“I mean, how do I follow that?” he said to the room.
He wasn’t the only one there left speechless.
The longest-tenured Chief, Kelce’s year has been a lot more than just the fact that he’s dating one of the world’s most famous people. He’s been hurt. He’s shown age. His numbers were down, and, at 34, real questions about how much longer he’d player were asked. And yet, in the playoffs, when it mattered most, he was able to harness what he needed.
In so many ways, too, his fight this year was the Chiefs’ fight. They went through a 3–5 stretch that generated a lot of doubt on the outside. Tyreek Hill had been gone for over a year. Kelce wasn’t the same. The team would need to reshape its identity.
Kelce’s speech wouldn’t go blow-by-blow through all of it. But when he, Chris Jones and Mahomes were called to talk to the team by coach Andy Reid, with Jones and Mahomes sandwiching Kelce’s talk with his teammates, the nine-time Pro Bowl QB knew what he had to do—lean into who he and his team had become over the last six months, a different version, to be sure, of championship Chiefs, with a title-winning mettle that’d only been strengthened.
"I think it was more of a passionate rah-rah than something sad,” Kelce said, in a quiet moment outside the locker room postgame. “I just told everybody, We got what it takes. We got the formula. Those guys don't have it. I ate a little bit of my words, knowing that [the Niners] had a lot more in them than I even imagined. But I was still right, baby. Chiefs got the formula. We knew what we had in this locker room, and we took it from there.”
With Sunday’s win, the Chiefs have won three of the last five Super Bowl titles.
Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated
What they have is the greatest quarterback on the planet, two guys alongside that’ll also go into Canton and then a lot of youth—and a lot more toughness than most people realized.
Kansas City’s 25–22 Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers was a lot of things. It just wasn’t the work of art that the first Chiefs team to beat San Francisco on this stage had been so accustomed to painting. These Chiefs are decidedly different than those were. They’re more reliant on their defense. They’re not afraid to lean on punishing tailback Isiah Pacecho. They don’t have the horsepower they did when Mahomes was just settling in as starter.
But one thing they do have that’s similar to what those Chiefs had is a Lombardi Trophy, after a scintillating chess match of a Super Bowl in the shadow of the strip in Las Vegas. And now, with three of those in five years, they’ve got a dynasty too.
Welcome into the last MMQB of the 2023 season. We’ve got a lot in this week’s Takeaways, including …Why Arthur Blank pushed back on the idea that Bill Belichick wasn’t a fit for his team.Where the Niners are left going into the 2024 offseason.One question for each of the NFL’s 32 teams with two weeks to go until the combine.
But we’re starting with the 285th and final game of the 2023 season—and the staying power of the dynastic Chiefs in the post-Patriots NFL.
Kelce may have shrugged off the speech, but those who were there won’t.
It started with the tight end pounding his chest (literally), and having trouble getting his first few words out. It went to a joke about why the Niners’ fire alarms went off during Super Bowl week, waking a bunch of players up. And in the end, it moved some of the people in the room to tears.
When I raised it to defensive end George Karlaftis in the locker room, in fact, he got a little choked up.
“He’s a special human being,” the second-year pass rusher said. “He means so much to this city, to this team, to this organization. It’s amazing.”
“I’ll tell you what, you had texted me earlier, and for the sanctity of the team, I didn’t want to comment,” said GM Brett Veach. “But I texted my dad and my brother, and I’m not the oldest guy, but I’ve been around for a while. And I have never heard a pregame speech like that. It had the hair standing up on my arms. It meant the world to him to do it. It came from the heart. It was pure passion and emotion, and I think it resonated through our team.”
Said offensive coordinator Matt Nagy: “It was raw. It was very passionate. It was intimate. For the privacy of who was in that room [Sunday] night, what I’ll say is everyone felt it. … It was so powerful because it was the three guys, our three leaders—Chris, Kelce and Pat. It was raw. It was real. It was emotional. It’s one thing when coaches talk. It’s another thing when your peers talk and when players talk. When Kelce, who’s one of our greatest leaders, says what he says, it means so much more.”
And yet, as Kelce said himself, the speech didn’t add up to any sort of fast start Sunday—instead it actually led to another speech.
The 49ers outgained the Chiefs 125–16, had seven first downs to Kansas City’s one and controlled the ball for over 10 minutes of the first quarter. Yet, they only led 3–0, thanks to a rash of penalties and an untimely, uncharacteristic fumble from Christian McCaffrey. San Francisco continued to control the line of scrimmage and the tone and tenor of play through the second, and carried a 10–3 lead into the break that felt it could’ve been 24–3.
Kansas City had done a lot of it to itself. On three of its first four possessions, negative plays led to third-and-12, third-and-14 and third-and-16 plays that, in turn, led to punts. On the other of those possessions, the benefits of a Mahomes bomb to Mecole Hardman for 52 yards were negated with a Pacheco fumble from the Niners 9-yard line on the next play.
So Nagy and pass-game coordinator Joe Bleymaier addressed their group with a message that was specific to the game, but not far off from what Kelce had told the team the night before—their experience had steeled them for situations like these.
“We had a long talk at halftime—composure,” Nagy said. “We're down seven. We were in this thing last year against the Eagles, same thing, you’re down, you need composure.”
It’d be tested right away in the second half.
The Chiefs fumbled in botching the first play of the second half and lost 12 yards. Mahomes was picked off two plays later. Then, the Niners downed a punt at the Chiefs’ 2. After that, Reid burned a timeout ahead of third-and-1, and then Pacheco got stuffed on that third-and-1, and, again, Kansas City somehow found a way to keep mitigating the body blows.
In this case, the score stayed 10–3 because of how the defense was turning a corner, thanks to a couple adjustments the Chiefs’ wizard of a defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, implemented right around the break. It was necessary, quite simply, because Brock Purdy was better than Spagnuolo may have anticipated coming in.
“The zones, I just think their wideouts and quarterback are so good at their timing routes, and Brock Purdy is really good,” Spagnuolo said “He knew when we were in certain things, and he found seams.”
So Spagnuolo put his trust in corners Trent McDuffie, L’Jarius Sneed, Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams, and went very man-heavy in the second half and overtime. He also decided, after he and Kyle Shanahan had played a cat-and-mouse game with personnel packages in the first half, that he’d leave his nickel defense out there against the Niners’ base offense—which put Spags’s defensive line on the spot to win its matchups.
He also came up with a couple specific tweaks. The Chiefs didn’t get to all of them, but one was a man pressure that worked out of the third quarter, and the simple freedom he had to do it explains not just who he is, but who his players are.
“We threw in two or three new things, one of them we never got to,” Spagnuolo said. “The other two were key. Leo [Chenal] was involved in one of them, a very early play in the second half, Leo got through and made him throw it really quick. Typically, I’ll say let’s not run something we haven’t practiced. This group, you can do that. If it’s something that we did three weeks ago and you say, ‘Hey guys, can we do it?’ They're all for it.”
And boy did it work. The Chiefs, through the messy start to the second half and out the other side, were able to force three three-and-outs on the 49ers’ first three possessions. A 57-yard Harrison Butker field goal got the Chiefs to within four points, and then the game flipped again when a punt hit 49ers rookie Darrell Luter’s foot. Ray-Ray McCloud’s bid to save it failed, and Watson recovered at the Niners’ 16.
On the next play, the Chiefs took their first lead, with a candy-from-a-baby touchdown, with Mahomes hitting Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a seam for a touchdown.
That gave Kansas City its first lead. And we were just getting started.
“That was Corndog!!!” yelled one Chiefs coach right after the game ended, to no one in particular as the elevators prepared to bring the staff downstairs to celebrate.
Yes, the game-winner was at least of version of the “corndog” call made famous last year.
It’d just taken a little more of that composure, and perseverance, and ability to draw again on past experiences, before the Chiefs would get there.
Kelce was held to one catch for one yard in the first half, in large part because the Niners were knocking him around at the line and creatively finding ways (like putting Nick Bosa over him) to force him to stay in to block more than the Chiefs wanted him to.
But as was the case during the season, Kelce was gonna find a way. When the Chiefs fell behind 16–13 in the fourth quarter, Kelce responded with a 16-yard snag to start the next possession, then a 13-yard fight to move the chains on a third-and-10 to position the Chiefs to tie it on a short field goal. A possession later, Mahomes found Kelce again on third-and-7, on a rub route that freed the tight end for a 22-yard gain that set up another tying chip shot, this one to send the game into overtime.
Bottom line, when his team needed him to tap into that experience he spoke about on Saturday night, it was going to happen—in part, because of how much it meant to him.
"It's hard to put into words what a guy like that has meant, not just for the organization and for the city, but really for the league,” said Veach. “He's a once-in-a-lifetime player like our quarterback. The best part about him is he's a better person than he is player. He means so much to the people in the community. He's one of those guys that not just loves football, not just loves the Chiefs, but he loves Kansas City. It’s just special to have him.”
And by then, the most special Chief was in command. He led the field goal drives of 69 and 64 yards to tie the game twice in the fourth quarter, and force overtime. Then, he hung over the Niners’ next possession like a phoenix about to rise from the dead.
After making just one catch in the first half, Kelce ended the game with nine receptions for 93 yards.
Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated
First, though, the Chiefs got some help from the Niners, when Shanahan decided to take the ball at the start of overtime with the new rules for playoffs saying both teams would get a possession, and it’d go to sudden death after that if the teams matched each other on those possessions. Finding what’s conventional on that kind of call, right now is hard to dig too deep into since the overtime format is new. The Chiefs’ opinion on the matter, however, was not.
“We thought they did us a favor,” said one coach postgame.
The reason why is because, by playing it this way, the Niners would almost automatically put Mahomes in four-down territory all the way down the field—making stopping him an even more daunting task. And indeed, after San Francisco covered 66 yards in 13 plays to open overtime with a field goal and take a 22–19 lead, that’s exactly how the Chiefs had to play it.
Pacheco was stopped on third-and-1 on the Chiefs’ third offensive snap of overtime, and Reid left the offense out there, with Mahomes keeping the ball on a run-pass option concept on fourth down to move the sticks. He converted a third-and-6 on a crosser to Rashee Rice for 13 yards, and third-and-1 on a 13-yard scramble, and before you knew it, it was first-and-goal from the 3 in the final seconds of the first overtime and the Chiefs down 22–19.
Which is where the Corndog call came out.
The concept wasn’t exactly the same as the ones the Chiefs ran in last year’s Super Bowl. Kansas City dressed it up different—with a shovel pass to Hardman attached to it. “That was a real part,” Nagy said, “it’s number one in the progression.”
The problem was that Bosa, who may have been the game’s MVP had the Niners won, was all over Jerick McKinnon, so Mahomes had to act quick and look to his right, where Hardman would try to sell the jet motion, then break back out to pylon. When Reid called it, and saw the coverage, Nagy said, “I felt good about it. I felt real good.” And that feeling was rewarded with the game-winner in the Super Bowl.
A few hours later, at Resorts World a couple miles up the strip, Kelce, decked out in black-out shades and a black, sequined suit and up on stage at the Chiefs team party, playfully called out to his owner.
“Clark!” he yelled at a delighted crowd. “Where’s the f---ing trophy?”
He got the pro-wrestling-level pop he was looking for. Mahomes was next to him. The Chainsmokers started playing again. That famous girlfriend of his, Taylor Swift, was just a few steps back of him in the VIP area, even taking part, a little later, in a singalong of her own song, “You Belong to Me.”
It all encapsulated what he’d said to me in the hallway outside the locker room, when I asked what makes this team just a little different than the other two he won titles with.
“More heart,” he said. “Just the journey, the road, the camaraderie. Look at this s--t. I gotta go back out there …"
Again, this might not have been the most spectacular version of the Mahomes/Kelce/Jones Chiefs. But it was probably the toughest, most together and most in tune with one another, proven by how it handled all the adversity of this particular year.
It was Corndog. It was all those third downs to Kelce. It was Mahomes battling back from the interception. It was the defense getting the third-down stop in overtime to force a field, with Spagnuolo sending six, which freed Jones to rush Purdy’s throw. “In Spags, I trust,” Jones said, when I asked for a description of the play.
It was Saturday night, too, and how ready the Chiefs were then for what was ahead, even if things didn’t exactly go according to the script they’d laid out.
Then again, not much this year went according to script for Kansas City.
Except, of course, for this last part.