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Chiefs, 49ers returning to Super Bowl; Frustration, heartbreak for Lions, Ravens


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🏆 Good morning to everyone but especially …

THE KANSAS CITY CHIEFS AND THE SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

The more things change, the more they stay the same: The Chiefs are going back to the Super Bowl, and they’re facing an opponent they met there four years ago: the 49ers.

It’s hard to overstate just how impressive Kansas City was. The reigning champions went into Baltimore and smothered Lamar Jackson‘s offense while getting outstanding performances from Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce in a gutsy 17-10 win over the RavensKansas City is heading to its fourth Super Bowl in five seasons.

Mahomes’ stats may not look amazing, but his ability to make the right plays — sometimes highlight-worthy, sometimes ordinary and sometimes just smart — helped the visitors do enough against the league’s best defense. It helps that he had Kelce (11 receptions, 116 yards, one touchdown and one major record broken), but in the game’s deciding moment, he found Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a perfect 32-yard toss.

It was another terrific performance from Mahomes when his team needed it most, I wrote from Baltimore.

  • Pereles: “It was emblematic of the Chiefs’ path this season. Valdes-Scantling dropped a similar pass against the Eagles in November, a game that kicked off Kansas City losing four of its next six. But Mahomes shouldered the blame then and was eager to pass off the praise Sunday. … Much like this game, this has been far from Mahomes’ best season. But through those struggles, he improved his ability to manage games — so often a skill used to deride quarterbacks but the one that helped the Chiefs advance to the Super Bowl.”

The defense, meanwhile, was absolutely fantastic, holding the Ravens to a season-low 10 points. Also fantastic? Jeff Kerr’s story on the Chiefs defense and the shirts it made to honor its coordinator.

Then came the offensive shootout in a game, that again, was heavy on drama. The 49ers erased a 17-point halftime deficit — the largest in conference championship history — to beat the Lions, 34-31.

After playing one miserable half, the 49ers played some of the best football I’ve seen and caught some breaks along the way. Their second-half drive chart was: field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, kneel to finish game. Along the way, Brandon Aiyuk made one of the greatest catches you’ll ever see, Christian McCaffrey broke a record, Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled, Josh Reynolds dropped two passes and the Lions failed on two fourth downs and bungled the clock. More on that in a bit.

But I want to talk about Brock Purdy. Here’s his second half: 13 of 16 passing for 174 yards and a score as well as four rushes for 49 yards. Yes, Purdy helped put the 49ers in their deficit. But there’s also a reason Kyle Shanahan had been 0-31 when down five-plus points in the fourth quarter before last week and 0-19 when down 17+ in the second half before this week and now has a win in both scenarios. Because Purdy — though he may dig you some holes — can also rescue you from them. What a performance.

Some early Super Bowl content …

👍 Honorable mentions

😔 And not such a good morning for …


USATSI

THE BALTIMORE RAVENS AND THE DETROIT LIONS

Losing hurts, but losing really hurts when winning was within your grasp. And the Ravens and Lions both had a Super Bowl trip in their grasp.

Baltimore will rue a bevy of missed opportunities, glaring mistakes and an underwhelming offensive day. Here’s the laundry list of failures:

  • Eight penalties for 95 yards, including five personal fouls
  • Zay Flowers, moments after a taunting penalty, fumbling inches short of the goal line
  • Jackson throwing an interception into triple coverage
  • Six carries for 23 yards by running backs (and only 16 carries for 81 yards overall)
  • Three turnovers (two in scoring position) and zero turnovers forced

It looked like one team that had been there before and one team that hadn’t, Jeff Kerr writes.

Meanwhile, the Lions collapsed. Plain and simple. Two key drops by Reynolds that would have been first downs. A Gibbs fumble. An ill-conceived (and, even worse, poorly-executed) running play late in the game that cost the Lions a vital timeout.

Oh yeah, and those two fourth-down failures that could have been two field goals — six points — in a game the Lions lost by three.

But that is who Dan Campbell is. I’m not going to criticize him for adhering to his philosophy, which just produced one of the best seasons in franchise history and has completely revitalized the organization. He stood by his decisions postgame, and I’m fine with that. If Reynolds or Gibbs hangs onto a ball, we’re talking about the NFC champion Lions. Instead, we’re talking about what could have been, an all-time heartbreaking loss. And no one will take that harder than Campbell himself.

👎 Not so honorable mentions

🏀 LeBron James, Stephen Curry deliver double-overtime thriller; Luka Doncic scores 73


Getty Images

The NBA called it “Rivals Week” and, man, did the league ever deliver — LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry was one of the greatest regular-season games ever. James (36 points, 20 rebounds, 12 assists) sank a pair of free throws with 1.2 seconds left in the second overtime to lift the Lakers to a 145-144 win over the Warriors.

This game was absolutely bonkers: Curry (46 points, nine 3-pointers) forced overtime, Klay Thompson forced double overtime, D’Angelo Russell did a bunch of absurd things (absurdly good and absurdly bad), and just when it looked like Golden State would snatch a victory off yet another Curry 3-pointer, James got to the line and converted. Colin Ward-Henninger broke down the 10 biggest moments, and honestly, this list could have been twice as long. I don’t know how many more LeBron-vs.-Steph showdowns we’ll get, but they just keep on delivering.

One night earlier, we got another all-timer: 73 points from Luka Doncic, fourth-most in NBA history. Devin Booker had a mere 62 in yet another night with two scoring explosions.

🎾 Jannick Sinner, Aryna Sabalenka win Australian Open singles titles


Getty Images

For the first time in a decade, there’s a name outside the Big Three on the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. Jannick Sinner stunned Novak Djokovic in the semifinals and then rallied past Daniil Medvedev3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, to win the Australian Open for his first Grand Slam title.

  • Sinner, 22, is also the first Italian man to win the Australian Open title and the first Italian man to win any major since Adriano Panatta in 1976.
  • He’s the first player outside of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to win the Australian Open since Stan Wawrinka in 2014.

What a final it was. Medvedev cruised through two sets, but Sinner fought back, winning the third and fourth sets and taking control with a big forehand winner in the fifth to go up a break. The match-winner, fittingly, was a big forehand, too.

On the women’s side, Aryna Sabalenka shut down any chance of a new champion, rolling past Qinwen Zheng6-3, 6-2, for her second consecutive Australian Open title. Sabalenka did not lose a set all tournament and was absolutely dominant against Zheng, winning eight of the first nine points to set the tone.

Sabalenka, 25, is the first woman to repeat at the Australian Open since Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13, and she already has her eyes on a three-peat, telling the crowd, “I love you so much, and I can’t wait to come back,” after the victory.

📺 What we’re watching Monday

🏀 No. 12 Duke at Virginia Tech (M), 7 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 No. 9 LSU at Mississippi State (W), 9 p.m. on ESPN2
🏀 Suns at Heat, 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 No. 4 Houston at Texas (M), 9 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 76ers at Trail Blazers, 10 p.m. on NBA TV



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