A so-so regular season made the defending Super Bowl champions look mortal. Road playoff victories in Buffalo and Baltimore brought the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years, and on the precipice of becoming a dynasty.
Standing in Kansas City’s way is the same opponent the team defeated in 2020.
Chiefs fans get to play the “nobody believes in us” card for one more week, since Las Vegas has favored the NFC team over Kansas City for the second consecutive year.
Offensive star: Patrick Mahomes
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the greatest passer of his generation, and has carried an offense lacking playmakers to viability. Mahomes threw for 4,183 yards and 27 touchdowns for a 92.6 passer rating, which is a down year by his lofty standards. He has stepped his game up in the playoffs, throwing for four touchdowns and zero interceptions, despite playing one game in minus-30-degree weather and the other two on the road. The two-time MVP and Super Bowl champion can cement himself as Tom Brady’s undisputed heir to the QB throne with a win.
Coach: Andy Reid
Andy Reid went years being known as the coach who couldn’t win the big game. Now, it seems the 65-year-old can do no wrong in the postseason. He is coaching in his fifth Super Bowl, four with the Chiefs and one leading the Philadelphia Eagles. Fourth all-time in regular season wins at 258, Reid has led 16 top-10 scoring offenses in 25 years as a head coach. What would a third Super Bowl ring do for Reid? Just move him into a tie with Joe Gibbs and 49ers legend Bill Walsh for the third-most all-time.
Defensive star: Chris Jones
Defensive lineman Chris Jones is the one constant on the Chiefs’ ever-changing defensive cast throughout the years. The Mississippi State product has been named an All-Pro five of the past six years. Like Bosa, held out to start the season (even missing the first game), but unlike the 49ers star, was not rewarded with a huge contract. That did not affect his level of play. Had 10.5 sacks while splitting time at defensive tackle and edge-rusher, while also tying his career high with 29 quarterback hits.
Top role players
TE Travis Kelce: He became more celebrity than football player during the regular season after his romantic relationship with Taylor Swift became public. After gaining 984 receiving yards – modest by his standards – in the regular season, Kelce has reminded everyone why he is the best tight end in football with 191 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs.
DE George Karlaftis: The breakout sophomore notched 10.5 sacks and provided a secondary pass-rush threat next to Jones. Karlaftis, a Purdue alum, also had 17 quarterback hits and three passes defensed.
C Creed Humphrey: He earned the second Pro Bowl invite of his three-year career after starting in all 17 games. He will be asked to neutralize defensive tackles Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave and Javon Kinlaw.
RB Isiah Pacheco: Pacheco might be the NFL’s angriest runner after his choppy, high-stepping style helped him gain 935 yards in the regular season. In the playoffs, the second-year back has rushed for a touchdown in each of the Chiefs’ three games.
WR Rashee Rice: He has been a revelation for Kansas City as a rookie. The SMU product caught 79 passes for 938 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns in the regular season.
CB Trent McDuffie: The St. John Bosco (Bellflower) alum went from a solid rookie to a first-team All-Pro in his second year. A former first-round pick, McDuffie had seven passes defensed, and helped shut down Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and Zay Flowers in the playoffs.
Five keys to victory
Keep Mahomes clean: The 49ers’ pass rush may not be meeting expectations based on its price, but it certainly isn’t bad. If the embattled Chiefs line can keep the 49ers’ four-man pressure packages at bay, Mahomes will have time to pick apart the sometimes-suspect secondary.
Pacheco power: The Chiefs drafted Clyde Edwards-Helaire to be a game-changer on the ground, but there’s no question Pacheco is the No. 1 back. He’s not McCaffrey, but the tackle-breaking ball of energy has what it takes to keep the Niners’ defense honest.
Sure-handed MVS: Few players had as many high-profile drops as receiver Marquez Valdez-Scantling. But after making key catches this postseason, including the game-clincher on third down in Baltimore, has he proven he can make a big catch in the clutch?
Jones vs. Williams: Chris Jones has split time between tackle and end, and it is yet to be seen how much he will match up with Trent Williams. Will the Chiefs allow Williams a chance to neutralize him, or will they have Jones try to pick on a weaker matchup?
Improved defense: Kansas City’s defense, maligned for years, has been an elite unit this season. It has allowed just 16.8 points per game, which was key when the Chiefs’ offense went MIA midseason. That unit will need to keep the good times rolling for one more week against the 49ers’ star-studded offense.
Three fun stats
— Offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor has been the most penalized player in the NFL by a wide margin. His 17 accepted penalties (eight false starts and six holds make up the majority) are five more than second place.
— Despite missing two games, Kelce had 20 more targets than the next-highest Chief. The sure-handed target caught 76.9 percent of balls thrown in his direction, and should be the focus of the 49ers’ defense on critical downs.
— Since throwing an interception in the 2022 AFC title game loss to the Bengals, Mahomes has gone six playoff games, all victories, without throwing a pick. Mahomes has more playoff games with at least three TD passes (eight) than games with an interception (four).