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Chiefs are Super Bowl underdogs against 49ers. Turns out they kind of like it

Posted at 11:22 AM, Feb 07, 2024

LAS VEGAS — For most of the past six years, Patrick Mahomes has had to manufacture the chip that he carries on his shoulder, because the Kansas City Chiefs have been so good for so long that they were almost always expected to win.

That is no longer the case.

During a season in which the Chiefs scuffled along on offense, and at one point lost five of eight games, they went from being the favorite on a weekly basis to something entirely different: an underdog. They became the team that received the points when betting lines came out, rather than giving them up, and that chip on Mahomes' shoulder suddenly appeared on its own.

“It kind of lit a fire under some guys,” Mahomes admitted, “including myself.”

Perish the thought of giving the two-time league and Super Bowl MVP another reason to feel he needs to prove himself.

Yet that is exactly what Mahomes has done in the playoffs, where he's played the best he has all season. He threw for 262 yards and a touchdown in a frigid wild-card win over Miami, doubled down with 215 yards passing and two scores in a divisional win in Buffalo, and had 241 yards passing and a TD in Baltimore — all without throwing an interception.

In the past two of those games, the Chiefs were underdogs at kickoff, just as they likely will be when they play the 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday in the gambling mecca of Las Vegas. San Francisco has been a consistent 1.5-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, though that number could change by game time.

Only five teams since 2000 have won the Super Bowl while being underdogs in each of their final three games.

“Listen, we understand the reasoning behind it. I mean, we get it, and understandably so,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We may not be the prettiest bunch, but we're going to battle, and that's kind of been the personality of this team.

“I don't think it bothers us,” Reid added. "We understand, so it is what it is.”

In fact, the Chiefs seem to relish the underdog role.

Mahomes certainly does. He is 9-3 as an underdog, giving him the best winning percentage of any quarterback with a minimum of 10 starts — playoffs included — over the past 15 seasons. The Ravens' Lamar Jackson, whom Mahomes vanquished in the AFC title game a little more than a week ago, is next on the list at 9-5 as an underdog.

In fact, the bigger the underdog, the more successful the Chiefs have been in recent years. In five games that they have been at least a 3.5-piont underdog since Mahomes took over as the starting QB, they won four times outright. In the lone loss, in a game against the Patriots in October 2018, they were 4-point underdogs and lost by a field goal, covering the spread.

One player who doesn't subscribe to the notion that the Chiefs are underdogs is 49ers tight end George Kittle.

He was on the losing sideline in the Super Bowl four years ago, when the Chiefs rallied with three fourth-quarter touchdowns to win their first Lombardi Trophy in 50 years. The rest of the time, Kittle has watched from afar as Kansas City went to six straight AFC title games, won four of them, and hoisted another Lombardi Trophy when they beat the Eagles last year.

“They should have all the attention,” Kittle said. “I think they're very used to it. I don't think it's a distraction for them. But while we might be under the radar, I guess, to people on the outside, I think the Chiefs are very aware that we're not.”

No, one thing the Chiefs rarely do is overlook an opponent. And it seems downright absurd that they would start at the Super Bowl, particularly against the 49ers, who have been favored in each of the 20 games they have played this season.

The only other NFL team favored that many times? The Chiefs in 2021, when they lost in the AFC title game.

“At the end of the day, it's playoff games. You want to win. This is what you play for,” Mahomes said, “and I think that fire — regardless of if we were an underdog or not — would have been lit, because this is the time of year that you work for, and you put in those hard practices for. I think we have that mindset that if we're going to practice the way we do, and we work the way we work, we're not going to let it slide. We're going to maximize our opportunity every time we’re out there.”