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Super Bowl LV Was About QB Mythmaking, Just Not in the Way We Thought

Sunday was supposed to be a duel between two historically great quarterbacks. Tom Brady’s and Patrick Mahomes’s legacies did change in significant ways, but Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’s contribution determined the outcome.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’m going to let you in on a little industry secret: For big games, all sportswriters tend to write a little beforehand. And by a little, I mean a lot. A stray thought about a coach or a quarterback pops into your mind, and you start a Google Doc six days early. You’ll get some meaty paragraphs full of musings on legacy and a dash of mythmaking. I did not know who was going to win Super Bowl LV, but I knew what the story would be: Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. This was Michael Jordan hanging around long enough to face LeBron James in the NBA Finals. This was Diego Maradona facing Lionel Messi. This was Muhammad Ali fighting Mike Tyson for a world title. For two weeks, it was the only conceivable column to write after this game. And then Todd Bowles did the football equivalent of smashing my laptop. None of the quarterback showdown narrative came to fruition. I mean none of it. Delete, delete, delete. There was virtually no mythmaking. There was, however, a ferocious pass rush and a defensive coordinator ready to take advantage of a sloppy team with a patchwork offensive line. Bowles, the Bucs’ defensive coordinator, took the narrative, sent four pass rushers at it, and played two deep safeties until we shut up about it.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 on Sunday night to win their second Super Bowl in franchise history. Tom Brady won his seventh and his first without Bill Belichick. On paper, it is one of the biggest accomplishments of his career: defeating Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees on the road in the playoffs and winning a Super Bowl in his home stadium. All this during a season in which training camp was abbreviated, official in-person offseason activities were canceled, and any interaction outside of practice was severely limited. Getting up to speed with a new team was supposed to be hard. Brady’s offense got better as the season went along, and if it wasn’t already apparent, it is clear now that Brady chose his new team wisely. He was 21-of-29 passing on Sunday, for 201 yards, a nice day on mostly shorter passes. He was basically flawless, the reason he won the MVP. The Tampa Bay defense ensured he didn’t need to play like a superhero. Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, but we’ve known that for years. The Tampa Bay defense ensured that debate didn’t come up for air Sunday night.

Brady faced Mahomes in the Super Bowl and it felt like they were playing different games: Brady was pressured on four dropbacks, the fewest of any Super Bowl he’s played in, and Mahomes was pressured on 29, the most of any quarterback in any Super Bowl. That number speaks to how poorly Mahomes’s offensive line played—the Chiefs were the first team in history to have two backup tackles start a Super Bowl—and how dominant a force Brady’s was. A day that started out as a clear referendum on the legacies of two of the greatest passers the sport has ever seen ended in a lesson on the value of Bucs tackle Tristan Wirfs. Perhaps I should have known that this wouldn’t end up being an epic battle for the ages when Mike Remmers showed up in the Chiefs starting lineup. “Give credit to Todd [Bowles] for the job that he did. He got us,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman’s research shows this is the fewest points ever scored by a Mahomes-led team at any level. It is the first time Mahomes has lost by double-digits since a 2016 game against Iowa State when he played for Texas Tech.

The stunning part was that nothing changed as the game went along. Mahomes, down two scores in a big game, is expected to do amazing things. He leads the NFL in winning percentage when trailing and is tops in QBR and touchdowns scored. He makes miraculous comebacks look routine. Mahomes is to double-digit deficits what Liam Neeson is to “living a normal life but investigating some trouble.” It’s supposed to be the precursor to fireworks. They never came on Sunday. Mahomes was never Mahomes. Even when he spun out of trouble and launched a pass that every other Sunday finds a Chiefs receiver, it simply bounced off a face mask or was broken up by a Bucs defender. Mahomes has worked miracles every week for three years, and will again starting next September. What he taught us on Sunday is something we should have always remembered when watching him: What he’s been doing his whole career only seems easy. The Bucs were too good in all phases and the Chiefs simply made too many mistakes—from the pressures allowed, to the defensive breakdowns, to the historically high number of penalty yards, to dropped passes. Mahomes was far from perfect, but this loss is not on him. For two years, I have thought—and Mahomes has shown—that having him as your quarterback is all that matters in a big spot. We saw the limits of such a theory on Sunday.

A quick explanation of what transpired: In Week 12, these two teams faced each other and Tyreek Hill had 269 receiving yards, the bulk of which came against one deep safety. On Sunday, Bowles deployed two deep safeties, kept all of Mahomes’s passes in front of the defense, and let the Chiefs try to chip away on shorter throws. It was the most two-deep safety looks by a Bowles defense in the past five years. Good coaches make adjustments and Bowles is a good coach. This game plan was coupled with an absolutely dominant pass rush that wrecked the Chiefs at the line of scrimmage even without blitzing more than 10 percent of the time. Tampa Bay pass rusher Shaquil Barrett had eight pressures and a sack, and Ndamukong Suh had three pressures and 1.5 sacks. Five other players had multiple pressures. Kansas City, in response, chose not to help its linemen with extra blockers. The Chiefs used a five-man protection scheme 92 percent of the time—the third most of any team in the past five years.

Mahomes can throw even the most brilliant schemes in a trash can; he is a top-10 quarterback against literally every coverage a defense has ever invented. So Tampa Bay’s success was up to its individual talent—a fast, swarming group that was able to cover and make tackles. Linebacker Lavonte David was targeted 13 times but gave up only 60 yards—not perfect, but enough to slow down Kansas City’s skill players and allow the Bucs to get away with their coverages. The Bucs tried to take away the deep ball and get to Mahomes. They did both. Mahomes ran 497 yards before his passes while trying to evade the Bucs defense and find an open receiver, the highest-ever total of any quarterback this season, according to ESPN. The Bucs defense canceled the fireworks show.

Now, about those legacies. The talk coming into this game centered on its importance for the two quarterbacks. If Brady won, Mahomes wouldn’t have another chance to win the head-to-head battle as he embarks on his journey to rival Brady as the best to ever do it. There are some faults in this argument, the first being the assumption that this is the last time they’ll play each other. As it stands, oddsmakers have the Chiefs as next year’s Super Bowl favorite and the Bucs as tied for best odds of emerging from the NFC. The idea that Brady, who was second best in the NFL in deep yards this season, cannot make a return trip is shortsighted at best, even with players like Barrett, Chris Godwin, and Lavonte David approaching free agency. This may not be the last chapter for these two teams.

Brady is the only quarterback to beat Mahomes in the playoffs. The Mahomes-era Chiefs have trailed by 14 or more points three times in their history, all three of which came against teams led by Brady. I would like to see them play each other in a high-stakes game again. There’s also the matter, on Sunday night, of Brady’s spiritual win over Belichick after their first year apart, which I wrote about last week. Brady’s legacy is buoyed, obviously, by an incredible 2020 season that highlighted just how bad the Patriots’ skill players had become in recent years. His lack of mistakes in coach Bruce Arians’s aggressive offense, and his success throwing downfield, showed that Brady was capable of significantly more than he showed in New England in 2019. It also showed that Brady was smart as hell to get to a place like Tampa that could give him weapons to showcase his skill set at 43 years old. Julian Edelman had just 11 catches that gained more than 20 yards in Brady’s final two seasons in New England, and he was the top target on such throws. Brady had 36 completions for over 20 yards this season in Tampa. Belichick-Brady, like the Brady-Mahomes rivalry, will evolve into 2021. Heck, the Patriots and the Bucs play next season. Rob Gronkowski, by the way, the former Patriots tight end who joined Brady in Tampa and had two touchdowns on Sunday, also won his first title outside of New England. In the process, he helped settle a debate about who was best between himself and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, another 31-year-old tight end who is among the best ever at the position.

Assuming, however, that Brady and Mahomes never meet again in the Super Bowl, I do think Sunday’s result will be the first thing people bring up when debating their legacies. And, if you’ve seen cable sports over the past decade, you know there will be debate about the two for as long as there are hours to fill. Hopefully, we’ll also talk about the context of this game. Maybe the 10-part documentary on Mahomes in 2042 will bring that context up, at least. Mahomes has plenty of time to write his story, and he won’t be judged solely on rings. Aaron Rodgers is considered one of the most talented passers ever and he’s won only one ring. Dan Marino was the Mahomes of his era and he ended his career with zero Super Bowl wins. The debate about Mahomes vs. Brady, in 10 years’ time, will look a lot different than we think, and rings will be only part of it. And we’ll remember the uninspiring blowout in Super Bowl LV that gave us none of the story lines we asked the football gods for. Only three of Brady’s 21 completions were beyond 10 yards. He did not need to be superhuman, so he didn’t try. Mahomes was held to his worst game as a pro, maybe his entire football career. He tried to do it all, because he had to, and he simply didn’t have the runway.

Brady’s own legacy is secure. If, somehow, you thought he was solely a product of Belichick, please read the Wikipedia page for “football” and go from there. What he secured on Sunday night is the legacy of the first over-40 championship MVP, the athlete who has aged the best in American sports history. Bucs general manager Jason Licht deserves credit for stacking the team to the point that Brady would want to come to Tampa, and Brady deserves credit for maximizing Arians’s offense. The best thing you can say about Brady’s legacy is we barely have to talk about it anymore. Also this:

The Brady-Mahomes legacy debate to come is a different story, and is eventually going to suck up oxygen for as long as football is played. Its most important chapter was written on Sunday night. Now it is up to Mahomes to change it, or Brady to keep the case closed. Brady is not done, even at 43, and Mahomes is signed through 2031 with the best offensive head coach in football. So yes, Sunday was like if Jordan and James played, but then Ron Harper made the difference. Or Sergio Busquets rendered Marodona-Messi moot. Quarterbacks never face each other at the same time, and quarterback wins are not a stat, but it’s still how we build our football myths. There were no myths on Sunday. Just Brady doing Brady things, and Bowles keeping Mahomes from doing Mahomes things. I am, however, saving those paragraphs I wrote. Neither player’s story is over. Thank the football gods for that.