Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are looking to become back-to-back Super Bowl champions. Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are simply hoping to make the postseason as a wild card team.
What a difference two years makes between these NFL MVPs. In the 2019 AFC Championship, Brady beat Mahomes in one of the league's all-time great games; the 37-31 overtime victory propelled the Patriots and Brady to a sixth Super Bowl title together.
But it was Mahomes who got over the hump the following year, winning his first title at 24 — the same age as Brady when he captured his first Super Bowl in 2002. Back east, the Patriots offense fell apart, leading to an embarrassing first-round playoff exit and Brady's departure, stage right, to the Buccaneers at 43.
Since his arrival, the Bucs have gone through their share of growing pains despite an All-Star crowd of offensive firepower. (See: Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, among others.) Brady himself has alternated between moments of greatness and showing his age with costly turnovers, including a fourth-quarter interception in last week's 27-24 loss to the Rams. At 7-4, there's a sense of urgency with the Bucs sitting 1.5 games plus a division tiebreaker behind the Saints in the NFC South.
The Chiefs are entering a critical period, too. In a new playoff system where only the No. 1 seed gets a first-round bye, they sit one game behind the 10-0 Steelers, in limbo after their Thanksgiving Day game with the Ravens was postponed due to COVID-19. There's a potential opening to close the gap as the schedule gets easier for the Chiefs: three of their final five opponents have losing records.
Who will prevail in this latest battle between the two best quarterbacks of their generation? The answer will have a major impact on the playoff race for both conferences. And even beyond the playoff race, a Chiefs' win would snap a five-game losing streak to the Bucs that dates back to 1993.
Kansas City at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 29 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -3.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Which Tom Brady will show up?
In many ways, the Buccaneers offense has been molded by Brady's vision. So, it's no surprise this team's success or failure rests largely on their quarterback's shoulders.
2020 BRADY BREAKDOWN
7 wins: 291.1 pass yards/gm, 5 sacks, 20 TD, 2 INT
4 losses: 229.2 pass yards/gm, 10 sacks, 5 TD, 7 INT
What's more frustrating for the Bucs is three of the team's four losses have come under the specter of primetime. Typically, when the light shines on Brady he's at his best. In 2020? He's, well, inconsistent, as just two of seven wins have come against teams with winning records.
"At times we look really, really good," head coach Bruce Arians said this week. "And then there are times where we obviously don't."
Monday night was one of those awkward moments. The loss to the Rams included no pass completions of more than 20 yards, two wobbly interceptions, and mistimed throws because of a strong pass rush. A common theme to stop Brady appears to be pressure, pressure, pressure, knowing his ability to escape outside the pocket is limited.
Adding Brown, a long-sought-after Brady addition, hasn't boosted the team's prospects either. Instead, they're 1-2 over the last three weeks as the quarterback tries to balance an additional mouth to feed. Brown has yet to score a touchdown, although he led the team with 57 receiving yards Monday night.
Brady hasn't been lights out against Mahomes, either, throwing for just 169 yards his last time out in December 2019. He has to be better; offensive weapons mean nothing if the ball can't be thrown accurately in their direction. Hard to bet against this Hall of Famer changing course, though. How many times has this man bounced back in a career that continues to defy the odds?
2. Can Mahomes keep momentum rolling for Kansas City's offense?
Mahomes engineered two masterful fourth-quarter drives last Sunday night to give the Chiefs a 35-31 comeback win against the Raiders. He's thrown for 1,136 yards in his last three games while adding 11 touchdowns and just a single interception. He's getting hot at the right time for a team that needs every bit of offense to prevail these days.
Now, wide receiver Sammy Watkins is set to return after being sidelined for nearly two months with a hamstring injury. He'll pair up with Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, both of whom have 100+ yards receiving over the past two games.
That doesn't bode well for a Tampa Bay defense that leads the NFL against the rush (just 73.0 yards allowed per game) but is just 16th against the pass (237.5 yards per game). Jared Goff just threw for a season-high 376 yards and three touchdowns against this defense. Could you imagine what Mahomes might do firing on all cylinders? There doesn't need to be a run game for him to do sustained, continual damage to the Bucs on every drive.
3. Can the Chiefs defense hold?
That leaves the Chiefs defense as the biggest wild card heading into the weekend. They've now allowed 30+ points in back-to-back games for the first time in over two years. They failed to sack Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who completed 74.2 percent of his passing attempts, threw three touchdown passes, and marched down the field with ease.
The Chiefs have a turnover margin of plus-eight, third in the NFL this season behind Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Yet it's the Bucs defense that has four more takeaways (19 to 15), allows fewer yards per game, and outranks the Chiefs in virtually every other major category.
It provides an opening for Brady to get comfortable in a way he hasn't been with other top-tier opponents this season. But the Bucs need to keep from turning the ball over.
Brady should play better than expected Sunday after a few weeks of wobbly performances. Another week of Brown in practice combined with a weaker Chiefs defense can only help the cause.
Here's the problem, though. Mahomes is going to score virtually every time he's got the ball on offense. All it takes is one mistake to give the Chiefs an edge, and, with nine interceptions this year, Brady's shown the propensity to make one.
Father time is tilting this rivalry more in the youngster's direction each year.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Buccaneers 28
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.