Midway through the fourth quarter Sunday night in Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City Chiefs fans were wondering when (or if) the rescue was coming. Superman, aka Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, was not looking like himself.
It wasn't all his fault, of course. Mahomes was getting hammered and harassed all night by the San Francisco 49ers' devastating pass rush -- a group of superpowered heavies with kryptonite shoulder pads who sacked him four times, hit him nine times and forced him into two fumbles and two interceptions. With 8:53 left in the game, Mahomes was an ugly 18-for-29 for 172 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions and faced a 20-10 deficit with the ball at his own 17-yard line.
"The third quarter didn't go the way I wanted it to," Mahomes would say later, after hoisting a Lombardi trophy, a Super Bowl MVP trophy and stretching a championship T-shirt over his jersey and pads. "I tried to force some things and got some turnovers. But the guys believed in me and gave me confidence to try and find my way at the end."
No reason they wouldn't believe in him. Mahomes' Chiefs teammates had read several previous editions of this particular comic book. The presses have been churning out new ones more or less weekly since December. The Chiefs were down 14-10 to the Chargers in the third quarter of the Week 17 game they needed to win to secure a first-round bye, and they won it. They were down 24-0 to the Texans in their first playoff game and came back to lead at the half. They were down 10-0 and 17-7 to the Titans in the AFC Championship Game and won that one too.
This, the Chiefs had either realized or decided at some point during the run to their first Super Bowl title in 50 years, was the way it was going to be. They just didn't care, because they know who they have at quarterback. Mahomes trailed by 10 or more points five times this season, including three times in the postseason. The Chiefs won all five of those games, and by an average of 12.8 points.
"Just his resolve," Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. "Something we've seen from him his whole career. He's one of the most competitive guys I know, and he's going to make sure he's prepared for whatever happens. It's hard to come up with things to say about Pat, because you all know how frickin' special he is."
We do. We've watched Mahomes light up the NFL sky for two years now. His historic 2018 MVP season came up, as coach Andy Reid put it, "four inches off" from reaching last year's Super Bowl. His 2019 encore didn't come with the same kinds of dazzling numbers, but it had more than its share of dazzling plays that reminded us what a comet this 24-year-old quarterback truly is. Mahomes was pressured on 40% of his dropbacks Sunday night. It's the 10th time in his career he has faced a pressure rate of 40% or higher. He's 9-1 in those games.
So no matter how bad he looked for the first three and a half quarters, you sat there Sunday night feeling pretty certain something spectacular was coming.
"He kept firing, that's what he did," Reid said. "The guys around him just believed in him. We all did, all the coaches likewise."
Because Mahomes is more than just arm talent and instinct, he knew exactly what was going on. He knew what had gone wrong on the two interceptions. On the first one, he said, he was supposed to sprint out to the right, which was supposed to move the linebacker and open up wide receiverTyreek Hill for a long gain on third-and-12. But he saw Dee Ford setting the edge and stopped running to his right. The linebacker, No. 54 Fred Warner, stopped too, and was in position to collect an easy pick. "Hit him right between the five and the four," Mahomes said. "And that's never good."
The second interception, which came with 12:05 left in the game and the Chiefs driving for what looked to be a vital score, was the result of some overthinking. Hill was cutting across the field in front of him, and Mahomes saw a safety coming down to clock Hill once he caught the ball. So, Mahomes said, he threw it a little bit behind Hill on purpose, "to slow him down" and keep him from taking a huge hit. The ball bounced off Hill's hands and into those of 49ers safety Tarvarius Moore for the interception. "I probably should have trusted [Hill] and hit him right in the chest," Mahomes said, indicating that of course he could have done that if he'd so chosen. "He's a tough guy and probably could have kept going."
So it was looking bleak. The citizens of Metropolis were looking to the sky for their caped crusader. And out of nowhere, the Chiefs' defense forced the 49ers' first punt of the game and handed Mahomes the ball at the 17-yard line with 8:53 to go.
Cue the theme music.
Four quick plays in 88 seconds moved the Chiefs to their own 40-yard line. Reid was calling plays rapid-fire, trying to prevent the Niners' defense from catching its breath. Kansas City was on the move. But a false start and an incomplete pass put the Chiefs in second-and-15, and the 16-yard pass to Hill that appeared to dig them out of it was overturned as incomplete on replay review. It was third-and-15 from their 35, with the Niners feeling refreshed following the review. Reid sent in a play designed to take advantage of everything he'd seen from the Niners' coverage schemes.
"They were playing this kind of robber coverage all game long where the safety was coming down and kind of robbing all our deep cross routes," Mahomes said. "And we had a good playcall there where we had [tight end]Travis Kelce do a little stutter deep cross and Tyreek getting one-on-one with the safety. But the biggest thing we needed was really good protection. It was a long route."
The pass protection, which had not been good all game, held up. The deep safety, Jimmie Ward, froze just long enough in the middle of the field where Kelce had gotten past fellow safety Jaquiski Tartt (who was doing the "robbing" on that play). Hill broke left into a wide-open area of the field. Mahomes, with defensive linemanDeForest Buckner bearing down on him from behind, threw flat-footed and across his body to Hill for a 44-yard gain.
"So we got some good protection by the offensive line, they gave me enough time, I put it out there and Tyreek made a great play," Mahomes said. Four plays later, they were in the end zone. Mahomes found Kelce for a short one after pass interference in the end zone set them up at the 1-yard line. Kelce flexed. Harrison Butker kicked the extra point. The Chiefs trailed by three with 6:13 to go and were all kinds of fired up, but they also had to kick off to the second-best running team in the league. Mahomes went and talked to the defense.
"Finish!" he exhorted coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's bunch. "Finish! Make a play!" And they made three of them, forcing the Niners' second punt of the game and giving Mahomes the ball back on his own 35 with 5:10 to go. Plenty of time. Escaped pressure on a second-and-5 to hit Kelce for 9. Hit wide receiverSammy Watkins deep for 38 when Watkins got by 49ers cornerRichard Sherman. Flicked it to running backDamien Williams for the go-ahead touchdown from 5 yards out with 2:44 left on the clock. Raced all the way back to the opposite 20-yard line to bellow "Let's go!" at the euphoric Chiefs fans seated behind the opposite end zone. Then back to the sideline to talk to the defense again.
"Finish!" he hollered, and how could they not? You see a guy do what Mahomes just did -- pull the Super Bowl out of the fire in some of the highest-pressure game conditions imaginable -- and how can you not be inspired to do something great? Defensive linemanChris Jones blasted through the middle of the 49ers' line to get in quarterbackJimmy Garoppolo's face and bust up a couple of pass attempts. Frank Clark sacked Garoppolo on fourth down at the San Francisco 42. Two plays later, Williams went 38 yards for a touchdown that put the Chiefs up by 11. In a game they trailed by 10 with 8:53 to go.
"That's who he is," Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman said of Mahomes. "He throws a pick, whatever. If we get the ball back, he will make up for it. He's going to find a way. He's not going to be denied a Super Bowl ring."
Indeed he was not. Even if it looked for much of the second half as if he might. Superman showed up in the nick of time, because that's what he does. It may not always be pretty, and it's certainly never boring. But he wouldn't be Superman if he didn't show up just when you needed him most.
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