The stuff of dynasties: This Chiefs championship built on defense and perseverance

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Red, yellow and white confetti falling at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas was the confirmation of their coronation. Once again, the Kansas City Chiefs experienced the feeling only one team achieves in an NFL season, accomplishing a daunting objective that leads to an exhilarating sensation.

With their 25-22 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII, the Chiefs became the NFL’s first repeat champion in two decades. The win cemented a golden era for the franchise and its status as one of the true dynasties in the league’s 104-year history.

“It’s the start of one,” Patrick Mahomes insisted. “We’re not done.”

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To secure their third Lombardi Trophy in five years, the Chiefs had to overcome the worst regular season in the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes era as well as the most treacherous postseason path.

The Chiefs, the AFC’s No. 3 seed, dominated the Miami Dolphins in freezing conditions, a game in which Reid coached with icicles hanging off his mustache. Then, in the first road playoff game of Mahomes’ seven-year career, the Chiefs rallied in the second half for a 27-24 victory, their defense holding the Buffalo Bills scoreless in the fourth quarter. They reached the Super Bowl with another road victory, a 17-10 win over league MVP Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, who entered the postseason with the NFL’s best record.

Mahomes led the winning 75-yard drive in overtime against the 49ers, capping it with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman. The Chiefs rallied from a 10-0 deficit and got the score they needed on the final drive of the game.


Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman and quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrate the Super Bowl-winning touchdown in overtime. (Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

Mahomes won his third Super Bowl MVP award, but make no mistake, defense was the backbone of the 2023 Chiefs.

“This is the best defense I’ve ever played with,” tight end Travis Kelce said midway through the season. “Honestly, they’ve been saving us in a lot of situations.”

No opponent scored 30 points on coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit, which allowed the fewest second-half points in the league. Defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end George Karlaftis led the team with 10 1/2 sacks. Spagnuolo’s defense benefited from career-best seasons from several players, including cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie, safety Justin Reid and defensive end Charles Omenihu.

“Seeing this defense all year long, I’ve learned that sometimes I’ve got to let them play, let them be the show,” Mahomes said.

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Kelce yells at Reid on sideline in Super Bowl LVIII

Mahomes, the league’s most talented quarterback, demonstrated his leadership, creativity and acumen all season but played his best when the Chiefs needed it in January and February.

“It’s hard to describe someone that good,” general manager Brett Veach said. “He’s a legend. He’s a blessing.”

Kelce, an 11-year veteran, also had his best moments in the postseason as he overcame lingering injuries to his knee and ankle to pass Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice for the most postseason receptions in NFL history.

“We got the best quarterback in the world,” Chiefs linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “We got the best tight end in the world. We got the best coach in the world. We got the best defensive coordinator in the world. We got the best general manager in the world.

“When you have all of that? It’s only a matter of time.”

But it took time for the defending champions to put it all together this time. The Chiefs stumbled to start the season, losing to the Detroit Lions in the league’s opening night game. All-Pros Kelce and Jones didn’t play — Kelce because of a knee injury and Jones because he was holding out. But the Chiefs lost because of eight dropped passes, the two most egregious by wide receiver Kadarius Toney. Dropped passes would be a recurring problem through the regular season as Kansas City led the NFL with 44.

Mahomes and company won their next six games and went into their bye week with a 7-2 record after shutting down the high-powered Dolphins offense in Frankfurt, Germany. But they lost four of their next six as the errors piled up. The low point came on Christmas Day at Arrowhead Stadium with an ugly 20-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.

Veach is convinced that without that Christmas Day humbling, there’s no way the Chiefs would have made it to the Super Bowl.

“Something was off,” Veach said. “That loss, I think it really hit us. It allowed the whole organization to take a look in the mirror.”

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What makes the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes partnership as special as any great coach-QB combo?

That self-evaluation on the cusp of the playoffs resulted in Reid condensing the playbook and simplifying the game plan.

Running back Isiah Pacheco ran the ball with determination, rookie Rashee Rice blossomed into a No. 1 wide receiver and the offensive line jelled at the right time. The mistakes that hamstrung the offense during the regular season disappeared. And the Chiefs didn’t lose again.

“We might not be the prettiest, but we’re going to battle,” Reid said. “That’s the personality of this team.”

A team that once hung its hat on high-powered offense and Mahomes’ improvisational passing, needed to change its personality this season. From day one of training camp on July 18 until the end of overtime in the Super Bowl on Feb. 11, the Chiefs maintained their status as the league’s best by earning a second consecutive championship not with flash but through gritty perseverance.

This essay is the introduction to “Undeniable: The Kansas City Chiefs’ Remarkable 2023 Championship Season” The Athletic’s commemorative book about the Chiefs’ 2023-24 season. Order a copy today for $16.95, plus shipping and tax. Books will ship the week of Feb. 19.

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How the Chiefs stack up among NFL dynasties (and a path past the Patriots): Sando’s Pick Six

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Travis Kelce, after Chiefs season under the microscope, finishes ‘on top of the world’

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Andy Reid stayed the course in Chiefs’ Super Bowl win, now numbers among all-time greats

(Photo of Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

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