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Learning the hard way: Heartbreak fuels Chiefs to Super Bowl LIV

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Some time after the confetti had fallen, the owner had hoisted the trophy with his father's name on it and the transcendent quarterback had slipped on his championship hat, the truth about these Kansas City Chiefs was never more undeniable. Yes, they create highlight-reel plays and their offensive talent is truly mesmerizing. What makes them special this year, however, has nothing to do with sizzle. Instead, it's all about the substance that has turned them into the class of this year's American Football Conference.

The Chiefs earned their first trip to the Super Bowl in 50 years -- with a 35-24 win over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship Game -- by doing the things they rarely got credit for this season. They did it by overcoming adversity. They did it by becoming tougher, both physically and mentally, and developing a stern will that could handle any challenge they faced. Basically, they did it by proving that they learned plenty of valuable lessons from last year's loss in this same game.

The word most commonly thrown around the Chiefs locker room after this win was "process." They trusted it, believed in it and now they're moving on to Super Bowl LIV, where they'll face the NFC-champion San Francisco 49ers, because of it.

"At the beginning of the season, I talked to the players about our goals for this season," said Chiefs owner Clark Hunt as he stood behind the AFC championship trophy that is named for his father Lamar, the late Chiefs founder and Pro Football Hall of Famer. "Making the playoffs is goal No. 1. Bringing this trophy home to Kansas City is goal No. 2. We got that done. But we have a big goal out there and that's to bring another Lombardi Trophy back to Kansas City."

If you don't live in Kansas City or root for the Chiefs, you can't understand what this opportunity means to this franchise. The Chiefs' last world title came in Super Bowl IV and there are literally generations of fans who've been waiting for the day when they could watch their team return to football's grandest stage. Hunt even joked that his own mother, Norma, was starting to become impatient about the Chiefs' drought. After she watched her 50th Super Bowl a few years back -- she's been to every single one -- she told him it would be nice if her own franchise could make it back to the big game while she was still healthy enough to appreciate the moment.

That time has come, and the Chiefs are celebrating this opportunity today because of one key reason: They've worked their way to the top. They were coming off a 2-14 season when Clark Hunt hired Andy Reid as his head coach in 2013, and Reid has steadily built a perennial playoff contender. Three years ago, Reid and former general manager John Dorsey traded up in the 2017 draft to select quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a dynamic big-armed playmaker who became the league's Most Valuable Player in his first season as a starter. When Kansas City lost to the New England Patriots in last year's AFC title game -- largely because of an offside call that nullified a potential game-clinching interception and an abysmal defense that couldn't stifle Tom Brady in overtime -- the Chiefs committed themselves to becoming stronger on that side of the football.

The end result of all that is a team that has been built to deal with anything. The Chiefs have suffered through so many injuries this season that it would've been easy for them to fall apart at some point. That list of injured players included Pro Bowlers like Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, defensive tackle Chris Jones and an assortment of offensive linemen. All the Chiefs did was keep grinding away. They found a way to keep winning.

"We've been through a lot of adversity this season," said Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu. "A lot of people may look at us as high-flyers or say we can't get dirty or play in close ball games. We feel like we've done enough this season to know who we are in critical situations. Everybody who meant something to this team stepped up and made a play for this team."

"Last year, we were four inches short," said Reid, referencing the aforementioned offside call. "The guys made it a point to get better than that four inches. It was a joint effort. The guys who had to sit through this last year and watch what went on out there (with the Patriots celebrating), that wasn't a good thing. They [bore] down and they weren't going to go through that again."

This AFC Championship Game always was going to come down to one issue: Physical play. The Titans had marched to this contest by bullying both New England and Baltimore. Their Pro Bowl running back, Derrick Henry, amassed 377 total rushing yards in those two wins and seemed to be poised for another big afternoon against a Kansas City defense that ranked 26th in rush defense this season. The Titans eventually learned that the Chiefs really have improved greatly on that side of the football.

Henry was held only 69 yards on 19 carries. The Chiefs also proved once again how quickly they can seize momentum in a game whenever necessary. After trailing 17-7 in the second quarter, Mahomes led Kansas City on two scoring drives that helped them take a 21-17 lead at halftime. The play of the game came when Mahomes dropped back to pass, scrambled to his left, evaded a couple defenders and rambled to the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left in the half.

When asked about the Chiefs taking control of the game late in the second quarter, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said, "You're going to need all 11 guys (against the Chiefs offense). You are going to need a great call, great execution, when they are operating like that. There are times that you try to blitz them and then there are issues there in coverage, (with) not as many guys in coverage. When he is able to hold onto the ball, you are trying to spy them. It's a challenge every play."

Those issues had plenty to do with Mahomes, who completed 23 of 35 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns and added 53 rushing yards. Last year, he didn't take a snap in overtime after watching Brady lead New England to a touchdown on the only possession of the extra period. This time, Mahomes refused to let anything stop this team from advancing beyond this round. His teammates operated with a similar conviction.

The Chiefs clearly realized that these types of opportunities don't come around very often. They lost last year's AFC title game at home and earned another shot in front of their fans inside Arrowhead Stadium. It appeared they were destined to be the third seed in this year's AFC postseason until a first-round bye opened up after New England lost to Miami on the final week of the regular season. Of course, the Chiefs are as healthy as they've been all season after enduring all those injuries.

In other words, it feels like it's their time.

"I don't want to go to Miami just to go and say we had a good time and lose," said Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland. "We have to go play. I think guys have the right mindset. But we just have to go play and put ourselves in the best position. When you get up, you can't stop. These people aren't going to give you something. You have to go take it."

That's easily the biggest lesson the Chiefs learned over the past year. Last season, they had a high-powered offense, a dynamic quarterback and not much else to carry them when the Super Bowl hung in the balance. This year, they had the same offense ... but the defense is stingier, the special teams are rounding into form after some early troubles and experience is on their side. The Chiefs are the only team left that felt the cruel pain of a heartbreaking playoff loss last year.

That will help them as they prepare for the Super Bowl their fans have coveted for decades. They also will be aided by the kind of toughness that makes a huge difference at this time of year. These aren't the same Chiefs that needed to score 40 points simply to win games. They're now an unquestionably complete squad, one that understands exactly what it takes to become world champions.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @JeffriChadiha.

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