None of this seems real. None of this seems possible. But it is, so it must be. The Kansas City Chiefs are world champions. After wandering in the wilderness for my entire sporting life, I have seen the two great loves of my fandom—the Chiefs and the Royals—both claim titles in the last five years. Kansas City, incredibly, is Titletown. It feels like too much to process. But I will enjoy spending the offseason trying to do just that.
The notion that either team would get to this point was laughable as recently as seven years ago. In late 2012, the Royals were coming off their 17th losing season in the past 18 years, while the Chiefs were picking up the pieces from the smoking ruin of a 2-14 campaign, their fourth season with at least 12 losses in six years. But it is clear in retrospect that both franchises were bottoming out together, and within the span of four weeks around the holidays, both made a single momentous decision that reversed course and sent them on a path that would lead directly to a title.
On December 9, the Royals completed the gutsiest trade of the decade, shipping top prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay for James Shields and Wade Davis. Less than four weeks later, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt cleaned house, firing his head coach and general manager and flying to Philadelphia to implore the newly unemployed Andy Reid to come to Kansas City.
The experience of rooting for the Chiefs changed overnight. A franchise that had won nine games only once in the six years before Reid’s arrival won its first nine games under his supervision. The Chiefs have had a winning record in all seven seasons of Reid’s tenure, making the playoffs in six of them. But the end of the team’s 21st-century run of mediocrity brought a return to the Chiefs fan experience of the 1990s, one marked by regular-season dominance and playoff heartbreak. We needed a reset. We needed a miracle.
We got Patrick Mahomes. And now I can die in peace.
It would have been enough for the Chiefs to just win the Super Bowl, much like it would have been enough for the 2015 Royals to just win the World Series. Championships are like children: They all have different personalities, but they are all gifts from God, and fans should love them all equally. At least that’s what you’re supposed to say. But let’s be frank: Even by championship standards, the 2019 Chiefs title, like the 2015 Royals title, was special. As a Kansas City sports fan, the comparison between the two teams is downright eerie.
Like the 2015 Royals, the story of the 2019 Chiefs starts with how close they came to winning it all the year before. The 2014 Royals fell one swing short of a championship, losing Game 7 of the World Series at home by one run when Alex Gordon was famously held at third base after San Francisco Giants outfielder Grégor Blanco made an error with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was the right call, but was nonetheless debated all winter long after Salvador Pérez popped out to strand Gordon and end the game and the season. The 2018 Chiefs came nearly as close to winning a title, because a team that had gone 33-15 the previous three years while snapping the ball to Alex Smith had given his job to The Quarterback That Was Promised. And Mahomes torched the NFL from the start, throwing 13 touchdowns over his first three games en route to recording the second 50-touchdown, 5,000-plus-yard passing season in NFL history. The Chiefs went 12-4, earned the no. 1 seed in the AFC, and hosted the New England Patriots in the conference championship game. But they lost in overtime because the Pats won the coin toss mere minutes after Dee Ford was flagged for being 4 inches offsides on what should have been the game-sealing interception in regulation.
The 2015 Royals used the previous year’s near-miss as emotional fuel to power their way to the best record in the AL, going 95-67 to take the AL Central by 12 full games. But the 2019 Chiefs used their near-miss as a stepping stone in a far more tangible way: They tore down and rebuilt the defense that had wasted an MVP performance by Mahomes. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired and replaced by Steve Spagnuolo, the architect of the 2007 Giants defense that had held the 18-0 Patriots to 14 points in one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets of all time. Justin Houston was allowed to leave; Eric Berry wasn’t re-signed; Dee Ford was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. In their place, the Chiefs signed Tyrann Mathieu as a free agent and traded substantial draft capital to acquire Frank Clark from the Seattle Seahawks.
Just as the Royals probably wouldn’t have won the 2015 World Series had they not endured 2014’s baptism by fire, I don’t think this season’s Chiefs would have won the Super Bowl had last season’s defense not let them down and motivated them to have major corrective surgery. This is the first way that this Super Bowl victory feels even sweeter than most—it pardons, if not vindicates, the heartbreak and failure of the past.
After Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, I thought I would spend a full decade agonizing over “what-if” hypotheticals about the decision to hold Gordon at third. By winning the title the next year, the Royals forever erased that worry from my mind. It’s not simply that the missed opportunity the year before was washed away by the championship. It’s that the missed opportunity was necessary for the championship. The same goes for these Chiefs.
The other reason this Super Bowl victory feels even sweeter than most is also the other thing the 2019 Chiefs have in common with the 2015 Royals: Both teams rank among the greatest postseason comeback kings in sports history.
The 2015 Royals won playoff games in which they were trailing after four innings, after five innings, after six innings, after seven innings (twice), and after eight innings (twice). They won seven playoff games after being down by two runs or more; no other team in baseball history has won more than five such games. They were six outs away from elimination, losing 6-2 in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS against the Houston Astros, and came back to win. They were a Hollywood script that languishes in development hell for years because it’s just too unrealistic.
The 2019 Chiefs started their playoff run by spotting the Houston Texans 24 points in the divisional round—and then their offense went off, scoring four touchdowns in the second quarter to take the lead by halftime. They were the first team in NFL history, regular season or playoffs, to lead at the half after trailing by 24 points, and they went on to win, 51-31. A week later, they trailed the Tennessee Titans 10-0 and 17-7 before Mahomes delivered the most iconic play of his career to date, a 27-yard scamper down the sideline for a touchdown with 11 seconds before halftime to give the Chiefs the lead. They won, 35-24.
As impressive as those comebacks were, the very speed with which they were accomplished capped the desperation we fans could feel; the Chiefs led for every moment of the second half in both games. And neither the 10-6 Texans nor the 9-7 Titans had the kind of defensive talent to make a comeback feel daunting, no matter how improbable the scoreboard made one seem.
Which is why the comeback Sunday night was the sweetest of all. The 49ers had not only a smothering defense, led by perhaps the best defensive line the Chiefs had encountered all season, but also a seemingly unstoppable rushing offense designed to drain the precious time the Chiefs offense would require to pull another comeback. So when Mahomes’s pass to Tyreek Hill bounced off Hill’s arm and into the hands of Niners cornerback Tarvarius Moore with less than 12 minutes left, giving San Francisco the football to go with a commanding 20-10 lead … well, I am ashamed to admit that I started to lose hope.
It wasn’t just that Mahomes, for 48 minutes, was having arguably the worst game of his career, passing for 172 yards on 29 attempts and throwing interceptions on back-to-back drives after throwing picks in back-to-back games just once all season. It was that no one on the Chiefs offensive line—except for right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who had a postseason for the ages—could stop the 49ers front four. Nick Bosa spent so much time in the Kansas City backfield that he should have been paying rent. I still had faith that Mahomes could work his magic. I just didn’t have faith that his linemen would give him the time to do so.
The game reminded me of Super Bowl XLII, when the undefeated Patriots, with the highest-scoring offense of all time to that point, were held to just 14 points. That only happened because Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time in his greatest season, was incessantly harassed by the New York Giants defensive line, getting sacked a season-high five times. In this game, Mahomes was sacked a season-high four times. When Mahomes threw his second interception, I gave the Chiefs maybe a 10 percent chance of pulling out a victory. If I had seen a win expectancy chart, I would have been even more pessimistic. When San Francisco had the ball with a 10-point lead and under 12 minutes left, ESPN listed the Chiefs’ odds of winning at less than 5 percent.
ESPN might need to make another version of their win probability software for Mahomes... pic.twitter.com/RhkAFxdJwh— Nick Mehta (@nrmehta) February 3, 2020
But like those Royals barely four years ago, the Chiefs took those odds as merely an irritating suggestion. A defense that had let the 49ers running game gash it for yards and minutes suddenly held firm. The Niners got the ball four times in the final 12 minutes of the game, and on those four drives the Chiefs held them to a combined total of 47 yards, three first downs, and zero points.
The defense did its part by giving Mahomes a chance to do his, and with the game on the line, Mahomes has done his job as well as any quarterback in NFL history. When things looked bleakest—when a Niners challenge overturned a 16-yard Tyreek Hill catch, leaving the Chiefs staring at third-and-15 from their own 35-yard-line—Mahomes dropped back a ridiculous 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage before unleashing a wrong-footed throw 57 yards in the air as a defender crashed into him. It fell perfectly into Hill’s waiting arms for a 44-yard gain. It was the 10th time in the last two years that Mahomes had converted on a third down of 15 yards or more.
For 48 minutes, the 49ers defense played Mahomes as well as any defense ever had. But then San Francisco gave him the tiniest opening imaginable, and he used it to flip the outcome of a Super Bowl. Four plays later, the Chiefs were in the end zone. Kansas City’s defense held San Francisco to a three-and-out, and then Mahomes led the Chiefs 65 yards in seven plays, passing or rushing for every yard, including a gorgeous floater to Sammy Watkins down the sideline that went for 38. Damien Williams reached for the pylon on third-and-goal, and after an interminable wait for official review, the touchdown was confirmed. The Chiefs, unfathomably, had the lead with under three minutes remaining.
Chris Jones batted down one pass and deflected another to help the defense hold one more time, prompting a turnover on downs with 1:25 to go. Damien Williams, who was simply looking for a first down to run out the clock, instead found daylight and broke free for a 38-yard touchdown. The impossible had become inevitable. Three weeks after mounting the fourth-largest comeback in playoff history, the Chiefs mounted the second-largest comeback in Super Bowl history. No NFL team had ever won three games in a single postseason in which they had trailed by double digits. Not only had the Chiefs done that: They won all three by double digits. It was the fifth time this season that Mahomes had trailed by 10 points or more. He led the Chiefs to victory in all five games.
Kansas City’s first Super Bowl victory in 50 years was more than just catharsis for a city that questioned if this day would ever come. It was also catharsis for Andy Reid, who had waited nearly as long as Chiefs fans for a title. Given Reid’s infamous history with clock management, it felt like poetic justice that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan made the boneheaded error of the game by inexplicably electing not to call timeout to get the ball back with 1:45 left in the first half, seemingly content to go into the break with the score tied. Only after Reid bizarrely called a timeout on third down with 20 seconds remaining—he is still Andy Reid, after all—did Shanahan decide to try to put up points. Jimmy Garoppolo threw a 20-yard pass to Jeff Wilson Jr. and then a 42-yard bomb to George Kittle that appeared to move the 49ers into field goal range until a soft offensive pass interference call nullified the gain. For a fan base that has spent 20-plus years seeing ticky-tack OPI calls go against tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Travis Kelce, it was delivered at the perfect time.
And while Shanahan was inexcusably conservative on offense—he also chose to settle for a field goal rather than go for a key fourth-and-2 on the Niners’ first possession of the second half—Reid proved on the biggest stage that he has moved to the forefront of the analytics movement as it pertains to fourth-down aggressiveness. Twice, the Chiefs faced fourth-and-1 situations in field goal range; twice, Reid chose to go for it successfully. The Chiefs have converted 21 first downs on fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2 over the last two seasons; no other team has done so more than 17 times. On the first such play in Sunday’s game, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy dialed up a 72-year-old formation from Michigan’s Rose Bowl victory over USC in 1948, adding a dance routine to the pre-snap motion. The Chiefs would go on to score a touchdown on that drive.
In a game decided by the smallest of margins, it only makes sense that this was a total team effort. Reid coached beautifully and Mahomes overcame three quarters of struggles to win Super Bowl MVP honors. Williams rushed for 104 yards on just 17 carries while scoring two touchdowns, and Jones, who suffered a practice injury that caused him to miss the Texans game and play limited snaps in the AFC championship, was restored to full health in time to be an absolute beast on the interior of the defensive line, batting down multiple passes and forcing Garoppolo into an ill-advised throw for his first interception.
And in the end, Kansas City exacted a measure of revenge on the city of San Francisco for the 2014 World Series and paid back the Shanahan family for what Kyle’s father, Mike, did to the Chiefs as head coach of the rival Denver Broncos for 14 years. The Chiefs settled all family business on Sunday night.
Once before I had seen a team win a championship this way, time and again waiting until almost all hope had been extinguished before calmly and ruthlessly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. I had made my peace that I would never experience that kind of a championship again. And yet here I am, walking around in a daze, a goofy grin permanently plastered on my face, not entirely convinced that my eyes and ears aren’t lying to me about what just happened.
We don’t deserve this. No one deserves this. To win a championship once in a generation is sufficient. But to win one this way—by repeatedly coming back in the playoffs, by spitting on the odds, by laughing at win expectancy charts to end a title drought that had lasted for decades—is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Somehow, we Kansas City fans have had that experience twice in less than five years. Our cup—cups!—runneth over. It wasn’t long ago that we were among the most hapless fan bases in America. Now, we are one of just two fan bases (along with Boston, of course, because Boston) to have won a Super Bowl and a World Series in the last decade.
This is where the comparison between the 2019 Chiefs and 2015 Royals ends. The Royals were a comet that flashed through the sky, and we knew it was only a matter of time before it turned back toward deep space as contracts expired, the farm system went fallow, and ownership couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the money necessary to keep the roster intact. The Chiefs are different. The Chiefs are built to last. The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.
This may sound presumptuous, but there’s simply no way to sugarcoat it: Mahomes is the most valuable asset in American sports, and it’s not particularly close. He is the best player in football, good enough to be the league MVP in his first season as a starter and Super Bowl MVP in his second. He is the youngest player in NFL history to accomplish both those things, and he’ll still be 24 when the 2020 season begins in September. He plays the position that has arguably the greatest impact on a team’s chances of winning its respective sport’s title. And for better or worse, the NFL’s restrictive free-agency rules will keep Mahomes tied to the Chiefs far tighter than any player would be to his franchise in any other sport.
From the moment Bryce Harper debuted with the Nationals in 2012, everyone believed he would sign with the highest bidder after the 2018 season. LeBron James sprinkles victorious fairy dust on whatever franchise he deigns to sign with for four years at a time. But Mahomes is likely a Kansas City Chief for at least the next decade, and hopefully for life, barring some sort of nasty public divorce between him and the franchise. Right now, the two are the epitome of the model sports marriage.
As long as the Chiefs have Mahomes, they will perennially be considered a Super Bowl favorite. Now throw in one of the greatest football coaches of the 21st century, a young GM with a proven track record, elite skill players on both sides of the ball, and the fact that the Chiefs didn’t mortgage their future to win this Super Bowl, the way the Rams tried to last season by trading away every draft pick they had from now until the heat death of the universe. If you had to bet on one franchise to become the next great NFL dynasty, well, you could pick a team other than the Chiefs. It’s just not clear why you would.
But that’s a debate for another time. The great privilege of winning the Super Bowl is that it renders questions about the future academic. The Chiefs are Super Bowl champions right now. The flag they hoist above Arrowhead Stadium will fly forever. And no matter what happens next, I can live out the rest of my days knowing that whenever it is my time to shuffle off this mortal coil, I will do so having seen the two teams I’ve devoted my entire life to rooting for obtain the very thing for which I rooted. Sunday night brought closure. From now on, I am playing with house money.
And the thing about playing with house money is that, by definition, you can’t really lose. It’s just a matter of how much more you will win. Granted, maybe that takes some of the edge off being a Kansas City sports fan. Maybe each season won’t be quite as much of an emotional roller coaster. Maybe playoff games won’t have the same life-or-death feel. Sure, finishing another season without a title won’t be nearly as devastating as it was before, but maybe it will never feel as good to win it all as it did this first time.
But maybe it will. And I can’t wait to find out. First, though, we have some obligations to attend to. They’re holding a parade in Kansas City today.