This year’s Super Bowl was destined to be a coronation of the old and the new — of well-known faces in the National Football League (NFL) and the faces of the next generation destined to define football for the next decade or more.
On one side, representing the American Football Conference (AFC), were the Kansas City Chiefs led by Andy Reid, a man who’s been a head coach in the NFL since 1999 and has beaten every single team in the league at least twice. Though his career is full of accolades and victories, Reid had never won a Super Bowl, coming closest as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in their Super Bowl XXXIX loss to the rising empire of the New England Patriots.
The Chiefs were captained by Patrick Mahomes, the 24-year-old generational star of a quarterback. Mahomes came into the game with plenty of accolades himself, having made it to at least the AFC Championship Game in both of his seasons as a starter and having been named the Most Valuable Player in the NFL last year at 23 years of age. He is without a doubt one of the most significant rising stars in the game of football.
The San Francisco 49ers are, in a sense, the opposite story. The 49ers were coached by Kyle Shanahan, a 40-year-old coach closer in age to Mahomes than Reid. Shanahan has been a rising star in the world of football coaching for over a decade since becoming the youngest coordinator in the NFL for the Houston Texans in 2008 at the age of just 29. When the 49ers finally gave him a head coaching job in 2017, Shanahan rebuilt the team and took them from bottom of the league to the Super Bowl in just a few years.
Shanahan’s quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, has a different story to Mahomes. Garoppolo was drafted as the theoretical successor to Tom Brady in 2014. Garoppolo never made it to the front lines for the Patriots though. For one thing, Tom Brady refuses to age, and for another, Garoppolo has struggled with injuries, not even being able to fill in for all four games of Brady’s suspension after the “Deflategate” scandal in 2016.
Eventually, Garoppolo got his chance when the Patriots traded him to the 49ers at the tail-end of the 2017 season. Garoppolo promptly signed a contract at the end of the season making him the highest paid player in all of football, even though he’d only ever started in seven games. He missed effectively the entirety of the next season after tearing his ACL, though.
Both teams had a rising star, a young leader in prime position to dominate for years and years to come, and a person who has been waiting to finally rise to the top for years. The similarities on paper were apparent, but the Chiefs’ and 49ers’ styles of play differed wildly.
While the 49ers thrived on complex run schemes and a stifling defense as Garoppolo served as more a symbolic talisman than an actual key player, the Chiefs won by riding their high-octane offense that potentially no quarterback in the league other than Mahomes could have made successful. The Chiefs were fast and lethal, routinely scoring touchdowns of more than 50 yards, while the 49ers were methodical, ripping teams apart with the run and a deadly pass rush.
In the actual game, it seemed for some time like the 49ers were going to come out on top. The 49ers’ defense struggled to get to Mahomes consistently, but they had a few sacks, and the Chiefs couldn’t manage to get their offense going.
San Francisco, meanwhile, held Kansas City to only three points over the second and third quarter and seemed like they had the game almost in hand after Mahomes threw his second interception and gave the 49ers the ball with a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Mahomes, the key to the Chiefs’ offense, was struggling, and all San Francisco had to do was milk the clock and maybe score a few more points to seal the victory.
However, it was the Chiefs’ defense who stood tall when it mattered most. Kansas City allowed only three first downs following that interception, forcing two punts and a turnover on downs as well as intercepting Garoppolo for the second time.
Mahomes, in turn, stepped up and did what everyone knew he was capable of doing: he became the best player in the game. Mahomes led his team up the field three times for a touchdown, scoring 21 unanswered points and sealing his case for MVP of the game (though running back Damien Williams might have a complaint or two about that with his 133 total yards and two touchdowns).
At the end of the day, the Chiefs came back from their third double-digit deficit in these playoffs. Their already legendary offense and star quarterback were just too much for even one of the best defenses you can find.
Much has and will be made about Shanahan’s clock management and the fact that he’s now blown two significant leads in two different Super Bowls (he was the offensive coordinator who helped build the infamous 28-3 lead for the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in a game that the Falcons eventually lost 34-28), but in my mind it misses the point.
Yes, the 49ers lost the game, but not as much as Mahomes, Reid and the Chiefs won it.
Andy Reid has finally become a Super Bowl champion, and the accolade is well deserved. As for Mahomes, we may have just witnessed the beginning of a new reign in the NFL. Reid lost his first Super Bowl in the early stages of a Patriots dynasty that lasted two decades, but it’s starting to look a lot like he just helped build the next one.