When the season kicked off all those months ago, the possibility of not making it to the Super Bowl wasn’t entirely out of the question. Yet, here we are; a credit to the hard work of the unsung teams of people working behind the scenes to implement the protocols and technologies that allowed us to arrive at the pinnacle of it all.
Tampa Bay and Kansas City, whether you predicted it or not, this could be considered as one of the most tantalizing matchups in recent memory. The GOAT versus the Next One, a team risen from the ashes versus the defending champs, the home team versus the outsiders. Both teams have had vastly different seasons bringing them here, so let’s break down exactly how we wound up here…
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Saying the Buccaneers won the offseason would be an understatement. They landed Tom Brady, what more could you ask for? But they weren’t done there. The front office clearly knew that their best chance at getting to the big dance would be to insulate Brady with more talent than he’s ever had around him in his career (which after his last season in New England isn’t saying much but still). They brought Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s bestie, out of retirement, gave Leonard Fournette a fresh start, and made LeSean McCoy a Buccaneer.
Even with their haul, questions still surrounded the Bucs as to how all this new talent would gel without the opportunity of a training camp. Those questions are now nothing but a faraway whisper. After wrapping up their virtual camp, the new-look Bucs were ready to make a statement.
The first three quarters of Tampa’s season were a roller coaster ride of inconsistency. While the team knew they were destined for more, both fans and media were by no means surprised by the play on the field. Sure, it was odd to see Brady bounce up and down like a yo-yo, but the man is in his 40s, we all knew this was a possibility. It was clear that the team, with all of its new pieces, simply needed time to learn the offence and each other.
Beyond Brady and his receiving weapons, Bruce Arians breathed new life into the running game, highlighting the sheer talent of Ronald Jones and turning back the clock on Fournette. By no means were they a run first team, but when they did choose to keep the ball on the ground it worked, meaning defenses had to respect the GOAT and his passing game as well as the ground game.
The threat of the Buccaneers punishing running backs meant the team’s play action game, something that went a long way in Tampa finishing first in the league in red zone scoring percentage. Once inside their opponent’s 20, the Bucs were putting points on the board 95.1% of the time, including 42 touchdowns, good for the NFL’s fourth highest red zone touchdown total.
The team’s defense was no slouch either, in particular the run defence. They allowed a mere 10 rushing touchdowns on the season and teams were only averaging 3.6 yards per rush against them. Their stellar ability to make opposing rushing attacks non-factors helped make up for the lackluster showing their pass defense put in on the season, finishing 21st in the league.
Tampa made the playoffs as a wild card, mainly because of their shaky 7-5 start. The last four games of the season could be considered clinics on how to run an offence, but when Brady’s running your offence is that a surprise to anyone?
For a refresher on the Wild Card Round go checkout our Express Line article! The Buccaneers came out on top in an unexpected nail biter against the Washington Football Team who were led by backup quarterback, Taylor Heinicke.
In all likelihood the Buccaneers put an end to Drew Brees’ career in the 2020 Divisional Round game, beating his Saints 30-20. Contrary to their season’s narrative, this game was a coming out party for Tampa’s young secondary. All four New Orleans’ turnovers, including three interceptions were created by a Bucs’ defender under the age of 25.
Brady had a quiet game, finishing with 199 yards and two touchdowns, but it was his QB sneak for a TD that really put the nail of the coffin halfway through the fourth quarter. He’s not necessarily headed to the Hall of Fame for his legs, but he made good use of them to boost his team’s lead to 10 points, a margin that Brees, who was playing like a quarterback on his way out of the league, wasn’t going to be able to pull back.
The game wasn’t necessarily the statement win you would expect to need going into the Superdome in a playoff matchup, but the level to which the Buccaneers defence stepped up was the biggest statement you could ask for out of a group that hadn’t performed beyond average throughout the season. Brady did what he needed to do on offence despite off-games from some usually reliable threats like Chris Godwin.
The story of this game will go down as one of how Green Bay lost, more so than one of how Tampa Bay won. The Packers served Brady his ticket to his 10th Super Bowl on a silver platter built of a plethora of questionable coaching calls, drops, and ill-advised penalties.
To say that a decision to go for a field goal over a touchdown by Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur could end Aaron Rodgers’ career as a Packer may have sounded like a joke before kickoff, is a terrifyingly real possibility as the Pack prepare to watch the Bucs go to battle from their couches.
The NFC Conference Championship was a picture perfect example of an Arians’ “go big or go home” offensive mindset. In the final minute of the first half the Bucs sent out the punt team on a fourth down. After some sideline hubbub, Brady appeared back on the field and it appeared as if the team was going to go for it. They did and made the first down with mere seconds left on the clock. But seconds have always been enough for Brady to create magic. And he did.
Scotty Miller broke free from Packers’ defender Kevin King and sauntered into the endzone for a touchdown. Tampa went into the locker room with an abundance of swag, while Green Bay was left scratching their heads, which would be the case until the final whistle.
It was clear when Brady left New England that he believed in himself, probably more so than anyone else around the league, media, fan, or coach. At this point it is nearly impossible to argue with the validity of his faith in what he had left in the tank, meaning the only argument that remains surrounding TB12 is whether or not he is the greatest to ever do it. Could winning his seventh Super Bowl settle it?
Kansas City Chiefs
It’s no secret that the Chiefs’ offseason got off to a spectacular start as they celebrated their Super Bowl win. It continued to get better as they managed to maintain an almost unheard of number of players for a season following a championship, including defensive stud Chris Jones, who they franchise tagged. On top of it all, they added Clyde Edwards-Hillaire via the draft who would turn out to be an offensive juggernaut.
The main loss Kansas City suffered was Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 NFL season to help fight the pandemic in Quebec. The doctor’s decision to join the staff at a long-term care home led to him being named the co-winner of the Lou Marsh award as Canada’s top sports figure.
The thing that stuck out most throughout the Chiefs’ regular season performance was the diversity with which they were able to attack opponents. Patrick Mahomes grew as a quarterback, showing his ability to take what the defense gave him while testing all three levels of the field. In the past, it was clear that Mahomes’ preferred the mid-range passes but in 2020 he was dropping dimes deep, finding his man in the middle, and successfully chucking the checkdowns.
The ball distribution was also something other teams really had to prepare for as Mahomes was consistently using all of his weapons in a way that never felt forced. Naturally, there were the usual suspects like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, who seemed to unlock new levels of their games but there were also new faces who became staples. Demarcus Robinson appeared to come into his own and put out consistent performances week in and week out. Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman also offered reliable hands when they were called on.
The run game also enjoyed a midseason boost with the addition of Le’Veon Bell upon his release from the New York Jets. He wasted no time returning to his Steelers-era self, as opposed to the non-factor he was while wearing Jets’ green. Bell, Edwards-Hillaire, and Darrel Williams were a three-headed monster capable of haunting the nightmares of defensive coordinators everywhere.
The uncontested weakness of the team was the defense, particularly on the run and in the red zone. While this did improve throughout the season and into the playoffs, it did contribute to them looking like a beatable team. The defense was ranked 16th overall, 21st in rushing defense and 14th in passing.
The Chiefs earned the lone AFC bye through the Wild Card Round, and after resting their starters in the final game of the season, they headed into the Divisional Round with nearly two weeks of rest. They took on the hard-nosed Browns, after they ousted their rival Steelers. Kansas City came out with a 22-17 win after losing Mahomes to injury in the second half.
Cleveland did put up a valiant effort, looking less like the “same old Browns” and more like a team that is just missing a few pieces but are on the cusp of doing something notable. Baker Mayfield put up 204 yards with an interception, which was never going to be enough to get past the Chiefs in the playoffs.
It truly was the KC defense that stepped up to the plate in every way in this game, starting with the way they eliminated the run by the Browns. Given the team’s regular season run defense performance, the prospect of having to stop Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt seemed like a daunting one, but they were relative non-factors.
In addition, the secondary never gave up the big play, in fact they barely gave up any separation at all, making it hard for Mayfield to do anything substantial. Even on Cleveland’s crucial final drives when the pressure was at its peak, the Chiefs defenders looked unfazed.
As for the offence, it appeared to be business as usual for Mahomes and company prior to his injury. Even in his absence, Chad Henne rallied the troops to not miss a beat, even executing a shocking passing play in the dying moments.
Post-game, it’s easy to call the conference championship total domination byt the Chiefs, but it wasn’t easy for the whole 60 minutes, as they got themselves in a 9-0 hole early. After giving up a field goal, Hardman dropped the punt, which the Bills recovered near the endzone and quickly converted to a touchdown. Hardman would make up for the gaffe, scoring a touchdown of his own minutes later.
From then on it was a clinic on playoff football from the Chiefs, with their quarterback throwing for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and committing no turnovers. Much of the credit goes to the offensive line who only allowed one sack and a mere three hurries.
The Chiefs defense had another impressive game, most notably containing Stefon Diggs, something no team was really able to do throughout the season. The league’s leading receiver was held to six catches for 77 yards. The secondary’s ability to make Diggs a non-factor could go a long way in explaining why Josh Allen looked rattled. His connection with his favorite target had been so strong it bailed the team out of some sticky situations throughout the season, so it not being there was something Buffalo hadn’t really had to deal with.
Buffalo’s ultimate demise came via the way they were forced to settle for field goals. Tyler Bass kicked four field goals while the Bills’ offensive allowed four sacks, which is not a recipe for beating a team whose offence is led by Mahomes.
Here We Are
After all that, we end up here, with the stage set for Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay. Stay tuned to Unbenched for more coverage and analysis heading into the big game, but until then head over to our socials to let us know which way you think this game will go!