MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Tyreek Hill is an emotional football player; he said so himself as he felt the emotions of winning a Super Bowl coursing through his veins at his interview station at Hard Rock Stadium only an hour removed from feeling the exact opposite emotion. When the Chiefs fell into a 20-10 deficit to the 49ers on Sunday, with the Lombardi Trophy awaiting the winner of Super Bowl LIV, and did not appear to be capable of climbing their way out of that hole in a limited timeframe, Hill admitted he briefly and at least partly surrendered to the emotions of the moment.
"I know for me, 20-10, I was kind of down," Hill said. "The game wasn't going how I wanted it to go."
Down 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were dead. Lifeless, without much more than a flicker of hope, needing multiple scores against one of the league's best defenses in half a quarter, their championship aspirations almost entirely expired. The pro-Chiefs crowd was still generating noise, but it didn't feel like the same kind of noise that reverberated from grass to sky, end zone to end zone at the onset of the game. For so much of the second half, Patrick Mahomes couldn't find any openings downfield. He threw interceptions on consecutive drives- -- the first of which resulted in the 49ers pushing their lead to 10 points, the second of which cut short a series that could've at the very least trimmed the margin to seven points. It felt more like nervous noise.
The Chiefs used an epic fourth-quarter comeback to win their first Super Bowl title in 50 years, and there's a lot to go over. Will Brinson and the Pick Six Podcast Superfriends break down everything about Chiefs-49ers in Super Bowl LIV; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness fired into your eardrums.
But Mahomes didn't panic. First, he helped Hill settle down.
"Pat being Pat, he came to me. He was like, '10, I need you, man. I need you to get your mind right and believe. It's 20-10, bro.' I'm like, 'Dude, it's 20-10, seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter.' I'm like, 'C'mon man,'" Hill said. "He was able to get my mind right. He was able to calm me down. He just told me, 'Just believe, man.'"
Then, the duo breathed life back into the Chiefs with one big play, the kind of home-run that has come to define the Mahomes era in Kansas City.
On Sunday, the Chiefs captured their first Super Bowl since the 1969 season with a 31-20 win over the 49ers. But the final scoreline is misleading. This wasn't really an 11-point game. It took yet another heroic comeback by Mahomes, this time in the final stages of the fourth quarter, to turn a 10-point deficit into an 11-point win. For so much of the final 30 minutes, the 49ers appeared to be coasting to their first championship since the 1994 season, with their defense cementing its status as one of the best defenses of its generation. They actually shut down the Chiefs' explosive deep passing game, limiting Mahomes to 5.8 yards per pass through the first three quarters and forcing him into throwing two interceptions, even though he spent most of the evening checking the ball down underneath.
But the Chiefs rallied to score touchdowns on their three straight drives deep in the fourth quarter to stun the 49ers. The origin of that comeback? A 44-yard downfield strike from Mahomes to Hill to turn a third-and-long on their own side of the 50 into a first-and-10 deep inside 49ers territory. Three plays (and one penalty) later, the Chiefs breached the end zone to get to within three points.
At that point, the comeback felt inevitable.
"That lifted our whole team up," said receiver Sammy Watkins. "It was third-and-forever."
"Third-and-forever" came after 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan won a challenge that negated a 16-yard completion from Mahomes to Hill on second-and-15. Suddenly, instead of a first-and-10 at the 49ers' 49-yard line, the Chiefs -- again, trailing by 10 -- faced a third-and-15 at their own 35-yard line with 7:13 remaining. If they didn't convert, they'd either be forced into going for a fourth down in a dangerous area of the field or punt the ball back to the 49ers, still needing two scores to force overtime or win the game in regulation. Giving the ball back to the 49ers wasn't an option.
It was a conversion that wasn't supposed to happen. According to Josh Dubow of the Associated Press, the 49ers surrendered only two first downs on 45 third-and-15s (or longer) over their past 32 games before that play. But the Chiefs converted.
The play-call? "2-3 Jet Chip Wasp," according to NBC Sports' Peter King.
"We call it 'Wasp,'" Chiefs coach Andy Reid told King after the game. "Literally put the stinger on 'em."
"Crazy thing is," quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka told King, "Patrick called it. He asked for it, and Andy called it."
The Chiefs proceeded to score a touchdown, force a quick punt, score another touchdown, force another stop, score a third straight touchdown, and get another stop. And then they won the whole damn Super Bowl.
After the game, Mahomes said he felt like that conversion on third-and-forever turned the game. He wasn't wrong.
At that juncture, the 49ers' win probability hovered just above 95 percent. After that play, it dropped to 82.9 percent. So, one play alone was worth over 12 percent of win probability.
"I think it was the third-and-15 when we hit Tyreek down the field," Mahomes said. "We were in a bad situation, especially with that pass rush. You knew those guys had their ears pinned back and they were going to be rushing. I think the offensive line gave me enough time to throw a really deep route, and I just put it out there and Tyreek made a really great play and so that got us going there."
The play required contributions from nearly every member of the offense. First, as Mahomes alluded to above, the offensive line needed to hold up against the best defensive front in all of football as Hill finished a route that was still developing 35 yards downfield. Left tackle Eric Fisher struggled for so much of the night to hold up against Nick Bosa, but he was able to steer him to the inside as Mahomes drifted back. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski slowed DeForest Buckner coming around the outside just enough for Mahomes to launch the ball before getting clobbered.
"Everybody did their job," Hill said. "Everybody did their role."
Mahomes dropped back to pass, kept dropping back, and kept dropping back as he waited for Hill to make his break. The ball was snapped from the 35-yard line. Mahomes fielded the shotgun snap at the 30. He released the football at the 22. He dropped back so far that he nearly fell off the edge of the map. Despite enduring a hit, he threw the ball 57.1 yards in the air.
Running what appeared to be akin to a post, Hill suddenly swiveled and cut back to the outside.
"That's just a deep route, a deep out," Hill said. "Just set the safety up going deep, get his hips to flip, just roll out of it."
Mahomes put a wealth of air under the ball. It hung up in the night sky for a while. But Hill was still alone by the time the ball fell from the heavens and into his arms. He wasn't surprised by how open he was.
"People fear speed. People really fear speed in the NFL," Hill said. "I was able to use my speed, get up on him, and just roll out of it."
49ers safety Jimmie Ward, isolated in the deep middle portion of the field, was forced to respect Hill's ability to get vertical. When Hill cut back toward the sideline, Ward couldn't recover quickly enough.
"I was supposed to be in the post," Ward said. "He ended up just running a great route, ended up bending it outside thirds, and that's it."
Jaquiski Tartt, the other safety who was tracking tight end Travis Kelce over the middle, said the 49ers were aligned in Cover-3 on the play. He also said they weren't caught off guard. They just didn't defend it correctly.
"We just hurt ourselves on that play," Tartt said. "We were suspecting that play, and we just didn't execute as a defense."
The 49ers had a good reason to see it coming. The Chiefs had used that play before and gotten a similar result. In last season's loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs ran it on the other side of the field. The Patriots did a better job of defending it with man-to-man coverage, but they still allowed 42 yards -- two fewer yards than the 49ers allowed in zone coverage.
It's the kind of play that's mostly unstoppable due to the combination Mahomes' arm and Hill's speed, assuming the protection can hold up.
"They were playing this kind of robber coverage all game long where the safety was coming down and kind of robbing all our deep cross routes, and we had a good play call on it where we had Kelce do a little stutter deep cross," Mahomes said. "We had Tyreek getting one-on-one with that safety, but the biggest thing was we needed really good protection. It was a long route, and it was actually the same play we ran against New England in the playoffs last year where I hit him down the sideline. So, we got good protection by the offensive line. They gave me enough time, and I put it out there and Tyreek made a great play."
One year ago, the play was mostly forgotten. The Chiefs came up painfully short of vanquishing the Patriots, and nobody remembers the teams that almost win and the plays that almost result in wins, except the almosts themselves.
This year's version of that play won't ever be forgotten. It'll be remembered forever in Chiefs lore as the play that saved the Super Bowl, when Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill turned a third-and-forever into the spark that burned down the 49ers and reignited the Chiefs' championship pursuit like a torch on a pitch black night.