Growing Defense Key in Chiefs’ Super Bowl LIV Win 

By Tom Griffin (tgriffin2@umassd.edu), Sports Editor 

 

To put it simply: The Kansas City Chiefs instigated a 10-point fourth quarter comeback over the San Francisco 49ers to win their first Super Bowl in exactly fifty years. What this doesn’t explain is the growth in both team and coach that made their win a reality. 

Historically, the Chiefs had been a team to always make it close to championship contention, but they could never quite make it past the AFC Championship game. In fact, since their previous Super Bowl IV win in 1970, the team had never made it back to the big game, or so much as won an AFC Championship in its history. 

Their modern offense was loaded with generational talent. Star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, just a year separated from his appearance as league MVP, led an efficient scoring machine bolstered by tight end Travis Kelce and receiving threats Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins. 

The problem with these new-era Chiefs lied in its defense, specifically with its inability to hold leads or close out games. Leading 21-3 over the Tennessee Titans at halftime in the 2017 wild card, the team’s defense proceeded to give up 19 unanswered points in the second half, ultimately losing 22-21. The very next year, tied at 31 to the New England Patriots in overtime of the AFC Championship, the defense proceeded to allow three-straight Tom Brady third down conversions en route to a game-winning score. 

It was fate that a hard-luck team met an equally hard-luck head coach in Andy Reid. Reid had built up a legacy as a mostly reliable coach who could dominate in the regular season but tended to falter later in the playoffs. During his 14-year tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid had reached the Super Bowl once but ultimately lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. Despite the talent surrounding him at Philly, including Donovan McNabb, Terell Owens, and Desean Jackson, Reid never managed to gift the team a ring. 

Despite having a near certainty of playoff contention, and eventually locking down a first-round bye with the second AFC seed, expectations were mostly low for the 2019 edition of the Chiefs. Mahomes had dislocated his kneecap on a quarterback sneak back in October – the first major injury of his career. Following his eventual return, the injury raised concerns as to whether the quarterback would maintain his trademark mobility in the pocket. 

In the midst of Mahomes’ injury, a newer, faster quarterback named Lamar Jackson stole the MVP spotlight, snagging the first AFC seed for his Baltimore Ravens in the process. Beneath the Chiefs sat a somewhat weakened Patriots squad and the growing wild card powers of the Titans and Houston Texans, all equally capable of ankle-biting in January. 

Luck was almost immediately in their favor once playoffs began. The Titans narrowly upset the Patriots, then grossly outmatched the previously surging Ravens to knock off both of the Chief’s most likely upset-artists. 

Unfortunately, Kansas City’s defensive woes immediately reared their ugly heads, spotting their first opponent, the Texans, 24 points by the start of the second quarter. It was there that Mahomes took over, scoring 41 unanswered points in a five-touchdown afternoon. 

The Chiefs’ next outing, the AFC Championship game against the Titans, was where their history of defensive choking began to change. The Titans’ Heismann-winning star running back, Derrick Henry, who had averaged over 200 yards per game against New England and Baltimore in his previous two games, was locked to 69 yards of total offense on the ground, including a second half where he rushed for negative yardage. No defensive collapse ensued, and the Chiefs strolled to a 35-24 victory that booked a ticket to the Super Bowl. 

Then came the final hurdle: Beating the upstart, Jimmy Garoppolo-led San Francisco 49ers in the biggest game in franchise history. 

Tied at 10 by halftime, the 49ers had pulled ahead to a lofty 20-10 lead by the start of the fourth. Kansas City’s passing game couldn’t get through San Francisco’s secondary, and Mahomes had already thrown two picks on the evening.  

All the offense needed was a breakthrough. Pinned to a 3rd and 15 on their own 30, Mahomes dropped back, waited, surveyed the flats, and found a wide-open Tyreek Hill in a completion good for 44 yards. One defensive pass interference call in the endzone later, Mahomes found Kelce to cut the 49ers lead to just 3 points. 

While many are quick to choose the Hill reception as the play that defined this Super Bowl, a dissenting opinion exists such that it was instead the 49ers next offensive drive that defined how the Chiefs’ defense grew to win championships.  

With their lead weakened, the fourth quarter ticking down, and the ball in Garoppolo’s hands, all San Francisco needed to do was drive the length of the field and finish the game strong. Instead, Kansas City’s defensive line kept pressure on the 49er quarterback, with a 3rd down hit on Garoppolo forcing the quarterback to launch a rushed pass to no-man’s land.  

It wouldn’t take long for the Chiefs to drive the length of the field again, with a Mahomes pass to the otherwise quiet Damien Williams skirting the goal line to steal the lead from San Francisco.  

Two subsequent defensive stops, a Frank Clark sack, a Kendal Fuller game-sealing interception and a garbage-time rushing touchdown by Williams would wind the clock out, but Andy Reid and the Chiefs’ growth as a team would stand. 

 

(Photo Credit David J. Phillip) 

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