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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Derrick Nnadi started chuckling, overcome by the question.
What, he was asked, would this city be like if the Chiefs actually made it to the Super Bowl? Considering that over the last half century that question could rarely be asked in these parts, no wonder Kansas City’s rookie defensive tackle chuckled.
“A win like this, the Chiefs going to the Super Bowl? Everybody would be ecstatic about that,” Nnadi said. “I’d be ecstatic going in my rookie year. It would be a big, big, big, big win for this organization, this city.”
Bigger than anyone outside Kansas City can realize.
In the run-up for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, the Patriots have dominated the news, as they should. This is their eighth-consecutive conference title game. Tom Brady has created a sort of faux chip-on-the-shoulder now that the oddsmakers have deemed the Pats a shocking three-point underdog.
The Hoodie is The Hoodie.
But here at Ground Zero of the Great Flyover, they are just grateful to be part of the conversation, being on the precipice of the franchise’s third Super Bowl, the first in 49 years.
“Here we are prepping for the AFC Championship Game,” said Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a sense of wonder in his voice, “playing against the New England Patriots.”
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Treasured in K.C.
In this cosmopolitan city of two million on the Great Plains, the Chiefs are the town’s greatest treasure. More even than barbecue, health information technology (largest employer: Cerner) and craft beer (Boulevard is one of the nation’s oldest craft breweries).
“Between players and guests, every table, that’s all they’re talking about,” said Kim Halloran, manager at the Capital Grille on the Country Club Plaza, where several of the Chiefs have been known to dine.
“If it helps any I have a lot of text messages going out to managing partners throughout the country,” Halloran added. “I see everyone outside of New England is rooting for the Chiefs. That’s definitely what I’m getting.”
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The people here are friendly as hell. Arrowhead Stadium fans have carved out a reputation as perhaps the loudest, hardest-partying, definitely best-tailgating group in the NFL. The Chiefs claim to be the loudest NFL stadium based on a decibel level of 142.2 reached in 2014 in a game against, fittingly, the Patriots.
Meanwhile, the product on the field has seldom lived up to its rabid following in the postseason.
A lot of changes
After that 1970 Super Bowl, there was a fallow 1970s and 1980s. GM Carl Peterson and coach Marty Schottenheimer changed the culture in the 1990s. Joe Montana, at the end of his career, even led the Chiefs to their last AFC Championship Game in 1994.
But mostly it’s been a series of spikes (five division titles since 2003) mixed with bitter postseason disappointments. Since arriving in 2013, coach Andy Reid has at least changed the inconsistency. The Chiefs have won three AFC West titles in a row.
Reid arrived less than a month after Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before committing suicide at the team’s practice facility. That was the same year (2012), Reid’s son Garrett died of what was called an accidental heroin overdose.
“A lot has changed in this building since 2013,” said punter Dustin Colquitt, the longest-tenured Chief in his 14th season.
“There’s been a great change to this environment. It’s more of a Midwest environment now. That’s fun to see. Can you think of a better time in this country that [you] would love and crave an AFC Championship more than Chiefs Kingdom? I can’t.”
Mahomes leading Chiefs revival
One of the American Football League’s charter franchises is spiking once more. There really are no excuses if the Chiefs lose Sunday. For the first time since 1997, they are the AFC’s No. 1 seed with home-field advantage. The right arm of perhaps the game’s best player is cocked and ready. Second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes already is gathering NFL MVP hardware.
It’s almost like watching a young Brady – without the rings.
“You’re playing in the AFC Championship Game,” Mahomes said. “That’s your motivation.”
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In this age of diminishing newspaper ad revenue, the Kansas City Star sold enough advertising to support two special Sunday sections on the game. One will be dedicated to breaking down every one of Mahomes’ 50 touchdown passes.
Mahomes is like the fifth Beatle in this town that isn’t overly impressed by much. Not since Montana has the city gone this bonkers over an individual Chief. The difference being, fans can see the future in Mahomes, who has 10 or 15 years ahead of him.
Brady may have only Sunday left if he is of a mind to call it quits at age 41.
The karma is definitely there: By winning the AFC, the Chiefs would get the AFC Lamar Hunt Trophy, named after their late, great owner who built everything football this city prides itself in.
Yeah, but these are the Patriots. The Chiefs are favored, but only by that three-point margin the oddsmakers automatically hand home teams.
Maybe that’s enough. It’s at least reflective of what pro football thinks of the Chiefs at the moment. The offense might be the most entertaining since Dick Vermeil’s Greatest Show on Turf with the Rams at the beginning of the century. Go back further and the only comp may be the Air Coryell days of the Chargers in the 1980s.
The ultimate goal
Offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz even admitted the words “Super Bowl” have been mentioned in the locker room.
“Yeah, because that’s the ultimate goal,” Schwartz said. “We don’t shy away from that. I’m not superstitious about that stuff. If anything, that keeps you focused.”
Colquitt has gotten a passel of texts from former Chiefs, even those he never played with. Warren Moon ended his career here in 1999 and 2000, throwing a total of 37 passes. Prior to that, he notably threw for 527 yards at Arrowhead with the Houston Oilers, then the second-most passing yards in league history.
“I have to be in the house when you guys win this game,” Moon texted Colquitt.
It all comes back to that living, breathing Arrowhead that sustains the franchise and maybe the entire city.
“The coolest thing about what we have going on here [is] I felt it before but it’s a different level this year,” Colquitt said. “It is the fourth key ingredient. We have offense, defense, special teams. But really Arrowhead has been a special place to play this year. The energy level, you don’t just hear it, you can feel it.”