A rematch on the Strip: Chiefs, 49ers advance to Super Bowl LVI

Jan 28, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) celebrates after making a play against the Baltimore Ravens during Sunday's AFC Championship Game at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 28, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) celebrates after making a play against the Baltimore Ravens during Sunday's AFC Championship Game at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth time in five years, the Kansas City Chiefs reign supreme in the AFC and showed once again why it's foolish to bet against Patrick Mahomes.


Out west, the 49ers rallied behind their own quarterback, Brock Purdy, to overcome a 24-7 halftime hole and stun the Lions, denying Detroit its first-ever Super Bowl appearance.


For San Francisco and Kansas City, they meet again, a rematch of Super Bowl LIV, won by Kansas City 31-20. The 49ers led 20-10 heading into the fourth quarter. But the defense came up small — where have we heard that before — and Jimmy Garappolo did not play much bigger. The Kansas City comeback forged Patrick Mahomes' status as the NFL's best quarterback while setting in motion the wheels of Jimmy G’s ultimate dismissal by the 49ers.


Now, the seasoned Mahomes takes on Purdy, the underappreciated upstart. More accurately, Mahomes prepares for a 49ers defense that struggled Sunday to tackle, stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Purdy and the powerhouse 49ers offense, meanwhile, must tangle with easily the best defense seen since their Christmas Day nightmare against the Ravens. We all remember how that game went.


But there are two weeks yet to pedestal-ize Mahomes, pick apart of Purdy’s shortcomings, and further obsess over the cultural lobotomy that is Kel-Tay. So, let’s instead look backwards for a moment, at yesterday’s games, and remind ourselves why Championship Sunday was always John Madden’s favorite day the year.




Kansas City 17, Baltimore 10


Travis Kelce caught 11 passes for 116 yards and a TD, and the Kansas City defense locked down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense to win, 17-10, and send the Chiefs to their fourth Super Bowl in five years.


What started out as a potential high-scoring matchup retreated into a defensive struggle. The Chiefs came out on their first drive with the authority of a five-time conference title participant, marching 75 yards on 10 plays. Mahomes to Kelce converted a 4th-and-2 from the Ravens’ 41, then the two connected when Mahomes placed a pass on the TE’s back hip for a 19-yard TD, all to the delight of Chiefs and Swifty Nations.


With those six points, the Chiefs extended their remarkable streak of scoring a TD on their opening possession to eight playoff games.


Baltimore answered on its first drive when Jackson danced away from pressure and floated a 30-yard scoring pass to rookie receiver Zay Flowers. On the Chiefs’ second drive, Mahomes and Kelce again revealed their singular chemistry. On 3rd-and-5, Mahomes scrambled left and lobbed a pass to Kelce, who made a diving catch at the Baltimore 17. The Chiefs eventually scored on a two-yard run by Isiah Pacheco. 


Three drives, three TDs. A classic seemed to be in the making. But after a furious scoring start, the two teams settled into a defensive back-and-forth, scoring between them just six points the rest of the way.


Game ball for Spags 


So thorough was both the Chiefs’ pressure and containment on Jackson, its choking off of the Ravens’ running game (81 yards rushing), it mattered little that Mahomes and his crew also didn’t mount much by way of sustained offense after their first two drives. At least that’s what three points for the remainder of the game suggests.


Much credit for containing Jackson and the potent Baltimore running game goes to Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose play-calling was a tour-de-force of mixing coverages and dialing up one well-timed blitz after another. 


“We threw the book at Lamar,” said safety Justin Reid, who recorded his first playoff sack. “Zone pressures, man pressures, fake pressures. We tried to do as much as we could to confuse him and not give him the same look twice throughout the whole game.”


But Baltimore would get its opportunities. Flowers got behind the KC secondary and caught a pass or a 54-yard gain, giving fans at M&T Bank that the Ravens were about to get back in the contest.


But then, on the first play of the fourth quarter, the play of game.


Flowers caught another pass and was headed for a score. But corner L’Jarius Sneed punched the ball loose at the goal line. The Chiefs recovered the fumble in the end zone to preserve their 10-point lead. 


Despite the miscue, it was a memorable day for the electrifying Flowers, who caught five passes for 114 yards.


Baltimore would have another great opportunity to cut the lead to a single possession. Aided by a 39-yard catch and run by WR Nelson Agolar, the Ravens drove from their own 1-yard line to the Chiefs’ 25. But Jackson then threw into triple coverage at the back of the end zone, where KC’s Deon Bush intercepted the pass.


The Ravens would get the ball back in good field position after their defense forced a three-and-out. Justin Tucker kicked a 43-yard field goal, before Baltimore again called on its heralded defense for a stop.


But this time that D could not get it done. Just on the other side of the two-minute warning, on third down, Mahomes connected deep with a backwards-sprawling Marquez Valdez-Scantling for 32 yards and a game-clinching first down.


Mahomes was efficient, finishing 30-of-39 for 241 yards against one of the toughest pass defenses in the NFL. Pacheco led the Chiefs in rushing with 68 yards.


Jackson threw for 272 yards, completing just over 50 percent of his passes. He did rush for 54 yards, but the Ravens decision to so readily abandon a more conventional ground attack in a game well within reach was a bit puzzling. Ravens not named Jackson ran for a paltry 27 yards on just eight attempts. 


The Chiefs’ reign, coming into this postseason, looked to be at its most vulnerable. Never before in the Mahomes era did the Chiefs need to play a road game. This postseason, they played two, winning them both, and showed a championship poise and stalwart defense that, in our minds, makes them the favorites to take home their third Lombardi in four years. 



San Francisco 34, Detroit 31


Like the kids say, “payback is a b**ch.”


In a revenge plot more than six decades in the making, the 49ers overcame a dreadful first half to rally with 27 unanswered points to beat the Lions and move on to the eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.


But that history, though illustrious, is gouged and pockmarked with some brutal postseason losses. And the Lions once orchestrated maybe the most deflating setback of them all. More on that later. 


In rallying and surviving for a second straight week, the 49ers were both lucky and good. Truth be told, maybe more lucky than good.


The 49ers caught several massive breaks in the second half: dropped passes by Lions receivers killed two drives, a mishandled exchange between Jared Goff and Jahmyr Gibbs resulted in the latter fumbling, and a long Purdy pass in the third quarter was caught by WR Brandon Aiyuk after it ricocheted off the facemask of Kindle "swipe left" Vildor. The pass play went for 51 yards, putting the ball at the Lions’ 4.


Two plays later, on 3rd-and-goal, Purdy again found Aiyuk. That made the score 24-17, Detroit. The Niners had run just run off 10 straight points to start the second half. The Lions still led, but the air of invincibility they had walking off the field at halftime was now replaced by a sense that things had turned irrevocably against them.


If you were a Detroit fan who happened to shuffle off this mortal coil at halftime, you left happy. The Lions marched up and down field against a soft 49ers defense. They scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and racked up 257 yards of total offense before intermission. They ran for 148 yards and three TDs, the first on a 42-yard reverse by receiver Jameson Williams.


Even after a Christian McCaffrey touchdown run cut the Lions’ advantage to 14-7, Detroit’s offensive line resumed controlling the point of attack while also giving Goff time to find open receivers. The 49ers defense at times looked confused and disjointed, and poor tackling only aided in the manhandling. 


Meanwhile, the Lions stuffed San Francisco’s vaunted running game, holding McCaffrey to just 24 yards in the first half. Even with Detroit committed to stopping the run, the 49ers were unable to go up top on a usually shaky Lions secondary. Purdy faced pressure, was forced into one interception by rookie LB Malcolm Rodriguez when the quarterback's hand was hit during a throw. 


It was a thorough beatdown. Fans at a Ford Field watch party could be forgiven for booking tickets to Vegas at halftime. But the 49ers offense boasts just too many weapons to count them out with a full half of football left. 


That and everything that could go wrong for Detroit in the second half did. 


A field goal ties the game



Midway through the third, after San Francisco's 10-0 run, the Lions still held the lead, 24-17. Then came the Gibbs fumble at Detroit’s own 24. In the second half, Purdy beat the Lions as much with his legs, and did so working with the short field, scrambling 21 yards to set up McCaffrey’s four yard TD run to tie the game. 


After a Jake Moody field goal with just under 10 minutes left gave San Francisco its first lead, 27-24, it was time for Dan Campbell and his Russian-roulette style of coaching to leave powder burns on the game.


Campbell already tried going for the jugular earlier in the half when, up 24-10, he bypassed a field goal attempt on 4th-and-2. Unfortunately for Detroit, an open Josh Reynolds dropped a Goff pass that would have been a first down. (An open Reynolds would later drop a key third-down pass, ending another Lions drive.) A field goal would have restored Detroit’s lead to its halftime margin.


But past was prologue. Now down 27-24, and his offense facing a 4th-and-3 from the San Francisco 30, Campbell went for it again. Goff threw incomplete. A field goal in that situation would have tied the game. Failing to convert meant a San Francisco touchdown puts Detroit down by two possessions.


And that’s precisely what happened.


Purdy’s legs were again instrumental as the 49ers extended the lead. A 21-yard scramble on third down put the 49ers in field goal range. McCaffrey then bolted around right end for 25 yards, setting up Elijah Mitchell’s short TD run. Up 10, the Niners seemed in control. 


Purdy finished with 48 yards rushing, in addition to his 267 yards passing. After a sluggish start, McCaffrey finished with 90 yards on the ground.


After the game Campbell stuck by his decisions: "I just felt really good about us converting, and getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball," he said. "You know, they were bleeding the clock out, that's what they do. And I wanted to get the upper hand back. It's easy hindsight, and I get it. You know, I get that. But I don't regret those decisions." 


Detroit did close the gap to three points, driving 75 yards for a TD, with less than a minute remaining. But even the conclusion of that drive had one scratching his or her head over Campbell’s thinking.


Two things: On 3rd-and-goal from the 49ers 1, with 1:06 remaining and with a full complement of timeouts, Detroit could have scored a touchdown and kicked off deep — an onsides kick was not yet necessary. In this scenario, if the Lions scored and their defense forced a three-and-out, the Lions' offense would have received the ball back with enough time to drive for a tying field goal.


The one thing Detroit needed to avoid doing on that 3rd-and-goal? Running the football. 


But run they did. RB David Montgomery was thrown for a loss and Detroit had to spend one of its timeouts. Kicking deep was no longer an option. 


But the questionable thinking didn't stop there. Now that an onsides kick would be necessary were Detroit to score, the sound decision would have been to kick the field goal on fourth down instead of going for a touchdown; the Lions first had to score — by any means — to make that onsides attempt relevant, and a short field goal is an easier play than converting a 4th-and-3. Williams bailed out Campbell by catching a TD pass in the back of the end zone.


George Kittle made that flaw in thinking moot by recovering Detroit’s onsides effort after the Williams' touchdown catch. The Niners ran out the clock.


1957 — It's back to the future 


Two things that might help mitigate the disappointment for Lions fans: First, the loss spares you reading stories analyzing whether coach Campbell will transfer his risk-taking from the sidelines to a Vegas casino.


And, second, you’ll always have 1957.


In a December 22, 1957 playoff game, the Lions overcame a 24-7 halftime deficit to stun San Francisco, 31-27, at Kezar Stadium, then the home of the 49ers. One story that emerged afterwards was the Lions came out of halftime revved up like a then-new Chevy after overhearing 49ers players already celebrating from the adjoining locker room.


A week later, Detroit thumped Cleveland in the NFL championship game, the last time the Motor City would win a pro football title. Both the comeback against San Francisco and the championship in '57, wins led by Bobby Layne, only endeared Detroit fans to the QB's two-fisted, caution-to-the-wind persona. For the 49ers, it was — and still might be, for those old enough to remember — the most painful loss suffered by the franchise. It certainly ruined Christmas '57 for a number of 49ers fans.


A 24-7 halftime margin, a premature celebration (only this one a social media meme), a foolhardy (if not liquored up) Lions leader and a loss that could stick with the vanquished team for long, long time: the coincidences between Detroit’s meltdown yesterday and the Kezar collapse had armchair historians scurrying during the second half and after the game to post remarks connecting two games 66 years apart. 


While these trivialities are all in good fun, they offer no comfort or even a distraction to Lions faithful coming to grips with yesterday’s emotional plummet. Nor does the fact that Lions fans still have Dan Campbell as their team's head coach.


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