Why Most NFL Seasons End the Same Way Now

The NFL has become simple at a macro level: If you have Patrick Mahomes, you have everything. The Kansas City Chiefs have him, which is why most NFL seasons now end the same way.

The Chiefs’ 25–22 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, in Super Bowl LVIII, was far from the most overt demonstration of Mahomes’ powers. He did not make any of his trademark dazzling throws. He didn’t spin around like a top and flick a ball to Travis Kelce in a mass of bodies without looking at him. He struggled to move the offense in the first half and coughed up his first playoff interception in seven games on an overcooked third-down heave for Kelce. The Chiefs needed more than Mahomes to win their third title in five years. But same as ever, it was Mahomes’ presence and refusal to submit that ensured everything else the Chiefs had going for them was enough.

The 49ers are the latest victims of Mahomes’ inevitability. There are no new lessons to learn from their demise. Their head coach repeated some of the same mistakes he had made in two previous Super Bowl losses. San Francisco’s quarterback was the latest guy to play respectably against Mahomes only to be left reckoning with how insufficient he is compared to No. 15. And every other team in the NFL had a cold truth reinforced: that they can build and build and build, put one of the best rosters in recent memory on the field, and be left looking for table scraps anyway, because Mahomes, Kelce, and now-legendary coach Andy Reid are standing in their way. If the first law of the modern NFL is that having Mahomes means having everything, a corollary is also true:  Not having Mahomes means praying that you’ll get lucky.

In Las Vegas, the 49ers did not get lucky enough. They had a good plan against Mahomes and Kelce, limiting the latter to one catch for 1 yard in the first half. But the universe stacked itself against San Francisco as the night went on. Excellent linebacker Dre Greenlaw blew out his Achilles tendon while running onto the field after a punt, robbing the Niners of one of their most critical defenders for the specific job of following Kelce around. Usher’s halftime show gave the Chiefs longer than usual to fine-tune things in the locker room. After putting up just 3 points in the first 30 minutes, the Chiefs put up 16 in the second half and another six in overtime to seal the deal. The game’s worst bounce went against the 49ers, too, as a second-half punt caromed off an unaware blocker and wound up in Kansas City’s possession for a field-flipping play.

When Mahomes rolled out and found Mecole Hardman for the winning 3-yard touchdown, he capped a run of do-or-die possessions that was stunning even from him. It started on the very first play after that fortunate break on the punt, when he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. His next drive was a 12-play, 69-yard march that stalled at the Niners’ 6-yard line and yielded a field goal. After San Francisco pulled ahead by a field goal (and it was only by a field goal because of a blocked extra point), Mahomes put together an 11-play, 64-yard drive that allowed Kansas City to send the game to overtime as time ran out. When the 49ers started the extra period with another field goal, Mahomes took the ball for the fourth possession in a row in which Kansas City needed points or would’ve lost. Thirteen plays and 75 yards later, the game was over.

On those drives, Mahomes converted both a third-and-10 and a third-and-7 to Kelce. He ran for a first down on a fourth-and-1 in overtime, when a stop would’ve ended the game, then threw for another third-down conversion, and ran for yet one more before finally getting the game-winning touchdown to Hardman. In the end, the 49ers had four consecutive defensive series where keeping Mahomes off the board would’ve won them the game. And the 49ers, in one of the football gods’ cruelest displays of teasing, got some stops in the course of those possessions. The Niners sacked Mahomes on a third down at their 3-yard line in the fourth quarter. All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner denied Kelce on what would’ve been a game-ending touchdown pass on the Chiefs’ final play from scrimmage in regulation.

None of that turned out to be enough. It wasn’t enough because the Niners’ offense, led by young upstart QB and sports debate red meat Brock Purdy, was slightly more stoppable than the Chiefs’ unit with Mahomes. Ultimately, the decisive sequence was the one that saw the 49ers settle for an overtime field goal before the Chiefs busted down the door. Purdy had a touchdown pass in front of him on that final San Fran possession, but Kansas City’s game-wrecking defensive end, Chris Jones, bothered him enough to force an uncatchable throw.

Purdy’s night was a defining illustration of the difference between having Mahomes and having Not Mahomes. The 2022 seventh-round pick did not wilt, by any means. Unlike Mahomes, he did not give the other team the ball. He played with poise, tossed a touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings, and wasn’t even close to the reason the 49ers lost the game. Like every other QB, he simply wasn’t as good as Mahomes on the margins. (Josh Allen, a more physically gifted quarterback than Purdy and anyone not named Mahomes, has learned this lesson repeatedly over the years.) The mainstream knock on Purdy in his young career has been that he’s a product of coach Kyle Shanahan’s expertise and a cushy system around him, but Purdy made several above-average plays Sunday night and could have won the game in regulation if not for two critical early errors from two players who more frequently lift him up: The NFL’s best running back, Christian McCaffrey, fumbled to halt a fast-moving first drive of the game, and receiver Brandon Aiyuk got lost on a deep route when Purdy threw a pretty ball that could’ve been a touchdown.

With Football Prometheus throwing passes for the other team, Purdy was game. He just wasn’t Mahomes, which is the problem that eventually confronts every team in the NFL. Shanahan did not use timeouts to preserve what could’ve been a possession of more than a minute at the end of the first half, ostensibly because he thought Purdy was likelier to throw an interception than to lead the Niners on a hurry-up field goal drive. That revealed a notable lack of trust in Purdy, who had played well. And in retrospect, it stands as a confounding game management decision from a night when any additional points would’ve changed the result. Shanahan’s team has now squandered a 10-point lead in three different Super Bowls (two as Niners head coach, one as Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator), and there were enough decisions to quibble about in each of them that Shanahan deserves to be branded as a Guy Who Can’t Win the Big One until he does. (At least there’s hope for Shanahan in the form of the guy who just beat him: Reid once had the same reputation and a label as a bad clock manager to boot.) But when the Chiefs had a chance to get Purdy off the field and give Mahomes the ball with smaller deficits than they could’ve faced otherwise, they succeeded enough times. Shanahan’s errors might have helped a bit, but the primary reason Purdy is not taking a world-class victory lap around his haters today is that the other team had the guy who mattered most.

Of course, this explanation gives short shrift to other key parts of the Chiefs’ budding dynasty. Early in Mahomes’ career, Kansas City fielded some of the worst defenses in the NFL. They won anyway, because an offense with Mahomes, Kelce, and Hall of Fame receiver Tyreek Hill was too much of a supernova to rein in. Hill has been gone two years, Kelce has remained brilliant but has seen a small decline with age, and the Chiefs have won two Super Bowls anyway. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a mastermind, and with front players like Jones and two star cornerbacks in L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie, the Chiefs have become a bear to score against.

But the Chiefs could have a lousy defense, and they’d have been right on the doorstep of a moment like this anyway. They could’ve invested more money in their offense, giving Mahomes wide receivers who don’t drop more passes than any other group in the NFL. They could’ve declined to make a deal with Jones, the defensive end, who began the season sitting out amid a contract dispute. They may not have won the Super Bowl without Jones, whose crucial pressures were a frequent saving grace in the playoffs. But whatever roster-building approach the Chiefs pursued, Mahomes’ body of work is proof that he would have had them on the precipice. And at that point, who knows what could have happened?

As was true after Mahomes’ first Super Bowl (the 2019 season) and his second (2022), he isn’t going to win every Super Bowl until his arm falls off. He just guarantees that the Chiefs will play in a league of four teams at the end of damn near every year, because when Mahomes is a team’s quarterback, losing before the AFC Championship means something very big must have gone wrong or another quarterback must have donned his Mahomes cape for a day. And even when those things happen, Mahomes is at least even money to prevail, because his bad days are good days for everyone else. The Chiefs have other football geniuses on their side: Reid, Spagnuolo, Kelce, Jones, and all the rest. But other teams can rival their schematic expertise and, beyond Kelce, can exceed their skill-position weapons. None of it matters. Thirty-one NFL teams exist on one plane. Whichever has Mahomes sits on another one.

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