It’s pretty rare that any NFL game, much less the Super Bowl, is defined by a second-quarter drive. But one series of pre-halftime plays on Sunday served as a microcosm for the Buccaneers’ 31-9 blowout victory over the Chiefs.
With less than a minute to go before intermission, the Buccaneers got the ball on their own 29-yard line. What followed was a series of bad breaks for the Chiefs—in the form of self-inflicted mistakes and questionable officiating decisions—that wound up costing the team seven points. Those points alone wouldn’t have changed the result, but similar miscues and penalties throughout the game gave the Chiefs virtually no chance at defending their Super Bowl crown.
This was a drive that shouldn’t have even really happened. Tampa Bay got the ball in its own territory with 55 seconds left and promptly handed it off to Leonard Fournette. That indicated they were content to take their 14-6 lead into halftime. Rather than letting them, though, the Chiefs called a timeout, hoping to force a quick defensive stop and get the ball back. That was all the opening Tom Brady and Co. needed. On the next play, Brady found Chris Godwin for an 8-yard gain, and the Chiefs called an even riskier timeout before third-and-2.
The Buccaneers started that drive with just one timeout, so the Chiefs’ decision to stop the clock twice gave the Tampa Bay offense all the breathing room it needed. Brady converted the third down with a strike to Rob Gronkowski for 5 yards. And on the next play, Chiefs corner Bashaud Breeland fell down while covering Mike Evans, tripping the wide receiver and drawing a pass interference penalty:
The Bucs then gained 15 yards on a pass to Fournette, putting them on the 9-yard line with 13 seconds remaining. And on Brady’s ensuing end zone shot to Mike Evans, the Chiefs drew another pass interference call, this time against Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu:
On what planet is this catchable pic.twitter.com/WLB9mf4qaZ— Cody Tapp (@codybtapp) February 8, 2021
The penalty on that clearly uncatchable pass put the ball at the 1-yard line, and the Buccaneers converted on the next play (a Brady toss to Antonio Brown), sealing a perfect storm of errors for the Chiefs and sending the team into the locker room down 15 when they could have been down just eight.
That drive had everything. The timeouts were just classic bad decision-making by Andy Reid. After the Buccaneers marched down the field to score on the Packers just before halftime in the NFC championship game, Kansas City should have known to not to give Brady extra time with the football. The Breeland pass interference was just bad luck. And the second pass interference call was dubious at best. But these weren’t the only mistakes that doomed Kansas City.
Missed opportunities were the story of the game for the Chiefs, especially in the first half. Just before the Chiefs’ end-of-half blunder, another Bucs drive ended up in the end zone thanks to a combination of miscues and questionable flags. On a third-and-4 from the Kansas City 32-yard line, Brady threw a pass that was deflected at the line of scrimmage, then deflected again by Fournette, and ultimately caught by Mathieu. It was a game-changing interception … until a ticky-tacky defensive holding call negated the play and kept the ball with Tampa Bay.
Four plays later, the Chiefs forced a fourth down, and the Bucs went for a field goal. Unfortunately, Mecole Hardman lined up offside on the attempt—well past the line of scrimmage, in fact—which granted the Bucs a first down. Brady found Gronkowski in the end zone on the next play for a touchdown.
Kansas City also struggled with drops throughout the night. In the game’s early minutes, both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill botched crucial plays. Hill dropped an end zone throw that, had it been completed, would have changed the complexion of the game. The ball went through his hands and hit him in the helmet:
Even Kansas City’s punter, Tommy Townsend, got in the mix. The Chiefs had needed Townsend to punt just once in their previous two postseason games, but he had to boot the ball three times on Sunday, all in the first half. He shanked two of those kicks, and the third went into the end zone for a touchback. He ended up netting just 35.7 yards on average on his three punts.
By the end of the second quarter, the Chiefs had accumulated eight penalties for 95 yards—the most for the team in any first half under Reid. Reid did not see this kind of performance coming. Prior to Sunday, the coach was asked whether officials just “let players play” in the Super Bowl, and he said that “normally that takes place.” He added that his team was familiar with Carl Cheffers’s crew, and that, “I think they let you play within reason. They’re still going to call holdings and do those things, but within reason they’ll let you play.”
Cheffers’s crew actually led the league in flags thrown in 2020, averaging 16 per game. And that, combined with Kansas City’s sloppiness, led to 90 penalty yards for the Chiefs in the second quarter alone—the most in a single quarter in Super Bowl history.
Absolutely nothing clicked for the Chiefs in the second half, either. Midway through the third quarter, a Mahomes pass intended for Hill got broken up by Bucs safety Mike Edwards, and the ball somehow found its way to Antoine Winfield Jr.:
The Cincinnati kid Mike Edwards breaks up the pass for the interception on Patrick Mahomes. Winton Woods grad making big plays in the Super Bowl. pic.twitter.com/2ul33OHVUh— Brandon Saho (@BrandonSaho) February 8, 2021
In the fourth quarter, Mahomes made what should have been one of the greatest throws ever, scrambling away from pressure before launching a football toward the end zone while his body was parallel to the ground. It hit running back Darrel Williams in the hands, and Williams dropped it:
It’s a major testament to Mahomes that his team didn’t score a touchdown and he threw two picks in a blowout loss, and yet everyone who watched the game would agree that he remains an incredible NFL quarterback. This collapse was about the team. Kansas City came into Sunday having never lost by more than eight points under Mahomes, and it fell by 22. The team finished with 120 yards in penalties and Mahomes, who was missing both of his starting tackles due to injury, was pressured on a whopping 57 percent of his dropbacks. That he even could make some of the throws he did shows just how talented he is. But when his wide receivers couldn’t make catches, his defense couldn’t stop the Bucs, and when the flags weren’t going Kansas City’s way, it was all but over.
On offense, defense, and special teams, Kansas City looked incapable of even sharing the field with the Buccaneers on Sunday. Was it missed chances, questionable officiating, or just being the lesser team that caused the Chiefs to miss out on back-to-back Super Bowl victories? The answer is yes.