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SUPER BOWL LV: The Super Bowl has become a cultural phenomenon, an event that is more about entertainment, big business, and America itself than it is about football. It’s been the stage for political protests, celebrations of unity, corporate imperatives, and celebrity weirdness, and this year, fittingly, there will be fewer people on the stage and in the stands than ever before. That we made it here at all is a minor miracle considering what’s happened to the world over the past 10 months, and a credit to the NFL for how they’ve managed the situation, taking the middle road between the fearmongers and the life-as-normal crowd and somehow avoiding both game cancellations and serious COVID-related illnesses.

Our prize for enduring this unusual season marked by empty stadiums and testing protocols is a dream Super Bowl for fans and league executives alike. In one corner we have the defending champs, led by the defending league MVP and current baddest-QB-on-the-planet, Patrick Mahomes, and his cadre of weapons. In the other corner, the greatest QB to ever lace them up, Tom Brady, playing in his record 10th Super Bowl and leading an offense that has more skill-position talent than Brady has seen since the days of Randy Moss taking the top off of defenses in New England.

This is a historic matchup, and that’s not hyperbole: not only is it the first time a team (Tampa, in this case) has hosted a Super Bowl in their home stadium, it’s also the first Super Bowl featuring two quarterbacks who have each won a Lombardi Trophy and the MVP award, as well as being the first time we’ve seen the NFL’s top two passing offenses meet in the big game. The Chiefs have won 12 of their past 13 games, a stretch which includes a 27-24 victory over the Bucs in Week 12, but the Bucs have been unstoppable since then, reeling off 7 straight wins and scoring 30 points or more in each of their last 6 games.

Kansas City is the betting favorite, but for some reason it feels like Tampa is the team with more momentum. Here’s a quick rundown of what we can expect to see, and, of course, a fearless prediction:

Super Bowl LV

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Line: Kansas City -3 (56)

Recent Trends (ATS- against the spread)

  • The Chiefs are 4-1 ATS in their last 5 playoff games
  • The Chiefs are 11-5 ATS in their last 16 games vs. a team with a winning record
  • The Chiefs are 2-8 ATS in their last 10 games overall
  • The Buccaneers are 4-0 ATS in their last 4 games as an underdog
  • The Buccaneers are 4-1 ATS in their last 5 games overall
  • The underdog is 4-1 ATS in the last 5 meetings between these two teams
  • In his career, Patrick Mahomes is 27-13-1 ATS when not a double-digit favorite
  • In his career, Tom Brady is 41-17-1 ATS as an underdog
  • The underdogs are 13-6 ATS in the last 19 Super Bowls

When the Buccaneers have the ball…

The Tampa offense undoubtedly improved over the course of the season, which came as no surprise considering the change at quarterback and the addition of other prominent new faces like Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski. Despite looking a bit disjointed early on, Brady had the Bucs rolling by December, and over the season’s final few weeks the offense was clicking on all cylinders, finishing the year ranked second in passing yards and third in points scored. It’s worth noting that the current hot streak didn’t really get going until after the Week 12 loss to Kansas City, a game in which Brady was consistently harassed and intercepted twice.

In that game, which Kansas City basically controlled throughout after jumping out to a 17-0 first quarter lead, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo repeatedly dialed up the pressure, sending extra pass rushers on nearly half of Brady’s attempts. This was markedly different from the way Spagnuolo defended Brady in their most famous meeting, Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants memorably upset the then-undefeated Patriots. In that game, the Giants played soft in the secondary, intending to take away the deep pass, and relied on their front four to disrupt Brady. But these are different teams, of course, and the Chiefs have neither the personnel in the secondary nor the pass-rushers up front (with the notable exception of Chris Jones) to replicate that strategy. They’ll undoubtedly try to turn up the heat on Brady again, as it’s no secret that he’s much less effective when pressured, but with the way Brady has played over the past 6 weeks, and his obvious comfort level within the offense, the Chiefs have to be awfully concerned that he’ll make them pay for any blitz packages they dial up. The Spagnuolo vs. Brady matchup will be one of those fascinating games within a game.

Another thing that must be considered is Kansas City’s atrocious red zone defense, which was the worst in the NFL by a wide margin this season. The Chiefs allowed a touchdown on 76.6% of opponents’ red zone possessions, an unthinkably high number and a major concern against a diverse offense like Tampa’s. Remember: while Brady and the passing game get most of the headlines, the Bucs also have a very effective RB tandem in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones. Fournette in particular has been on a tear lately, rushing for 211 yards and a pair of TDs on 48 carries this postseason. The Chiefs have had trouble keeping teams out of the end zone all season, and it won’t get any easier in this game.

When the Chiefs have the ball…

Can anybody stop this Kansas City offense? After three years of watching Patrick Mahomes effortlessly dissect opposing defenses, the answer appears to be a resounding “NO”. The Chiefs led the league in total offense this season, averaging over 415 yards per game, and Mahomes ranked second in passing yards behind only Deshaun Watson. When these teams met in Week 12 Mahomes torched the Bucs to the tune of 462 yards and 3 TDs, throwing only 12 incompletions in 49 attempts, and though you may not be able to stop him entirely, it goes without saying that the Bucs need to do a much better job of at least slowing him down or disrupting him somewhat if they’re to have a chance in this game.

There are a lot of ways the Chiefs offense can hurt you, but the three main players who keep the whole thing running are Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill. When defenses have played two safeties deep in an attempt to take away the big downfield plays, Kelce feasts in the short-to-intermediate passing game, providing Mahomes with a target that is too big to be effectively covered by safeties and cornerbacks and too fast to be covered by linebackers. When defenses try to take Kelce away or show Mahomes single-high safety looks, Hill can burn them in an instant, as no one in the league can stay with him in man coverage. The Bucs tried to mix their coverages up the first time these teams met, but they were caught too often in single-high looks and Hill had a monstrous game, catching 13 balls for 269 yards and 3 touchdowns. You’d certainly think that Tampa defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is going to try something new this time around, but Mahomes has seen it all over the past couple of years, and, again, we’ve yet to see a defense come up with an effective plan for slowing down the Chiefs. It’s a “pick your poison” situation, truly.

One thing worth considering, however, is the state of the Kansas City o-line. Starting left tackle Eric Fisher tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship game, meaning the Chiefs have had to re-shuffle their line again (they had lost starters Kelechi Osemele and Mitchell Schwartz earlier this season). They now have backups playing both tackle positions, and center Austin Reiter is the only lineman remaining who will finish the season in his natural position, with everyone else having shifted around. That could be a problem against a Tampa defense that features two terrific edge rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett– if those two can stay in Mahomes’ lap for most of the game, it will limit the opportunities for the big plays downfield that absolutely killed the Bucs the first time around. Of course, many opponents have had similar grand plans… “if we can only do X, we can slow Mahomes down”. It doesn’t usually (ever?) work.

Prediction

This one has the potential to be an all-timer, and if Mahomes and the Chiefs can pull off the victory, they will be the undisputed kings of the sport. But as good as they’ve been, particularly on offense, one thing most don’t realize is that they actually had a lot of trouble putting teams away over the second half of the season, with 8 of their last 9 wins coming by 6 points or fewer. Considering the growth we’ve seen from Tampa’s offense over the past six weeks I think it’s reasonable to assume that Brady & Co. will put up plenty of points in this one, and though the Chiefs are tailor-made for a shootout, the injuries on the offensive line could become a factor, particularly if Mahomes is going to attempt 45-50 passes again. All things considered, the Bucs just feel like the slightly more well-rounded team at the moment, and I have a hunch they’ll pull off the upset and give Brady yet another feather in his cap.

Tampa Bay 34, Kansas City 30