Football’s past and future are colliding this weekend on the NFL’s biggest stage. If the Buccaneers win on Sunday, Tom Brady will have more Super Bowl victories (seven) than any individual NFL franchise. If the Chiefs win, Patrick Mahomes will become the youngest quarterback to ever win two Super Bowls.
Brady and Mahomes represent two eras of football history, and we get to see them overlap in a championship game. This is like Michael Jordan playing LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Mahomes is the only player with a serious chance to challenge Brady’s GOAT status, and if that day ever comes, this Super Bowl could serve as the head-to-head tiebreaker. But we have years to talk about legacy. For now, let’s enjoy the present.
Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (#blessed)
Opening point spread: Chiefs -3.5
Weather forecast: 73 degrees, 56 percent chance of rain
Let’s look at the keys to the game one team at a time, starting with the Buccaneers.
Buccaneers Key 1: Pressuring (and containing) Patrick Mahomes
When both quarterbacks in a game are living legends, the defense with the more disruptive pass rush will probably win. Fortunately for the Bucs, they have the best front seven in football. Tampa Bay’s edge rushers (Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett), interior linemen (Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea), and inside linebackers (Lavonte David and Devin White) all might be the best combinations in the NFL at their respective positions.
Meanwhile, Kansas City’s offensive line is hurt. Backup lineman Mike Remmers is filling in at left tackle for Eric Fisher, who injured his Achilles in the AFC championship game. Right guard Andrew Wylie has moved to right tackle to replace All-Pro Mitchell Schwartz, who is out with a back injury. Kansas City is also down both of the team’s starters at guard, and they’ll be replaced by Nick Allegretti, a former seventh-round pick, and Stefen Wisniewski, who started for the Chiefs in last year’s Super Bowl but was released by Pittsburgh in the middle of this season (he later signed with the Chiefs practice squad). The only starter from Week 1 who’ll be in his original position is center Austin Reiter.
Whether Remmers and Wylie can block JPP and Barrett will be the no. 1 thing to watch for when the Chiefs have the ball on Sunday. Barrett and Pierre-Paul got quite a bit of pressure on Mahomes in Week 12, when the Chiefs beat the Buccaneers 27-24; and the last time Remmers was in a Super Bowl (five years ago with the Panthers), he gave up three sacks to a tough Broncos defense.
Just pressuring Mahomes won’t be enough for the Bucs, though. They also need to contain him so he doesn’t escape the pocket and extend plays. It’s hard enough to defend receiver Tyreek Hill or tight end Travis Kelce for three seconds. But it’s almost impossible to do so for six or more—especially when Mahomes can find them on a laser beam 60 yards downfield.
When Mahomes leaves the pocket, “it breaks down the integrity of the zone defense or the coverage behind you if we let him move around or break contain,” Bucs defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said on Monday. “So we really are working hard this week to see if we can keep him in the pocket. The problem is everyone we’ve watched, nobody has kept him in the pocket.”
Even when Mahomes does stay in the pocket, he can slice and dice defenses. “I feel like I’m at a way different level than I even was last year,” Mahomes said on Monday when discussing his ability to read defenses. He moves defenders with his eyes as easily as any other quarterback.
“Aaron Rodgers does it, Matthew Stafford does it. I’ve seen Drew Brees do it,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said on Monday. “But Mahomes does it at a high level. I don’t know how. … But once the play breaks down, he finds a way to make it happen again.”
To summarize: The Bucs have to pressure Mahomes, but not so aggressively that they allow him to leave the pocket; and even when he is in the pocket, he can still carve them up. That’s a lot to think about. But the Bucs can walk and chew gum at the same time. They sacked Aaron Rodgers five times in the NFC championship game, and Rodgers is also notorious for extending plays outside the pocket. Plus, those Packers were also playing with a backup left tackle. No pressure, Mike Remmers. Literally.
Buccaneers Key 2: Stopping Travis Kelce
When the Chiefs played Tampa Bay in Week 12, Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles thought his unit could guard Hill without deep safety help. He was wrong. Hill had 203 receiving yards in the first quarter, and the Chiefs took a 17-0 lead. Hill scored so easily on one play that he backflipped into the end zone.
After Hill’s historic first quarter, the Bucs played their defensive backs deeper to try and prevent big plays. But when the DBs played deeper, Kansas City started throwing to Travis Kelce underneath. You can see the adjustment below, with Hill on the left side running deep while Kelce gets the ball.
Hill may have dominated the first quarter, but Kelce had seven catches for 68 yards over the final three quarters. Tony Romo (who announced the Week 12 game and also is announcing the Super Bowl), described the Bucs’ decision to let Kelce beat them underneath as choosing “the slow death.”
The Buccaneers won’t let Hill embarrass them again this time around. Professional athletes hate embarrassment even more than they love glory. So if the Bucs focus their attention on Hill by playing deep, the question becomes: How do they stop Kelce from eating their lunch?
No team has figured that out yet. Kelce gained 1,416 receiving yards this season, the most ever for a tight end (he did that despite sitting out Week 17). The Bucs will have to have one defender bump him at the line of scrimmage while another takes him on in coverage. Making this harder is the fact that both Bucs safeties are hobbled. Rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. missed the NFC championship game with an ankle injury, and Jordan Whitehead has a shoulder and knee problem. Linebacker Devin White is athletic enough to stick with Kelce, but not refined enough to combat Kelce’s elite route-running. Guarding the Chiefs isn’t a football problem as much as it is a physics problem.
Chiefs Key 1: Interior Pass Pressure
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo understands the importance of pressuring Tom Brady better than anyone. Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants when they took down the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, and 13 years later, the key to beating Brady is still to pressure him.
During the regular season, Brady ranked fifth in the league in QBR without pressure, and he tied for 31st when under pressure, as noted by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. But not all pressure is equal. Pressure from the middle of the offensive line, which collapses the pocket and prevents a quarterback from stepping into his throws, is more valuable than edge pressure. This is why Aaron Donald is about to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award in four seasons. Interior pressure is especially effective against Brady, who needs to step into his throws (you know, because he is 43 years old). And while the Chiefs don’t have Aaron Donald, they do have Chris Jones, who is the next-best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL.
Jones more than proved his worth to the Chiefs in last year’s Super Bowl. Here’s Jones (no. 95) in the second quarter, nearly sacking 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G ended up throwing a pick on this play.
Jones was dominant for stretches of that game. Another dominant performance from him on Sunday could be huge. Brady is a lot better than Garoppolo, but from a mobility standpoint, they are similar. When Jones comes up the middle, Brady can’t leave the pocket as easily as Mahomes can. Factor in right guard Aaron Stinnie, an undrafted free agent who made his first career start in the divisional round, and Jones has a ripe mismatch. The Bucs will have to double team Jones whenever he goes up against Stinnie, and that creates opportunities for the Chiefs to attack Tampa Bay’s other four offensive linemen.
Chiefs Key No. 2: Don’t Let Tom Brady Read Their Mail
Spagnuolo said this week that he doesn’t want Brady to “read our mail.” What that means is he doesn’t want Brady figuring out what coverage the Chiefs are going to use before the play begins. Every coverage has a weakness, and if Brady knows it before the snap, he’ll know exactly what to do with the ball. Earlier in the season, the Chiefs countered this by showing Brady one coverage before the snap and then doing something different after.
Here’s an example from the first quarter of that game. Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen (the guy with the arrow pointing at him) creeps up to the line of scrimmage. But right before the ball is snapped, Sorensen sprints backward.
Here’s another example of Sorensen doing this on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter of that game.
Brady is an exceptional processor of information, so the Chiefs’ main goal with this type of disguise is to slow his process by limiting what information he can trust—and what audibles will work.
The examples above show defenders near the line of scrimmage dropping deeper into coverage, but this can also be used for blitzes. The Spagnuolo-coached Giants defense did this in Super Bowl XLII to get their first sack of the game. The linebackers showed blitz up the middle, but at the snap, they turned around to drop into coverage. Then, one linebacker returned to blitz on a double-fake. It completely fooled the Patriots offensive line, which opened up the middle of the field like the Red Sea.
Brady is too good to beat with a predictable defense. But Spagnuolo’s Chiefs understand they have to be anything but predictable. “The game has changed a little bit from when we [beat the Patriots] back in 2007,” Spagnuolo said this week. But “the quarterback we’re playing is still the same. He’s still every bit as good.”