SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It's fitting the 49ers are playing Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
In a roundabout way, the only regular season game between San Francisco and the Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs led to their championship match up in Miami.
Mahomes, in September 2018, orchestrated five consecutive scoring drives to start the game as the Chiefs to jumped to an insurmountable 35-7 lead before San Francisco fought back to make the final score respectable at Arrowhead Stadium, losing 38-27.
But the story in that game wasn't Mahomes and his crisp 314-yard, three-touchdown performance early in his first full season as Kansas City's starter. It was the 49ers losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the year with a torn ACL when he tried to extend a third-down scramble in scoring territory midway through the fourth quarter.
The injury derailed San Francisco's season. It happened fewer than three games into Garoppolo's massive five-year, $137.5 million contract, signed months earlier. The bet the team made on the unproven starter had to be put on hold. There was a feeling of emptiness in the locker room afterwards and high-ranking team officials were visibly shaken.
"We're really trying to take that next step. We're trying so effing hard to take that next step," dejected left tackle Joe Staley said.
Garoppolo's injury led to the 49ers getting the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft after their 4-12 finish. They tapped Ohio State's defensive end Nick Bosa, who was a transformational piece to the defense that finished the 2019 season allowing 169 passing yards per game, the best performance by any team since 2009. Bosa is the heavy favorite for defensive rookie of the year and led all defensive players in Pro Bowl fan voting.
Garoppolo's injury netted Bosa, which paved the way for the ultimate rematch 497 days later. As Staley hoped, his team took the next step, and the 49ers and Chiefs will play in the Super Bowl after San Francisco throttled the Vikings and Packers each by 17 points in the NFC playoffs.
"Things have a way of working out," Garoppolo said last week before the NFC title game. "I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, the ACL and everything and, yeah, we got Bosa out of it. That's a pretty good trade-off I guess."
Garoppolo will be under center for arguably the most balanced team in the NFL. Mahomes is the conductor for the offense that's the most high-flying.
Mahomes' 50 passing touchdowns and 5,097 yards last season led to winning the MVP Award. At 23, he was the youngest recipient since Dan Marino in 1984.
A midseason dislocated kneecap cost Mahomes two games in October, but he played at an MVP level during the first two playoff games when he recorded eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. He tossed just five picks over 484 attempts during the regular season. His 142 passing attempts in the playoffs without an interception dating back to last year are the most since those numbers started getting tracked in 1991.
But while Mahomes' stats have been prodigious since he took over for Alex Smith full time last season, his career will ultimately be defined by the Super Bowl, like all other MVP quarterbacks. Mahomes doesn't want to be known as the modern day Marino - an uber-talented signal caller with no championships on his resume.
"I've always preached that ever since I left college," Mahomes told reporters in Kansas City after beating the Tennessee Titans in the AFC title game. "I played at Texas Tech, I put up a lot of stats, but we didn't win a lot of football games. And so I knew going into the NFL, I was going to do whatever it took to just win games."
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The 49ers have the most imposing defense Mahomes will face all season. They boast five first-round picks along the defensive line that combined for 9.0 sacks in two playoff games (Mahomes has been sacked just twice in the postseason with both coming in the AFC title game versus Tennessee).
Bosa had two sacks of Kirk Cousins and one of Aaron Rodgers to lead San Francisco's defense. Arik Armstead, amid his breakout campaign in a contract year, had one in each contest.
Cornerback Richard Sherman added his third and fourth career postseason interceptions the past two weeks, giving the future Hall of Famer 39 since entering the league in 2011. The 49ers allowed 126 net yards to Cousins and 42 during the first half to Rodgers while jumping ahead 27-0.
The defense has been suffocating like it was during the first half of the regular season. Then it took a predictable dip as the schedule toughened and attrition started to take a toll. The 49ers played throughout December without pass rusher Dee Ford, safety Jaquiski Tartt and linebacker Kwon Alexander, whom Bosa called the team's emotional MVP.
With those three back, the 49ers in the playoffs have allowed just 5-of-21 on third-down conversions and a 252.5 net-yard average. From the second quarter against Minnesota to halftime versus the Packers, San Francisco outscored opponents, 47-3.
"That is a pretty fast and physical team. There's no doubt about it," Packers coach Mattt LaFleur said after the NFC Championship. "'You look at that defense, and that's what they're predicated on, is just the whole philosophy of that defense, especially with that front seven, the linebackers, is they want speed, and they are a fast team."
That speed will be vital against Mahomes and Kansas City.
Receiver Tyreek Hill is arguably the fastest in the league at his position. Rookie Mecole Hardman ran a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. Former No. 4 overall draft pick Sammy Watkins ran a brisk 4.43 in 2014. Even tight end Travis Kelce ranked in the 87th percentile among tight ends with a 4.61 in the 40 (George Kittle ran a blistering 4.52).
There will also be talk in Miami next week about what could have been. The 49ers passed on Mahomes in the 2017 draft when Kyle Shanahan first arrived as head coach. The team traded from the second pick to No. 3 to take defensive lineman Solomon Thomas as it planned to make its pitch to Kirk Cousins in free agency before the Garoppolo trade popped up in October.
The Chiefs traded up from No. 27 to No. 10 to take Mahomes, giving the Buffalo Bills a third-round pick and a first-rounder in 2018.
The questions about Mahomes leading up to the draft were about the system he played in at Texas Tech. It was spread, air-raid attack that often didn't translate to the NFL until recent seasons when coaches began adopting those principles.
Andy Reid was at the forefront, adjusting his offense to fit Mahomes' skill set after Mahomes was rarely asked to make pro-style progressions in college. Shanahan said that was the toughest part of considering Mahomes before the draft.
"It is tough to evaluate. You can evaluate talent and he has a ton of that. You can evaluate the person, who we loved," Shanahan said before that September 2018 game. "(He) handled himself great. Seems very intelligent. Seems like a very good kid. Everyone can see his arm strength. Everyone can see the ability."
Everyone, indeed, will have a chance to see for themselves in Miami.