Do you like football? I like football.
Even if you don’t, statistically speaking, if you live in the United States there’s roughly a 1-in-3 chance you watched the Super Bowl last weekend, and boy was it a doozy. Some of you may not have noticed it if you were only in it for the commercials or, like the friends I watched with, continually confused Jimmy Garoppolo with Janeane Garofalo. That’s fine. But if that’s the case, it’s also possible you didn’t notice Pat Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback phenom, engineering a frenetic late-game comeback. Mahomes led the Chiefs to three touchdown drives in the game’s final eight minutes, erasing a double-digit deficit and ruining the night for dozens of sportswriters on deadline.
In the process, he also upended the narrative for these two curiously intertwined franchises. To someone like me, the type that likes football, that’s pretty wild.
Just to be clear, Janeane Garofalo is a treasure, but she is not the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo is the quarterback of the 49ers, and he’s pretty good at his job. In the fourth quarter last Sunday, Garoppolo was poised to be the latest 49ers quarterback to win a championship, and something about that felt right. San Francisco has won five Super Bowls. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots have won more. The Niners belong here.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, had not played in a Super Bowl in 50 years. Their coach, Andy Reid, was notorious for his inability to win a championship. At one point, Kansas City went 20 years between postseason appearances. Surely this was not the outfit destined to upend San Francisco’s rightful path to glory, right?
That certainly made sense to me. I’ve held since childhood that San Francisco is NFL royalty, while Kansas City is, well, not. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized first impressions can belie deeper truths, so as I watched Mahomes turn a 49ers defense that had been dominant for 50 minutes into mincemeat, I did some thinking.
As sports fans, we tend to frame our perspective at an early age, and those notions die hard. The 1990s left me convinced the Knicks and Bulls would always be rivals, Brett Favre would be a Packer forever, and the Mets would never fail to break my heart if given the opportunity. That last one, at least, is still holding strong.
When it came to the NFL, few franchises spent my first decade as a fan exhibiting something resembling consistency or even dominance, but one team usually in the thick of it was Kansas City. If you followed football then, that may seem surprising. The Chiefs never reached the Super Bowl in the 1990s. In fact, the only time they got close was in 1994, when a long-in-the-tooth Joe Montana willed Kansas City to a second-round win at the Astrodome, a stadium that no longer houses a major sports team, against Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers, a team that no longer exists.
One Conference Championship Game appearance in 10 years may not seem like a great track record, but Kansas City quietly won 102 games in the 1990s. That’s more than all but two teams: the Buffalo Bills, who memorably lost four Super Bowls in a row to start the decade, and, of course, the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners finished the 1990s with 113 victories, a record at the time for a single decade, and romped over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. That was the second Super Bowl I remember watching, and as a football-hungry nine-year-old, it came as I read all about San Francisco’s dominance in the 1980s, when they were willed to four titles by a not-so-long-in-the-tooth Joe Montana.
That win against the Chargers was the 49ers only Super Bowl appearance that decade. I don’t associate the 1990s with the Atlanta Falcons, but they reached the big game the same number of times. In truth, San Francisco has actually been quite bad most of my life. The 49ers have missed the playoffs 15 times since 1998, reached the Super Bowl just once between 1996 and 2019, and haven’t won it all in 25 years.
And yet, for a child of the 1990s, a championship-contending 49ers team feels normal. On the other hand, seeing the Chiefs in a Super Bowl feels downright bizarre. In my youth, it seemed like the Chiefs only resembled the 49ers by acquiring all of San Francisco’s aging quarterbacks. Over the years, Steve DeBerg, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, and Alex Smith have all started for the Chiefs after a tour of duty for the 49ers, along with some moderately-long-in-the-tooth guy named Joe Montana.
But when the Chiefs drafted Mahomes in 2017, they flipped that script and found their own centerpiece to build around. Kansas City certainly didn’t have a historic resume to match San Francisco’s heading into kickoff Sunday night, but Mahomes, born eight months after the 49ers last won a Super Bowl, didn’t grow up with the same perspective I did. He hasn’t had to consider the weight of that comparison and it was clear that weight wasn’t on his shoulders in the final minutes Sunday night.
The fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV was a statement. The Chiefs may not be NFL royalty just yet, but with a second Lombardi Trophy and a dynamic quarterback who hasn’t yet reached his 25th birthday, they could be on their way.
I grew up thinking San Francisco took care of business while Kansas City never got over the hump. On Sunday night, against NFL royalty, Mahomes and the Chiefs showed they belong.
Looking back on it, maybe they always did.
Photo credit: A.J. Mast for The New York Times