MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The Kansas City Chiefs were staring at a double-digit deficit for the third time in three postseason games.
This time with less than 15 minutes left against the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, when defensive end Frank Clark sauntered onto the field in Hard Rock Stadium and began to talk some trash.
He had that much confidence in his team. He had that much confidence in his defense.
“I went out there and told them, ‘You guys are going to go home like everybody else,’” Clark recalled. “I told George Kittle he was going home. I told Joe Staley he was going home. I told all of those guys, they were going home.”
The Chiefs indeed sent them home with a stunning 31-20 defeat.
Leading the way? A defense that was rebuilt from the ground up after its AFC championship game collapse a year ago, and that had struggled all night to pick up the fizzling Kansas City offense.
The defense forced the 49ers into a pair of punts in the fourth quarter, giving Patrick Mahomes a chance to rally the Chiefs to their first title in 50 years, and the young quarterback came through with touchdown passes to Travis Kelce and Damien Williams to give his team the lead.
“I knew we weren’t in the ideal situation,” Mahomes said, “but I believed in my defense to get stops and they did.”
The 49ers still had a chance after Williams reached over the pylon with 2:44 left, and a video review upheld the touchdown call that gave Kansas City the lead.
But after allowing a first down, a defense that carried a newfound sense of purpose — “swagger,” safety Tyrann Mathieu called it — made four consecutive plays when they needed it most.
Jimmy Garoppolo threw three straight incompletions, then the 49ers quarterback was sacked by Frank Clark, the $105.5 million offseason acquisition. That gave the Chiefs the ball back, Williams got loose for a long touchdown run and Kendall Fuller picked off a desperation heave to put an exclamation point on the comeback.
“There were great expectations coming into this season," Mathieu said, “but we knew we had the pieces in place. It was a great challenge defensively going into this game. I'm proud that we kind of shut them down.”
Back in Kansas City, a fanbase that hadn't celebrated a title since the Nixon administration was finally able to exhale.
“I think those people are so happy, and obviously, we're so grateful we were the group to kind of bring it back to those people,” Mathieu said. “Those people have been supporting us all year long. It's kind of cool to end as a champion.”
The Chiefs' defense has been the bane of the organization for years — especially in the postseason. There was their memorable 38-31 divisional loss to the Colts after the 2003 season in which nobody punted in the game, and the 45-44 collapse in Indianapolis in the wild-card round after the 2013 season when the Chiefs blew a 31-10 halftime lead and the pressure and ridicule mounted on coach Andy Reid that he would never win the big one.
The most heartbreaking loss, though, was the one that spurred the Chiefs to make wholesale changes last offseason.
They took the New England Patriots to overtime before losing the coin toss, and their defense failed to get Tom Brady and his bunch off the field. The Chiefs lost without giving Mahomes and the NFL's best offense an opportunity with the ball.
The famously loyal Reid decided to fire then-coordinator Bob Sutton and bring in Steve Spagnuolo, whose switch to a 4-3 scheme required new personnel across the board. The Chiefs traded for Clark and signed him to a big deal, added Mathieu in free agency, then added a supporting cast that gave Reid confidence they could hang with just about anyone.
The first eight games were a struggle. The final eight games were a lesson in dominance. And that rebuilt defense that couldn't get the Patriots off the field last postseason? It got the 49ers off the field when it mattered Sunday night.
The Chiefs held Garoppolo to 219 yards passing with a touchdown and two interceptions. It held one of the NFL's best ground attacks to 141 yards rushing. And it finally quit biting on trick plays and end-arounds that caused them fits the entire first half, playing the kind of defense down the stretch that Kansas City has sought for years.
When the final seconds finally ticked off the clock, Clark ripped off his helmet and ran the length of the field, falling to his knees and staring into the sky. Mathieu pranced around in celebration, his own roller-coaster journey reaching its climax.
The defensive line that consistently put pressure on Garoppolo down the stretch looked like giddy schoolchildren as they hugged amid the flying confetti, the celebration five decades in the making finally playing out on a field in Miami.
“I told Coach Reid we're not leaving without a ring. We're not going to get on that bus without a ring,” Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones said. “If the defense makes stops, Pat will make something happen. We made a stop and they sailed.”
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