MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Jimmy Garoppolo pass sailed to nowhere, skipping on the turf with 5:10 remaining in the fourth quarter before bouncing onto the 49ers’ sideline. An offensive lineman had to help him to his feet as Chiefs pass rusher Frank Clark celebrated the backfield chaos he’d helped to create nearby.
A quiet Chiefs crowd sprang to life, whipping up the war chant and singing to every line of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right (to Party!),” a song that had been co-opted by their bombastic tight end Travis Kelce during their stunning run here to the Super Bowl. A 10-point second-half deficit would soon be erased as the 49ers’ methodical grip on the most electric offense in football began to loosen.
Just seven plays later after that incomplete Garoppolo pass, there was Patrick Mahomes faking a handoff and alley-ooping a pass to Damien Williams for the go-ahead score with 2:44 to go. Tyreek Hill walked to the sideline without his helmet, nodding and waving to the crowd. Mahomes, who had spent the night battered and bruised, pockmarked by a pair of costly interceptions, rested his hands on his knees and awaited near midfield for a final confirmation from the officiating crew.
This, after years of high-profile playoff heartbreak, after cementing a reputation as the league’s good-not-great contenders, was really happening for the Chiefs. Kansas City had staved off certain defeat against Houston in the divisional round, evaporating a 24-point differential. They had made quick work of the run-dominant Titans in the championship game. And, with all the ghosts of their masochistic past encircling them in the Super Bowl, they hoisted another win in the face of impending defeat, this time against the best defense in football.
The Chiefs defeated the 49ers 31-20 in Super Bowl LIV, earning the franchise whose founding owner had named the game its second Lombardi Trophy and first since 1969. The old Kansas City teams were known for their ability to back an outward cool with dominant play on the field—Hank Stram dialing up unthinkable plays to the cigarette-smoking Len Dawson. This time they did it with a wise-cracking, Hawaiian shirt–wearing, cheeseburger-eating mad scientist as a coach and his quarterback creation conjured from every defensive coordinator’s worst nightmares.
As the game clock ticked down to 0:00, Reid erupted, pumping his fists on the sidelines as he was doused in orange Gatorade, then smiled wide as he grabbed Bashaud Breeland in one hand and Damien Williams in the other. A greeting line had assembled around the coach, who had been here once before with the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX but fell short to the Patriots. For a time during his long and distinguished career, being almost good enough seemed to be part of his legacy.
The game kicked off just after the sunset on a perfect early evening in Southern Florida, about an hour after both teams lined up across the 24-yard lines on each side of the field for a silent tribute to fallen NBA legend Kobe Bryant. A steady breeze off the Biscayne Bay made it feel like an elemental fall Sunday as the stadium slowly shifted from an empty, open-air box of teal seats to a raucous crowd decked in different shades of fire-engine and cardinal red.
The 49ers entered from the northeastern tunnel to the Metallica song “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” led by their prospector mascot wielding a pick ax shining with LED lights. The Chiefs ran out to the war chant from the northwestern tunnel, and Mahomes jogged the length of the field, settling into the 49ers’ end zone to kneel in prayer. As the national anthem came to a close, a horde of Chiefs fans drowned out singer Demi Lovato, screaming their team nickname as she sang “home of the brave.”
What came next was a schematic circus worth the price of admission: a ballet of speed options, jet-motion sweeps and wide receiver reverse pitches straight out of Reid's and Kyle Shanahan’s wildest imaginations. On its first touchdown drive at the end of the first quarter, Kansas City went for it deep in 49ers territory on a direct snap to Damien Williams to continue the drive. Before the center hiked the ball, Mahomes, Williams, Sammy Watkins and Hill all spun simultaneously to their left, creating the look of well-rehearsed backup dancers swaying behind their lead singer.
Twice on their first three drives, the Chiefs used speed-option principals seemingly ripped from the dusty play books of the now-defunct NCAA Football video games during the golden age of Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer. During the week, offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy smiled when he said proudly that the Chiefs ripped off everyone. They watched big-time high school ball on Fridays, big-time college ball on Saturdays and, with free time before Sunday, they’d smash it all together on a white board to see what stuck—and here, it showed.
The 49ers, meanwhile, countered to tie the score at 10-10 before the half with a suite of plays designed to feature second-round pick Deebo Samuel as both a runner and receiver. Their tightly woven zone rushing concepts drew defenders into the fray, opening up lanes for Samuel, who was acquired for his ability to extend plays from the moment he touched the ball.
With 5:05 left in the second quarter, Shanahan added versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk into the dance, motioning him as a downhill blocker on an outside zone rush before snapping him free in the opposite direction. After breaking a Daniel Sorensen tackle, Juszczyk darted toward the end zone, diving his way past a quickly halting Tyrann Mathieu, who was not about to risk his well-being to stop the 240-pound fullback already at full steam. Shanahan, typically muted throughout, thumped his chest in celebration.
But ultimately, he would spend the second half fending off the horrific reality he endured as the offensive coordinator in Super Bowl LI, when the Falcons gave up a 28–3 lead to lose to the Patriots. The 49ers built a quick 10-point lead thanks to a pair of Mahomes interceptions—but yet again, that lead was there one minute and gone the next. Again, he will have to fend off questions about decision-making and play calls; here was the most complete team in football melting down.
San Francisco’s last chance came with less than two minutes to play. On the airwaves, unbeknownst to Shanahan, they were talking about Joe Montana and the historic drives of old. But on third down with 1:33 remaining, a throw to Emmanuel Sanders landed yards long in the end zone despite Sanders having a step on the defender. Shanahan waved his hands at the turf in frustration. On fourth down, Garoppolo hurled the ball with two hands in the air, desperate to escape the grip of Clark once again.
It was ruled a sack, and the Chiefs’ ball. The celebration began on the sidelines as coaches desperately tried to wrangle their players for the final 1:25. Damien Williams chugged in a knockout touchdown from 38 yards out, beginning the long procession to confettied chaos.
Reid, finally a Super Bowl champion, wrapped his wife, Tammy, in his arms as members of the Chiefs’ coaching staff made a path for the two to be together. Mahomes, coated in tiny pieces of ticker tape, seemed to wobble with the chaos before finding his coach as well. In that moment, with players sliding and diving across the field, all was right in their world.
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* Charlotte Wilder: Super Bowl LIV Was One Giant Spectacle
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