Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: The Tom Brady Legacy
There is somewhat of a diminishing return on multiple championships. If you win just one, it is the defining moment of your life. But if you’re the greatest of all time, like Serena Williams, you end up with an overflowing trophy room and a hazy memory of how many Australian Opens you’ve won. What’s the difference between four championships and five? Five championships and six? But something feels special about Tom Brady’s seventh Super Bowl championship, which he won in a 31-9 rout over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Brady could have won anywhere in between five and 50 championships in New England, and it wouldn’t have done much to change my perception of him. Either Brady was the GOAT, or Patriots coach Bill Belichick was the GOAT, or the Brady-Belichick combo was the GOAT. (You could cycle through those three options until you got tired and decided to simply say the Patriots were cheaters.) But with the win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, Brady has now won a title with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; he has more Super Bowl wins than any franchise—yes, even more than the Patriots; and he has won both of his career playoff matchups with the meteoric superstar Patrick Mahomes—the only two playoff losses of Mahomes’s career.
This offseason, I assumed Brady’s late-career trip down to Florida would be like so many other ancient quarterbacks pushing things a bit too far. (I should mention that I closely watched Brett Favre play for the Jets.) Instead, Brady was one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season—better than he’d been in 2019 with the Patriots—and he won the Super Bowl. Prior to this year, every quarterback aged 43 and older in NFL history had combined for 21 passing touchdowns. Brady had 40 this season, the second most in the NFL. Winning the Super Bowl isn’t always a reflection of great play by the quarterback—think of Peyton Manning having a genuinely bad game in his last Super Bowl victory with the Broncos before immediately retiring. But Brady looked fine Sunday night, going 21-for-29 with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
It’s tough to comprehend what a seventh championship means when five was already the most incredible thing anybody had ever done. But before Sunday night, you could’ve viewed Tom Brady as just a function of the Patriots. Now his greatness is essentially impossible to explain. I don’t know how he won with another team; I don’t know how he won at this age. I just have to both fear and respect this thing we’ve never seen before and will never see again.
Loser: The Chiefs’ Replacement Offensive Line
There’s one simple stat that defines Super Bowl LV. Tom Brady was pressured four times on 30 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Info, while Patrick Mahomes was pressured 29 times on 56 dropbacks. Brady spent all night throwing out of a clean pocket; Mahomes spent all night scrambling for his life. Part of this is because the Buccaneers have a better pass rush than the Chiefs, and part is that the Buccaneers offense prioritized quick throws, while the Chiefs waited for receivers to get open downfield. But the main reason is obvious: Kansas City’s backup offensive linemen couldn’t block.
The Chiefs were without both of their offensive tackles on Sunday night. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has been out since Week 7 with a back injury, and left tackle Eric Fisher went down with an Achilles injury during the AFC championship game. Kansas City was also missing Kelechi Osemele, the starting left guard who tore tendons in both knees in Week 5, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, last year’s starting right guard who opted out of the season to serve as a doctor in Canada during the pandemic.
The result was something best described as a makeshift unit. Only one Chiefs offensive lineman (center Austin Reiter) started this game in the same position he played in the season opener. Mike Remmers—who spent most of the year at right tackle and is most famous for allowing Von Miller to win Super Bowl MVP back in 2016—filled in at left tackle. At right tackle was Andrew Wylie, who spent most of the year at right guard and had taken only two career NFL snaps at tackle before this season.
So on Sunday night, going up against a talent-free offensive line that wasn’t used to playing together, the Buccaneers sacked Mahomes three times, drew four offensive holding penalties, and kept the QB on the run all night long.
This play goes in the box score as an incomplete pass. But watch it and count the disasters:
Chiefs RT ends up do worried about Shaq Barrett’s speed he sets outside and leaves himself open for the inside game. pic.twitter.com/4oNoDk26da— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) February 8, 2021
The most obvious one is that Shaq Barrett gets past Wylie, the right tackle, in about half a second—which is about how long it’d take for him to get past you if you were playing in the Super Bowl. The second, less notable disaster involves left guard Nick Allegretti, who not only gets completely beaten by Jason Pierre-Paul but also tumbles to the ground with an earth-shaking thud. Then there’s the left tackle Remmers, who somehow gets beaten on a speed rush by 346-pound nose tackle Vita Vea—not exactly the way Vea normally wins. The Buccaneers were rushing four, and three of them got loose in comical fashion. This is what happens when Alabama pays East Somewhere Tech $1.75 million to lose by 70 in Tuscaloosa.
Did you like watching Barrett demolish Wylie on the right side? Here he is demolishing Remmers on the left. Remmers gets away with a hold, presumably because the refs felt bad about calling a hold on a guy who gave up a sack.
Mike Remmers at left tackle was never sustainable vs Tampa. pic.twitter.com/Q1ntcMI48T— John Ellis (@OnePantherPlace) February 8, 2021
On this play in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers got a two-for-one special on crushing QB hits:
One of Mahomes’s defining traits is that he demolishes blitzes. Going into the game, this seemed like it could be a problem for the Buccaneers, as their defense is led by blitz-happy coordinator Todd Bowles. Mahomes picked apart Tampa Bay’s blitzes when the teams met in Week 12. And when USA Today’s Steven Ruiz listed potential ways for the Buccaneers to win this game, he highlighted their need to find ways to pressure Mahomes without blitzing. Thanks to the Chiefs’ terrible offensive line, they did. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Bucs sent blitzes on only five of 52 dropbacks—and they got 29 pressures on Mahomes.
Offensive linemen may be some of the most forgettable players on the football field, but Super Bowl LV showed that they’re not replaceable. The Chiefs’ loss falls not on Mahomes, but on the not-quite-strong-enough shoulders of the players in front of him. Mahomes may be great, but no quarterback is great enough to win when they’re under pressure more often than not.
Winner: Patrick Mahomes’s Highlight Incompletions
I honestly can’t think of a signature moment from Super Bowl LV. There were no successful trick plays, no unbelievable touchdowns, no momentum-shifting turnovers. The longest touchdown of the night was on a run by Leonard Fournette, who continued the Saga of Playoff Lenny.
And so the most incredible play of the game was … probably this incompletion from Patrick Mahomes. After yet another offensive line breakdown, Mahomes was left trying to escape Bucs pass rusher William Gholston. Gholston eventually snagged Mahomes’s ankle, but as the QB was falling, he managed to make a throw—one that traveled 30 yards in the air, sailed over the outstretched fingertips of Bucs defender Devin White, and bonked into Chiefs running back Darrel Williams’s face before falling harmlessly to the turf.
Mahomes threw the ball like this:
Man doing everything he can pic.twitter.com/tSnvyoyAZy— CJ Fogler Ol' Steroid Ass #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) February 8, 2021
And it got to his intended target. Hit him right between the eyes.
There were at least five similar Mahomes Miracles in this game, and none of them mattered. Here’s the play directly before that one, where Mahomes somehow throws a pass to the end zone while spinning like a discus thrower and getting tackled. The throw got to receiver Byron Pringle but was slightly out of bounds:
This next one seems pedestrian compared to the others, but it’s still ridiculous. Mahomes sprints left and launches the ball directly at Tyreek Hill’s helmet with a wrist flick off his right foot. That’s right—Chiefs receivers dropped two touchdown passes that hit them in the face on Sunday. If this keeps up, Mahomes will need to start learning how to wedge the ball directly into the bars in his teammates’ face masks to make up for their absent hands.
Gotta love Tampa Bay dialing up a double corner blitz in the Super Bowl pic.twitter.com/HWOGMstZag— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) February 8, 2021
The Chiefs’ dismal offensive line helped to create these wacky scenarios. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes scrambled more Sunday night than any quarterback in any game since they started tracking this in 2016.
The Buccaneers pass rush forced Patrick Mahomes to bail out of the pocket and scramble all over the field.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 8, 2021
Mahomes traveled 497 yards before throwing the ball or being sacked, the most scramble yards in a game by any QB in the NGS Era (since 2016).#SBLV | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/pHhXrYxadX
Sunday night was brutal for Mahomes. The 22-point margin of defeat was the largest of his pro career—in fact, he’d never lost a pro game by more than eight points. (The last time Mahomes lost a game by multiple scores was in 2016, when Texas Tech lost by 56 to Iowa State.) The nine points were the fewest ever scored by a Mahomes-led offense … and I mean ever. I don’t think Mahomes has ever failed to score double-digits as a QB, in the pros, in college, or in high school. And yet, on a night his team got their asses kicked, a night when he threw multiple interceptions and no touchdowns, I still can’t help but marvel at how incredible a player he is. Sunday was the biggest setback of Mahomes’s pro career, and yet still a pretty great argument for how spectacular the guy can be.
Loser: The New England Patriots
America loves a reboot. That was proved in Super Bowl commercial after Super Bowl commercial on Sunday night. One ad featured the Wayne’s World guys. I’m 30 and I don’t remember Wayne’s World. Bud Light’s commercial was literally just a compilation of funny characters from past Bud Light commercials. Shaggy sang in a Cheetos ad, because (a) we love nostalgia, and (b) Shaggy was probably pretty cheap to book.
But the most successful reboot of the night was Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski combining for two touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At this time last year, Gronk was retired and throwing a Super Bowl beach party that I wouldn’t have paid to get into. Now the Patriots legend is tied for the Buccaneers all-time lead in postseason receiving touchdowns with two, both of which came Sunday night. What a reboot: Two legends from the team with the most championships of all time, winning for a team that has historically never won.
I get the sense that Sunday night was a happy night for fans of the long-eliminated Patriots, who got to watch Brady win his seventh title. On some level, I get it. Brady taught virtually the entire sub-40 population of New England to love football. How can you not want happiness for someone who brought you that much happiness? It’s honestly nice to see. Too often fans get resentful of former greats when they leave and cast ugly shadows on beautiful memories. It’s good not to hate your ex. Look—Tom Brady’s actual real-life ex is cheering for him, and it seems emotionally healthy.
But I have to wonder: How the hell did New England let this happen? Why didn’t they do everything they could to keep their GOAT from walking out the door? Why did they build the 32nd-best receiving corps in the NFL while the Buccaneers built the best?
Many franchises have sold out to win with their aging superstar. Sure, sometimes it ends badly, with no championships and a bleak period afterward. But when you have the greatest player in franchise/NFL history, you fight as hard as you can to keep the good times going for as long as you can. Instead, the Pats meekly made sensible moves while it became clear to Brady that other teams gave him a better chance to win.
New England can smile for Brady. But there’s a flip side to Tampa Tom’s Buccaneer bliss. For one, it dents the idea that Brady’s brilliance was tied to Bill Belichick. Tom looked just as good playing for Bruce Arians as he ever did in New England. But what’s worse is that the Patriots will always know that they could’ve won more with Brady. The Tom Brady legacy could’ve been entirely Patriots-centric; instead, he left the team when he still had gas in the tank and created an entire new chapter. The Pats didn’t do enough to ensure they would win all they could with the greatest player in NFL history. Six titles aside, that feels unconscionable.
Tyreek Hill is pretty much the only NFL player who gets away with celebrating at opponents. When the league’s fastest receiver sprints past defenders into the end zone, he likes to flash a peace sign at them—a quick, disrespectful way of saying “See ya later!” to guys who will never catch him. Technically, celebrating at an opponent is taunting, but Hill hasn’t been flagged or fined for throwing up the deuce since 2019. And it’s not like defenders can do anything about it—if they were to get mad and tackle him in the end zone, they would get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Hill had plenty of opportunities to celebrate against the Buccaneers in November in one of the most dominant single-game receiving performances in NFL history. Hill put up 269 yards in the contest, the most by any player in any game since 2016. He also had three touchdowns, including one where he backflipped into the end zone and another where he threw a peace sign up at safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Defensive backs do not have short memories. Sure, they’re supposed to—if you give up a touchdown, you’re expected to move on and make a better play next time. But have you ever met any defensive backs? They are a special breed. Some players dream of winning; defensive backs dream of making opposing receivers unhappy. They eat spite for breakfast and refuel with haterade. They go to sleep at night thinking about people saying mean things about them. They don’t get burned and forget about it; they get burned and plot their vengeance.
So when Winfield broke up a fourth-down pass to Hill that sealed the game on Sunday, he went right up to the receiver and turned Hill’s signature celebration against him:
i am CACKLING pic.twitter.com/MItW6FCy09— Christian D'Andrea, sim ruiner (@TrainIsland) February 8, 2021
Winfield was flagged for taunting. He didn’t care, and he’ll do it again:
“The taunting, man it's something I had to do. When we played them earlier Hill went off on us. He backflipped right in front of my face and give me the ✌ . So it was only right that I gave him the ✌ right back to him. it felt amazing to be able to do that.”-Antoine Winfield Jr— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) February 8, 2021
Up in the broadcast booth, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo feigned shock, like they were Joe Buck and they’d just seen Randy Moss’s mock-anus. But Winfield’s taunt was one of my favorite moments of the game, and in my opinion, perfectly justified. Hill has spent his career celebrating in the faces of defenders, and the NFL has decided it’s OK with that. We can’t act like it’s a massive issue when a defender gets payback. The only mistake Winfield made was not adding in a backflip, too.
Loser: A Failed Big Man Touchdown
Mahomes’s receivers dropped plenty of brutal passes on Sunday night, but there was an even more devastating drop early in the second quarter, and it came from the Buccaneers. Facing a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Tampa Bay drew up a trick play designed to get backup offensive lineman Joe Haeg a touchdown. Unfortunately, Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens sniffed out the play and put a hit on Haeg, causing the ball to pop loose. Sadly, his big offensive lineman hands are good at pushing massive opponents away, not reeling in small footballs.
I am a proud voter for the Piesman Trophy, which honors great achievements by linemen on atypical lineman plays. Sunday night would have been a historic moment in lineman history. So far as I can tell, Haeg would have been the first offensive lineman in Super Bowl history to gain yardage via a pass or run play. William “Refrigerator” Perry famously scored a touchdown for the Bears, and linebacker Mike Vrabel caught multiple Super Bowl touchdowns for the Patriots, but the big, burly, beautiful family of offensive linemen have a grand total of zero yards from scrimmage.
Vita Vea, the Buccaneers’ nose tackle, was also in the game on this play—and Vea did catch a touchdown pass last year, becoming the heaviest player to score a touchdown in NFL history. But Haeg had played 72 snaps as an eligible “tight end” for the Buccaneers this year, and they never ran a trick play targeting him. They spent all year teaching defenses not to worry about him in this exact scenario.
It was all set up perfectly—and it all came to nothing. Haeg got his opportunity on Sunday, but sadly he couldn’t complete the feat. Now we’re left waiting—and hoping—that maybe another lineman can next year.
Winner: Kevin Harlan
Most people watch the Super Bowl on TV—it’s famously the biggest TV event of the year. Between the commercials, the halftime show, and sure, the game, it’s the closest thing to a can’t-miss broadcast there is.
But if you happened to be listening to the game on the radio Sunday, you would have heard Kevin Harlan—an announcer most famous for his work on NBA broadcasts—one-up the TV guys with the best call of the night. Late in the fourth quarter, some idiot sprinted across the field, apparently fulfilling a lifelong dream of spending the night in a Tampa drunk tank. The TV broadcast quickly cut to commercial, as has long been the policy to discourage future fame-seeking streakers. But on the radio broadcast, Harlan went all-in on announcing the goal-line sprint of the barely clothed idiot. Here’s his call, spliced with footage of the moment:
Harlan clearly takes joy in doing over-the-top calls of things he shouldn’t—remember the Monday Night Football cat? Harlan may seem like he’s getting the bum end of a deal by calling this game on the radio while tens of millions more people watch on TV, but in this moment, he captured something TV cameras wouldn’t dare show and made it thrilling.