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Chiefs, 49ers arrive at Super Bowl LVIII after very different paths

The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers made it to Super Bowl LVIII under very different circumstances.

The defending-champion Chiefs, fresh off the most unspectacular regular season of the Patrick Mahomes era, plowed through a gauntlet of AFC heavyweights, winning twice as road underdogs to reach their fourth Super Bowl in five years.

The NFC’s top-seeded 49ers, meanwhile, survived a pair of uncharacteristically uneven performances at home, needing second-half comebacks to eke by opponents they were favored to beat by at least a touchdown.

It all adds up to a rematch of 2020’s Super Bowl LIV, a game Mahomes and the Chiefs won, 31-20, after overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit.

This year’s game features the NFL’s best quarterback in Mahomes and the league’s most star-powered offense with the 49ers. It features two of the game’s top offensive coaches in Kansas City’s Andy Reid and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan. It features a pair of stout defenses that both surrendered fewer than 18 points per game in the regular season.

With all of those similarities, it makes sense Las Vegas – where the Super Bowl will be played on Feb. 11 – views the game just shy of a pick’em. The Niners opened as -2.5 favorites, but the line shifted to -1 overnight, according to the DraftKings sportsbook.

So how did we get here?

Long known for their high-powered offense, the Chiefs this year rode a defense led by pass-rushing tackle Chris Jones, shutdown corner L’Jarius Sneed and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to an 11-6 record and the AFC’s No. 3 seed.

Offensive issues, however, invited concerns about Kansas City’s playoff ceiling. The Chiefs averaged 21.3 points per game, which ranked 15th in the league. A worrisome wide receiver group devoid of a No. 1 option contributed to the team’s NFL-high 44 drops. Travis Kelce’s 984 receiving yards marked his fewest in eight years, warranting speculation about whether the star tight end was regressing at age 34.

A deep playoff run appeared especially improbable toward the end of the regular season, when Kansas City lost four of six games between Nov. 20 and Dec. 25 and failed to reach 20 points in any of those losses.

The playoffs proved to be a different story.

Mahomes overcame ice-cold elements in Kansas City to throw for 262 yards and rush for 41 in an opening-round win over the Dolphins; traded touchdowns with Josh Allen and beat the second-seeded Bills in Buffalo in the divisional round; and did just enough in Sunday’s 17-10 victory over Lamar Jackson and the top-seeded Ravens in the AFC Championship Game in Baltimore.

After throwing a career-worst 14 interceptions in the regular season, Mahomes is yet to throw one this postseason. His QBR of 90.2 in the playoffs greatly exceeds the 63.0 mark he put up in the regular season. His clutch, 32-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on 3rd and 9 with just over two minutes remaining in the Ravens game clinched the win with his offense on the field.

Mahomes now boasts a 14-3 record, has completed 67% of his passes and has thrown for 4,802 yards and 39 touchdowns against seven interceptions in 17 career playoff games – the equivalent of a full regular season.

Kelce followed up his modest regular season with three consecutive playoff games of at least five catches and 71 yards. His contested touchdown catch on Sunday’s opening drive marked his third score of the playoffs.

Running back Isiah Pacheco’s 254 rushing yards leads all players this postseason. He’s scored in all three games. And the Chiefs’ defense has been better than ever, limiting the Dolphins, Bills and Ravens’ top-tier offenses to an average of 13.7 points per game.

Across the board, the battle-tested Chiefs are playing their best football of the season. A win would represent the fifth time in NFL history an organization won three Super Bowls in a five-year stretch, following the Steelers from 1976-80; the Cowboys from 1992-95; and the Patriots from 2001-04 and from 2014-18.

“You don’t take it for granted,” Mahomes said. “You never know how many you’re going to get to, or if you’re going to get to any. It truly is special just to do it with these guys after what we’ve been through all season long, guys coming together. It really is special, but I told them, job’s not done. Our job now is to prepare ourselves to play a good football team in the Super Bowl and try to get that ring.”

There’s history on the line, too, for the Niners, who with a win would tie the Patriots and Steelers for the most Super Bowl titles with six.

San Francisco entered the playoffs as the NFC’s top seed and the favorite to cruise through the conference after a dominant regular season in which they ranked top-three in the NFL in scoring (28.9 points per game) and on defense (17.5).

Their path appeared even easier after the wild-card round when, with the 49ers on bye, the second-seeded Cowboys and the Eagles, who began the season 10-1, were both eliminated in upsets.

Yet San Francisco struggled in the divisional round against seventh-seeded Green Bay, needing a missed 41-yard field goal by Packers kicker Anders Carlson in the fourth quarter; a go-ahead touchdown by Christian McCaffrey with 1:07 left in the game; and an ill-advised interception by Packers quarterback Jordan Love to advance with a 24-20 win.

Sunday’s 34-31 win against the Lions was even uglier. Detroit led 24-7 at halftime before a comedy of breaks went San Francisco’s way. A tipped ball off of a Lions defender’s helmet landed in Brandon Aiyuk’s hands for a 51-yard gain on a touchdown drive. The Lions’ Josh Reynolds dropped two crucial passes. Jahmyr Gibbs lost a critical fumble. And Detroit coach Dan Campbell made several aggressive calls on 4th down that didn’t convert.

The Niners boast perhaps the NFL’s deepest roster, with four players – McCaffrey, Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle – who eclipsed 1,000 scrimmage yards. There are big names across the defense, including Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Chase Young, Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead. Quarterback Brock Purdy hasn’t played at the same level of efficiency that he did during the regular season but made key plays with his right arm and legs on Sunday.

Still, the 49ers look shakier than they have in months.

Next month’s Super Bowl – the ninth rematch in the big game’s history – again features Mahomes, Kelce, Jones and Reid for Kansas City and Samuel, Kittle, Bosa and Shanahan for San Francisco. The biggest new additions to this year’s game are McCaffrey, whom the Niners added in 2022, and Purdy, who would become the first Mr. Irrelevant to win the Super Bowl as a quarterback in NFL history.

“They’ve been doing it a while,” Shanahan said of the Chiefs. “Since we met them in [2020], seems like they’ve been there every year since. We’ve been trying really hard to get back to that moment. We’ve been close a number of times and this time we got it done. Spend these two weeks to prepare and make sure it’s a hell of a game.”