LAS VEGAS — Before Super Bowl LVIII, the Kansas City Chiefs declined to talk much about becoming an NFL dynasty.
On Sunday, the Chiefs took their place among the all-time greats by claiming a 25-22 victory, making them the fourth franchise to win three Super Bowls in a five-year period and the first to win back-to-back championships in 20 years.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes polished his own legacy by leading the Chiefs on the game-winning drive and his third Super Bowl MVP award.
The Chiefs looked more vulnerable during the season than at any time since Mahomes became their starting quarterback and looked similarly shaky in the first half Sunday.
They were overwhelmed on offense by the 49ers early in the game. They fumbled three times in the opening two quarters and twice more later and were fortunate to lose just one.
The Chiefs trailed 10-0 late in the second quarter. But, as they had done in rallying from a double-digit deficit in each of their other two Super Bowl wins with Mahomes at quarterback, they came back.
“The Kansas City Chiefs are never underdogs, know that,” Mahomes said from the championship podium.
IT WAS HARD to picture the Chiefs in the Super Bowl at the end of December. On Christmas Day against the Las Vegas Raiders, their season hit a low point in one of their ugliest outings of the Mahomes era.
The Raiders scored two defensive touchdowns within seven seconds in the second quarter — one on a fumble by running back Isiah Pacheco and the next on a Mahomes interception.
The Chiefs lost 20-14 and fell to 9-6 with two regular-season games remaining, the most losses they’ve had in the Mahomes era. The postseason was looming, and something had to give.
“That was a good wake-up call for us,” coach Andy Reid said after the AFC Championship Game. “It gave our guys a nice little, for [lack of] a better term, a wake-up call that, ‘Listen we need to step things up here. Things aren’t just going to fall in our lap.'”
Reid’s Chiefs answered the call, rattling off five straight wins heading into Super Bowl LVIII. They clinched their eighth straight AFC West division title, won three road playoff games and got themselves right back to the championship games. All this after it seemed Mahomes, Reid and a surprisingly dominant defense may not be able to claw their way to another title.
“It’s tough to [do] back to back-to-back [long] seasons,” Reid said. “We’ve played a lot of football games. You’ve got to work through that mentally. That’s not an easy thing. … What you get is everybody’s best shot. You’ve got to bring it every week. To be in this position, that tells you a little bit of something about the mental makeup of this team.”
As unpleasant as that Christmas Day loss was for the Chiefs, the turnaround could go down as the Chiefs’ most impressive Super Bowl run yet — solidifying them as a dynasty.
“Sometimes the worst things that happened to you or in your season turned out to be the best thing,” general manager Brett Veach said.
TRAILING THE RAIDERS 17-7 on Christmas with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, the Chiefs converted a fake punt on fourth-and-5 to keep their drive alive. But on the sidelines, tight end Travis Kelce fumed, slamming his helmet into the ground when the Chiefs ran the trick play from their own 48-yard line. With seven points on the board, Kelce’s frustration on the offensive side on the ball was evident.
And he wasn’t the only one showing cracks. After the Chiefs put up minus-18 yards in the first quarter, Mahomes was seen delivering an impassioned plea to his offensive line.
The frustration of that Raiders game epitomized Mahomes’ subpar statistical performance through Week 16.
From Weeks 8 to 16, Mahomes’ QBR was 47.1. The Chiefs went 3-5 in that span and turned the ball over 15 times. Kelce, his longtime favorite target, was averaging 55.5 yards per game.
But the Raiders loss helped reignite the spark their offense had been missing.
“I saw more from within the building just how hard guys were working, how guys were taking it personally,” Mahomes said after the AFC Championship Game. “You kind of know how they react after games if you’re going to be in this spot or if you’re going to a chance to be in the spot and guys weren’t happy and they were putting in the work to get better and that’s what you need in order whenever you go through adverse times.
Between Week 17 and the AFC Championship game, Mahomes’ QBR was 84.9 and Kelce averaged just shy of 70 yards per game. In Super Bowl LVIII, Kelce had 90 receiving yards on nine receptions.
“If you watched the receivers every single day, they’re catching on the side when the defense is up [in practice],” Mahomes said. “They’re catching after practice, catching before practice. I remember I was walking to lunch one day and Skyy [Moore] is out there just catching by himself. Those guys had that mindset of they’re going to continue to get better, and that’s been out throughout the whole entire team. We weren’t wasting any moments in practice.”
THROUGH THE OFFENSIVE inconsistency, the Chiefs’ defense kept Kansas City afloat on Sunday — much like the regular season.
After the 49ers won the toss in overtime, the Chiefs forced them to kick a field goal on their opening drive after making it all the way to the red zone. On the ensuing possession, the Chiefs drove 75 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard pass to Mecole Hardman Jr.
“How about that D, baby?” Reid said during the postgame ceremony.
Under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the unit finished second in scoring defense during the regular season and were even better in the playoffs against the Miami Dolphins, Bills and Ravens, allowing fewer than 14 points per game until the Super Bowl.
“I really would not want to play [against] our defense,” Mahomes said. “You have depth, guys rotate in, can do it all and then you have Spags with the scheme. All the guys are so well-coached in the scheme that they use it to their advantage, and you never know where they’re at.”
Led by defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, the Chiefs defense had given up a touchdown 42% of the time when the opponent is in the red zone since Week 17. From Weeks 8 through 16, they averaged 56%.
Jones, 29, has been one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers for years. He had 10.5 sacks this season to tie for the team lead after missing training camp and the first regular-season game while holding out for a new contract. On Sunday, Jones had 4 tackles and 2 quarterback hits on Brock Purdy.
The Chiefs had a league-high 80 pressures from defensive tackles including the playoffs going into Sunday, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Their ability to swing a game’s momentum was on display early and often in the Super Bowl. With the 49ers driving in the first quarter on Sunday, defensive end George Karlaftis recovered a fumble by running back Christian McCaffrey at Kansas City’s 27-yard line. They also forced San Francisco to punt five times. They also held the 49ers to a field goal on the first possession of overtime before Mahomes led the Chiefs down the field for the winning touchdown.
“I still remember in ’17 and ’18 just saying if we can just get [the other team] to punt just once we’ve got a shot,” Veach said last week. “Now all of a sudden it’s like all we’ve got to do is just score once and we’re good.”
Mahomes and coach Andy Reid entered rare territory with the comeback victory. Mahomes became the seventh player from the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB to win three championships and two regular-season MVPs in his first seven seasons, joining legendary players in Larry Bird, Guy LaFleur, Bill Russell, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio.
Reid became the fifth NFL coach with at least three Super Bowl titles. Only the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (six) and the Steelers’ Chuck Noll (four) are ahead of him. He is tied with the 49ers’ Bill Walsh and Washington’s Joe Gibbs.
When the Chiefs had a lead to protect or a one-score game to stay within reach of their opponent, their defense found a way to answer. It wasn’t smooth, it wasn’t easy, but the Chiefs are Super Bowl champions for the second year in a row.
“When it came time to put the hammer down,” Reid said, “we put the hammer down.”