Friends and foes: The Chiefs' Kelce, 49ers' Kittle ready to match up again in the Super Bowl

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Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce talks to the media before the team's NFL football practice Friday, Feb. 2, 2024 in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs will play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 58. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Chiefs' Travis Kelce and the 49ers' George Kittle are best of friends when they are off the field.

They are fierce competitors when they step on it.

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They also happen to be two of the best tight ends ever to play the game, and largely responsible for the way their position has evolved from a glorified offensive lineman catching occasional passes to a vital cog in a modern, pass-happy league.

In fact, the two of them along with retired tight end-turned-TV broadcaster Greg Olsen founded Tight End University three years ago to help teach their craft. The immersive three-day program is designed to help players at their position learn from each other, whether that's studying film, doing on-field work or sharing best practices when it comes to recovery and rehab.

"My guy right there! The king of Tight End U,” Kelce said of Kittle, when asked about their relationship. “He's the best tight end in the league and deservingly so this year. He's been playing lights-out, playing the best football of his career, and really catapulted that San Francisco team through the playoffs, man, and I couldn't be more proud of him.”

In truth, both have been instrumental in getting Kansas City and San Francisco to the Super Bowl on Sunday in Las Vegas, where they will play a rematch of the championship game won four years ago by the Chiefs.

Kittle led all tight ends with 1,020 yards receiving this season, but he also played one game more than Kelce, who missed Week 1 with a hyperextended knee and then sat out the Chiefs' meaningless regular-season finale. If Kelce would have played, the 34-year-old boyfriend of pop superstar Taylor Swift might have clipped his good buddy, rather than finishing with 984 yards.

That snapped Kelce's streak of seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

Kelce said the streak didn't mean as much to him as trying to win a third Super Bowl ring, and getting healthy for the playoffs has proven to be invaluable. Kelce has been at his best in win-or-go-home games, catching seven balls for 71 yards in a frigid wild-card win over Miami, five for 75 yards and two scores in Buffalo, and 11 for 116 yards and a TD in the AFC title game in Baltimore.

That three-game stretch has made Kelce one of the most productive pass-catchers in postseason history.

He has 156 catches overall, breaking the record of 151 set by Jerry Rice from 1985-2004, and his 116 yards against the Ravens was his eighth game of at least 100, which tied Kelce with the longtime 49ers star for the most in playoff history.

Most of those passes have come from Patrick Mahomes, with whom Kelce has helped to turn Kansas City into a juggernaut.

“I think they obviously have as great a bond as any one-two punch in the NFL, a quarterback and skill position player in history,” San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner said. “Pat knows exactly where Kelce is going to be on every single play. Kelce, having the confidence and trust in Pat that he can run his routes a certain way, where it's not necessarily going to be by the playbook. He's going to find open space and they can have a feel out there on the field.”

Former safety John Lynch, now the 49ers' general manager, marveled at how Kelce continues to get open, even though there were times this season — especially when the Chiefs offense was sputtering — when age appeared to be catching up to him.

"When you’re going by Jerry Rice’s records, that speaks volumes,” Lynch said, “because Jerry, he’s written every record in the playoffs, and Kelce is bigger at the moment. But I think it’s (Mahomes and Kelce) together. I think you give Andy (Reid) a lot of credit for giving them the freedom. A lot of coaches would say, ‘You’ve got to play within our system. You’ve got to run the route called.' You can tell a lot of times he’s just making it up, but it works out really well.”

It worked out pretty well the last time San Francisco played Kansas City in the Super Bowl. Kelce had six catches for 43 yards and a touchdown that night in Miami, helping the Chiefs rally with three fourth-quarter TDs for a 31-20 victory.

Kittle was largely shut down in that game. He finished with four catches for 36 yards.

He hasn't been stopped much in the years since. That includes the divisional round of the playoffs a few weeks ago, when he had four catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, helping the 49ers squeak past the Packers.

Kittle had two more catches in the NFC title game against Detroit to set up his rematch with Kelce and the Chiefs.

“I couldn't be more proud of him,” Kelce said, “couldn't be more honored, really, to go up against George in another Super Bowl. I can't say enough amazing things about who he is, who his family is. I can't say a bad thing about him. It's going to be a fun time.”



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