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Neil Reynolds' Wraps the Championship Weekend

NFL coaches will often tell their players – and themselves – to ride out adversity and to stay the course. They do that by reiterating, time and again, that it's not how you start; but how you finish. That certainly applies to the two teams who will battle to lift the famous Vince Lombardi Trophy in Las Vegas on Sunday February 11.

The Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers have stayed the course in quite different ways at the back end of the 2023 season and now they will play out a Super Bowl re-match four years after Andy Reid's men won in Miami just before we were all locked down.

The Chiefs looked lost on so many occasions during the regular season and it feels like we have had multiple conversations about where it has all gone wrong. And yet they are now preparing for a fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years. An incredible, New England Patriots-like feat in what is supposed to be an era of salary caps, revenue sharing and a level playing field.

Kansas City hit a low when losing at home to the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Day. It was their fourth defeat in six games and left them staring at travelling route to the Super Bowl, if such a run was going to be possible at all. But since that ugly 20-14 loss, the Chiefs have won five in a row to book their ticket to Vegas.

The Chiefs have failed to hit their usual heady heights on offense for much of this season. And that has still been the case in this playoff run. They scored just two touchdowns in the Wild Card round against the Miami Dolphins but emerged victorious off a strong defensive display and they only found the end zone twice in Sunday's 17-10 AFC Championship Game win in Baltimore. The Chiefs did not score a second half point against the Ravens.

And while that statistic will likely offer Reid a few sleepless nights between now and his team's latest big night in Vegas, that in itself is a positive. These Chiefs are winning in a different way, leaning more than ever on the NFL's second-ranked defense.

On Sunday, they never allowed Lamar Jackson to settle into a rhythm and they forced two critical turnovers. I'll have more on that unit below. But make no mistake, that KC defense is the reason they are playing in another Super Bowl. That and a guy called Patrick Mahomes!

The 49ers looked like one of the class teams in the NFL for much of the regular season, but they have endured some late-season wobbles. They were beaten 33-19 at home by the Ravens on Christmas Day, but still bounced back to secure homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

But, in the knockout stages, the Niners have been given all they can handle. In the Divisional Round, they trailed the Green Bay Packers deep in the fourth quarter and needed a Christian McCaffrey touchdown run with 1:07 remaining to advance to the next stage with a 24-21 win.

They were in even more trouble in the NFC Championship Game, falling behind 24-7 at the half to the Detroit Lions. Journey performed the halftime show and belted out their classic 'Don't Stop Believin' and the 49ers listened.

They scored the next 27 points in the game and survived a late Detroit rally to win 34-31 and advance to an eighth Super Bowl.

There will be great excitement when the football sails into the air for the opening kickoff at Super Bowl 58 and camera flashes will fill Allegiant Stadium. But then we should all settle down and recognise that, with these two teams, the contest is definitely not going to be decided until the second half.

Who's Hot…

Kansas City's Defense…

The Chiefs have played well on defense for the entirety of the 2023 season, ranking second in the NFL in yards allowed (290 per game), points conceded (17 per game) and sacks (57). This season marked the first time in the Mahomes era that the Chiefs have ranked higher in scoring defense (second) than in scoring offense (15th in the NFL). It was more of the same against the top-seed Ravens, led by MVP-elect Lamar Jackson. But for one piece of Lamar magic that resulted in a Zay Flowers touchdown in the first period, Baltimore would have been held out of the end zone. KC pressured Jackson all night long and never allowed him or the league's top-ranked rushing attack (156.5 yards per game) to settle into a productive flow. Baltimore rushed for 229 yards in the Divisional Round against Houston but were held to just 81 yards on the ground on Sunday, with no running back carrying more than three times, which is a mystery in itself. Key turnovers came in the form of a Flowers fumble at the goal-line following an excellent L'Jarius Sneed punch out and an end zone interception from Deon Bush. Those plays and many other less noticeable ones made those 17 points stand up as enough to win the game.

Patrick Mahomes…

His numbers are not going to blow people away in this playoff run, but Patrick Mahomes has made just enough key plays to keep the Chiefs on course for a Super Bowl repeat; which would be the first since the New England Patriots won back-to-back titles in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Mahomes threw for 241 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in Sunday's win at Baltimore. And that mistake-free football was the difference against the Ravens and the Bills and Dolphins before them. Mahomes has now gone an NFL record six straight playoff games without throwing an interception. And on February 11, he will become the first quarterback in NFL history to appear in four Super Bowls before the age of 30. And he will achieve that feat with room to spare at the age of 28. Mahomes is quite rightly obsessed with chasing down the target of 10 Super Bowl appearances and seven Super Bowl wins set by the great Tom Brady. And there is no doubt Mahomes is building a legacy of his own with the Chiefs as he goes in search of a third Super Bowl crown.

Brock Purdy…

The San Francisco 49ers were in a hole on Sunday night, staring down an embarrassing home defeat to the Lions. But trailing 24-7, the Niners turned to quarterback Brock Purdy and the second-year star led them on drives that ended field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown. It was a 27-point run that sent San Francisco to the Super Bowl for the eighth time. With legends such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Barry Sanders watching on from the sidelines, Purdy stepped up with the season on the line. His numbers won't blow you away (267 passing yards and one touchdown), but he did what the great ones do and that's put the team on his back when it mattered the most. That was evident in his rushing efforts in the second half. Purdy is never going to be confused with another 49ers legend in Steve Young, but he can put them up and put them down, as the coaches like to say! Purdy rushed five times for 48 hugely important yards. And now the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft is going head-to-head with the greatest quarterback of his generation in the Super Bowl. What a story!

Who's Not…

Aggressive play-callers…

You live by the sword, you die by the sword. That's the noble saying that gets trotted out when coaches, players or teams do what got them to a certain point in a season and then it fails them at a critical time. Like I said, it sounds noble; but you're still dead at the end of it! No team has been more aggressive in recent seasons than Dan Campbell's Detroit Lions. They roll the dice on fourth down time and again and it has been successful enough to take them all the way to the NFC title game. But their luck ran out one game short of Las Vegas. Twice in the second half, Campbell eschewed a makeable field goal – the first would have put some pressure on the Niners and the second would have stopped Detroit's bleeding and tied the game – for fourth down passes. The first effort was dropped by Josh Reynolds and the second saw Jared Goff throw incomplete after being flushed from the pocket. That was the big mistake, in my opinion. The Lions were set for a 48-yard field goal. It would have ended a run of 20 straight San Francisco points and tied the game at 27-27 deep in the final period. But Campbell played aggressive, the ball was turned over on downs and, in the blink of an eye, San Francisco went up 34-24 and it was effectively game over. It's admirable to be so aggressive and exciting to watch, but Campbell also has to take points when they are there to be taken. I wonder how much regret he will have when he looks back on those key moments?

The Baltimore Ravens… Time and again, the Ravens lost their heads as the panic began to set in that a super season was about to fall apart at the worst possible time. Kyle Van Noy was flagged for head-butting Travis Kelce, Jadeveon Clowney for an aggressive late hit to the head of Mahomes, Roquan Smith had a personal foul penalty when he crashed through the line of scrimmage and the aforementioned Flowers for taunting after big catch downfield. Of course, Flowers followed that up with a fumble at the goal line when he didn't need to extend the ball into harm's way. The rookie then got so angry on the bench that he cut his hand open – not ideal for a wide receiver needing to find more plays down the stretch with a season on the line. The Chiefs looked right at home on the big stage and why not? They were playing in the AFC Championship Game for a sixth straight season. As for the Ravens, they had some physical failings when it came to making plays; but they also had a great deal of mental errors that impacted this game. That is going to be an equally bitter pill to swallow.

Bill Belichick… As I write this column, there are just two NFL head coach openings left – the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Commanders. And there is a good chance that the greatest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick, is not going to fill either post. With the recent hires of the likes of Brian Callahan and Dave Canales, there seems to be a move towards younger head coaches around the league. And with Belichick turning 72 this offseason, you have to wonder if he will get an opportunity this time around… or ever again. His style of coaching is considered pretty old school and I wonder if teams are going to be looking for more and more of those Sean McVay, Mike McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan types. It's a fascinating story to follow because it was almost assumed that Belichick would get snapped up immediately. And now that might not happen… ever again.

The Fast Five

  • The season-long narrative in Kansas City has been that the wide receivers have let Patrick Mahomes down. But there have also been occasional whispers about Travis Kelce looking every bit his 34 years of age at times. Kelce saw a streak of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped in 2023, but only because he was rested in Week 18. In truth, Kelce appears as productive as ever. He caught 11 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown in the AFC title game win over Baltimore and Mahomes' favourite target has come to the fore when it matters the most. Kelce now has 23 catches in three playoff games en route to Super Bowl 58.
  • Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has joined some esteemed company in reaching the Super Bowl for a fifth time. He becomes just the fourth head coach in NFL history to achieve such a feat, joining Bill Belichick (9), Don Shula (6) and Tom Landry (5). There is no doubt that 'Big Red' is heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame once he finally hangs up his coaching call-sheet. Until then, he's got more Super Bowls to win with Mahomes at the helm.
  • As he has been all season long, Christian McCaffrey was a major driving force for the 49ers as they came from behind to beat the Lions. Facing off against the NFL's second-ranked run defense – a unit that had not allowed a running back to gain more than 70 yards on the ground in 2023 – CMC rushed 20 times for 90 yards and added his 24th and 25th touchdowns of this season. The All-Pro running back also added 42 receiving yards and provided timely sparks as the Niners clawed their way back into contention. On an offense loaded with 1,000-yard stars, McCaffrey will be San Francisco's most valuable weapon in the Super Bowl.
  • As I have already documented, it was not a great end to the season for the Baltimore Ravens. But their number one-ranked defense did everything it could to keep things tight in the second half, not allowing a point to the Chiefs. It was not enough due to the failings of the offense, but second-year safety Kyle Hamilton can hold his head high. He was outstanding in that loss, making plays from all over the defensive formation as he has done all season long. Hamilton recorded 11 tackles, one stop for a loss and one quarterback hit. He went down fighting and he has now arrived as one of the NFL's brightest defensive stars.
  • It continues to be great to witness the career progression of Aden Durde, our British defensive line coach of the Dallas Cowboys. I've said for some time now that I think Aden, who is 44, will be a head coach in the NFL. He's made of the right stuff. And he has a chance to continue along that path having recently interviewed for defensive coordinator roles with the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. Let's see if any of those meetings bear the fruit we are all hoping for this time around. They certainly show that Aden is a growing force in the NFL coaching ranks and well worth our support and attention in the coming years.

Final Thought

So, four years after their Super Bowl clash in Miami, the Chiefs and 49ers will meet again; this time in Las Vegas as the city hosts the big game for the first time. In Super Bowl 54, the 49ers looked in total control as they led 20-10 with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. Their pass rush had harassed Mahomes all night long, but Kansas City and their superstar quarterback rallied with three touchdowns in just over five minutes to record a famous 31-20 win. Now, Kyle Shanahan gets a shot at revenge. This feels like a game that is going to be very close to call. I find it surprising that – given the recent form of both teams – San Francisco opens as a very slight favourite. That could change, of course, and there is very little between the squads. Other than the fact that one team has Patrick Mahomes and the other doesn't. So, if you were pushing me on an early prediction ahead of the big game; I would lean towards a third Super Bowl ring for Mahomes and a successful title defence for the Chiefs. But, we know from this playoff series alone, the Niners are going to fight and scrap to the very end. Let's hope the season ends with another Super Bowl classic. I'll speak to you all from Las Vegas!