The Kansas City Chiefs have crowned themselves Super Bowl champions for a second straight year thanks to their 25-22 overtime win versus the San Francisco 49ers. They wouldn’t have been able to do so without their superstar players such as quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is now a three-time world champion at age 28.
However, every NFL team is likely a fine-tuned machine. Remove one cog however insignificant it might seem, and the whole operation may start to stutter; the end result can look drastically different if one player does not do his job in any particular situation.
For the Chiefs on Sunday, that player was linebacker Leo Chenal.
A third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin last year, Chenal has quickly developed into an important piece for the Kansas City on defense and special teams. His value was on full display against the 49ers, starting on the very first drive of the game.
San Francisco moved the ball well early on, and within just four plays found itself at the Kansas City 29-yard line — well within field goal range, and possibly in position to go up by a touchdown right out of the gate. Chenal, however, had different plans: he ended the series at the 27, knocking the ball out of running back Christian McCaffrey’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by teammate George Karlaftis.
The turnover ended a promising 49ers series, and helped limit the early damage for the Chiefs. With their offense starting slowly, every possession without points given up was a win for Kansas City.
As a result, despite falling behind 10-0 in the second quarter, the reigning champs remained in striking distance. They eventually scored 13 straight to take their first lead of the night in the third period. But even when they fell behind again in the early fourth, Chenal was there to make his impact felt.
Following a Brock Purdy’s touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings that put the 49ers up 16-13, the NFC champions attempted to make it a four-point lead through an extra point. While oftentimes a formality, this point-after kick was one of the game’s biggest plays.
Leo Chenal made it so.
The sophomore defender was able to block kicker Jake Moody’s attempt to keep Kansas City within a field goal. That one-point swing ended up making a massive difference.
“Coach [Dave] Toub, he always emphasizes getting off the ball, being able to affect the kicker and everything,” Chenal told KSHB 41 after the game.
Instead of needing a touchdown to re-up the 49ers, the Chiefs were able to tie the game with a field goal on their next drive. Then, later in the fourth quarter, they again needed only a kick to send the contest to overtime rather than having to drive for a TD inside the two-minute warning.
Obviously, with a quarterback of Patrick Mahomes’ caliber under center, that very well could still have happened. However, Chenal’s block gave the team more wiggle room down the stretch in a highly-contested game.
In the end, it helped them to pull out the victory for a second straight year.
“It’s unreal bringing everything together, all three phases,” Chenal said.
In total, the 23-year-old was on the field for 27 defensive snaps and 28 more on special teams. He finished the game with six tackles, a quarterback hit, and his one forced fumble plus extra point block.
He did not get the MVP award for his performance — it unsurprisingly went to Mahomes — but Chenal still was a big part in Kansas City’s title defense. He was the underrated hero the Chiefs needed.