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Breaking down Super Bowl LV: Previewing Chiefs-Buccaneers

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Five months ago, 32 NFL teams set out on what would be one of the strangest seasons in the history of the sport. Playing games in the face of an ongoing pandemic, the league weathered some unique challenges. Should they have played? Depends on who you ask. But play they did.

Now, after all that, just two teams remain.

The Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face off on February 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. It’s a historic matchup for a number of reasons – you’ve got the returning champion Chiefs looking to go back-to-back, while the Buccaneers become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on their home field. Oh, and there’s this Brady guy who is about to quarterback in his record 10th title game.

There’s a lot happening here, is what I’m saying.

Let’s take a stroll through the teams and break down some of the positional matchups to get a sense of which squad stands superior. Of course, the most talented team doesn’t always win. The most prepared team doesn’t always win. The team we think will win doesn’t always win.

You get the picture. Anyone who tells you they KNOW what will happen is a charlatan who is almost certainly trying to sell you something. No one knows how this will all play out, but here’s my best guess – the best guess of a guy who, in the interest of full disclosure, got absolutely housed by his dog in picking winners this season (though my postseason run was solid).

Let’s break it down.

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Quarterback

This is the big one, right? This is the matchup that everyone is focusing on. And with good reason – you’ve got arguably the best QB in the league right now going up against arguably the best QB in the league … ever. So who’s going to come out on top?

Obviously, Brady’s 10 Super Bowl appearances is an absurd number, a record that will almost certainly never be approached. And when you’re in the big one that often, the numbers add up. Brady sits at the top of every significant career QB stat list – it’s not close. And those numbers are just going to get bigger come Sunday.

But while Brady continues to make Super Bowl history, Mahomes is chasing a little history of his own. If he can win this one, he’s two-for-two, becoming only the eighth QB to win back-to-back titles, joining Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, John Elway and (of course) Brady.

History aside, we have to look at the work each of these guys has done leading up to this game. Mahomes has been absolutely transcendent over the past few years, proving capable of making every throw you’d expect from an elite quarterback (and plenty that you’d never expect from any QB, elite or no). He’s spent his entire NFL tenure making clear the fact that no lead is safe when he is on the field. He’s got all the throws and he can make plays with his legs – the total package.

Brady, meanwhile, has put forth a surprisingly excellent season this year, his first with the Bucs after ending his lengthy tenure in New England. He’s not quite what he once was – he is 43, after all – but he still has what it takes to will his team to victory. Few QBs have ever had his command of the position, and while his arm might have been lessened by time, his brain is as sharp as ever.

This is a close call, but my gut is telling me to go with the game’s exciting future rather than its illustrious past.

Advantage: Kansas City

Running Back

This might be the least exciting of the skill position battles. There’s talent here, of course, but there’s no one that really leaps off the screen in the way that the greatest tend to do. And neither team actually runs the ball all that much.

On the Chiefs side, there’s quite a collection of backs. I was an early buyer on rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but after a hot start to the season, he’s had quite an up-and-down year. Plus, he’s still on the mend from a pretty brutal injury a few weeks ago. Le’Veon Bell has been fine, though perhaps not the potential force the Chiefs expected. And Darrel Williams, the most unsung of the bunch, has actually been the most productive recently. All three of these guys have the potential to rip off a big game, but it will all come down to how effectively they can work within the parameters of Kansas City’s RPO scheme.

For the Buccaneers, it’s more of a two-headed situation. Ronald Jones has spent much of the season being the de facto lead guy, although the breakdown of snaps was pretty close most of the time. However, he’s still on the mend, dealing with a quad injury that saps some of his explosiveness. Meanwhile, Leonard Fournette has shown something the past few games, looking especially good on a 20-yard TD run against Green Bay. The Bucs don’t pass as much as the Chiefs, but they definitely prefer to put the ball in the air. That being said, don’t be surprised if Tampa looks to mix things up by getting the ground game going.

This is another close one. I think I’m leaning one way in terms of overall talent, but when I take health and opportunity into account, things tighten up a bit. Still, I think talent wins out here.

Advantage: Kansas City

Wide Receiver

From the least exciting skill position matchup to the most exciting. There is a staggering amount of pass catching talent on both teams here. We’re talking multiple elite Pro Bowl-caliber wideouts on the field and third receivers who’d be the number one guy on a dozen NFL teams.

The Kansas City conversation starts, of course, with Tyreek Hill. Hill’s blinding speed has proven to be a headache for defenses all year; he’s the sort of player who is a threat to score on every play, no matter where you are on the field. If Tampa is smart, they double him all day. Of course, that provides opportunities for the likes of Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson, not to mention Sammy Watkins if he’s healthy. Expect Hill to see the ball come his way A LOT, but if the Bucs overcommit to stopping him, don’t be surprised to see one of these other names have a monster game.

While Tampa Bay doesn’t have anyone quite as good as Hill, they’ve got a couple of guys who are pretty close in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Godwin is a master at getting open in the middle of the field, so he’ll get his looks. Plus, he’s in a contract push, so there’s that extra touch of motivation. Conversely, Evans is a physical matchup nightmare, a receiver who will almost always come out on top in a coinflip situation – particularly if it’s in the end zone, where he has been deadly all year. Plus, you have third receiver Scotty Miller, who has shown aptitude in the slot and often catches his quarterback’s eye, and maybe even Antonio Brown.

Here’s the thing: Hill is definitely the best receiver on either team, but the gap between him and Godwin and Evans isn’t enough to make up for the overall depth advantage of the Bucs.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Tight End

Funnily enough, this is a similar situation to the quarterback matchup, where we have one of the best tight ends of the moment going up against one of the best tight ends of all time. However, this one isn’t really that close.

KC’s Travis Kelce is probably the best tight end in the NFL. There are a couple of guys who could maybe make a claim, but in terms of sheer production and on-field performance, it’s tough to argue against Kelce. He is a matchup nightmare – too fast for linebackers, too physical for defensive backs – and an underrated blocker (though he won’t be spending much time in the trenches). In terms of sheer talent, he might be the second-best player on the field behind only his QB. No one has had much luck in shutting him down to this point in his career, so it’s probably wishful thinking for the Buccaneers to think they can manage it.

Now, Kelce might be on his way to becoming the best tight end of all time, but he still has some work to do to pass his counterpart on the other sideline. Rob Gronkowski spent much of the 2010s redefining and elevating the tight end position from an offensive standpoint. Catching, blocking and especially scoring were his forte. Now, he’s not the same guy he was even a couple of years ago – time and injuries have eroded his once-formidable skill set. And he’s been kind of a non-entity in these playoffs thus far. And yet … would it be that surprising if he went off in the Super Bowl? An all-timer, but one who has reached the end of the line.

Again, Gronk is a legend, a no-doubt Hall of Fame player. But that was then. Today, he simply can’t match the sheer physical prowess of Travis Kelce.

Advantage: Kansas City

Offensive Line

Now, no team can put up the kind of offensive numbers that we’ve seen from these squads without first-rate play from the offensive line. However, some late-stage injuries might well have ultimately tipped the balance.

The Chiefs O-line has been a major contributor to the team’s recent success. The line’s pass protection in particular has been exceptional, allowing Mahomes plenty of time to handle his business. However, that unit took a massive hit when left tackle Eric Fisher went down with an Achilles injury in the AFC championship. Losing such an immense talent at such an important position is absolutely going to have a negative impact – particularly when you take into account the abilities of the guys who will be across the line. One has to hope the reshuffled group finds a way to cohere; keep an eye on Mike Remmers, who has moved from right tackle to take Fisher’s spot.

The Buccaneers offensive line is certainly healthier than that of the Chiefs, with no major injury issues to speak of. They’ve got some interesting dudes for sure – my personal favorite is Ali Marpet, the Pro Bowl guard who played his college ball at Division III Hobart of all places. And they’ve got rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs, who despite his inexperience might be the best offensive lineman in this game now that Fisher’s out. They’ve proven quite good at maintaining a pocket for Brady – no small thing when your QB is of a certain age – and should be able to hold up against the Kansas City pass rush without too much trouble.

With Eric Fisher in the mix, this is pretty close. Maybe even a push. Without him, it’s an easy call.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Defensive Line

This is another great matchup of talent. The truth is that while the majority of the attention is paid to the quarterback battle, this game may very well be decided in the trenches. Protecting and attacking the QB will be the key.

Kansas City’s defensive line efforts begin with defensive tackle Chris Jones. He’s a phenomenal run-stuffer, but it is his ability to pressure Brady from the interior that will prove most impactful. He needs to wreak his usual havoc. If he can do that, then guys like Frank Clark – whose sluggish season belies his top-notch edge rushing ability – will have a chance to get loose and do some damage. He’ll need to, because the Chiefs don’t really have a ton of big-play sack guys – Tanoh Kpassagnon and Derrick Nnadi are capable players, but more generally effective against the run. It’ll all boil down to the interior pressure and how that ripples outward.

Tampa Bay’s defensive line work has been quite impressive all season. They’ve got some elite names working the line, though the most famous name – Ndamukong Suh – isn’t quite what he used to be, though he did have a heck of a season. He’s still a force from the defensive tackle position, though. William Gholston is another familiar name, though one whose skills have also faded somewhat. Still, as a unit, they’ve performed admirably against some top-notch offensive attacks. Their success here will hinge largely on how they’re able to take advantage of the hobbled Chiefs O-line and set the stage for the team’s elite linebackers to swoop through.

Surprise, surprise – another close one. Honestly, I think you could pick either one of these groups as superior and feel pretty good about it. Me? I’m not picking either.

Advantage: Push

Linebackers

Now, I don’t want to disparage any of the position groups. These are Super Bowl teams – all these units are very talented. However, I feel like it is safe to say that this one is probably the most lopsided of the bunch.

There are some talented dudes playing linebacker for the Chiefs, though they might not get as much attention as some of the other more celebrated players on the team. Anthony Hitchens is a solid all-around LB, a good tackler with some pass rushing skills and quality coverage ability. Damien Wilson is another guy who is a solid overall performer, though again – not particularly sexy. This is probably the least well-known of any of these groups. They’re a decent bunch, of course – you’re highly unlikely to make the Super Bowl with an actively bad position group – but they’re ultimately nothing to write home about.

The Buccaneers, on the other hand, might have the most talented linebacking corps in the NFL. We’ll start with Shaq Barrett, who is one of the best pass rushers in the league – dude had three sacks in the NFC championship matchup with Green Bay. Just a dominant force. You won’t find a better pair of inside linebackers than Lavonte David and Devin White, who are among the league’s best at the position. Oh, and just for fun, let’s throw in the resurgent Jason Pierre-Paul, who got a couple sacks of his own against the Packers. Top to bottom, this is an elite collection of players, guys who can do literally anything you need your linebackers to do.

This might be the only no-brainer of this entire preview. Nothing against the Kansas City crew, but this one is all Buccaneers.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

Secondary

This is another spot where the battle could potentially be won or lost. Both of these teams are going to throw the ball, so it stands to reason that the team that is better at preventing that will come out on top.

Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu has been a fan favorite ever since he came into the league. He took his game to another level this season, picking off six passes in the regular season and snaring another in the playoffs. Bashaud Breeland shut down Stefon Diggs and will try to do the same to (probably) Mike Evans. Charvarius Ward has been excellent all year as well. K.C. even has the league’s best rookie cornerback in L’Jarius Sneed. This crew is just jam-packed with playmakers, guys who can work in coverage, but who can also impact the game in other ways as well. They’re one of the few teams with the numbers and talent to handle the Bucs wideouts.

Tampa Bay’s secondary has been up-and-down – they’re a group that really flies around the field looking for big plays, which can (and has) come back to bite a team. Still, they’ve got a phenomenal rookie playmaker in rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and a number of opportunistic guys with a nose for the ball. Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Jamel Dean – all solid performers. And that doesn’t even count Sean Murphy-Bunting, who has picked off a pass in all three playoff games thus far. Again, their ongoing quest for big plays can leave them vulnerable to getting burned, but it’s hard to fault their passion and ambition.

There’s talent on both sides, obviously. But while Tampa Bay’s secondary seems to be the slightly hotter hand at the moment, I still like the way the Chiefs match up a bit better.

Advantage: Kansas City

Special Teams

It’s funny to think about, but in a game where both offenses are potent, it all might come down to a few points and/or a well-timed field position victory.

It’s tough for me to be unbiased about the Kansas City kicking game because I’m a big fan of placekicker Harrison Butker. He’s got a big leg and is one of the more accurate kickers in the league. That said, he has missed both a field goal and an extra point thus far in the postseason. Punter Tommy Townsend hasn’t seen the field much in the playoffs – in three games, he’s kicked just once (but he did land it inside the 20). As for the return game, it’s down to Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle. Both are extremely fast, but one worries about their ability to consistently field kicks. Still, if they catch it clean, watch out.

Meanwhile, Ryan Succop has been a quality kicker for the Bucs all season. He’s had a good postseason as well, converting on all eight of his field goal attempts (though he too missed an extra point). Not a huge leg, but a consistent one. Punter Bradley Pinion has been far busier than his counterpart, with nine punts thus far, including six inside the 20. As for the return game, Jaydon Mickens has looked pretty good throughout, racking up nearly 150 yards on seven tries (though a big chunk came on a 43-yard return against Green Bay). He’s fine, though if Antonio Brown is healthy, he likely takes over return duties.

Both quality units, but with all things being equal, I have to go with my heart. Love you, Harrison.

Advantage: Kansas City

Coaching

Tough to argue against the ongoing success that Andy Reid has had during his time in Kansas City. To even get back here after winning the title last year is impressive, but this group shows no sign of slowing down. Reid’s innovative offensive schemes have given Mahomes, Hill, Kelce and the rest the opportunity to truly shine. And if the defensive side doesn’t ascend to quite the same heights, not to worry – they’re still pretty darned good. Reid remains one of the most thoughtful and open-minded game planners in the NFL – the Buccaneers are going to have to bring their A-game if they want to get past one of the best in the game.

Of course, Bruce Arians is no slouch either, though he is a bit of a weirdo. For him to find a way to seamlessly integrate an incoming veteran like Brady – a legend – is incredibly impressive. And the defensive crew he’s assembled is top-tier as well, particularly in terms of rushing the passer. He’s done good work getting his team to this spot; one could argue that there were at least a couple of teams that, in terms of talent and seasonal performance, should have beaten them along the way. Instead, he’s on the verge of history – a Super Bowl victory on his home field.

Kudos to Coach Arians for getting his team here and overcoming the odds. However, there’s no way to give him the nod over Reid, who has quite simply shown himself to be one of the best (if not THE best) coaches in the league over the past couple of seasons.

Advantage: Kansas City

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And there we have it. By my final tally, I’ve got it as Kansas City 6 – Tampa Bay 3 with one push. While that might look like a big gap on paper, the truth is that almost all of these matchups are very close. And in a matchup with teams like these, the margin for error is razor-thin; in truth, this game might very well come down to one or two inopportune mistakes.

I think it will be very difficult for the Bucs to slow down this Kansas City attack. However, I also think that the shuffling of the Chiefs’ offensive line could prove to be troublesome – particularly if the Tampa Bay linebackers get going. My guess? This is going to be a high-scoring game that stays close well into the fourth quarter – maybe even into the final seconds.

In the end, I’m going with the Chiefs. It may not surprise you to learn that the incredibly smart and adorable Stella disagrees with my pick. She too admires the potent Kansas City offense, but she’s a believer in the big-win energy that Tom Brady brings to the table. She agrees that it will be close and fairly high-scoring, but she thinks that the Buccaneers will triumph in the end.

Allen’s prediction: Kansas City 42 – Tampa Bay 35

Stella’s prediction: Tampa Bay 35 – Kansas City 31

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 February 2021 13:17

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