2024 Super Bowl: Top under-the-radar moves that led Chiefs to NFL title game for fourth time in five years

AFC Championship - Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens
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For the fourth time in five seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs are headed back to the Super Bowl and will face the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas. Because the Chiefs have been so good, for so long, pretty much everybody knows all the main characters involved in their success. Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in the NFL. Travis Kelce is the league’s best tight end. Andy Reid is arguably its best coach. Even players like Chris Jones, Isiah Pacheco, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie are pretty well-known at this point.

So, identifying under-the-radar moves that helped Kansas City get here is a pretty difficult task. We’re going to attempt it nonetheless, obviously.

Hiring Steve Spagnuolo in 2019

Through the early part of the Andy Reid era, the Chiefs mostly did not have very good defenses. And in 2018, when Mahomes took the league by storm, throwing for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns during his debut season as a starter, the defense finished the season 31st in yards allowed, 24th in points allowed, 31st in yards per play, 28th in points per drive. … you get it. It was a bad unit under former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Then the Chiefs hired Spags to be their defensive coordinator, and the rest is history.

The defense hasn’t been elite every year, but by the end of the season it has always rounded into contender shape. And because of his ability to design bespoke game plans, it has typically been even better in the playoffs. This season has been the crowning achievement (thus far) for Spagnuolo’s unit, with the Chiefs playing like a top five defense for almost the entire season and last week putting together probably their best performance of the year in holding Lamar Jackson and Co. to just 10 points. Other than drafting Mahomes, there might not be a more important move this team has made in the last seven years.

Drafting Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams in 2022

Kansas City’s two first-round picks from the 2022 draft, McDuffie and George Karlaftis, get a bunch of attention. McDuffie was named a First Team All-Pro this year. Karlaftis improved from six to 10.5 sacks in his second NFL season, emerging as a strong No. 2 option alongside Jones up front. Sneed is well-known as a lockdown corner. Justin Reid has gotten praise for his ability on the back end.

Not as many people know about the cornerbacks the Chiefs landed on Day 3 in 2022. They grabbed Williams in the fourth round and Watson in the seventh, and they have each played key roles throughout this season. Watson played 43% of Kansas City’s defensive snaps this year, generally getting on the field for 15-30 snaps a week. Williams played 31% of the snaps but has been much more involved of late, and especially in the playoffs. Combined, the pair allowed opponents to complete 38 of 78 passes for 360 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. You need good role players like this to fill out a secondary.

The bargain free agent signings in 2023

This past offseason, Kansas City handed out three contracts worth a combined $22 million to Charles Omenihu (2 years, $16 million), Mike Edwards (1 year, $3 million), Drue Tranquill (1 year, $3 million). They have gotten so much more than their money’s worth out of those deals — even with Omenihu tearing his ACL last week, knocking him out of the Super Bowl.

Omenihu returned from his six-game suspension and racked up a career-high seven sacks in 11 games, then picked up another in the AFC Championship. He generated pressure on 12.2% of his pass-rush snaps, according to TruMedia, a rate on par with that of 49ers star (and Omenihu’s former teammate) Arik Armstead. Edwards played 57% of the defensive snaps for K.C., picking up 51 tackles (three for loss), five passes defended, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown. He picked off Tua Tagovailoa in the wild-card round, and made a few huge tackles last week against Baltimore. Tranquill has been one of the better sub-package linebackers in the league, an ace blitzer who picked up 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, and seven additional quarterback hits. He’s been all over the place with 19 tackles in three playoff games.

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