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Is Kansas City the NFL's new Big Bad? How this Chiefs run mirrors the Patriots dynasty of yore

LAS VEGAS -- The boos began before the Kansas City Chiefs were even visible on the field. Moments before Super Bowl Opening Night interviews started, the Chiefs lined up in an Allegiant Stadium tunnel, awaiting their introduction. The cheerleaders danced and the music blasted and the more than 20,000 people there to watch the first event of Super Bowl week warmed up their vocal cords to register the newest NFL dynamic. It's not disdain for the Chiefs, exactly. More like boredom with them.

To be fair, the crowd on Monday contained a lot of 49ers fans and locals -- i.e., Raiders fans, who come by their exhaustion with the Chiefs honestly, over generations of divisional battles. That they booed the Chiefs' arrival so loudly that Travis Kelce said he loves the boos more than the cheers might not have been a surprise. That others -- media members, an official from the players' union, even Kansas City owner Clark Hunt -- acknowledged that there was a whiff of Chiefs fatigue in the air made it final.

On the surface, the Chiefs may not behave much like the buttoned-down New England Patriots did during their prolific reign. But as they try to lay claim to being the next NFL dynasty, these Chiefs are more alike those Pats than different, on the field and off. This season, Kansas City shapeshifted from an offensive juggernaut into a defensive beast. How many times did we watch New England change its football personality over 20 years? And by appearing in their fourth Super Bowl in five years (trying to win their third championship), the Chiefs' arc has come to echo the Patriots', going from a charming newcomer that had finally sated a fan base which had pined for victory from one generation to the next to the NFL equivalent of a family member who has overstayed his welcome.

"That's the ultimate testament to their success -- people want to see you fall," former Patriots receiver Julian Edelman said. "It gets lonely at the top."

Few know that better than the Patriots -- and now, with remarkable speed, the Chiefs. Both were fan favorites when they first reached the mountaintop, with their newness being one of the best selling points. But then they won more. And more. Stars were born, and even though the personas are different -- the Patriots embraced a certain joyless all-business approach, while the Chiefs have saturated the commercial market with goofy fun -- the results have been the same.

The Chiefs, with a win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Super Bowl LVIII, would cement their role as the first post-Patriots dynasty. That there was so little time between the end of one and the start of the next means there has been little breathing room and opportunity for the rest of the league to emerge. Scott Pioli, the former Patriots personnel executive who also served as general manager of the Chiefs, remembers watching the same emotions emerge outside of New England -- fans got angry and frustrated with the Pats because, after spending so much time and emotion on their own teams, they wanted something in return.

"Fans in general always like a new spin, a new story, and we've had Chris Jones and Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes now for a while and Coach (Andy) Reid," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. "There's always a hero and a villain role. You can't have two heroes in a game. We relish any role, as long as we're playing."

Said Mahomes, who doesn't seem entirely comfortable leaning into the villain role: "I just like winning. If you win a lot and it causes you to be a villain, that's OK."

That Kansas City is still winning this season is largely a testament to the defense, which is where these Chiefs are most reminiscent of past Patriots teams.

Taken together, the Patriots are remembered as dominant for two decades. On a year-to-year basis, though, their supremacy fluctuated -- and even with the constancy of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, New England routinely changed its style of play. In 2001, the defense and mistake-free football carried the Patriots to their first title. Then, as Brady blossomed, they became a more complete team. Then they morphed into an offensive juggernaut -- the 2007 team, which came within a whisper of an undefeated season, was probably the most talented version of the Pats.

And then, in 2018, the final championship season, New England lost five road games and looked unusually vulnerable. Edelman, the slot receiver, was suspended for a month. Rob Gronkowski was severely limited by injuries. The Patriots lost home-field advantage. The defense kept New England alive that season, and in the Super Bowl, it held one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history to three points, in the 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

"I was there for the first four Super Bowl teams and we were different teams," Pioli said. "Those dominant teams were like the Chiefs in the first Super Bowl and then the Chiefs that lost the Super Bowl."

Would the Patriots teams from the later part of the dynasty -- the ones that squeaked by Seattle and Atlanta and, finally, the Rams -- have beaten the earlier Patriots championship teams? Maybe not.

This year's version of Kansas City lacks the awesome superpower of the 2019 title squad. No matter. What the Chiefs have accomplished this season is simply a different chapter in their story, one that began with the 2022 trade of receiver Tyreek Hill for five draft picks and the decision to invest money that might have gone to Hill in the defense instead.

Last season, the Chiefs still had the league's top offense, with Kelce and JuJu Smith-Schuster the leading receivers. This season was different. The offense ranked 15th in scoring during the regular season. Smith-Schuster had left for New England. Kelce was still the leading receiver, but looked like a diminished version of himself for long stretches. Rashee Rice was a promising rookie, but also understandably uneven. There were drops and penalties and helmet-slamming frustration. The Chiefs lost six games, including a gut-wrenching defeat to the Raiders on Christmas Day, in which the offense mustered just 14 points, while the Raiders scored two touchdowns off Chiefs turnovers. The defense, which finished second in the league in points and yards allowed, kept the Chiefs afloat and in games until the offense figured things out -- tightening the receiver rotation, for instance -- after the loss to the Raiders.

"Navigating a season year in and year out, knowing you have what it takes -- some years it will be a high-octane offense and some years will be a stingy defense -- but figuring out a formula and a chemistry year in and year out, it's hard to always win in a same style, and you have to reinvent yourself," Veach said. "That's how the Patriots and Coach Belichick did an amazing job. They had a couple of key parts, but every year, they would tweak things up a little bit, and I think to certain extent, that's been our recipe for success, too. Taking the baseline -- Coach Reid, Pat Mahomes and Kelce -- but some years it's offense, some years it's defense, and luckily the defense has been there for us this year."

Mahomes, like Brady, is the perennial safety net, so good that he can make up for a multitude of mistakes and give teammates confidence that they always have a chance to win. Like Brady used to do, Mahomes has reasserted his excellence during the playoffs as the offense has found its footing. But the regular season required a mentality shift for Mahomes, too.

"Whenever [the Chiefs' defense is] rolling like that, I have to kind of manage my game," Mahomes said after the victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, when the offense was shut out in the second half, but the defense held the Ravens to just 10 total points. "That's stuff that I've learned throughout the season, is even if we're not having the success that I want to have, the defense is rolling and getting stops. Let's just take the safe choice, get the ball out of my hand, don't turn the ball over and let's go win a football game."

There have been other similarities between how the Chiefs have played in the postseason and how the Patriots used to play. Experienced playoff teams understand that postseason bouts are often officiated differently than regular-season games, with officiating crews inclined to let the players play. Coaches will then instruct their players to push the envelope of what they do, until officials tell them to stop. Patriots defenders famously mauled Colts receivers in playoff games until the NFL Competition Committee, with a big push from then-Colts general manager Bill Polian, cracked down. Kansas City was notably physical against Baltimore, both away from the ball and after plays were over. Finally, the Ravens' frustration leaked out and they drew penalties.

Like the Patriots, the Chiefs wait for their opponents to self-destruct. The Pats, Pioli said, used to believe that more games are lost than won. You did the best you could, and then you waited for the other team to lose it. New England won at least two Super Bowls that way -- over Atlanta and Seattle. The Chiefs' victory over the Ravens in this year's AFC title game came in no small part because the Ravens went away from their own strength, the running game, had critical turnovers and committed untimely penalties.

It was all the edge the Chiefs needed to take another step toward a dynasty. So many of the elements the Patriots made familiar are already in place.

"Travis Kelce's got Taylor Swift; Tom Brady was dating the biggest model in the world. We had our famous girlfriend, too. Welcome to a dynasty," Edelman said, before amending that final comment with a stipulation on his definition of a dynasty. "Still got to win three, though."

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