Son of a Twins relief pitcher, the Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl.
Remember 1969? Of course you do—Woodstock, Apollo 11, Abbey Road. But did you know 1969 was also the last time the Chiefs delivered a Super Bowl to Kansas City? Yeah, it’s been a while. But as Chiefs super-fan Paul Rudd would happily tell you, Sunday’s coronation was well worth the wait.
Lamar this, Lamar that. That’s all you heard this season. Lamar Jackson took the league by storm in 2019, setting fire to conventional quarterback norms with his groundbreaking blend of athleticism, downfield accuracy and elite play-making. But don’t let recency bias cloud your judgment. Patrick Mahomes is still the damn truth.
Sunday belonged to all of Kansas City. It belonged to the long-suffering Chiefs fans who lived through last year’s Dee Ford-induced heartbreaker as well as their dispiriting collapse to Indianapolis in 2013 (which saw Andrew Luck engineer an infuriatingly casual 28-point comeback). It especially belonged to embattled coach Andy Reid, the NFL’s Sisyphus, always pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it fall right back down. But more than anyone, Sunday belonged to Mahomes, who spoiled Tennessee’s Cinderella arc (a compelling narrative in its own right) with an afternoon for the ages.
The follow-up to Mahomes’ legendary 2018 may have been somewhat of a letdown, at least from a statistical vantage point, but don’t let the numbers fool you—the ketchup-obsessed 24-year-old can still shred defenses with the best of ‘em. Coming off a five-touchdown outburst in the Divisional Round (he went full Paul Bunyan in that one, taking a hatchet to Houston’s short-lived 24-point lead), Mahomes was equally phenomenal in Sunday’s Conference Championship, torching the Titans for 294 yards through the air with a trio of passing touchdowns. Two of those end-zone strikes landed in the waiting arms of Tyreek Hill, who put on a similarly torrid display when the Chiefs and Titans crossed paths in November (11-157-1 on 19 targets). For good measure, Mahomes added 53 yards with his feet, achieving 27 of those on a heroic touchdown sprint to close out the first half. That staked the notoriously slow-starting Chiefs to a 21-17 advantage and KC would never look back.
It was a powerhouse performance from a true juggernaut and a reminder that even in the dead of winter (temperatures were in the teens Sunday at Arrowhead), nobody can heat up an offense quicker than the human microwave Patrick Mahomes. Resiliency has been the Chiefs’ lifeblood, a guiding light in a season that has rarely gone to plan. Kansas City’s road to Miami has been a bumpy one full of potholes and traffic delays—injuries held the Chiefs captive as they endured a 6-4 start (Mahomes, Hill and Damien Williams were among their walking wounded). But their confidence never wavered Sunday, even as crafty Mike Vrabel reached deep into his bag of tricks, dialing up a successful fake punt while also enlisting the services of tackle-turned-goal-line-receiver Dennis Kelly (the largest player to ever score a postseason touchdown).
We knew the Chiefs would get theirs—Mahomes went ballistic when these teams exchanged pleasantries earlier this year (season-high 446 passing yards). But what we weren’t sure of was whether they’d be able to neutralize playoff savior Derrick Henry, who put KC in a blender when the Chiefs visited Nashville in Week 10 (188 rushing yards, two touchdowns). An Amtrak car masquerading as an NFL running back, the former Heisman winner entered Sunday having rushed for 180-plus yards in three straight games, the longest such streak in league history. But unlike the Ravens and Patriots, who Henry both left cowering in his wake, the Chiefs stonewalled him at every turn, frustrating the fourth-year hammer en route to an uncharacteristically sluggish 69 yards on 19 carries (3.6 yards per attempt). Hobbled run-plugger Chris Jones certainly helped in that endeavor, anchoring the Chiefs defensive front over 29 gutsy snaps. A first-time Pro Bowler, Jones showed moxie playing through a nagging calf injury that limited his practice availability in the lead-up to Sunday’s AFC title tilt.
The Chiefs arguably wouldn’t have been in this position had the Patriots simply handled their business against the Dolphins in Week 17 (that loss cost them a first-round bye while elevating Kansas City to the No. 2 seed in the AFC), but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And what better team to exorcise their playoff demons against than Tennessee, a team that has long been a thorn in KC’s side (the Titans had won their previous three matchups).
While Mahomes’ legend grew, the Titans waved goodbye to their dream season and potentially two offensive cornerstones with Henry and Ryan Tannehill both headed for free agency. The Titans have the requisite cap space (over $60 million) to accommodate both, though history has taught us paying top dollar for a running back is bad business. Henry could certainly be the exception—he played as well as anyone down the stretch, clearing 100 yards rushing in seven of his final nine games while supplying 12 touchdowns over that span. But he’s also 26 (middle age for a running back) with plenty of tread on his tires after logging an exhausting 409 touches in 2019 (postseason included). A consistent non-factor in the passing game (57-578-3 career receiving line), Henry has never been a favorite of the analytics community and compared to other, harder to replace positions, productive backs seem to sprout up all the time (it took five years and seven teams for Raheem Mostert to finally click). Still, ball-carriers of Henry’s elite caliber don’t exactly grow on trees and keeping Tennessee’s core intact would be wise considering how close the Titans came to representing the AFC as conference champs.
The Chiefs deserve to celebrate their accomplishment. While fending off a Wild Card team may not seem impressive on the surface, the gritty Titans were no ordinary six-seed. But if the Chiefs’ dangerous habit of playing from behind follows them to Miami, their dreams of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy could be dashed in a hurry. KC’s rocket-armed ringleader had no trouble airing it out against Houston and Tennessee, but Mahomes may not be as successful throwing on San Francisco, who featured the league’s stingiest secondary during the regular season (permitted 169.2 passing yards per game). And if the 49ers grab an early lead, forget about it—only the Lamar-led Ravens rushed for more yards than San Francisco (144.1 yards per game) in 2019.
Vegas has installed the Chiefs as early 1.5-point favorites for the big game, but it would be irresponsible to count out the Niners, who used the Packers for target practice in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, a lopsided affair that saw San Francisco pour on 27 first-half points. After throttling the Packers earlier this year (Green Bay absorbed a 38-7 beat-down), the 49ers picked up right where they left off in Week 12, continuing to run circles around a noticeably flustered Aaron Rodgers, who committed three turnovers (two interceptions, one lost fumble) in the losing effort. Between Rodgers’ giveaways, a botched snap deep in enemy territory and a flubbed punt that traveled a mere 20 yards (a gaffe that set the Niners up with excellent field position), Green Bay looked like the JV to San Francisco’s varsity.
While Rodgers carried the weight of the world (or at least Wisconsin) on his shoulders, his San Francisco counterpart Jimmy Garoppolo (whose rugged good looks make Timothee Chalomet look like Steve Buscemi) barely broke a sweat, attempting all of eight passes in Sunday’s onslaught. Garoppolo was more than happy to take a backseat to Raheem Mostert, who paved the Niners’ Super Bowl path with a four-touchdown eruption in Santa Clara. The Niners’ revolving door backfield has kept teams guessing all year and Sunday offered more of the same with Mostert—an undrafted journeyman who spent the early part of his career trapped in special teams purgatory before finding a believer in Kyle Shanahan—collecting 220 yards on the ground, the second-most by a player in postseason history.
Mostert’s complete and utter destruction of the Packers served as both a symbol of perseverance and a reminder of San Francisco’s preposterous depth. Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman (who was lost to a dislocated shoulder early in Sunday’s win) are all proven havoc-wreakers while even scarcely-used fourth-stringer Jeff Wilson has shown a nose for the end zone when called upon (five touchdowns). Shanahan can unleash any of the four on a given week though Mostert has had the hot hand of late, cruising to 12 touchdowns (11 rushing, one receiving) in his last eight showings. A 27-year-old with 4.4 wheels, Mostert ranked second to only Lamar Jackson in yards per carry (5.6) during the regular season.
Though plenty deserving of their spot in Super Bowl LIV, it’s interesting to ponder what may have transpired had things played out differently for the 49ers in Week 17. San Francisco escaped with a narrow victory over the Seahawks in that contest, avenging its earlier loss to Seattle in Week 10. The Niners won to secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the NFC, but a loss would have dropped them to the No. 5 seed, forcing San Francisco to travel cross-country for a Wild Card stare-down with Philadelphia.
Hypotheticals aside, it’s hard to envision a better matchup than the one we’ve been given. With star-studded rosters and endless narratives to choose from, Super Bowl LIV promises to be a fascinating three hours of television. Both teams have punched their tickets. Now the wait begins.