On February 2, the Kansas City Chiefs are playing the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. They earned to right to play in their first championship game in 50 years with a 35-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
1. We’ve seen this movie before
Ever since the Titans defeated the Baltimore Ravens last weekend, all anyone has been able to talk about is how their running back Derrick Henry was going to run all over the Chiefs. Henry would deliver the Titans another win that would send them to the Super Bowl.
In terms of the matchup, the argument made some sense. It’s true that the Titans’ running game — especially with Henry — is terrific. It’s also true that the Chiefs have been poor at defending against the run.
But from 1990 through 1997, the Chiefs made playoff appearances in seven of eight seasons. Through those years, the team tended to have an overpowering defense and a run-based offense. We called it Martyball — after then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
We loved watching it — and we loved that the team was so consistently successful. But we also learned that it wasn’t a formula for postseason success. Against playoff-caliber offenses, even the best defenses give up points. Being so dependent on the running game, the Chiefs offense usually couldn’t keep up.
In those seven playoff appearances, the Chiefs won exactly three games — two of them at home while possessing the AFC’s first seed.
But that was a quarter-century ago. The game continues to evolve. The importance of an elite passing game has increased with each passing year. Even so, teams like the Titans — a team that closely resembles the Chiefs of the early 1990s — can have winning records and make the playoffs.
But advancing in the postseason is another matter. As Chiefs fans learned the hard way, sometimes such teams can force enough turnovers — or make enough big defensive plays — they can eke out a win or two. But it’s very hard to do more than that.
The Titans are a good team. Their young head coach Mike Vrabel has done a terrific job. In the years to come, they’re going to continue to be successful; they’ll be a tough opponent for any NFL team.
But take it from Chiefs fans: as the Titans are currently constructed, their chance of winning a championship is relatively small.
2. Patrick Mahomes can still surprise us
On a second-and-10 from the Titans 27-yard line with just 23 seconds remaining in the first half — and the Chiefs trailing 17-14 — the Tennessee pass rush forced Mahomes into a scramble to left side of the field. He headed to the sideline, where he tiptoed along the edge for about ten yards, then juked to his right toward the middle, met contact inside the 5-yard line, spun and somehow managed to dive across the goal line while in the grasp of Titans defenders.
Is there anything that this young man cannot do?
Even though the Chiefs would be receiving the opening kickoff of the second half, going into halftime tied (or trailing) was the worst-possible scenario; it would have allowed the Titans to continue feeding the ball to Derrick Henry on long drives.
So Mahomes did what was necessary. His scramble — which would be the envy of any number of NFL running backs, but has likely annoyed his mother — gave the Chiefs the lead and changed the momentum of the game.
Even near the conclusion of only his second starting season, he continues to surprise us with his athletic ability, leadership and intelligence.
For his next trick, he’s planning to lead a Super Bowl victory.
3. There’s nothing wrong with being friends
Andy Reid — and other NFL head coaches — sometimes get a lot of heat for hiring their friends and family.
During the years that former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was with the team, fans who were convinced that Sutton should have been fired immediately after the team’s 45-44 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts seven years ago often suggested that the only reason Sutton still had a job was that he and Reid were buddies.
Never mind that Reid and Sutton never worked for the same teams during their long coaching careers — the usual source of Reid’s pals — or that during the first four years of Sutton’s tenure, his defenses never ranked worse than seventh.
That said, I understand the problem. It’s real. It’s difficult for any of us to have a professional relationship with a friend or family member. If things start to go badly, they tend to get worse very quickly.
But such a relationship isn’t necessarily toxic — and there are some advantages. Just like the players on the field — who have to be on the same page and have trust in each other — coaches need that from their assistants, too. That’s a lot easier to do when you start as friends.
When Steve Spagnuolo was hired as defensive coordinator, there were more than a few grumblings about Reid “hiring another one of his pals.” But now that we’re talking about a team playing in the Super Bowl, it’s sure hard to argue with the results.
We believed that in order to reach the championship, all we needed was for the offense to continue to play well — and get moderate improvement from the defense. Spagnuolo has delivered much more than that: a defense that when necessary, can carry more than its share of the load.
So I’m proud to say that any friend of Andy Reid’s is a friend of mine — at least for now.
4. Andy Reid has done something historic
When you bring up Andy Reid’s winning percentage as a head coach — which is better than those of Hall of Fame coaches Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Hank Stram, Chuck Noll and Mike Ditka — people like to point out that his postseason record hasn’t been very good.
And they’re right.
When Reid left the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2012 season, he had a postseason record of 10-9. But going into this season, his playoff record with the Chiefs was just 2-5. With Sunday’s victory, Reid’s career postseason record is back to .500 at 14-14 — 4-5 with Kansas City. While that isn’t great, it’s pretty good. He is within striking distance of eclipsing Hank Stram’s .625 playoff record, which would allow him to lay claim to being the best head coach in franchise history.
But that’s not the historic thing Reid did on Sunday.
With the victory, he became one of only a few coaches since the 1970 merger to win championships in both conferences. One was Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, who won the NFC with the New York Giants in 1986 and 1990 — and then won the AFC with the New England Patriots in 1996.
Prior to the merger, Don Shula and Weeb Eubanks accomplished something similar, each winning NFL and AFL championships.
When you stop to consider what that means — the Reid has been able to build a championship-caliber team from scratch in two different cities under two different owners — and the second time around, do it against a slate of relatively unfamiliar teams — it’s a noteworthy accomplishment.
But Parcells, Shula and Eubanks all did something else that Reid has not yet accomplished: win a Super Bowl.
In two weeks, Reid will take another shot at claiming the modern NFL’s Triple Crown for head coaches.
5. These are the moments we live for
My high school football team won a state title when I was a freshman in 1972. I was a fan for the Kansas City Royals’ championship runs in 1985 and 2015, along with Kansas University’s NCAA tournament victories in 1988 and 2008.
And I was with my family in front of our new Zenith color television in January 1970 as the Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
In each championship season, there are always moments we will never forget — most often, the play where fans have the moment of realization: We’re really going to win this thing! This is really happening!
For me — and for many others, I expect — that spine-tingling moment in Super Bowl IV came in the third quarter, when Otis Taylor caught a hitch pass from Len Dawson at the Vikings’ 41, broke a tackle, turned and ran down the sideline, finally breaking another tackle on the way to a touchdown that would seal the Chiefs’ 23-7 victory.
For the 2019 Chiefs season, at least one such moment arrived with 7:44 remaining in the game — when Patrick Mahomes found Sammy Watkins running open down the middle of the field, hitting him with a pass that Watkins turned into a 60-yard touchdown that made the score 35-17.
I can’t lie. I cried. Maybe you did, too.
Each step of the playoffs is progressively harder. There’s no way to know if that will be the greatest moment of the 2019 season — or if will be replaced by an even greater one.
All I can tell you is that these moments don’t usually come very often. They deserve to be savored. So enjoy it. Don’t get yourself too worked up about the next step against San Francisco. Win or lose on February 2, we’ll always have Watkins’ catch — the one that told us the Lamar Hunt Trophy was finally coming home.