MIAMI — It feels like a lot of folks may have forgotten it but for the first 80 or 90 years of the National Football League, defenses and running games won championships, and the San Francisco 49ers came to Super Bowl LIV to prove that was still the case.
On the other hand, Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs showed up in Miami as the poster boys for the NFL’s 21st century video game offenses that put up points faster than Tyreek Hill runs the 40-yard dash. While defense for them was at times an afterthought, no deficit was ever too big and no point total too high to reach.
It was truly chocolate and vanilla and Las Vegas had the whole world split almost equally down the middle over which flavor would win out, with just the slightest of edges going to the Chiefs.
Through three quarters at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday night there was no disputing San Francisco’s plan.
The Niners entered the fourth quarter having outgained the Chiefs 292-206.
That’s right, San Francisco held Patrick Mahomes and his Chiefs to just 206 yards through three quarters and owned a 20-10 lead.
And not only had San Francisco out-rushed the Chiefs 109-to-69, Jimmy Garoppolo was seriously out-MVP’ing Mahomes.
While both quarterbacks seemed a bit ruffled early, Garoppolo settled down in the second quarter and had an outstanding third period while Mahomes continued to struggle, heading into the fourth quarter just 16-25, 145, 0 TD’s and 1 INT for a terribly un-Mahomes-like 62.9 passer rating.
But there’s a reason Mahomes won an MVP Award in his first season as an NFL starter and the Chiefs have the most explosive offense in the NFL.
Blink and you’ll miss a Chiefs scoring drive, and no one was headed for the exits yet.
Sure enough, following a Raheem Mostert 1-yard touchdown dive to create that 10-point 49er edge, Mahomes drove the Chiefs 52 yards on 12 plays, setting up a 3rd and 6 at the 49er 23.
But just when everyone in the stadium thought Mahomes was ready to take the Chiefs in and close the gap to three points, after throwing just five interceptions in his first 18 games, Mahomes tried to hit Sammy Watkins at the six and the ball was knocked up in the air and picked off by Tarvarius Moore for Mahomes second pick of the night.
The 11:57 remaining in the game was plenty of time for the high-flying Chiefs to score 10 points, but the way the 49ers were dominating the physical battle and frustrating Mahomes, really with little of the fierce pass rush we expected from San Francisco the Chiefs were in real trouble.
That’s when the Chiefs’ defense found itself and got the ball back for Mahomes, stifling the 49ers on just five plays and forcing a punt, setting Mahomes up at his own 17.
How would he respond? Mahomes claimed he wasn’t worried at all.
“I knew I just had to go back out there and do what I do.
“My offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy is really big on reminding me and our offense all the time the biggest play of the game is the next one.”
Still, momentum was on the 49ers side and with the Chiefs facing a third-and-15 at their own 35 with just 7:17 to play after a Mahomes 16-yard toss to Tyreek Hill had been overturned by replay on a Kyle Shanahan challenge, the 49ers appeared to be one play on defense from sealing their sixth Super Bowl title.
Somehow though with these Chiefs, just when it looks like they’re in real trouble, Tyreek Hill ends up wide open down field and that’s where Mahomes found him for 44 yards.
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You’ve seen the picture before, Hill all alone waiting for a Mahomes pass that actually wasn’t perfectly thrown but put up safely so Hill could haul it in before Jimmie Ward finally got there to bring him down at the 21.
In the post game celebration Hill told us: “We’re just something special. If I can continue to play on this team for the rest of my career I would love that man, because the band of brothers, the way we believe, the way we play for each other is crazy.”
Four plays later, Travis Kelce was in the end zone with a one-yard TD catch and it was a 20-17 game with 6:13 to play.
Could the 49ers just start pounding them again?
Defense really does matter and momentum was clearly with the Kansas City ‘D’ now.
A quick three-and-out later, Mahomes had the ball again, trailing by just three with 5:10 to play and now the Chiefs offense was rolling.
It took Mahomes and the Chiefs all of seven plays and 2:36 to go 65 yards with the key plays coming on a 38-yard sideline route to Sammy Watkins on a second-and-7 from the Chiefs 48 setting them up at the 49ers 10-yard line, and then 3 plays later a swing pass to Damien Williams on which he was able to barely sneak inside the pylon and Kansas City was on top 24-20.
With just 2:44 to play, San Francisco tried to make it interesting, quickly moving 36 yards to the Chiefs 49 on just four plays, but with more than enough time at the 1:49 mark Garoppolo threw three straight incompletions and then was sacked on fourth down.
Two plays after that, Damien Williams went 38 yards around left end to give the Chiefs a 31-10 lead and a world championship.
Garoppolo was predictably upset after the game saying, “It’s hard to look at it right now and see anything good but a couple of days from now I hope we’ll look back at this season and feel really good about it.”
Kansas City put up 21 points in just 7:41 of the fourth quarter, and in those same seven minutes Mahomes went from an almost-certain-goat to the Super Bowl MVP.
On the other sideline, 49er head coach Kyle Shanahan was left with as painful a déjà vu all over again as anyone could imagine.
Shanahan was asked often in the week leading up to the game about what he had learned from Atlanta blowing that 28-3 2nd half Super Bowl LI lead to the Patriots with him as the Falcons offensive coordinator three seasons ago.
It couldn’t have hurt as much as this one after he clearly had the Chiefs number for over three quarters.
“It hurts everybody in our room to lose a Super Bowl. It’s a tough loss but I’m really proud of everybody in our room and what they did today, and there will be another day.”
For Reid many believe this game cemented his place in Canton with all that was missing from one of the great coaching resume’s in NFL history but Reid wasn’t having any of it.
“This is so humbling but I’ve got a great owner and this guy here (Mahomes) is just unbelievable, and his teammates, man they’re all just dirty tough.”
Reid was happy to talk about how he plans to celebrate though.
“I’m going to get the biggest cheeseburger you’ve ever seen, the biggest one, might even be a double.”
But in the end this was a Super Bowl dictated far more by the Chiefs doing what it took to find a way to win than it was by anything the 49ers did to lose it.
After all, the 49ers were dominant winners for the first 50-plus minutes of this Super Bowl, but it was those last seven that showed what makes Mahomes and his Chiefs so special.
This article originally ran on profootballweekly.com.