I was afraid to say it out loud.
As the fourth quarter wound down in the AFC Championship game, my friends were ready to celebrate. “It’s over,” they exclaimed. “The Kansas City Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl!”
While I felt the same way, I couldn’t bring myself to say it. “Still time left,” I kept saying. “It’s not over yet.”
I had felt it far too often — the sinking feeling that Chiefs opponents would come back and win in unbelievable ways. Whether it was from superstition or simple PTSD, I couldn’t let myself get too comfortable with the idea until the clock said 00:00.
Even then, I thought there would be a penalty flag — or some kind of untimed play — that would somehow change the outcome. Hours later, I still couldn’t really celebrate. It was too shocking and surreal.
But now that preparations for Super Bowl LIV in Miami are well underway, I can bring myself to say it: the Chiefs are the AFC champions.
In fact, I’ll go a step further: the Chiefs are not only going to the Super Bowl, they’ll also hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Here are seven reasons I believe it will happen:
1. Clark Hunt flew to Philadelphia
The team could not have been in a worse place after a disastrous and tragic 2012 season.
Andy Reid had been released by the Philadelphia Eagles after losses and tragedy of his own — but was nonetheless expected to quickly land a new job. But Clark Hunt decided to be aggressive. When Hunt landed in Philadelphia, Reid was literally on his way to become the Arizona Cardinals’ new head coach. Nine hours later, Reid canceled his other plans and agreed to coach the Chiefs.
The results from Hunt’s decision have been unmistakable — and remarkable. Under Reid, the Chiefs have averaged eleven wins each year and dominated the AFC West. Reid changed the culture and did things his way, but has also been remarkably adept at being an innovator. His offensive concepts and plays are copied across the NFL; half of the league’s coaches are part of his ever-expanding tree.
Reid has even self-aware enough to know when he needed help on defense and in personnel, ultimately bringing in the right people to help him turn the franchise around.
Make no mistake about it: if Hunt hadn’t flown to Philadelphia seven years ago, we wouldn’t be watching the Chiefs play for a championship this Sunday.
2. Patrick Lavon Mahomes
When the Chiefs had Alex Smith (and the seven quarterbacks before him) we tried to talk ourselves into believing they were good enough. But after years of watching the team come up short, it was finally clear: nothing else really matters until you get the quarterback right. Without a game-changing franchise quarterback, you’re just hoping everything else goes exactly your way.
Prior to the 2017 draft, it felt like the time had come to get the right guy. The Chiefs had the picks to maneuver — and had built a roster strong enough they could make a splash.
I was fascinated with the possibility of what Patrick Mahomes could do. I started watching other evaluators to see if I was crazy. Their reactions to the Texas Tech prospect were consistent — guys cracking up while watching Mahomes execute absurd things other quarterbacks wouldn’t try.
So when the Chiefs moved up on draft night, it felt like they were finally swinging for the fences, picking the highest-upside quarterback in many years.
That moment changed everything. Mahomes has been all they could have hoped for — and more. The Chiefs are on the way to this Super Bowl — and more to come — because they got the right quarterback.
3. The Chiefs lost the 2018 AFC championship game
Why do we know the best quarterback and head coach are highly likely to win championships? Because that’s what the New England Patriots have proved through two decades of dominance.
When the Chiefs came so close to the Super Bowl last year — only to watch Belichick, Brady and company win in overtime — it was a turning point.
The team decided to move on from defensive coordinator Bob Sutton — and players like Justin Houston, Eric Berry, Dee Ford, Allen Bailey and Steven Nelson. We could all see the offense was close; the defense just needed a rebuild. The Chiefs couldn’t mess around with a soft defense any longer. Something had to give.
The loss also gave the Chiefs needed experience — as well as motivation that has helped drive their 2019 season. This time around, the team knows what to expect in January football. They also have the mental toughness not to become complacent with any lead — or give up after any adversity.
4. The 2019 draft class
At the time of the draft, the Chiefs’ draft class received mixed reviews. Now is almost universally praised. Safety Juan Thornhill has exceeded all expectations; he looks like a future All-Pro. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman has made plays nearly every time he touches the ball — and could be the number two wide receiver as soon as next season. Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders and cornerback Rashad Fenton contributed more than many of us thought they would; each could be a big part of the rotation going forward. Running back Darwin Thompson looks like a fun player — although he hasn’t yet had much of a chance to prove it.
But the bottom line is that the Chiefs 2019 draft class has been a big part of the team’s success — especially when veterans were injured.
5. Injury adversity that built depth
The Chiefs’ next-man-up philosophy has been a big part of the team’s 2019 journey.
Before the season even began, potential contributors like Keith Reaser, Breeland Speaks and Marcus Kemp went on injured reserve — not to mention veteran backup quarterback Chad Henne. Tyreek Hill missed four games. Eric Fisher missed nine. Alex Okafor missed three and then went on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Emmanuel Ogbah went on IR in Week 11 — as did Martinas Rankin. Morris Claiborne missed five games, Rashad Fenton missed two and Kendall Fuller missed time, too. Star defender Chris Jones missed four games and Juan Thornhill went on IR in Week 17.
And of course... the injuries that cost Patrick Mahomes two full games and limited his mobility (and ability) throughout the first half of the season.
Numerous backups kept the team going. Quarterback Matt Moore did an admirable job playing after Mahomes was injured against Denver and went 1-1 in two starts. Stefen Wisniewski came in for Andrew Wylie and played well enough to keep the job for the playoff run. The injury to Alex Okafor led to the addition of Terrell Suggs — who became an immediate leader. Tanoh Kpassagnon has made the most of his opportunity with four sacks in the regular season and two in the AFC championship. Daniel Sorensen has gained notoriety during the playoffs with huge hits and game-changing turnovers. This list goes on.
Every team has injuries. How they respond to them is what makes the difference between a good team and a champion.
6. Coaching, adjustments and leadership
Andy Reid’s coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for getting them to this point.
Steve Spagnuolo’s hiring — and giving him the personnel to remake the defense in his own image — is a big part of that. Spagnuolo and purposefully brought the players along slowly, which allowed the players to fully grasp (and own) their responsibilities. As the season progressed, Spagnuolo’s vision became a reality — and its production has improved steadily. His in-game adjustments and game-planning have often been brilliant.
The same could be said of offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, defensive line coach Brendan Daly and the entire coaching staff. In Kansas City, the days of stodgy old coaches who are unable to change and adjust are over.
Their leadership has extended to the field in very specific ways. Mahomes has had control of the offense from day one, but has taken it to a different level in 2019. Tyrann Mathieu has been dominant on the field, but it’s also clear his leadership extends acorss the whole defense. While Terrell Suggs was a late season addition, he has nearly two decades of NFL experience — and a Super Bowl — on his resume, which helped make him an instant leader, just as his grown-man strength made him a contributor.
When things get tough, this Chiefs now have plenty of guys leading from the front. When the lights come on in Miami, the moment won’t be too big for them.
7. Championship swagger
It’s attitude. It’s intensity. It’s mentality. These guys talk — and back it up.
There isn’t a challenge that intimidates Frank Clark or Tyrann Mathieu. There isn’t a situation (or deficit) too big for Mahomes. Travis Kelce is going to make plays and fight for his right to party.
These guys are feeling it. Confidence appears to be at an all-time high. This stuff matters — especially when they back it up on the field with big hits and big plays.
The 49ers are a formidable opponent that presents some unique matchup challenges that will be examined ad nauseum. But whatever San Francisco tries to do, it won’t faze these Chiefs. The team is coming into the biggest game of their lives with the swagger of a champion. I can’t see them settling for anything but a title.
The Lombardi Trophy goes to the team that plays the best in the postseason — and on one particular Sunday in February. Over the last several weeks, no team in football is playing better than the Chiefs. The 49ers might be walking into a buzzsaw.