If it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have.
For a second consecutive year, and fourth time in five seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs are in the Super Bowl. Their opponent is the San Francisco 49ers, who just so happen to be the team the Chiefs beat to start their era of dominance.
Gives new meaning to the term “run it back.”
“They’re a hell of a team. Got a hell of a coach, hell of a quarterback, hell of a defense,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Haven’t gotten to see them much this year because we haven’t had a lot of crossover tape.
“But we already have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to look,” he added. “They’ve been doing it for a while, since we met them in ’19. Seems like they’ve been there every year since. We’ve been trying really hard to get back to that moment. Been close a number of times, and this time we got it done.”
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Few would have expected this rematch midway through the season — and not just because of the Super Bowl logo conspiracy theory. As formidable as the Chiefs have looked in the playoffs, they appeared that vulnerable in the regular season.
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce had lost their mojo, with Kelce supposedly “distracted” by his high-profile relationship with pop superstar Taylor Swift. The receiving corps was a miscue waiting to happen. Steve Spagnuolo’s defense was vicious, but it had its moments of inconsistency, too. (Cough, Green Bay Packers, cough.)
But when it came to crunch time, the Chiefs did what they’ve been doing for the last five years.
Kelce had 11 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown in Kansas City’s 17-10 win in Sunday’s AFC championship, coming up with big plays whenever the Chiefs needed one. As for those maligned receivers, Mahomes sealed the win with a 32-yard pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
And Spagnuolo’s defense was at its best, harassing presumptive MVP Lamar Jackson into his worst game of the season.
“It’s tough (to do) back to back to back seasons,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It‘s a tough thing and you’ve got to work through that, got to work through that mentally. It’s not an easy thing. I’m so happy for the guys and how they handled that. When the time came to put the hammer down, they put the hammer down.
“And the best part is, we’re not done. We’ve got another game. You love these seasons to carry on as long as they can possibly carry on and we’re there.”
Facing a familiar foe. On paper, at least.
While the core of the Chiefs is largely the same as it’s been since 2019 — Mahomes, Kelce, the Spagnuolo defense — the 49ers are a vastly different team. Yes, Kyle Shanahan is still the coach. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk are still making life miserable for defensive coordinators.
But Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco’s quarterback five years ago, is long gone. Ditto for Trey Lance. Brock Purdy, the current quarterback, is just two years removed from being Mr. Irrelevant, the last pick in the NFL draft.
“I wasn’t here, obviously, in ’19 but you could just tell the guys (who were) … it’ll be special for them to play these guys,” Purdy said.
But the biggest difference from the Niners of 2019 to now is the addition of Christian McCaffrey, the best offensive player in the NFC. The Niners picked him up midway through last season after five-plus seasons in Carolina, and he will test Kansas City’s defense in ways no other player has.
Just ask the Detroit Lions. They had a 17-point lead on the Niners at halftime, but McCaffrey’s second score of the game tied it up near the end of the third quarter. McCaffrey finished with 90 yards on 20 carries and also had four catches for 42 yards in the 34-31 win.
“Obviously they’re a great team, great defense,” McCaffrey said. “Big challenge on a big stage and we’re excited about it.”
And unlike 2019, the Niners have had to scramble just to get to the Super Bowl. They had to rally last weekend against the Packers and then again against the Lions.
“When you have to come back and you have to win two very gritty games, it kind of sets a sense of urgency in the entire building,” Kittle said. “It kind of just throws some gas on the fire … like, `Like `Hey guys, we were almost out of it two different times. Let’s try not to do that again.’”
According to Tony Holzman-Escareno, senior researcher for the NFL, this will be the fourth Super Bowl rematch between coaches. The others were Chuck Noll and Tom Landry; Jimmy Johnson and Marv Levy; and Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick. If you know your NFL history, you know where this stat is going.
The coach who won the first game also won the second.
But as the saying goes, that is why they play the game. Maybe the Chiefs will win again, cementing their status as a dynasty. Maybe the Niners will exact their revenge and prove they are the team everyone thought they were all season.
What is certain is that this rematch, this meeting of the best team during the regular season and the best in the playoffs will likely be, as Shanahan said, a hell of a game.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.