So many great moments in sports history, moments that seem like destiny in retrospect, were impossible to foresee or even necessarily understand while they were happening. The Falcons’ blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots was an all-time Super Bowl moment, but before it went down, the only thing on everyone’s minds was “all right, this game is over, I can go to bed early tonight.” (This included the president at the time.) You never know when something incredible is going to happen.
The flip side of that is that you never know when something incredible isn’t going to happen. And for most of Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, nothing incredible happened. For about two and a half hours, it was arguably the dullest Super Bowl in recent memory. But the game was still close, and you can never go to bed when the game is still close, or you might regret it the next morning — like anyone who missed the end of this one will, because, wouldn’t you know it, something incredible ended up happening.
The Kansas City Chiefs ended up beating the San Francisco 49ers in overtime, 25-22, on a touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to Mecole Hardman, a player whose fumble against the Bills earlier in the playoffs nearly ended his team’s season. It was only the second overtime game in Super Bowl history — the first being the aforementioned Patriots-Falcons game seven years ago. This one didn’t have the epic swings of that classic (still the most insane Super Bowl I’ve ever seen), but the thing about football is that a great ending can make up for two and a half hours of muck.
And there was a lot of muck. This Super Bowl had seemed to be set up for greatness: It featured two of the league’s signature franchises, the five-time champion 49ers and the defending champion Chiefs. It starred the 49ers’ Brock Purdy, a more unlikely Super Bowl quarterback underdog story than Tom Brady ever was, and the Chiefs’ Mahomes and Travis Kelce, by far the two most famous players in the NFL. The pregame hype about whether Kelce’s girlfriend — who is perhaps better known for other endeavors — would arrive from a concert in Japan in time for kickoff rivaled the hype for the game itself. The Super Bowl was even in Las Vegas. Epic!
But for most of the night, the two best teams in football were very much not at their best, and the sport, on its biggest night, looked a lot uglier and sloppier than usual. There were penalties and turnovers and blocked kicks and muffed punts and mental mistakes, and no points at all until midway through the second quarter.
For a while, the most exciting moment of the night was a 49ers trick play that was well conceived and well executed, but not all that aesthetically pleasing (let alone dramatic).
Purdy, the grand underdog story, had a perfectly dull, uninspired, vanilla wafer of a game, as is his wont. (He’s great, but no kid is ever going to pretend to be Brock Purdy in their backyard.) Mahomes, the anointed Next Brady, had perhaps his worst game of the season, thanks in large part to the relentless 49ers defense. Jake Moody and Harrison Butker kicked the two longest field goals in Super Bowl history. (Yawn.)
Oh, and about that couple: The star tight end (and aforementioned boyfriend) only had one showcase moment, and it was when he was so furious at his 65-year-old coach he nearly knocked him over. And — I am sorry to be the one to say this, but I don’t cover the Super Bowl in person every year not to report the news — but when Swift was shown on the JumboTron at Allegiant Stadium, she was undeniably, unabashedly booed by the vast majority of the fans in the stands. True, 49ers fans outnumbered Chiefs fans by a significant amount, and the booing happened before Swift impressively chugged a beer in one swig (the sort of skill that does tend to sway your average football fan), but still: Taylor Swift being jeered by 40,000 people is probably not what the NFL had in mind for the evening.
And then, in the last half of the fourth quarter, suddenly everything came together, turning a stuttering, scattershot game taut. Purdy hit Jauan Jennings — who had thrown for the aforementioned trick-play touchdown early and was this close to becoming the least likely Super Bowl MVP in history — for a touchdown with 6:06 remaining. The Chiefs then ominously blocked the Niners’ extra point, leaving their deficit at only three. The two teams traded field goals the rest of the quarter, sending it into overtime, where the 49ers won the coin toss and, curiously, chose to take the ball first. Under the new NFL overtime rules, both teams are guaranteed to get the ball at least in overtime, and, theoretically, you’d want to get it second so that you’d know how much the other team scored first. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s logic made some sense: If both teams were to score the same number on their first two possessions in overtime, that would give the 49ers the ball on the third and final possession, needing only a field goal to win. But it felt Shanahan outsmarted himself. After San Francisco was (barely) held to a field goal, the Chiefs drove down for the winning touchdown — ending the 49ers’ season and surely leaving Shanahan wondering what if.
As far as the NFL was concerned, this was exactly the right ending, no matter what had preceded it. The Chiefs’ second title in a row makes them the first team to repeat since the Patriots in 2004–05. It keeps Mahomes (increasingly the face of the league) on a Tom Brady–type pace, with his third ring and his third Super Bowl MVP. On the JumboTron, as the Lombardi Trophy was awarded, Kelce led Chiefs fans in the stands in a rousing, if not particularly melodic, rendition of “Fight for Your Right to Party” as his megastar girlfriend looked on and smiled. No one booed when they saw her this time: Those 49ers fans had long left. The rest of us were pretty pleased we’d stuck around.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of times Mahomes won Super Bowl MVP.
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