Feb. 8—The Bud Lights were flowing as the Chiefs rolled down Kansas City’s Grand Boulevard in double-decker buses one year ago, a time that had been reserved for celebration.
It was precisely that. Initially.
At some point over the course of the day, as players smashed beers, poured them on teammates and turned downtown Kansas City into a frat party, it became something else altogether.
From looking back to looking ahead.
This was the day when the players increased the volume on a conversation about winning another Super Bowl. They even came up with a catch phrase for it. Run it Back, they said.
Instead, 12 months later, it was 43-year-old Tom Brady who took the message to heart.
The best resume in NFL history became a little lengthier Sunday, Brady capturing his seventh career Super Bowl in a 31-9 victory against the Chiefs.
The Chiefs were denied in a quest to become the league’s first repeat champion in 16 years in stunningly wide-margin fashion. Denied a chance to be remembered among the NFL’s all-time great teams. They won’t get that back, at least not immediately, instead done in by a couple of horrid first-half stretches highlighted by penalties and timeouts they’d like to have back.
And such little help for the quarterback. The Buccaneers turned around a Week 12 meeting, frustrating Patrick Mahomes to one of the worst nights of his career. He will be seeing Buccaneers defensive lineman in his memories for some time. Forget Wasp. They didn’t have time to run a sideline out route.
Mahomes ran from them. They pressured him. He bailed out of the pocket more often than he stayed in it. His receivers dropped two miraculous passes that hit them in the facemask at the goal line.
It was as un-Chiefs-like as it sounds.
And so this is how the best regular season in franchise history ends.
How will it be remembered?
It will be difficult to move past the conclusion, difficult to move past the fact Brady finished the night holding his seventh Lombardi Trophy rather than Patrick Mahomes lifting up his second, difficult to get past just how different the Chiefs played in their 19th game than their first 18.
The Chiefs had talked about keeping this team together for another run. Talked about forgetting what they had accomplished one year earlier. But every team does that, right? This one believed it had an advantage — because of the pandemic, they were deprived of the true summer-long celebration. It prevented the full reward of winning. It motivated the chance for another.
The Chiefs played a season with the chemistry of one that had already won a Super Bowl. Then they played a Super Bowl like they’d never before been there, like the moment had trapped them.
They had overcome obstacles most of the season. Well, even before the season. The Chiefs, rather famously now, were down to their final $177 of cap space, a number not even high enough to score you a lower-level ticket to one of their games at Arrowhead Stadium. But they signed Mahomes, their franchise quarterback, to a record-breaking contract, extended tight end Travis Kelce and kept defensive lineman Chris Jones.
They navigated an offseason in terms of dollars. They found a way to mimic organized team activities despite not ever seeing one another in person. And they turned the locker room into an open forum on social justice.
All before the season began.
Once it did, they rolled. Looked unstoppable at times.
Which makes this ending that much tougher to swallow.
The banner-drop opening night started a string of 14 victories in 15 games in which Mahomes started, a blip against the Raiders all that prevented a march toward perfection in the season’s final week. They learned the territory that comes with being a defending Super Bowl champion. To a man, they will insist they absorbed teams’ best shots. They won close, but they won. Set a new NFL record by winning seven straight games by a margin within one possession.
They won with offense. They won with late-game defensive stands. They won with a 2-minute drill in Las Vegas — avenging their only loss of the year — when the quarterback accessed the time and situation and thought, “We’re going to score.” And they did.
Such a reversal of course Sunday.
What could go wrong did go wrong.
The offensive line will be criticized and evaluated for an entire summer. Mahomes competed 2 of 8 passes for 9 yards in the first quarter — against the same team he tore up for 229 yards in the opening quarter in Week 12. Flags prevented the defense from exiting the field. Each half of the best receiving duo in the league dropped key passes. Heck, even the punter got the yips.
A year ago, the Chiefs had used double-digit comebacks to navigate their first Super Bowl championship in 50 years. It has defined the Mahomes-led teams — when they need something to happen, they find a way to make it come to fruition.
On Sunday, the comeback never arrived.
Never came close.
They chased points. The Buccaneers just kept chasing the quarterback.
With five minutes left in the game, beaten and bruised, Mahomes hung his head, the most frustrating night of his NFL career nearly complete. He had never before been on the wrong end of a blowout after so long being on the right end of them.
One more time, the Chiefs had taken a team’s best. For just the second time, it was enough.
And that — not the first 18 weeks — will be the image this team lives with.
By choice. Mahomes has been known to find motivation in small places. To seek it, even.
He won’t need to look far this offseason.