Cahal McAuley previews Super Bowl LV; examining the form both sides are bringing into the game and looking at some of the exciting matchups likely to determine the result this weekend
The 2020 NFL season will reach its climax at Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida on Sunday, 7 February with defending champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who will be the first team in Super Bowl history to enjoy home-field advantage.
It’s no surprise that the majority of the headlines in the build-up have focused on the fascinating quarterback match-up between the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes who is looking to secure his second Super Bowl ring at just 25 years old and the Buccaneers’ Tom Brady who will be playing in a record tenth Super Bowl in pursuit of his seventh ring at 43 years old.
The match-up is certainly a coming together of the old-guard and the new generation of quarterbacks. Mahomes was just six years old when Brady won the first of his Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, but although all eyes will be on the quarterbacks, there are plenty of other players who could have a say in who takes home the Vince Lombardi trophy.
Paths to the Super Bowl
The Chiefs come into the game as strong favourites with a 14-2 record in the regular season followed up by wins against a spirited Cleveland Browns performance in the Divisional round and an explosive offensive dismantling of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game.
Although the Chiefs have looked unstoppable at times this season, scoring more than 30 points in ten games in the regular and postseason, there has been the feeling that they are yet to reach their best form as their last seven wins of the regular season were by a margin of six points or less.
Even so, they have raised their level and made big plays when it counted - with Mahomes’ staggering record of 25-1 in his last 26 regular and postseason starts going to show just how difficult the Chiefs are to beat under head coach Andy Reid.
The Buccaneers’ 27-24 loss to the Chiefs in Week 12 was their third in four games, leaving them with a record of 7-5. Since then, Brady has led Tampa Bay to seven straight wins to secure their place at the Super Bowl in what will be the franchise’s second appearance and first since the 2002 season.
After a hard-fought win against a makeshift Washington Football Team in the wild card round, the Bucs have shown that they are now one the NFL’s elite teams with road wins against Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round and Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
The job that Bruce Arians and his staff have done in recruiting the calibre of players that they have and transforming the Bucs from a 7-9 team to Super Bowl contenders in one year is nothing short of remarkable. The Chiefs will be their biggest test so far but there are ways that the Bucs can cause Mahomes and company big problems.
Chiefs offence vs. Buccaneers defence
The Bucs can look back at the first quarter of the Week 12 defeat as a guide for what not to do against the potent offence of the Chiefs. Although Brady and Tampa Bay managed to get back into the game and only lost by three points, Kansas City took a 17-0 lead after the first quarter with the combination of Mahomes and wide receiver Tyreek Hill proving unstoppable for the Bucs defence with Hill racking up 203 receiving yards in the first quarter alone.
To stand any significant chance of winning the game the Bucs defence must not allow Mahomes and Hill to put up anything close to these numbers and prevent their corner, Carlton Davis, from becoming isolated against the Chiefs’ star's wide receiver. Of course, this is easier said than done as Hill and tight end Travis Kelce are practically unguardable when playing at their best.
Kelce finished the regular season with 1,416 receiving yards, the most ever in a season by a tight end, and has looked imperious in the play-offs receiving two touchdown passes from Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game.
It’s safe to assume that the Chiefs are going to get points on the board but it's up to the Bucs defence to make sure that Mahomes, Hill, and Kelce are not able to wreak havoc as easily as they were against the Bills.
The best chance the Bucs have of doing this is making it harder for Mahomes to go to his favoured receivers by putting Hill and Kelce in double coverage. Although this would make it easier for other receivers like Sammy Watkins or Mecole Hardman to get open, they are not as difficult for a defence to guard as Hill and Kelce.
Attempting to cut off Mahomes’ route to Hill and Kelce is vital for the Bucs but for it to work effectively they also need to put pressure on Mahomes himself. The Bucs defence cannot afford to give time to one of the league’s best quarterbacks or they will be punished.
The key to making Mahomes uncomfortable in possession may lie in the injury to Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher, who is set to miss out with an Achilles problem. The loss of Fisher should leave Mahomes more vulnerable on his blind side giving Bucs linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul a better chance to push for sacks and stall the Chiefs offence. Again, this is easier said than done as Mahomes can still make big plays while scrambling and avoiding tackles.
The Bucs defence has shown that they can make life difficult for the best of quarterbacks, sacking likely league MVP Aaron Rodgers five times in the NFC Championship Game. They will have to bring this form with them into the Super Bowl.
The task facing the Buccaneers defence is a daunting one, but they have shown themselves more than capable of making big plays this postseason and although Mahomes and the Chiefs offence is one of the most dangerous in football, the Bucs are certainly not short on quality when in possession of the ball themselves.
Buccaneers offence vs. Chiefs defence
It took some time to get going but Tom Brady has managed to integrate himself into the Tampa Bay system after 20 years under Bill Belichick in New England. The Bucs offence has looked more and more cohesive as the season has progressed, with Brady developing new, effective partnerships with wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and also the tried and tested connections with tight end Rob Gronkowski who won three Super Bowls with Brady in New England.
Running back Leonard Fournette has been in fine form during the play-offs and with Scotty Miller and the probable return to fitness of Antonio Brown at wide receiver Brady has many offensive weapons at his disposal that will be capable of worrying the Chiefs defence.
Although Tom Brady threw three touchdowns passes against the Packers in the NFC Championship game, he was also picked off three times in the second half, but his blushes were spared as he was bailed out by a stellar performance from his defence.
Brady cannot afford to be anywhere near as sloppy in the Super Bowl as unnecessarily handing the ball back to Mahomes will kill off any chance the Bucs have of pulling off an upset.
The Chiefs defence has intercepted the ball 16 times this season, with ‘the honey badger’ Tyrann Mathieu accounting for six of these. The Chiefs defence will punish errant throws from Brady and could end the game as a contest quickly if given the chance.
Brady will need to call on all of his vast Super Bowl experience to manage the football smartly, hold on to possession as long as possible to take the pressure off his defence, and avoid repeating some of the rash plays he made in Green Bay.
Mike Evans has become one of the most dangerous receivers in the league with 13 touchdown receptions this season, and when Brady can effectively utilise Evans and the numerous other elite offensive weapons on their roster, the Bucs stand a chance against any team.
The Tampa Buccaneers have it all to do against the Chiefs but who better than Tom Brady to lead them to an upset and add yet another ring to his already untouchable collection.
The Chiefs will more than likely be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since Brady’s Patriots in the 2004 and 2005, but it is far from a foregone conclusion.
Although the Buccaneers’ home-field advantage will not be as impactful as it would in other years due to the limited attendance allowed at the game, the fact that they do not have to travel and can prepare for the game from home may contribute to a more relaxed atmosphere in the locker room.
If the Buccaneers defence plays at one hundred per cent and keeps the game alive until the final quarter, some Brady magic could be the deciding factor, but it seems a daunting task against the team that could become the next Patriots-like dynasty in the NFL.
The Chiefs can afford to be less than perfect and still have enough to win but the Bucs do not have this luxury which may cause their challenge to fall short before the home stretch.
Chiefs 36-27 Buccaneers.