Talk about a couple of one-armed bandits.
On one side, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a two-time NFL and Super Bowl most valuable player.
Both will be on display on the NFL’s biggest stage Sunday in a Super Bowl rematch from the 2019 season, when the Chiefs overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to claim the Lombardi Trophy.
That game was in South Florida, which has hosted more Super Bowls (11) than any region. This one for the first time is in Las Vegas, a city the NFL once shunned but has increasingly embraced amid changing views on legalized sports betting.
“The integrity of our game is critical,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “And so we spend a lot of time focusing on that, educating, making sure that all of our personnel are aware of our gambling policies, in this case or any other policy that can affect the integrity of our game.”
It’s not unusual for the Super Bowl spotlight to be trained on the quarterbacks. But they will share that Sunday with pop superstar Taylor Swift, expected to be jetting in from her Eras Tour in Japan to support her boyfriend, Chiefs All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.
“Internally for us in the locker room is not that big of a deal,” Kansas City kicker Harrison Butker said of the romance that has captured worldwide attention. “But whenever I go to my phone and click on the news you see Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift. When I got to meet her around New Year’s, she was just so humble and down to earth. She was very nice.”
Kelce, meanwhile, is zeroed in on the task at hand.
Asked about the drive for another championship, he said: “That expectation has become a demand at this point. I know the years that we haven’t won since we won our first one have felt like the biggest losses of my life. So it’s just having that mentality year in, year out, and putting the expectations on yourself, making sure that no one puts higher expectations on us more than us. We’re here to win this thing, baby. That’s for sure.”
San Francisco made it to the NFC championship game last season but came unraveled in Philadelphia after losing Purdy to a serious elbow injury. This year, the 49ers are favored by 2½ points thanks in part to the play of running back Christian McCaffrey, the league’s offensive player of the year, who has 25 touchdowns from scrimmage this season (including playoffs), the most in franchise history.
The Chiefs are playing in their fourth Super Bowl in five years, and have the chance to become the first franchise to win back-to-back titles since the New England Patriots in 2003 and ’04.
San Francisco has won five Super Bowls, but the last of those victories came in the 1994 season, almost five years before Purdy was born.
“When you're young and naive, you think when you go so early in your career it's like, 'Man, this is just what it's like, you go to the Super Bowl every year,’” said 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, who got there in his second season. “That's not what the case is.”
Mahomes is already being compared by some people to NFL great Tom Brady, even though their styles are markedly different. Brady retired with seven Super Bowl rings — three in his first four seasons.
“I’m not even close to halfway, so I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” Mahomes said of the comparisons. “I mean, your goal is to be the best player that you can be. I know I’m blessed to be around a lot of great players. And so, right now, it’s doing whatever I can to beat a great 49ers team and try to get that third ring. And then if you ask me that question in 15 years, and I’ll see if I can get close to seven. But seven seems like a long ways away still.”
Whereas Chiefs coach Andy Reid has won two Super Bowls and is destined to wind up in the Hall of Fame, the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan is still looking for his first. Shanahan has a chance to refashion his legacy, bruised by fourth-quarter Super Bowl collapses against New England (when he was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator) and Kansas City in Super Bowl LI.
“I've been able to coach in two Super Bowls and both of them are heartbreaking,” he conceded. “Those things last a while. But it's all about getting back there again, and that's what I'm excited for today.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.