As COVID-19 rages on, the fact the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are playing Super Bowl LV is impressive enough. The championship game (Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS) ends a 2020 NFL season like no other, completed with just a handful of postponements despite a pandemic that seemingly wipes out half the college basketball schedule every week.
But as the opening skit of "SNL"illustrated this past weekend, despite so much being different in the world today, this Super Bowl has a hint of familiarity. The Chiefs are back for a second straight year, seeking to be the first back-to-back Super Bowl winners since... Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (XXXVIII & XXXIX). It's a record set 15 years ago, the first sparks of a dynasty as Brady was entering the prime of his late 20s.
But who's that sitting across the field from the Chiefs? In position for Super Bowl title number seven? None other than the GOAT himself, Brady at age 43 and hungry for revenge after work divorcing the Patriots-slash-head coach Bill Belichick last summer. Brady's brought along a hungry cast of characters, luring former top target Rob Gronkowski out of retirement and making the Antonio Brown experiment work where it failed in New England. Add in head coach Bruce Arians, who would be the oldest Super Bowl winner at his position (age 68), and there's plenty of people desperate for a first ring to mesh with Brady's unyielding competitive fire.
The question is whether Father Time can give Brady one last crack at besting Mahomes, the young MVP quarterback redefining the way this position is played. The duo is 2-2 against each other, but Mahomes has won two straight, besting Brady 27-24 this November in a game in which he threw for a season-high 462 yards.
Most see these two quarterbacks in an epic duel, forgetting there are 52 other players on these teams. But there's plenty to delve into for a game that feels fairly even, particularly given the Bucs' home-field advantage. (It's the first time in Super Bowl history one of the participants has played in their own stadium). Let's take a closer look at what to look for as this game unfolds down in Tampa.
Super Bowl LV: Kansas City vs. Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where:Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
Spread: Chiefs -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady
Super Bowl Media Week was a bit different in the midst of the pandemic; players taking questions in isolation instead of cornered by thousands of sweaty reporters. But a Zoom Room didn't stop both these elite quarterbacks from gushing internet bromance on just how much respect they have for each other.
"He's got that nice, sweet little whippy arm that I used to have when I was a little bit younger," Brady said of Mahomes. "He's got the athletic ability to extend plays. He's got all the physical and all the mental tools. He's gonna be in this game quite a few more times, in my opinion."
Mahomes, not to be outdone by Brady, returned the platitudes. "As I continue in my career, I am still trying to do whatever I can to watch the tape on him. Because he is doing it the right way, and you can tell be how many Super Bowl championships he has, and the rings on his fingers."
Trash talking, they're not. Legends? Now that's more like it. It's true Mahomes has a ways to go in order to catch Brady's 10 Super Bowl appearances. Then again... a second Super Bowl win Sunday would give him one more Lombardi trophy than Brady had at age 25. A 44-9 record (.830 win percentage) leaves him on a record pace for a quarterback with more than 50 starts.
That early edge transfers into the 2020 postseason. Mahomes has been magical, playing turnover-free football, completing 73.5 percent of his passes, and producing a 118.5 passer rating. His only scare had nothing to do with performance; a concussion suffered late in the Divisional Round snuffed out momentum and nearly cost his team the game against the Cleveland Browns.
Brady's been more inconsistent, struggling during the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay. After building a 28-10 lead, he nearly took it down singlehandedly by throwing picks on three straight drives in the second half. While the Buccaneers held on to win their third straight road game, those types of ugly turnovers happened a bit more regularly this year to a pocket quarterback lacking speed. Brady's 12 regular-season interceptions were the most since 2011, while six rushing yards pale in comparison to Mahomes' 308.
That said, it would be silly to count out Brady. He threw for 345 yards in a losing effort this November; in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, he had two picks and a pedestrian 77.1 passer rating.
The Patriots won. Then they went on to take the Super Bowl. Don't question the intangible leadership qualities of the GOAT, a QB who was winning these games when Mahomes was literally in kindergarten. The 18-year difference between these two signal-callers will go down as a Super Bowl record unlikely to be broken.
2. Can Tampa Bay’s defense slow down Kansas City?
Oh, you're saying other people are involved in this game? Tampa Bay has actually advanced through its defense, producing an NFL-high seven takeaways during the postseason. Five of those have been interceptions, including four from former MVPs and future Hall of Famers, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
How do they break through to Mahomes, a quarterback so immune to pressure he hasn't lost a yard on a sack since Dec. 20?
"Discipline," says inside linebacker Lavonte David. "Everybody just latching onto a man whenever we're in man-to-man or if we're in zone coverage just matching onto a guy, being able to take away his zones and reads. At the end of the day, you've just got to get to him as quick as you can, as fast as you can, any way you can because he makes magic outside the pocket."
That laser focus was lost too often back in November, allowing big plays to top Chiefs receiving target Tyreek Hill. Each of Hill's three touchdowns went for 20 yards or more as he piled up 269 yards overall. More than 200 receiving yards in the first quarter alone (on seven catches) left the Bucs with a 17-0 deficit they never overcame. Needless to say, the defense can't do that again but they're still vulnerable; their passing defense ranks 10th out of 14 teams this postseason.
First impressions will mean everything Sunday. It's notable that on the Chiefs side, Mahomes has led the team to just six first-quarter points during his last three games as a starter. (He sat out Week 17 against the Chargers). That type of slow start could invigorate the Bucs D in the same way they gut-punched Rodgers early.
3. Rob Gronkowski vs. Travis Kelce
Gronkowski has been tethered to Tom Brady his whole career. His reward has been three Super Bowls wins in eight years, the key cog in the second half of Brady's Patriots dynasty. But after a successful regular season, the duo hasn't connected yet when it matters most in the playoffs; Gronk has two total catches for 43 yards. Little-known Cameron Brate has more than 100 yards more by comparison.
Can the Brady-Gronkowski connection find its spark again this Sunday? Gronk had his only 100-yard receiving game this season against the Chiefs, nabbing six catches for 106 yards, including a season-best 48-yarder in that razor-thin defeat.
It's Gronk, not the others on this team, who's earned the trust of Brady in big moments. Even in low-scoring Super Bowl LIII against the Rams, it was Gronk who got a sputtering Pats offense over the finish line with the key catch in a 13-3 victory. Even with talents like Brown and Mike Evanson the roster, you feel like Gronk's history leaves him a higher receiving option on Sunday's list than recent stats might make you believe.
It puts him in direct competition with Travis Kelce, the Chiefs' All-Pro tight end who's been on another level this postseason (three touchdowns in two games). Yet the Bucs were able to contain him somewhat back in November, limiting him to just 82 yards (10.3 ypr) and no touchdowns. It's the last NFL game Kelce played in where he didn't score and Gronk simply outplayed him. Will it happen again?
In a high-scoring game, a missed extra point could make the difference. Ryan Succop has been lights out for the Bucs, going 8-for-8 on field goals this postseason, but he did miss an extra point in the Wild Card Round. Six missed PATs overall is a little higher rate than you'd like; only one NFL kicker has missed more.
Who was that? None other than the Chiefs' Harrison Butker, missing one this postseason and seven overall. Butker also botched a field goal attempt vs. Cleveland, adding up to four points that made the difference between a two-possession game and the Browns having the ball with a chance to win. It's a weakness worth tracking in a close game where the simplest mistake changes strategy for two of the game's best head coaches in Bruce Arians and Andy Reid.
The Chiefs have more talent on both sides of the ball. The Buccaneers have better intangibles with Brady, Arians, and the way this team has filled itself with loose, competitive players who have solid chemistry. Tampa Bay is peaking at the right time to make this game a nail-biter and give Brady a chance at a seventh Super Bowl victory. Arians, like Reid, has nostalgia on his side in trying to get an 0-fer off his back with a dwindling number of chances at the Lombardi Trophy.
Like it or not (and I know many are tired of hearing about him) this game comes down to the play of Brady himself. One interception won't cut it on Sunday, let alone three. He needs a picture-perfect game while the defense pressures Mahomes just enough to create a stop or two.
Expect a high-scoring game, one that comes down to the final possession with the ball in Brady's hands. How confident you feel about him making another miracle should determine which side of this Super Bowl LV coin flip you're on.
As for me? I tend not to bet against the best to ever play at that position.
Athlon Editors' Super Bowl LV Predictions
AthlonSports.com NFL/Fantasy Contributors' Super Bowl LV Predictions
— Preview written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.