It’s the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Patrick Mahomes versus Tom Brady. There are significant legacy implications at stake. Our NFL writers cover that and more for Super Bowl LV.
Who wins and why?
Danny Heifetz: Kansas City. The young devour the old.
Kaelen Jones: The Chiefs because they have Patrick Mahomes. Doesn’t matter if they start slow—they’ll go on a run at some point. Unless the Bucs get vintage Tom Brady, good luck to them holding Mahomes and Co. in check for 60 minutes.
Danny Kelly: The Chiefs just feel inevitable at this point. Kansas City has lost, what ... one meaningful Patrick Mahomes–quarterbacked game in the past calendar year? This is an extremely difficult team to beat. I could talk about Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones, and all the core pieces for the Chiefs, but really I’m just betting on Mahomes delivering again. Yes, even against Tom Brady.
Riley McAtee: The Chiefs give me 2016-18 Warriors vibes. They’ve had some close calls this season, but they can flip the switch whenever they want.
Nora Princiotti: Kansas City, because a great passing offense and a good passing defense is the best way to win a Super Bowl until proved otherwise. Also, all of us, because I think after the game we don’t have to see that promo for the Weeknd’s halftime show anymore? I like the Weeknd, but this has gone on for too long.
What’s at stake in this game for Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady?
Heifetz: A Brady win means he gets GOAT status with no take-backsies.
Jones: In the eyes of the public, Mahomes needs to win to supplement his case to be considered the GOAT. A Brady win would make him as close to immovable as possible; losing leaves the door open for Mahomes to eventually catch and surpass him.
Kelly: Mahomes has the chance to add to his legend by knocking off the all-time greatest quarterback in Brady, and he may never get that chance again. For Brady, there’s really nothing to lose—if he wins, it’s just another example of how he’s the GOAT; if he loses, he’s still the GOAT.
McAtee: It will take years before Mahomes has a résumé long enough to put him in the GOAT conversation, but a loss on Sunday could permanently close off his path. That makes the stakes for Brady pretty high as well—he can cement himself as the GOAT for a very long time with a win.
Princiotti: Brady secured a Hall of Fame legacy a long time ago and Mahomes seems poised to do the same, so what’s at stake for the two quarterbacks is how they’re viewed relative to each other. If Brady wins, Mahomes will have to hope they meet in a high-stakes playoff game again or face a lifetime of fogy talk-show criticism that he couldn’t beat Brady when it counted, no matter how many Super Bowls he goes on to win. If Mahomes wins, then Brady failed to defend the wall against a Chiefs team that will be one Lombardi Trophy closer to matching or exceeding his (and New England’s) total.
The Chiefs are favored to win. Make the case for the Bucs to pull off the upset.
Jones: Tom Brady is the luckiest player in NFL history. This is *NOT* a dig. He’s also super clutch and has one of the NFL’s best defenses. Unlike Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers last year, if Tampa Bay is up by two possessions with seven minutes left, I think I’ll trust Brady to put it away or at least hold Kansas City off. ... I think.
Kelly: The Buccaneers have Tom Brady. It also helps that Tampa Bay has one of the most balanced and deepest overall rosters in the NFL. But mostly yeah, if I’m Kansas City, I’m kinda worried about this Brady guy.
McAtee: I’m not sure exactly how the Buccaneers had only one Pro Bowler (Jason Pierre-Paul), but it might be because this is arguably the most balanced group in the league. That’s particularly true on the defensive side of the ball, where Tampa Bay has a leg up on Kansas City. The Bucs ranked fifth in defensive DVOA while the Chiefs ranked 22nd. Lavonte David and Devin White make up the best linebacker duo in the game; the pass-rushing group—led by Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Shaquil Barrett—can create havoc for Mahomes; and the secondary has a quartet of rising stars in Antoine Winfield Jr., Jordan Whitehead, Carlton Davis, and Sean Murphy-Bunting. No one can shut down the Chiefs offense, but the Bucs may be able to at least slow it down.
Princiotti: This game might be played in the slop—it’s supposed to rain on Sunday in Tampa—and that could make it more difficult for Kansas City’s offense to execute and could favor a Bucs team that can attack the Chiefs’ run defense. Also, Tom Brady is in cahoots with higher powers who deliver unto him a perfect jawline and endless playoff wins.
The Chiefs are the comeback kings. What’s the largest deficit they would have to face for you to think the game is out of reach?
Heifetz: I’ve given this a lot of thought and the answer is 29 points with nine minutes left.
Jones: Seventeen points with four minutes left.
Kelly: Honestly … like, 30 points? 35?
McAtee: The most points the Chiefs have scored in a single quarter under Mahomes is 28, which they’ve actually done twice—once against the Raiders in Week 1 of the 2019 season and once against the Texans in last year’s divisional-round playoff game. It takes a perfect storm to score 28 points in one frame of action, but I’ll treat that as the benchmark before I count Mahomes out. That means they need to be losing by more than 28 points at the start of the fourth quarter before I consider the game over. And yes, I won’t throw in the towel at halftime unless they’re down by more than 56.
Princiotti: Completely? Oh, I don’t know, 100 points for completely—it would have to be something dumb like that. If we’re talking what deficit they’d need to face for me to feel like they’d probably have a tough time coming back, I’ll say that at 31 points down, I’d start to feel like it might be too steep a climb. The largest comeback in franchise history was the 24-point rally against the Texans in last year’s playoffs, but Kansas City went on to win that game by 20 points!
What matchups are you most excited to watch?
Heifetz: I want to see how on God’s green earth the Bucs decide to guard Travis Kelce. Both Bucs safeties being banged up does not help.
Jones: Patrick Mahomes vs. Tampa Bay’s defense. Vague? Sure, but it’s like saying Steph Curry vs. the Cavs in 2016, or Lionel Messi vs. Real Madrid. It’s generational wonder vs. the best possible opponent—one that also features a generational talent (but Mahomes and Tom Brady won’t directly match up against one another).
Kelly: I’ll be interested to see how the Buccaneers adjust to matching up with Tyreek Hill, who racked up 13 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns the last time these teams met in Week 12. Whether they double-team him or try some newfangled coverage shell, it should be fascinating to watch how Tampa Bay tries to deal with Hill’s speed.
McAtee: When these two teams met in Week 12, Hill did most of his work against Tampa Bay defensive back Carlton Davis. I’ll be watching to see how the Bucs secondary adjusts.
Princiotti: Tampa Bay’s front seven against Kansas City’s offense. I say offense instead of just the offensive line, because Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, and Ndamukong Suh are a clear mismatch against the Chiefs’ banged-up offensive line. They will be able to beat a fair number of their blockers, but where it gets interesting is that Mahomes is so mobile and effective at throwing on the run. One misconception about Mahomes is that pressure doesn’t bother him: When Mahomes isn’t pressured, he completes passes at a rate 2.3 percentage points higher than expected, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. When he is under pressure, that drops to 7.9 points below the expectation. Pass rush may not always bother Mahomes, but it’s one of the few things that slows him down. It’s a lot easier said than done, but Tampa Bay has the personnel to try.
Who’s a possible X factor for each team?
Heifetz: Pass rush. Kansas City’s left tackle, Mike Remmers, gave up three sacks the last time he played in a Super Bowl. Kansas City’s right tackle, Andrew Wylie, used to be their starting right guard. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers edge rushers are Shaq Barrett (who led the NFL in sacks in 2019) and Jason Pierre-Paul, who sacked Aaron Rodgers twice two weeks ago. This is the matchup that may decide the game.
Jones: For the Bucs, cornerback Jamel Dean. He didn’t play in the first matchup and could potentially slow down Tyreek Hill. He’s got the best chance (read: speed) of any Bucs cornerback in that matchup.
For the Chiefs, offensive tackle Mike Remmers. He’s filling in at left tackle for Eric Fisher; Andrew Wylie is sliding from right guard to right tackle. They’ll face a rotation of Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, and will be the difference between Mahomes thriving or being hounded in the pocket.
Kelly: For the Buccaneers, it feels like tight end Rob Gronkowski is still flying under the radar. He might be slower than he used to be, but the dude can still box out a defender and makes for a dangerous red zone weapon for Brady. As for the Chiefs, wide receiver Mecole Hardman has the speed to take advantage of even the slightest misstep by the Tampa Bay defense.
McAtee: For the Buccaneers, I’ll take Gronkowski. When he has a good game, it opens up the Tampa Bay offense—great tight ends are hard to find but as valuable as ever, as both offenses have shown. For the Chiefs, give me Chris Jones. He’s the Chiefs’ best pass rusher, and getting pressure on Brady has always been a sure way to knock him out of his rhythm.
Princiotti: For Kansas City, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Spags has called five games against Brady and he’s 3-2, including a win in Super Bowl XLII when he was with the Giants. The Chiefs’ offense deserves the bulk of the attention, but Spagnuolo seems to do his best game-planning work in significant moments—a Monday Night Football win against the Ravens in Week 3 and the AFC championship game were two of his best outings this season.
For Tampa Bay, defensive tackle Vita Vea. Vea will probably not win Super Bowl MVP—his position on the inside won’t fill a stat sheet—but if he does his job well, it frees up Barrett and Pierre-Paul to focus on attacking Kansas City’s backup tackles.
What’s the biggest impediment to the Chiefs’ burgeoning dynasty?
Heifetz: Patrick Mahomes needs to stop picking up these little injuries like he’s Anthony Davis.
Jones: The rest of the AFC being loaded with young franchise QBs. I’m not sure which team could be the Chiefs’ biggest threat—the Ravens? Bills? Browns? Hell, the Chargers? Deshaun Watson’s potential new team? Several teams in the conference have a great quarterback or are set to potentially have one. Can any team emerge as a legitimate contender to the Chiefs or get the better of them during the postseason behind a capable QB?
Kelly: The barbershop.
McAtee: Just, well, everything. The NFL isn’t built for dynasties—it’s built for parity. A few years ago, we would have asked this question about the Seahawks, but the Legion of Boom–led rosters went on to win just one Super Bowl. The only dynasties in the 21st century are the Patriots and the Patriots—unless you get generous and include the Steelers and their two Super Bowls, but I wouldn’t count that as a “dynasty.” Injuries happen, decline can come quick, free agency looms, and—most importantly—the league evolves. It’s almost impossible to build a team that lasts. If the Chiefs aren’t a perennial Super Bowl favorite in a few years, it won’t be because of just one reason, it’ll be a combination of issues—and that’s just the way the NFL is designed.
Princiotti: Tom Brady! If the Bucs win, he’ll have blocked Kansas City from winning back-to-back Super Bowls. He already denied them a trip to Super Bowl LIII in Mahomes’s first full year as a starter. Plus, he’s going to play until he’s 100.
Regardless of the result, what’s the biggest offseason question facing each team?
Heifetz: How to build a contender around their quarterback for the next 10 years.
Jones: For the Bucs, how and where they can upgrade? I’ll bet Tom Brady returns. Plus, they will have the seventh-most cap space of any team. Who will join a loaded squad set to once again contend for a NFC crown?
For the Chiefs, what playmakers will they add in the draft? As Kansas City GM Brett Veach explained to Kevin Clark, the Chiefs are among the best at fitting their system to maximize genuine talents. I’m curious to see which Kansas City draftees immediately contribute in 2021.
Kelly: For the Chiefs, finding a solid no. 2 receiver (neither Sammy Watkins nor Mecole Hardman has really worked out) might make that offense literally invincible. For the Buccaneers, it’s whether or not they keep the band together: Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Chris Godwin, Ndamukong Suh, and a handful of other key contributors are set for unrestricted free agency.
McAtee: The Bucs have a ton of free agents. The Chiefs are in a bit of a better situation—the most notable name they may need to re-sign this offseason is Sammy Watkins. But both squads look primed to compete for Super Bowls for the near future.
Princiotti: Both these teams can have the luxury of continuity this offseason—the quarterbacks remain under contract, the Bucs are under the salary cap, and the Chiefs aren’t egregiously far over it. For Tampa Bay, the biggest question will be how they maintain their excellent pass rush with Barrett, Lavonte David, and Suh all hitting free agency. Kansas City will be moving into a phase as a franchise where, with Mahomes signed for the next decade, the floor has been set relatively high and the ceiling will be set based on how they prioritize resources to keep the right team around him. Safety Tyrann Mathieu will be entering the last year of his contract and has a $20 million cap charge. Mathieu has made a huge impact on the defense, so Kansas City should find a way to extend him and lighten that 2021 cap figure along the way.