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Third-and-Long, Then the Pass That Saved the Chiefs

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — This had not been, by any stretch of the imagination, the best game of football that Patrick Mahomes had ever played.

And then the Kansas City Chiefs arrived at the moment when they needed their star quarterback to be the Pat Mahomes he had been for most of the postseason. Down, 20-10, and facing a third-and-15 halfway through a fourth quarter that would define their season, Mahomes did what Mahomes does best.

With the pocket collapsing around him, he chucked an impossible-looking throw 44 yards downfield, into the grateful arms of a wide-open Tyreek Hill, for a completion that saved the Super Bowl. A minute later, the Chiefs scored their first touchdown since the first quarter, and seven minutes later, they won their first Super Bowl in 50 years, a 31-20 win over the stunned San Francisco 49ers.

“That team doesn’t do it every single drive, but it was a matter of time,” 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. “They got a lot of plays.”

Before that pass, the 49ers harried Mahomes as few teams have. He threw two interceptions in the game, a first this season, on consecutive possessions, and fumbled the ball twice, though both were recovered by the Chiefs. He was also sacked four times and hit a number of others.

“We never lost faith,” Mahomes said on television moments after the game ended and about a half-hour after the play that transformed him from the N.F.L.’s most promising superstar into the Super Bowl’s most valuable player.

Before that throw, the momentum of the game had turned heavily against the Chiefs. They hadn’t scored in more than 38 minutes of game time. A false start pushed them back 5 yards to make it second-and-15. Mahomes then appeared to connect with Hill for a 16-yard gain and a first down, but Shanahan challenged the play and officials ruled that Hill had trapped the ball against the grass.

Suddenly the Chiefs looked as if they might be down to their last realistic chance to make a game of this. The game had come down to figuring out how to find 15 yards or give the ball back to the 49ers with seven minutes to play and a two-score lead.

The biggest games don’t often change on a single play, even though that’s a story line that often gets manufactured when, months or years later, someone wants to make a documentary. This one did.

Standing on his 30-yard line, 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, in a shotgun formation, Mahomes took the snap and started drifting back as the 49ers’ defensive line closed in around him. With defensive lineman DeForest Buckner a moment away from sacking him, Mahomes spotted Hill cutting right to left, virtually alone, some 50 yards downfield. Mahomes took one more step, planted his back foot on his 22-yard line and let loose.

It was not a beautiful ball, more of a wounded duck than a targeted strike, but Hill was so open he had time to settle under the ball and let it fall into his arms at the 49ers’ 22-yard line.

“That’s just a deep route, a deep out,” Hill said after the game of the route that looked as if it was headed to the right before he made the nasty cut to the left that sent a defensive back twisting around and put Hill into so much empty space. “Just set the safety up good deep, get his hips to flip, and just roll out of it.”

The crowd Sunday night was overwhelmingly pro-Chiefs in Hard Rock Stadium, and when Hill caught that pass, the fans roared louder than they had roared all night. They wouldn’t stop until the game was over. With the Chiefs on the march, the 49ers suddenly seemed as if they were on their back foot every play, scrambling to regain control of a game that had seemed nearly done.

A defensive pass interference penalty put the Chiefs on the 1-yard line. A throw to Travis Kelce cut the deficit to 3. The 49ers went three-and-out. And then Mahomes took the Chiefs right back downfield in 146 seconds for the winning score.

The 49ers had their own chance for magic. With just under two minutes left, the 49ers had the ball and had crossed into Kansas City territory. But on third-and-10, as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo dropped back and saw Emmanuel Sanders streaking down the field, he threw 5 yards behind Sanders. On the next play, Garoppolo was sacked for a 9-yard loss, and the Chiefs had the ball back once more.

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