Kansas City is back in the Super Bowl to defend its title, and we’ll soon have a sense of just where Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and company, fit into NFL history. But we don’t really have to wait until Sunday to start figuring it out.
This is the 21st time that the Super Bowl features a team from the previous year’s game, with 22 teams having made back-to-back appearances — there’s only been one straight-up rematch, Super Bowl XXVIII, when the Cowboys followed up their 52-17 rout of the Bills at the Rose Bowl the year before with a 30-13 romp at the Georgia Dome.
So, where does Kansas City stack up with the returnees?
We already know that Andy Reid’s team won it all a year ago, so making a Super Bowl appearance as defending champions sets Kansas City apart from the 1971 Cowboys, 1974 Vikings, and 1987 Broncos. Of those teams, only Dallas returned to win, capturing Super Bowl VI after losing the previous year to the Baltimore Colts.
The 1972 Dolphins would also be part of this group, but the lone perfect team in NFL history didn’t just win Super Bowl VII after falling to the Cowboys the previous season — Miami wound up making a third straight Super Bowl appearance, winning that one as well to become one of eight repeat winners in NFL history.
There’s also the Bills, who made it to four straight Super Bowls (XXV through XXVIII) and lost them all, a unique case of greatness just shy of the championship threshold.
The Patriots’ run of two titles in three years — with a loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII in the middle — is the closest we’ve come to seeing a Super Bowl three-peat, when you consider that Miami’s loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI was by a score of 24-3, and New England led Philadelphia, 33-32, in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots team that lost to the Eagles did have something in common with this Kansas City squad: Winning back-to-back AFC title games on their home turf. The other teams that won back-to-back conference championship games at home to get to the Super Bowl are the 1978-79 Steelers, 1982-83 Washington, 1990-91 Bills, and 2013-14 Seahawks. All but the Bills won their first Super Bowl trip, while only the Steelers managed to repeat, winning the fourth title of their 1970s dynasty. Oddly, the undefeated Dolphins did not host the 1972 AFC title game, because at the time, playoff sites were determined in advance on a divisional rotation, rather than going to the team with the best record.
Not surprisingly, the late 1970s Steelers teams had great regular-season records, too, going a combined 26-6 to earn those AFC title game hosting honors at Three Rivers Stadium. That’s equal to what Kansas City has done the past two seasons, with the only other teams to win 26 or more games over two seasons and go to consecutive Super Bowls being the 1972-73 Dolphins (26-2), 1990-91 Bills (26-6), 1996-97 Packers (26-6), 1997-98 Broncos (26-6), 2003-04 Patriots (28-4), and 2016-17 Patriots (27-5).
Another relative rarity about this Kansas City team is that Kelce has been their leading receiver on the way to both Super Bowls. The only other teams that strung together Super Bowl bids with the same top receiver were the 1970-71 Cowboys (Bob Hayes), 1971-73 Dolphins (Paul Warfield), 1982-83 Washington (Charlie Brown), 1988-89 49ers (Jerry Rice), 1990-93 Bills (Andre Reed), 1992-93 Cowboys (Michael Irvin), 1996-97 Packers (Antonio Freeman), and 1997-98 Broncos (Rod Smith). All of those men, it should also be noted, are wide receivers. So this is not only the first time that a team has gone to back-to-back Super Bowls this century with the same top receiver, but the first time any team has done it with a tight end as its most prolific aerial weapon.
The team that keeps popping up here is 1982-83 Washington, which also could have been on that best back-to-back regular seasons list, except that the 1982 strike shortened the season and left them at 8-1 — 22-3 for the two-year span. Maybe they jump out because of the commonality of a once-in-a-lifetime weird season being part of their run. Maybe it’s because Washington dropped its racial slur nickname, while Kansas City’s fans still do the chop for their still insensitively-named franchise. Maybe it’s the similarities between Joe Gibbs and Andy Reid as offensive innovators and teachers. Maybe it’s that both Washington in Super Bowl XVIII and Kansas City this weekend headed to Tampa to square off against aging former Patriots quarterbacks.
Jim Plunkett, Marcus Allen, and the Raiders denied Washington their chance to repeat. If Tom Brady does the same to Kansas City on Sunday, they’ll really be peas in a pod. And if Kansas City wins, they’ll be right there with the 1966-67 Packers, 1972-73 Dolphins, 1974-75 Steelers, 1978-79 Steelers, 1989-90 49ers, 1992-93 Cowboys, 1997-98 Broncos, and 2003-04 Patriots in the conversation for the best team of all time, with a shot to go on next year to become the first ever team to three-peat, and end that conversation for good.