By Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)
We’re 268 games into this most unorthodox of NFL seasons and it has all come down to this. Welcome, everybody, to Super Bowl LV!
So remind me again, who’s playing?
Just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last four months (that’s lockdown for you), Sunday’s Conference Championship games left two teams standing: current champions the Kansas City Chiefs and the first team to play at home in the final showdown, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the capacity at Raymond James Stadium will be limited to around 25,000 (about two-thirds ticket holders and the rest vaccinated healthcare workers, attending as guests of the NFL), we can’t ignore home-field advantage. It’s never been a factor in a Super Bowl before but the Bucs will benefit from simply being in familiar surroundings, while Kansas won’t be able to travel to Florida till Friday due to COVID restrictions.
Fate’s scriptwriter has thrown the best quarterback of all time against the best of today’s crop. Perennial champion Tom Brady (43), looking for an unprecedented seventh ring, has been to the Super Bowl in half of his 20 NFL campaigns while Patrick Mahomes (25) could become the youngest QB to win consecutive titles (and the first since Brady did so with the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons). It’s the GOAT versus The Kid, if you will…
With many other storylines potentially emerging from this 55th annual showdown – from Andy Reid seeking revenge for Brady handing him his first Super Bowl defeat back in 2004 to the Chiefs confirming their status as the NFL’s latest super-power – it’s time to take a closer look.
Patrick Mahomes was just six years old
when Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl.
How did the teams get here?
The Chiefs seemingly drifted through the 2020 season without even trying, finishing 14-2 and locking up the AFC’s No. 1 seed. With Steve Spagnuolo managing the D and an Eric Bienemy-directed offence – with MVP candidate Mahomes, super-fast wideouts Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the league’s best tight end, Travis Kelce – the Chiefs hit their stride in the postseason. They saw off the gutsy Cleveland Browns in the Divisional Round, despite Mahomes’ suspected concussion, then made light work of the Bills. Their dominant 38-24 victory was aided in part by Buffalo HC Sean McDermott opting for field goals (more than once) despite trailing by a couple of scores but don’t let that take anything away from the victors.
As for Tampa Bay, it’s all been about Tom Brady’s first season away from New England. He hasn’t been perfect but still led the 11-5 Bucs to the play-offs as the 5th seed in the NFC. At 7-5, they looked a little wobbly but maybe Brady was still settling in; regardless, they’ve won seven straight since. After sneaking past Washington in the Wild Card round, then bossing the Saints in the Superdome, the Bucs saw off Green Bay in Lambeau Field two weeks ago. Despite three interceptions, Brady also threw 3 TDs to seal a 31-26 victory and his first NFC Championship crown.
Mahomes was QB2 in the regular season (4,740 yards, 38 TDs, 6 INTs and a league-leading 316 yards per game) and Brady was just a place behind (4,633 yards, 40 TDs, 12 INTs). With a combined 605 passing yards in the Conference Championship games, expect both to be allowed to do what they do best this weekend.
Initially, TB12 didn’t want to take Chris Godwin’s number
and was considering the #7 jersey to mark his goal of a seventh ring.
What happened when they last met?
Sunday’s season finale will be the teams’ second clash this year. Back in late November, the Chiefs raced to a 17-0 lead thanks to a flippin’ monster day from Tyreek Hill (13 catches, 269 yards, 3 TDs), in which he set a record for the most yards in the first quarter of an NFL game (203). Mahomes threw for a massive 462 yards and 3 TDs but Brady (345 yards, 3 TDs) led the fight-back with 14 fourth-quarter points. When the dust settled, Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and co. walked away with a 27-24 win. But Chiefs fans beware: the Bucs haven’t lost since.
Who has the Super Bowl heritage?
Neither of these teams are Super Bowl powerhouses yet but this will be the Chiefs’ fourth trip to the Big Dance. They lost Super Bowl I against the Packers (35-10) in 1966 but beat the much-fancied Vikings 23-7 three years later and, of course, won 31-20 against the San Francisco 49ers just 12 months ago. Having gone 50 years between SB wins, Kansas are now trying to repeat the feat at the first time of asking.
The Bucs are making just their second Super Bowl appearance. Their only outing so far was a successful one, when they mullered the then-Oakland Raiders 48-21 in 2002. However, the city itself is no stranger to the game. Raymond James Stadium held the finales to both the 2000 and 2008 seasons, while the old Tampa Stadium also hosted the big one back in January 1984.
Down judge Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to
ever officiate in a Super Bowl. Congratulations Sarah, and enjoy the game!
Who should I watch out for?
The Chiefs can hurt any opponent, at any point, in so many ways. QB Patrick Mahomes has a box of fireworks to play with offensively but they also have defensive stars like Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu, who won’t need to be asked twice to pounce on any errors Brady makes.
With the Buccaneers, it’s a little disingenuous to say it’s all about Tom Brady but with nine previous Super Bowl appearances, he’s been there, done that and bought the t-shirt factory. He has weapons at his disposal too, not least receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, as well as TEs Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate. On the other side of the ball, their top passing-rushing corps – Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett and Devin White – could break through the ranks, especially with the Kansas O-line down to just one remaining fit starter.
As for the coaches, Tampa’s Bruce Arians won a Super Bowl as the Steelers’ OC but this is his first shot at the big one as top dog. In contrast, Andy Reid obviously has very recent experience of what it takes to win.
Who has the edge?
KC offence vs. TB defence
With a talent like Mahomes under centre, the Chiefs are understandably a bit one-dimensional offensively. Nonetheless, despite a bang-average rushing attack (16th in the regular season, with 112.4 yards per game), they’ll need at least some semblance of a ground game from Clyde Edwards-Helaire. They rushed for just 87 yards in their previous meeting, 123 against the Browns in the play-offs and 114 against Buffalo two weeks ago so they’re not prolific – plus they’re facing the league’s #1 run defence (80.6 YPG allowed).
Through the air, it’s a completely different story. Kansas were the top passing team in 2020 (303.4 YPG), with both Kelce (2nd) and Hill (8th) making the top 10 for receiving yards in the regular NFL season, and Mahomes can throw it overarm, underarm, behind his back… However, KC will have to be wary of Barrett and Pierre-Paul. They sacked Aaron Rodgers five times a fortnight ago and both took Mahomes down in Week 12 too. The Buccaneers’ pass defence had a so-so season (21st, 246.6 YPG allowed) and while Tampa have had injury concerns of their own, both starting safeties should be back. Despite the prowess of Tampa’s star edge rushers, Mahomes should expect to find his man before anyone gets in his grille.
In summary, with Tampa nose tackle Vita Vea back alongside Ndamukong Suh, I think the Bucs will have the upper hand when the Chiefs run it but when it goes airborne, it’s advantage Chiefs.
Even though he’s one of the least mobile QBs, Tom Brady has been sacked
one less time than Patrick Mahomes during the 2020 season.
TB offence vs. KC defence
Let’s flip the field and give Tampa the ball now. Their run game was only ranked 28th (94.9 YPG), despite Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II offering a decent 1-2 punch from the backfield. But even when it’s going well, their ground game is often parked to allow Brady to throw the rock, so their numbers are a little supressed. They only managed 76 rushing yards against the Packers and 20 of those came from one TD run by Fournette. The Chiefs aren’t anything special against the run (21st, 122.1 YPG allowed) but contained the Browns and the Bills easily enough, so I doubt it’s going to be an issue on Sunday. Furthermore, Brady is up there with Rivers and Roethlisberger as the least-likely QB to scramble (he has -1 rushing yards in the postseason so far) so KC’s defence have one less thing to worry about there.
Under the tutelage of OC Byron Leftwich, the Buccaneers were second only to KC on passing offence (289.1 YPG) so their aerial attack can inflict some damage too. Brady has thrown multiple TDs for 10 games straight so expect that to continue. If the Chiefs’ corners focus on the deep threat posed by Mike Evans, their pass defence (14th, 236.2 YPG allowed) could be vulnerable to the TEs feasting on short and intermediate passes up the middle. Although more of a blocker these days, Gronk led the team in receiving in their Week 12 match-up so Kansas will ignore him at their peril.
Again, I think KC’s run defence wins any ground-based skirmishes but even with Tyrann Mathieu and Bashaud Breeland prowling like leopards, waiting for another multi-interception outing from TB12, I’d just give the nod to the Buccaneers’ passing offence.
Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo helped the New York Giants
overcome Tom Brady’s Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
How can the Chiefs win?
We know that offensively, KC are never out of a game so even if they fall behind, they’ll bide their time and claw their way back into it at some point. They will score points, that’s a given (they’ve scored 30+ points 10 times this season), but Tampa could too. So, for me, a big game from their defence is the key.
Brady’s offensive line should keep him upright, but his 12 interceptions were his most since 2011. If they can pressure TB12 and their secondary can keep Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller and Antonio Brown under wraps, Kansas will retain the title.
But remember, the Chiefs’ D was only 11th best in the regular season for points allowed (22.6 PPG) and exactly middle of the pack for total yards per game (358.3 YPG allowed), so it’s not a given. That said, DC Steve Spagnuolo got his unit to hold the Browns’ Chubb’n’Hunt combo to just 112 rushing yards a few weeks ago so they have shown they can rise to the occasion when the chips are down.
Bucs DC Todd Bowles worked for Andy Reid
at the Philadelphia Eagles.
How can the Buccaneers win?
Of Tampa’s two possible routes to victory, one would require a defensive masterplan from Todd Bowles in which Mahomes is stifled for 60 minutes. The Bucs D is good, sure, but Plan B it is: to match every TD conceded with one at the other end. In other words, go all-in on offence and win a shootout.
The Chiefs’ defence can ship points and the Buccaneers have averaged more than 30 points across the season (35 in their last six games) so it’s not unfeasible. They’ll have to get out of the gates fast and keep it going; no falling 17 points behind like they did earlier in the season. And Brady can’t afford to turn the ball over like he did a fortnight ago. So while he probably can’t out-duel Mahomes, as a team the Bucs could well go to toe to toe with the Chiefs.
Talking of turnovers, the Buccaneers scored 101 points off them in the regular season – behind only Baltimore and Pittsburgh – and scored six TDs from them in the last three weeks alone. KC don’t turn the ball over much but if they do, the Bucs need to continue transforming them into points.
The latest injury news
For Kansas, left tackle Eric Fisher (torn Achilles) is a big miss and Chiefs fans will be all too aware that JPP had a two-sack day against the stand-in for David Bakhtiari against Green Bay. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (back) won’t return from IR either, so the KC O-line looks a little depleted but at least center Daniel Kilgore could be back, along with WR3 Demarcus Robinson. Both have tested negative for COVID-19 every day since having their hair cut last weekend by a barber who later tested positive, and should come off the reserve/COVID-19 list by the weekend.
As for the Bucs, WR Antonio Brown looks doubtful with a sore knee while starting safeties Antoine Winfield Jr (ankle) and Jordan Whitehead (shoulder and knee) could be available, with Winfield the most likely to return. All three missed the last game but have been involved in limited practices this week. Linebacker Lavonte David is expected to suit up, despite a lingering hamstring issue.
Writer’s Pick: Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)
Brady has thrown more touchdown passes than anyone in NFL history, made 14 Pro Bowls, been a three-time MVP, reached nine Super Bowls and won six of them. In short, he’s the benchmark to which others aspire. But if there’s anyone who’s going to usurp him, it’s Patrick Mahomes. He has logged double-digit Ws and contested the AFC Championship game in all three of his seasons as a starter, averaged 4,622 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, and only thrown 23 interceptions (in total) in that time. You can never rule out a team led by Tom Brady but the Chiefs could be building the NFL’s next great dynasty here. So, will we see the torch officially pass from the master to the apprentice?
Not surprisingly, oddsmakers are finding it hard to split these teams. The early lines had the reigning champions as -3 favourites and at the time of writing, -3.5 seems to be the consensus. For me, it’s almost too close to call but KC’s multi-faceted offence is probably the difference maker. If a fully rested Mahomes, Hill and Kelce perform as expected, the Kansas City Chiefs will become the NFL’s first repeat champion in 16 years (and only the eighth ever), and the shiny new Lombardi Trophy will join its older siblings in the Arrowhead Stadium trophy cabinet.
Prediction: Chiefs 31-27 Buccaneers