L’Jarius Sneed, not Mahomes, is the Chiefs’ most dangerous Super Bowl weapon

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Kansas City Chiefs;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Kansas City Chiefs</a> cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (38) celebrates after forcing a fumble against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.</span><span>Photograph: Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports</span>

In this year’s divisional round, Patrick Mahomes was posed a question he had never fielded in the playoffs before: can you win on the road? A trip to upstate New York to face the surging Buffalo Bills was a huge test for the Kansas City machine. This was unknown territory against a supreme foe in Josh Allen, a quarterback desperate to turn the tables on his rival after two bitter postseason defeats from seasons past. This was Buffalo’s time, they had the superior offense flowing through Allen while Mahomes finally appeared fallible. Despite his struggles, KC’s superstar remained the franchise’s face but this season the keys had been loaned to a new trustee, a defender so reliable that a single glance from him in a receiver’s direction can make a quarterback think twice.

Under the spotlight, the script totally flipped as Mahomes matched Allen step for step in a thrilling offensive tug of war. After all their stratospheric production, Kansas City’s defense were failing to hold up their end of the bargain. The Bills had a 24-20 final quarter lead, a shot at redemption. But Mahomes knew his defenders could stifle the Bills as he issued a rallying cry: “Y’all shut it down and we’ll win this football game. We’ll go to the AFC Championship Game.”

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Shut it down and then some. After Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco laid the groundwork to victory with a go ahead score, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had the tools to finish the job: his linchpin, L’Jarius Sneed. The defensive back cut Stefon Diggs off from Allen as the QB failed on all four attempts to find his top target. A turnover on downs, a punt and a stop on KC’s 26-yard line set the scene for the coup de grâce of another field goal missed wide right.

Call it revenge. To gain the lead, Allen had crossed a line. He forced Sneed to concede his first touchdown in coverage as the nearest defender since Week 15 of the 2022 season. The 13-yard rocket to Khalil Shakir – that the rookie somehow snagged despite having to snap his hands out to the sideline – must have stung. Sneed was hugged in tight but unable to stop a throw with such speed and placement: Next Gen Stats stating Shakir had 0.3 yards of end zone to work with. It merely highlighted how good you have to be to get one over on Sneed.

Since September, with Mahomes enduring a career low (only 2019 was statistically poorer for the quarterback, owing to a dislocated kneecap and two games off) that in turn limited Travis Kelce’s influence, Sneed and other important defensive pieces each week had to power the Chiefs through. A first defeat to Denver in 17 games didn’t occur because the Broncos’ defense was brilliant. Mahomes was just plain bad – throwing up no touchdowns and two interceptions for the first time since losing the 2021 Super Bowl – as he crumbled to a 24-9 defeat. Meanwhile, Spagnuolo’s crew were immense, sacking Russell Wilson six times, delivering 10 QB hits and seven tackles for a loss.

Somehow, those numbers were even better than the four sacks, seven QB hits and five tackles for a loss the Chiefs totalled in their 19-8 win over the Broncos earlier in the season at Arrowhead. Another instance in which the defense dominated but Mahomes failed to move the needle. Nick Bolton and Justin Reid provided a pair of splashy picks but it was Sneed’s presence that stood out. Wilson was clamped in a vice, with KC’s defense holding him to his first game with fewer than 100 yards passing since 2018.

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Sneed’s vital coverage contributions – such as his game against Denver’s offense – often go unnoticed. His play rarely makes a highlight reel because smart passers simply refuse to throw the ball in his direction. Denver’s receivers might as well have been wearing straitjackets when the cornerback was on their case: in 19 passing attempts from Wilson no Broncos marked by Sneed was targeted. His suffocating influence doesn’t show up in the box score but is often decisive. He is the worst kind of bully enveloping an offense’s thinking, as the Miami Dolphins’ All Pro receiver Tyreek Hill found out in the playoffs when he was smacked into the frozen turf at the line of scrimmage. Then, ice-cold insult to injury, Sneed snatched a touchdown from Hill’s outstretched arms by attempting an audacious one-handed interception in the end zone.

Quarterbacks have to work that much harder against the Chiefs when their first read has been swallowed up. Having a relatively subpar offense hasn’t been a problem for Andy Reid this season as he has been consistently able to rely on the league’s best pass catchers being rendered null and void on the other side of the ball. When KC headed to Minnesota in Week 5 and Justin Jefferson was averaging 135 yards a game, Sneed allowed just two receptions for 14 yards. He put up similar performances against the league’s great and good throughout the regular season: Ja’Marr Chase 0 receptions, 0 yards, Keenan Allen 0-0; Davante Adams 1-4; DJ Moore 1-4; Hill 1-6; AJ Brown 1-8; Calvin Ridley 2-32.

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Win or lose, Sneed was sublime. He would need to find the same effort against the Ravens on the road in the AFC Championship Game. Much like in Buffalo, Sneed suffered. A shift to safety precipitated the longest play of the game, a 54-yard uppercut from Zay Flowers as the Ravens threatened to spark a late comeback. Four plays later, Sneed rose from the canvas with a haymaker. Flowers was inches from clawing his team back but, as he dived for the end zone, the iron fist of Sneed hammered home, forcing a fumble that shredded Baltimore’s chances. Sneed putting the full stop on an epic defensive effort that overcame Kansas City’s struggles with the Ravens’ stellar defense.

In Las Vegas, the San Francisco 49ers are flush with offensive weapons aiming to tear the roof off the Super Bowl, But, in Sneed, the Chiefs have an answer.