LAS VEGAS — Patrick Mahomes was pinned. Trapped. Made uncomfortable. Over and over.
The San Francisco 49ers defense turned the normal on-field abode of Kansas City’s quarterback — and soon-to-be-crowned GOAT of National Football League signal callers — into a house of horrors as the Chiefs offense struggled out of the gate in Super Bowl LVIII. One more quarter of executing the master plan to somewhat-close to perfection would yield the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the team that hadn’t held it for almost three decades.
But that’s the thing about GOATs: they make individuals and units have to play perfect for long stretches to beat them, and the second that level drops, those plans quickly get tossed into the wind.
Or, in Mahomes’ case after tonight, those plans get shredded, like the pieces of red-and-gold, Chiefs-hued confetti that fell on the Allegiant Stadium field after the Niners defense was undone one last time.
For almost three quarters, the San Francisco defense did everything outside of throwing a touchdown on a double pass (Hello, Jauan Jennings!) from being the lasting takeaway of Super Bowl LVIII, holding the Mahomes-led Kansas City offense to just two field goals with the fourth quarter quickly on the horizon. One week after defensive coordinator Steve Wilks called his unit’s performance “embarrassing” in the 49ers’ great-escape against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game, it could not have executed more perfectly in keeping Mahomes in the pocket and keeping their rush-lane integrity, with defensive ends Nick Bosa and Chase Young not overcommitting to the sack and, if they came up short, giving the now three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback the broken play situation that causes defenses nightmares.
Travis Kelce had all of one catch, and all of one receiving yard, in the first half.
On the drive that it bent the most in the first half, the defense not only did not break, but it forced a turnover: Isiah Pacheco was stripped of the ball by defensive back Deommodore Lenoir on a run on 1st-and-goal, with defensive lineman Javon Hargrave pouncing on the ball.
A Harrison Butker field goal with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter was the only thing that prevented the Chiefs from being shut out in the first half, a dubious feat that befell 13 teams in Super Bowls of yore. All 13 of those teams ended up losing the Big Game.
Even a freak injury to standout linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who is suspected to have torn his left Achilles tendon as he started to run onto the field after a change of possession, did not cause San Francisco’s defensive level to dip, at least not initially.
“I mean, [our defense] looked pretty good at the beginning,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Got them to a third and one, a fourth and one. I mean, we had a number of guys go down. I mean, that’s what those guys do. They’re really good at it.”
But soon after the 49ers defense forced the fifth three-and-out in nine Chiefs drives, the turning point came at the 2:42 mark of the third: a muffed punt struck the leg of one special teamer Darrell Luter Jr., and return man Ray-Ray McCloud, who realized the ball was live, got his hands on the ball in an effort to recover before it was jarred loose and recovered by Kansas City.
On the ensuing play, Mahomes found Marquez Valdes-Scantling over the middle for a 16-yard touchdown to give the Chiefs their first lead of the Super Bowl at 13-10. And, just like that, the straitjacket that hamstrung Kansas City’s offense was ripped off.
Though the 49ers scored on all subsequent drives after that muffed punt, so did the Chiefs. San Francisco’s inability to add to their 10-point lead, when Kansas City’s offense was in the doldrums, came back to haunt the 49ers like other close-to-glory-turned-heartbreaking moments that have come customary in the Shanahan era.
“That first half was a very good defensive performance, but there were missed opportunities in the first half too. [And] we definitely wanted to lap them a couple more times to give us a cushion because you know who we’re playing and they’re going to play to the end.”
And you know who’s under center for the team that Bosa was playing. Mahomes got hot, both with his arm and his legs – the latter producing 59 yards on the ground on seven carries in the second half, on his way to being the Chiefs’ leading rusher on the night. Kelce, after coach Andy Reid called for more combination routes, turned into the all-time great of a tight end he is. Though two of Kansas City’s final three drives ended up in three points, each of those forays down the field lasted at least 11 plays and covered at least 64 yards of real estate.
San Francisco’s resistance was proving futile. Fast. And the unit was getting gassed. Fast.
“We gave it all we had,” 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “It’s all a hard task to chase around [Patrick] Mahomes, so it puts a lot of pressure on you to keep from getting fatigued, but we gave it all.”
All still ended up not being enough. At the start of overtime, the 49ers controversially (but, in this reporter’s opinion, wisely) chose to receive the ball in overtime after winning the coin toss, saving their defense from going right back out onto the field after Kansas City went 64 yards in 1:50 in kicking the game-tying field goal. San Francisco’s offense once again responded, chewing up 7:38 off the overtime clock and moving inside of Kansas City’s 10-yard line. But when Purdy, while under duress from defensive tackle Chris Jones, could not connect with a wide-open Jennings on a third down and the 49ers had to settle for a field goal — and give Mahomes the ball with a chance to win — there appeared to be only result.
Mahomes for the win, to Mecole Hardman to cap off a 75-play drive. And the Chiefs for the dynasty, their second Lombardi trophy in a row and third in four years. And a case of déjà vu from the opposing sideline when trying to deal with Mahomes magic.
“Same as always,” Shanahan said about Mahomes. “He’s unbelievable.”