‘Out of their minds’: Chiefs play Super Bowl-caliber defense vs. 49ers, just like they’ve done all season long

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For most of the past six seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs‘ offense has been the headliner — not just for their team, but the entire league. Since Patrick Mahomes took over under center, he, Andy Reid, Travis Kelce, and previously Tyreek Hill, simply laid waste to opposing defenses, to the point that Kansas City’s own defense was mostly an afterthought. All the Chiefs really needed from Steve Spagnuolo’s unit was to not mess things up. 

But after their latest Super Bowl victory — a 25-22 come-from-behind overtime classic — it’s remarkably clear that that is no longer the case. While Mahomes, Kelce, and in the end, Mecole Hardman got the chance to deliver the dramatic game-tying and game-winning drives at the end of regulation and overtime, Kansas City’s defense was the better unit throughout this season, and played its own massive role in defeating the San Francisco 49ers

Kansas City finished the season ranked second in the NFL in both yards and points allowed, seventh in FTN’s defensive DVOA, and fifth in Tru Media’s version of EPA/play. In the Super Bowl, they ran up against a San Francisco offense that finished second in yards and third in points, as well as first in both DVOA and EPA/play.

The 49ers averaged a league-best 6.6 yards per play during the regular season. They limped to 5.3 per play in the Super Bowl. The Niners were the league’s fourth-best third-down offense this year, converting 47.5% of their opportunities. They went just 3 of 12 on Sunday — a 25.0% conversion rate. They were the NFL’s best red-zone team this season, too, scoring touchdowns on 67.2% of their trips inside the 20-yard line. But they went only 1 of 2 on Sunday, with the Chiefs buckling down and holding them to a field goal on the opening drive of overtime, setting the stage for Mahomes’ heroics.

All throughout the season, the Chiefs stifled opposing passing games, and they largely did the same against San Francisco. Brock Purdy completed 69.2% of his passes and led the NFL with a 9.6 yards per attempt average during the regular season. He went just 23 of 38 (60.5%) and averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt against the Chiefs on Sunday night. Purdy led the NFL in explosive pass rate during the regular season, with nearly 15% of his passes gaining 20 or more yards. On Sunday night, that figure dropped below 10%. He averaged 9.8 yards per attempt when throwing over the middle of the field during the regular season, per Tru Media. But the Chiefs in the Super Bowl held him to 8.5 per attempt on those throws. 

Christian McCaffrey led the NFL in rushing during the regular season, averaging 91.2 yards per game and 5.4 yards per attempt on the ground. Kansas City’s much-maligned run defense stepped up in a big way, and on Sunday night his 22 carries gained just 80 yards — an average of 3.9 yards per attempt. Among the 53 players who had at least 100 carries this season, only one created an explosive gain on a larger share of his carries than did McCaffrey. On Sunday night, he had zero explosive rushes. 

All-Pro corner Trent McDuffie got his hands on the ball multiple times. So did safety Mike Edwards. L’Jarius Sneed tangled with Brandon Aiyuk all night and held him to just 3 catches for 49 yards. Aiyuk, a second-team All-Pro, averaged more than 89 yards per game this season. Deebo Samuel’s 11 targets yielded just 3 catches for 33 yards. He averaged over 10 yards per target during the regular season, but was at a mere 3.0 on Sunday. George Kittle was rarely targeted, and ended up with 2 grabs for a mere 4 yards. 49ers pass-catchers averaged a league-best 6.6 yards after catch per reception during the regular season, per Tru Media. In the Super Bowl they were held to a half-yard less than that.  

Time and again, Chris Jones broke through the line of scrimmage and made sure Purdy could not deliver the ball on time and on target. Kansas City hit Purdy 11 times on his 42 dropbacks. George Karlaftis, Mike Pennel, and Leo Chenal combined for one of the biggest plays of the game, forcing and then recovering a fumble on the night’s opening possession. Nick Bolton was flying around the field, and he racked up an incredible 13 tackles. Rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah, filling in for the injured Charles Omenihu, made a huge play in the backfield. 

After the game, from the podium, Reid said his defense played “out of their mind” on Sunday night. In previous years, with previous iterations of this defense, that might have been accurate. But this year, with this defense, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This group just did what it had been doing all year long — standard operating procedure. In the biggest game, in the biggest spots, Kansas City’s defense came through again and again, and it paid off in just the way it should have. 

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