• Sports
  • Football

Patrick Mahomes Is Headed for NFL Icon Status at Super Bowl LIV—Unless the 49ers Sterling Defense Can Stop Him

4 minute read

Patrick Mahomes, quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, is a football magician. In the AFC Championship game on Sunday, Mahomes tore up the Tennessee Titans with his nimble feet and graceful arm—sending Kansas City to its first Super Bowl in 50 years. At Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2 in Miami, the Chiefs will meet the San Francisco 49ers, who crushed the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game and are seeking a sixth Super Bowl win in franchise history, but the first in a quarter century.

Mahomes seems destined to be the face of the the NFL for the next decade or more. He’s a singular thrill on the field and already a Madison Avenue darling: you may have spotted him in the State Farm and Head & Shoulders commercials during this weekend’s championship games. He’s capable of impacting his sport like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning did.

On Sunday Mahomes, 24, showed why he’s on the verge of earning iconic status, if he hasn’t already (a Super Bowl trophy will just guarantee it.) At the end of the first half, with Kansas City trailing Tennessee 17-14, Mahomes scrambled away from pressure, tiptoed around a couple of Titans defenders before sprinting down the sideline. Inside the five-yard-line, where many quarterbacks would have slid to safety. Mahomes instead spun through a clutch of Tennessee would-be-tacklers to finish off an incredible 27-yard touchdown run.

In the fourth quarter, on a crucial third-down play with just under eight minutes left in the game, and Kansas City holding a 28-17 lead, Mahomes slung a beauty off his back foot to wide-receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins caught the ball in stride to complete a 60-yard TD strike: KC won the game 35-24.

On the other side of the Super Bowl line of scrimmage, San Francisco’s sterling defense is seeking to delay Mahomes’ impending transcendence. The 49ers defense is loaded, especially up front. In four of the last five NFL drafts, they selected defensive lineman in the first round. These decisions paid off: the young defense, helmed by the likes of rookie Nick Bosa and fifth-year player Arik Armstead, who had 10 sacks this season, held Green Bay to just 62 yards rushing in their 37-20 victory over Green Bay. But the score doesn’t tell the whole story; San Francisco led 27-0 going into halftime.

San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, once Tom Brady’s heir-apparent in New England, didn’t even have to do much on Sunday: he threw just eight passes against the Packers, completing six of them for 77 yards. Running back Raheem Mostert more than carried the load. Though Mostert only rushed for 100 or more yards just once in the regular season, he turned in a surprise record-setting day in Sunday’s championship game, finishing with 220 yards and four touchdowns. In fact, in the first half, Mostert became the first NFL player in history to finish a half with at least 150 rushing yards and at least three touchdowns.

This Super Bowl trip completes a stunning turnaround for the 49ers, who finished 4-12 just a year ago. At the beginning of 2017, San Francisco hired former NFL defensive back John Lynch, who was working as an announcer for FOX, as general manager. The move was viewed with proper skepticism, as Lynch had never worked in a front office. But he’s now the reigning NFL Executive of the Year.

San Francisco’s pass defense, which held teams to just 4.8 net yards per attempt this season—the lowest mark in the league—will be tested against Mahomes in Miami. The Chiefs and their loyal fans have suffered countless playoff heartbreaks since the franchise’s last Super Bowl win, against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, in 1970. San Francisco won five Super Bowls during the Joe Montana-Jerry Rice-Steve Young dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s about time for the 49ers to write a new chapter.

But only if they can contain Mahomes, and his magic.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com