
You may have heard the name Michael MacCambridge. He’s an author, an excellent writer. He lived most of his young life in Kansas City and grew to love the Chiefs. He went to the game Sunday and texted me this after midnight: “As we were leaving the stadium, numb and jubilant, you could see people with a look of relief in their eyes that they were leaving Arrowhead for the final time in a season elated rather than crushed. It was so delightful that some people seemed almost baffled. My friend Greg Emas, who I attended the game with, said, ‘We really don’t know how to do this. We don’t have any practice at it.’ “
Then MacCambridge wrote: “Lots of ghosts exorcised. And that starts with 15. He’s not haunted. And that’s why the Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl.”