The NFL is becoming an easy league to understand, even for those who struggle with its complex schemes and playbooks. All you really need to know is that Patrick Mahomes will, in all probability, be on the winning team. And so it was on Sunday in Las Vegas. Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to their third Super Bowl title in five years with a thrilling 25-22 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
“It means a ton,” Mahomes told CBS when asked what his third championship meant to him. “I’m proud of my guys, man, this is awesome. It’s legendary.”
For much of the season, a Super Bowl appearance looked like a long-shot at best for the Chiefs. With the exception of his favorite target, Travis Kelce, and rookie Rashee Rice, Mahomes was surrounded by receivers with two things in common: they couldn’t catch and they couldn’t get open. That meant fans were met with a first in the Mahomes era: a Chiefs team that lent on its defense, masterminded by the team’s brilliant defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The Chiefs won the toss and elected to kick, giving the 49ers the first possession. Perhaps the Chiefs thought their defense could stop the 49ers and scratch out an early psychological advantage. It soon did: George Karlaftis, born in Athens to a Greek father and an American mother, forced a fumble from Christian McCaffrey, who days earlier had been voted the NFL’s offensive player of the year, in the Chiefs’ half and the ball was in Mahomes’s hands. The 49ers’ run defense had looked shaky so far in the playoffs but it got a boost of its own, stopping the Chiefs’ percussive running back Isiah Pacheco for a three-yard loss. Short completions from Mahomes weren’t enough to maintain the drive and the Chiefs punted.
While Mahomes’s opposite number, Brock Purdy, has been helped this season by talented teammates on offense, such as McCaffrey, receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel and offensive tackle Trent Williams, he is much more than the game manager his critics have painted him to be: he led the league in passer rating in the regular season, threw the third-most touchdowns and has an appetite for spectacular, risky plays. It took Purdy less than 10 minutes to attempt one in this game: on the 49ers’ next possession he scampered about before throwing the ball across his body – something quarterbacks are told never to do as it disrupts their finely tuned throwing mechanics – to George Kittle for an 18-yard gain. The catch was called back for a holding penalty but Purdy had shown he was going to play the game his way.
The first quarter ended scoreless, a testament to the strength of both defenses. It was San Francisco who opened the scoring shortly afterwards as Jake Moody converted a 55-yard field goal, the longest in Super Bowl history.
The Chiefs looked like they would hit straight back when Mahomes found Mecole Hardman for a 53-yard gain – a rare example of the 49ers pass rush giving Mahomes enough time to complete a throw of more than 10 yards – that took Kansas City to the 49ers’ nine-yard line. But the 49ers forced a fumble of their own as Decommodore Lenoir punched the ball from Pacheco’s grasp and Javon Hargrave recovered.
It had not been, it was safe to say, a classic so far for the viewing public. The Chiefs didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves either as Kelce roared at his head coach, Andy Reid, on the sidelines as he came off the field.
“I was just telling him how much I love him,” Kelce said after the game.
It was going to take something special to break the game open, and it came through a trick play. Purdy flicked the ball to receiver Jauan Jennings who threw to McCaffrey. The pass was as ugly as you’d expect from a man who catches the ball for a living, and it seemed to flutter in the air for an age. But the shock of it meant McCaffrey was in space – something he exploits ruthlessly – and he surged into the end zone to give the 49ers a 10-0 lead.
The problem for Mahomes was that he simply didn’t trust his receivers to make big plays, the long reception to Hardman aside. That meant the 49ers defense was able to limit Mahomes to short completions and neutralise his threat. Mahomes did lead a drive that ended in a field goal at the end of the first-half to make it 10-3 but the fact that he was unable to find the end zone said a lot about how effectively he had been contained.
Perhaps Mahomes’s frustration grew over half-time because he went deep early in the third-quarter with an ugly pass that went between two receivers and into the hands of 49ers safety Ji’Ayir Brown. It was a bad pass by the standards of an average quarterback, for Mahomes it was awful. The 49ers offense, however, was hardly distinguishing itself either and the team’s next two drives ended in punts. There was soon another Super Bowl record though: Harrison Butker’s 57-yard field goal cut the 49ers’ lead to 10-6 and ended Moody’s brief stay in the record books.
The Chiefs were soon to take the lead, although much of that was down to sloppiness from the 49ers. Darrell Luter Jr mishandled a punt deep in his own territory, the Chiefs recovered and Mahomes floated a touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. It was a sweet moment for a receiver who had committed plenty of errors of his own this season. The Chiefs led 13-10 going into the final quarter.
It was at this point that Purdy and Mahomes, disappointing for much of the game so far, found a new level. On fourth and three on the next drive, the 49ers had an opportunity to kick a field goal to tie the game. But 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan decided to trust in Purdy, who had been brilliant at the end of comeback victories in San Francisco’s last two games, and his quarterback repaid that faith with a short completion to Kittle for the first down. Purdy followed that up with a touchdown pass to Aiyuk but Moody’s extra-point was blocked meaning the Chiefs were within a field-goal at 16-13, a crucial difference when Mahomes marched his team down the field to tie the game at 16-16 with 5:46 left.
Moody was thrust into the spotlight against with 1:53 left when he had a field-goal opportunity from 53 yards, a tough distance for any kicker, let alone a rookie whose last attempt had been unsuccessful. He made it though to give his team a 19-16 lead, and the ball was with Mahomes with the game on the line. Naturally, he led his team to a game-tying field goal with three seconds left. For the first time since the 2016 season (and the second time in history), the Super Bowl was going to overtime.
The 49ers won the toss and started with the ball. It initially looked like their drive had stalled but a defensive holding call on third down gave them a second chance. A few big plays by McCaffrey looked like they would lead to a touchdown but the 49ers were stopped on the Chiefs’ nine-yard line and Moody’s field goal gave the 49ers a 22-19 lead.
Of course, that wasn’t enough to beat Mahomes. Twice it looked like the Chiefs were going to come up short of continuing the drive and twice Mahomes got first downs with his legs. And then the dagger: a pass to Hardman on the goalline. This time, a Chiefs receiver did not drop the ball.
“I guess at this point, I take it for granted but I know we’re in every single game I’ve ever played in with [Mahomes], no matter what the score is, no matter how much time is left, that guy’s got magic in his right arm, man, and he can just – he found ways to propel us, even with his legs as you saw today,” said Kelce after the game.
It was Mahomes’s third Super Bowl title. He’s not even 30.