By Steve Keating
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – When Las Vegas was awarded the Super Bowl, the hype machine automatically kicked into overdrive.
After all, what could possibly top putting America’s biggest sporting party in the U.S. party capital?
In the week long buildup to Sunday’s championship game Las Vegas — with the help of a headline grabbing romance between Kansas City Chiefs Travis Kelce and mega popstar Taylor Swift — delivered the glitz and pizzazz as promised.
Now the spotlight locks onto the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers who will be expected to come up with a finish worthy of the biggest show on the strip.
The game could be a watershed moment for the NFL with predictions it might produce the biggest viewership numbers since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
On paper, the matchup is a compelling one that has all the ingredients of a Super Bowl classic reflected in a betting line with no clear-cut favourite.
The reigning champions Chiefs, making a fourth Super Bowl appearance in five seasons, take on the 49ers, who with a win will bring home a sixth Vince Lombardi trophy and join the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots for the most all-time titles.
Adding a bit of bad blood, the contest is a rematch of the 2020 title clash when the 49ers took a 10-point lead into the final quarter before the Chiefs roared back and scored 21 unanswered points for a 31-20 victory.
Patrick Mahomes was the quarterback for that game taking most valuable player honours and will likely have to produce another MVP type effort if Kansas City are to become the first team since the New England Patriots in 2004 and 2005 to claim back-to-back Lombardi trophies.
While Mahomes brings experience his opposite number Brock Purdy, possesses an underdog attraction and storyline that seems destined to one day be turned into a Disney movie.
The very last player selected in the 2022 draft that was held in Las Vegas earned him the dubious distinction of Mr. Irrelevant but he returns to Sin City a first-string quarterback.
“Honestly, people can overlook you and tell you all they want to tell about yourself, but at the end of the day, it comes down to just believing in yourself,” said Purdy, who was in the NFL most valuable player discussion for much of the season.
“So obviously being drafted last, and then getting to where we are now and playing in the Super Bowl, can turn into something pretty beautiful.”
In just his second season the unflappable 24-year-old has been the cool hand at the controls of the 49ers high-octane attack that features dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey, who led the NFL in rushing with 1,459 rushing yards this season.
Purdy has plenty of other weapons at his disposal including reliable tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
While Purdy is a bit of an unknown commodity, Mahomes’s credentials are well established.
With a magician-like sleight of hand and an ability to pull off Houdini like escapes, Mahomes has established himself in six seasons as an elite NFL quarterback.
The 28-year-old already has 14 career postseason victories drawing comparisons to seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
Like the 49ers, Kansas City has well equipped offensive arsenal but Mahomes’s go to guy in clutch situations is Kelce.
The Pro-Bowl tight end may currently be making more headlines as Swift’s boyfriend but on the field is a dangerous game changer.
In the conference finals against the Baltimore Ravens, Kelce passed Hall of Famer Jerry Rice for the most catches in playoff history when he brought in his 152nd postseason reception.
He also amassed over 100 yards receiving for the day, which tied him with Rice for the most 100-plus yards receiving games in the postseason with eight.
With two of the NFL’s most brilliant coaching minds on the sidelines, Super Bowl XVIII will be an absorbing chess match between 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Chiefs’ Andy Reid.
The 44-year-old Shanahan, whose father Mike won the Super Bowl in 1998 and 1999 as head coach of the Denver Broncos, is in his seventh season at the helm of the 49ers and still seeking that elusive championship.
The more experienced Reid, 65, enters the game as only the fourth coach to reach the Super Bowl at least five times, joining Bill Belichick (nine), Don Shula (six) and Tom Landry (five).
(Reporting by Steve Keating Las Vegas. Editing by Christian Radnedge)