The Kansas City Chiefs Waited 50 Years for a Super Bowl Date

The Kansas City Chiefs Waited 50 Years for a Super Bowl Date

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The inside of a typical N.F.L. stadium is inundated with pennants and banners celebrating landmark championships of all kinds.

But at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, there is only one such decoration visible. Fluttering from a flagpole at the west end of the stadium’s upper deck, beneath an American flag, is a small, unpretentious white pennant. It was easily overlooked Sunday amid the clamor of the 73,656 fans who assembled to watch the A.F.C. championship game between the Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans.

The modest white flag, dwarfed by the expanse of the stadium below it, is imprinted with these words in block letters: Kansas City Chiefs, 1969 World Champions.

The Chiefs, a building block N.F.L. franchise cosmically linked to the league’s roots as a collection of teams in Midwestern commerce centers, have won nearly 500 N.F.L. games, 13 division titles and have four times played for a berth in the Super Bowl. But for the last 50 years, the Chiefs have declined to celebrate any of their championship near-misses.

They instead have stood behind their lone Super Bowl victory and waited, especially since they had not even made a return trip to the N.F.L. championship since defeating the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV in January 1970.

All that changed Sunday with a 35-24 vanquishing of the doughty, upstart Titans, an outcome that not only liberated Chiefs fans near and far from Kansas City but solidified the ascension of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, 24, who became the first of the A.F.C.’s cadre of new generation quarterbacks to play his way into a Super Bowl.

Mahomes’s elusive, imaginative scrambling on broken plays and deft, extraordinary capacity to throw powerfully and accurately while running for his life, overwhelmed a gritty Tennessee team that led by 10 points until late in the second quarter.

The Chiefs victory, sending them to the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 2, also provided a new opportunity to reshape the legacy of Coach Andy Reid, whose 207 regular season victories are the most for any coach without a Super Bowl or N.F.L. championship. Reid, who on Sunday was coaching in his eighth conference championship game, lost in his one previous Super Bowl game, with the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2004 season.

“Everybody in our locker room wants to win this Super Bowl, win one more game, for our coach,” Mahomes said of Reid. “The best thing about playing for Coach Reid is he lets you be who you are — he lets you play the way you want to play.”

Fittingly, it was a second-quarter play by Mahomes that other coaches, but not Reid, would have advised his quarterback never to try that ended up changing the fortunes of Sunday’s game. The Chiefs had cut the Titans’ lead to 17-14 with less than a minute remaining in the first half and had the ball at the Tennessee 27-yard line when Mahomes dropped back to pass.

Avoiding a sack was a priority since it preserved Kansas City’s chances to tie the game with a field goal. And Mahomes could have safely thrown the football away when he saw his primary receivers enveloped by double coverage. But he also saw room to pick up an additional five or 10 yards by dashing around the end to his left.

“I was thinking about just getting upfield a little and running out of bounds,” Mahomes said.

Mahomes, who saw Reid standing nearby, was asked if his coach had yelled in his direction to slide and end the play and protect himself.

“No, he wouldn’t do that,” Mahomes said with a laugh.

Mahomes evaded one tackle and turned the corner. Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans was sprinting toward him and just feet away. Mahomes gave Evans a little juke, turning his head and shoulders as if about to throw or run that direction. Evans froze, and Mahomes, seizing the opportunity, accelerated toward his own bench, where he tiptoed down the sideline and cut back until he was inside the 5-yard line, where he eluded three more would-be tacklers and pushed into the end zone for the Chiefs’ 21-17 halftime lead.

As Mahomes jogged into the locker room for intermission, the Arrowhead crowd chanted: “M.V.P.”

That Mahomes will bring his transformative skills and on-the-move ingenuity to football’s biggest stage was foreshadowed in last season’s A.F.C. championship game, when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, then 41, engineered an overtime upset of the Chiefs at Arrowhead. On Sunday, Mahomes said that defeat motivated the Chiefs throughout this season to reach a higher stage of the postseason.

“Having to watch the Super Bowl last year was awful, but we knew we had to work for another year — day after day — to do something about it,” said Mahomes, who added that after last season’s A.F.C. championship loss he had sought out Brady’s counsel.

“Tom told me stay strong with the process of always getting better,” Mahomes said. “And he said to be who I am, but to do it day after day.”

For the Titans, Sunday’s defeat ended a magical run — they came into the game winners in nine of their last 12 games, including consecutive playoff road upsets of the Patriots and the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens.

And early on Sunday, they mixed the power running of their superlative running back Derrick Henry and the downfield passing of quarterback Ryan Tannehill to quiet the Chiefs crowd and jump out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead. But ultimately, the Chiefs defense thwarted Henry, who rushed for 69 yards on 19 carries after compiling 377 yards in two previous playoff games.

Tannehill’s early success was also short-lived, mostly because Kansas City’s defensive front and linebackers repeatedly pressured him while he was trying to throw. Tannehill was sacked three times.

Mahomes helped the Chiefs run away with the game by leading his team to two fourth-quarter touchdowns. The last score was a classic highlight reel moment that displayed Mahomes’s agility and audaciousness. Scrambling from the pocket, Mahomes leaned backward and threw off one foot, heaving the football 50 yards in the air until it fell just beyond the Titans secondary and into the arms of wide receiver Sammy Watkins for a 60-yard touchdown.

The party was on inside Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs were returning to the Super Bowl.

After the final whistle, as fans filtered out of the stands and into the acres of surrounding parking lots, maintenance workers pulled the American flag and the 1969 championship flag down from its perch. Both will be in storage for many months.

Perhaps by next season a third flag will be raised.

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