The storylines write themselves for the Feb. 7 meeting between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. It’s the greatest quarterback to ever do it against the guy who might take that title from him one day. Is Patrick Mahomes on the verge of building a dynasty that can rival the one Tom Brady created in New England? The Buccaneers had to win three road games to play the biggest one of all at home. Will that matter at all with the limited number of fans in attendance?
While those questions won’t be answered until the final whistle, the 110 Sports crew is here to break down the key aspects of the matchup that will go a long way in determining what those answers are. Here are Josh, Josh and Chris’ three things to watch for in Super Bowl LV:
1. Tampa Bay’s interior lineman against Chris Jones
Nothing bothers Brady more than pressure up the middle and there are few players in the NFL better at providing it than his nemesis Chris Jones. When Brady has a clean pocket to work from, it can be easy to forget he’s 43 years old. We are quickly reminded of that fact when his protection is struggling. If there is one thing Brady’s three previous Super Bowl defeats have in common, it is the prominent role the opponent’s defensive line played. The Chiefs will be hoping to produce more than the one sack they got in this game last season.
2. Travis Kelce’s impact
Considering what the Indianapolis Colts’ tight ends did to the Buffalo Bills’ defense, it was not surprising to see Kelce haul in 13 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game. The 31-year-old is among the most unguardable players in the league, but he is facing a worthy adversary in the Tampa Bay defense led by Devin White, who has been outstanding in the playoffs. Slowing down the juggernaut that is Kansas City’s offense starts with finding a way to hold one of Mahomes’ favorite targets in check. Kelce is the most realistic option. Easier said than done, of course.
3. Kansas City’s versatile and deep secondary
Seven different defensive backs made at least three starts and played in more than half of Kansas City’s games during the regular season. With All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu and fellow safety Daniel Sorensen (who combined to pick off nine passes, by the way) as the standouts in the Chiefs’ secondary, they are well-equipped to handle Tampa Bay’s plethora of offensive weapons. There is not a huge dropoff from one cornerback to another and Mathieu’s wide range of skills allows defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to get creative. The Chiefs won’t be terrified of one particular matchup, but there isn’t a matchup they will feel incredibly confident in either.
1. Round two of Spagnuolo vs. Brady in the Big Game
Tom Brady won each of the first three Super Bowls he played in — 2001, 2003 and 2004 — but then ran into trouble in 2008 against a Giants defense run by the aforementioned Steve Spagnuolo. That Patriots team was at the time the highest-scoring in NFL history, and Spagnuolo was able to figure out how to slow one of the best offenses of all-time, keeping Brady out of his rhythm and under constant pressure. Back in their Week 12 victory over the Bucs, the Chiefs were able to do something similar, interrupting Tampa Bay’s offensive rhythm from the jump and recording eight quarterback hits. How uncomfortable Kansas City is able to make Brady out of the gate may go a long way in determining the outcome, because we all know the Chiefs have the offense to pull away and make a Brady-led comeback particularly difficult.
2. Next-man up for KC’s offensive line
Patrick Mahomes torched the Bucs in that Week 12 matchup, posting a 127.4 passer rating thanks to 462 passing yards and three touchdowns. But the Chiefs’ offensive line isn’t as strong as it was at the time due to multiple key injuries. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz remains sidelined with a back injury and left tackle Eric Fisher suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the AFC Championship Game. Led by Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, the Bucs’ fierce pass rush will work to apply constant pressure to Mahomes against a group that’s continuing to shift pieces to patch holes. This is essentially the flip side of my point above. Navigating pressure is important, but whichever quarterback faces less is likely to outpace and outplay his counterpart in a game where the small margins make a big difference.
3. What’s at stake
Unlike the other points, this isn’t a particular aspect or strategy to watch for, but rather what I’m reminding myself is on the line in this matchup. For the Chiefs, it’s the chance to be the first repeat champions in 16 years and cement the next great NFL dynasty. For the Bucs, it’s the opportunity to capture their first championship since 2002 and be the first team ever to win the Super Bowl on their home field. Mahomes is looking for his second Super Bowl title. Brady’s eyeing No. 7. And it’s hard to imagine either going down without quite a fight.
1. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, you have to stop one of them.
Two weeks ago, Kelce and Hill combined for 22 catches and 290 yards receiving. Mahomes completed only seven passes to other weapons in the AFC Championship Game but it really couldn’t matter less. Kelce and Hill were so good that they still put up 38 points with relative ease. If the Tampa Bay secondary can’t find a way to slow down one of them, Brady might not be able to score enough points to keep up with Mahomes and Andy Reid. In Week 12, Hill had 269 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but the Bucs lost by just three because they were able to contain Kelce (eight catches, no touchdowns). If the Bucs defense can contain one of those guys, scoring with the Chiefs becomes a much more manageable proposition.
2. Can Tampa Bay’s pass rushers keep Mahomes in the pocket?
The Bucs defense did a good job pressuring Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship game. They sacked him five times but they also prevented him from extending plays with his legs and really hurting them on multiple occasions. It’s really important for Tampa Bay’s edge rushers to keep Mahomes in the pocket to force him into making short, quick passes instead of extending plays with his legs and finding his weapons for big gains. It isn’t enough to get pressure on Mahomes, the Bucs have to get pressure on him while also encompassing him in the pocket so he can’t make plays with his legs.
3. Can the Kansas City secondary do what they did against the Bills?
The Chiefs made it clear two weeks ago that the Bills offense isn’t nearly as scary when you stop Stefon Diggs. Josh Allen has to throw to Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox or TJ Yeldon. No offense to those guys, but they aren’t terrifying any high-quality defense and a player like Beasley is the scariest when WR1 is wreaking havoc elsewhere on the field. The question is, can Kansas City contain the best of Brady’s weapons when there are multiple players to worry about? It’s not just one player like Diggs. It’’s multiple guys like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller and Rob Gronkowski who can all hurt you. Give the Chiefs credit, they did a fantastic job neutralizing Diggs, but it’s harder to neutralize one guy when there are a lot of high quality receivers at Brady’s disposal. The puzzle is just a little harder to put together.