Super Bowl LV Preview: Brady, Mahomes to meet in legendary QB battle

Every February, there’s a rush to uncover both the biggest and unheralded Super Bowl storylines that surround and directly affect the NFL’s annual big game.

In terms of beyond-the-game storylines, it simply doesn’t get bigger than Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.

Although we’re now in the year 2021, this is still the 2020 NFL season, and leave it to 2020 to give us a pro football culmination of this oddity and magnitude. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, much of the surrounding “GOAT” talk can be exhausting — and a bit sensational — in today’s media landscape. But there’s no denying the real stakes at play in this Brady-Mahomes title bout.

It’s the greatest player in NFL history pitted against the game’s current best player, with the former setting a winning precedent beyond belief, and the latter beginning a pace that would one day place him as football’s greatest player ever, if he continues on this ridiculous path.

Even with Brady at age 43, this is primed to be the best Super Bowl QB matchup of all-time. (Note: It’s worth noting the same would have been true had Aaron Rodgers and the Packers moved on to play Mahomes’ Chiefs on Sunday.)

But despite the obvious appeal of Brady versus Mahomes, there’s the obvious underlying theme that will be brought up both immediately after this game’s result, and for years to come — Will Mahomes ever catch Brady to become the NFL’s greatest quarterback, and player, ever?

Since last year’s Super Bowl, I’ve personally compared the Brady-Mahomes debate to the NBA’s great Michael Jordan-LeBron James conversation.

Here are some anecdotes from my linked piece (above) from last February:

———

Fresh off a 10-point 4th quarter comeback for his first Super Bowl win, the talk around now-Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is as expected — Will he become the GOAT? Is he the best quarterback we’ve ever seen? For the second question, I do think the answer is yes, from a talent standpoint. But in becoming the greatest quarterback of all-time, longevity (and a few more Super Bowl titles, at least) are major factors. 

Sometime in the next three to five seasons, Mahomes will enter a period of his career that most all-time great QBs will enter. With comfortable, early-career talent depleted or gone, and his massive cap hit limiting his team’s options to acquire talent, Mahomes will need to elevate an underwhelming, if not, abysmal supporting cast  — in the shape of a horrid defense, severe lack of offensive of weapons, or both — to the point of turning that 53-man roster into a Super Bowl contender. Brady has carried several versions of a depleted roster to at least the AFC Championship Game, and a couple of those squads to Super Bowls. This will be Mahomes’ true judgment time. But winning as many Super Bowl titles as he can during the early favorable period of his career (a la, Brady) also helps his lore.

…Tom Brady represents Michael Jordan. Jordan passed all his successors to be the unquestionable GOAT, but since then, the most-talented-of-all-time LeBron James has risen to the point of Jordan’s equal, creating the most heated greatest-of-all-time conversation imaginable. Think of Mahomes as LeBron James. He’s the most talented quarterback we’ve ever seen. Not Dan Marino. Not John Elway. Not Peyton Manning. Not Lamar Jackson. It’s Mahomes. He’s that great. But it’ll be tough to match Brady’s six (and counting) Super Bowl ring total, or his iconic moments of greatness on the biggest stage. It’ll also be hard to match Brady’s legendary Super Bowl 49 and Super Bowl 51 performances, which can be likened to some of Jordan’s iconic moments, like Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

In just two seasons, it appears the Chiefs’ franchise QB is at least on track to become the best of all-time. But that is certainly easier said than done.

———

With Brady now in Tampa, leading the Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl, an unforeseen wrinkle has been added to what will be an ongoing debate.

Whether it’s fair or not, the shear weight of this Super Bowl will likely engulf every other Mahomes career Super Bowl appearance, unless the Chiefs phenom earns as many rings as Brady.

For LeBron, unless he gets to seven or eight rings (I predict five for him), he’ll never be considered the unanimous or overwhelming consensus greatest basketball player ever. That’s how iconic Jordan’s legacy is. In NFL lore, Brady is Jordan, possessing a legacy equipped with moments such as Super Bowl 51, a comeback that will likely never be duplicated. And although both TB12 and Air Jordan are supremely talented in their own right, it would not be blasphemous to call LeBron and Mahomes the most talented players to ever play their respective sport.

But no one wants to be labeled “the most talented ever.” “Greatness” is what every athlete seeks.

For Brady, considering Mahomes is his Super Bowl opponent, there is a bit of pressure. Although Tom has accomplished more than any quarterback has ever dreamed of, winning a seventh Super Bowl at age 43 with a new club by beating the talented Mahomes is picture perfect. So, yes, a smidge of “can you win this?” pressure is now miraculously applied to a six-time Super Bowl winner.

But for Mahomes, he’ll face more than just an uphill battle to ever reach Brady’s legacy if he falls to Brady in both an AFC Championship Game at home, and a Super Bowl with Brady on a new team at age 43. The brutal (and probably slightly unfair) tarnishing that would come from those two losses would just be a secondary smidge compared to the 7-to-1 ring total that Mahomes would be tasked with reaching, or coming close to, to have a legacy equal or greater than Brady’s.

For Mahomes, this could be it. This may be the legacy game of his career, even 15 years from now. But as we saw with Brady post-Super Bowl 42, one can never be sure where things lead.

Mahomes’ career is just beginning, and despite Brady’s pummeling of Father Time in his age-related battle, Tom’s career is currentlly in one of it’s final (but not the final) chapters.

On Sunday, their paths will cross, before dispersing with an important result that will follow the debate between the two for decades. Let’s enjoy it.

*******

With the theatrics behind us, here are some of my biggest in-game storylines and matchups. I’ll provide my prediction for the game at the end of this piece.

Kansas City’s O-line vs Tampa Bay’s Pass Rush

The most impactful matchup of Super Bowl 55 will be Kansas City’s depleted, and therefore unheralded, offensive line pitted against Tampa’s effective pass rush, led by the monstrous, Super Bowl-experienced EDGE duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.

This became an immediate thinking point after Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher tragically tore his achilles in the AFC title game versus the Bills, joining four-time All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz on the bench with injuries.

Due to this, Kansas City will move Mike Remmers from right to left tackle, and will slide right guard Andrew Wylie to right tackle, filling Remmers’ role as a fill-in for Schwartz. These two will need to hold up versus the Barrett-Pierre-Paul duo, as well as any other stunts that Tampa blitz-reliant defensive coordinator Todd Bowles throws at them.

“They got speed up the field and power down the middle,” Wylie told The Kansas City Star on Wednesday. “They got linebackers that can fly around and make plays. So this is an extremely talented group that we’re going up against against.”

The Buccaneers tallied 48 sacks this season (fourth-best), and blitzed (39 percent of opponents’ dropbacks) the fifth most of any team in 2020. But in the Chiefs’ 27-24, not-as-close-as-it-looks Week 12 victory in Tampa, Bowles blitzed Mahomes just 17 percent of the time.

The thinking there was to shy away from Mahomes’ league-best ability to destroy blitzes. But even with Mahomes’ brilliance, doing this requires at least somewhat-stable play out of their offensive line. The Chiefs had Fisher at left tackle in that game, and they won’t now.

So maybe Bowles inches a bit closer to his 39-percent, 2020 blitz rate on Sunday. But that’s a high risk, especially with the way the Chiefs have successfully countered their offensive line issues by abandoning their deep passing game entirely as of recent.

As Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar pointed out in his brilliant piece this week, Mahomes has attempted just two passes of 20 yards or more through the air this postseason. Just one per game in wins versus the Browns and Bills. Additionally, on Andy Reid-schemed RPO pass attempts, Mahomes leads the league this year on such throws with an absurd 21.7 Expected Points Added, according to Sports Info Solutions. (Tom Brady is second with 9.7 EPA on such throws).

Essentially, Tampa’s pass rush may be rendered moot if they can’t consistently stop the Chiefs’ running game, quick passes, RPO’s, or wide receiver and tight end screens to the likes of Mecole Hardman, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Despite the Chiefs’ ability to pass the football, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy would love to have some success on the ground with the current state of their offensive line. But Tampa holds the edge there as well.

The Bucs have the second-best run defense in the league this season according to Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric. Ndamukong Suh and rookie Vita Vea are the interior defenders tasked with corralling rookie Clyde Edwards-Heliare and former Steelers great Le’Veon Bell at running back for the Chiefs.

If Kansas City can miraculously find consistent success on the ground, then they’ll likely win this game, but that’s unlikely, leaving the game in Mahomes’ hands, as it should be.

As previously mentioned, maybe Tampa blitzes a few more times in this game than their last matchup with Kansas City. After all, linebacker Devin White has nine sacks this season. But most would agree that blitzing Mahomes still remains too much of a risk.

Tampa would like to get pressure on Mahomes with just their defensive front four, and the aforementioned edge rushers and Suh up the middle (Suh has six sacks, 19 QB hits in 2020) have a good chance of providing that, making things a bit tougher on Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable offense.

Defending Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce

On Tuesday night, For The Win senior writer Steven Ruiz took to Twitter to ask this valid question:

In my football lifetime, I think an argument could be made for Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker for one season (2007), Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for multiple seasons (mid 2000s), or Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce/Torry Holt for the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams.

However, the shear uniqueness of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce’s skill sets, along with their production with Mahomes at QB, make it hard to argue Steven’ point.

We’re all aware of Mahomes’ ability, but Hill and Kelce are also major cogs in this offense.

Hill is the greatest speed receiver of all-time (unreal speed and stop-start quickness/burst) and most unique deep threat ever. Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all time, and is making his case as the best pass-catching tight end ever, as well.

In the Chiefs’ win over Tampa in Week 12, the Bucs opted to leave cornerback Carlton Davis on Hill for a boatload of snaps. Hill historically ended up with 203 receiving yards (and two scores) in the first quarter, and finished with 269 yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 201 of Hill’s receiving yards came with Davis as the closest defender.

Tampa was running a lot of single-high looks and coverages (Cover 1, Cover 3) at that point in the season. Since that game, Bowles has had Tampa playing more 2-Man coverage, and more two-high safety looks in general, to greater results.

Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht has did an awesome job putting together this young, underrated secondary with boundary cornerbacks Davis (2nd round, 2019 NFL Draft) and Sean Murphy-Bunting (2nd round, 2018), safeties Jordan Whitehead (4th round, 2018) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd round, 2020) and nickel cornerback Jamel Dean (3rd round, 2019).

Each of these players can have consistent success in man coverage versus certain opponents, but that’s not the case when defending Mahomes passing to Hill and Kelce, at least not when Tampa is aligned in single-high coverage.

Single-high coverage often leaves defenders on an an island with Hill downfield, where as two-high looks gives the team more downfield defensive options (2-Man, Cover 4/quarters) to defend Hill.

Of course, Mahomes’ downfield looks to Hill and others have come few and far between as of late due to offensive line issues, and although you can expect at least one or two downfield shots on Sunday, don’t expect a litany of them unless KC’s beat-up O-line miraculously wins their matchup.

The Chiefs will likely use a heavy dose of RPOs, WR screens, various quick passes, and intermediate crossers to target Hill. Even in man coverage, Tampa will need tackling help via linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David in defending all quick passes to Hill. The same could be said on crossers if White and David back up into zone coverage. Without pressure, the Tampa LBs would likely have no shot, even with White’s incredible range and tenacity, but with expected pressure, White has a good chance to notch an interception much like 49ers LB Fred Warner did off Mahomes in last year’s Super Bowl.

This is where Tampa should look to play more Cover 1 robber and Cover 3, even out of two-high looks. Yes, we know Tampa got burned on some of these staples in Week 12, but Tampa should generate more pressure on Mahomes this time around, and they’ll need a lurking safety like Whitehead or Winfield Jr. to come up to cut off the crossing routes.

If Tampa is to employ Cover 1 or 2-Man, they should use slot cornerback Jamel Dean (4.3 40-yard dash speed) to cover Hill this time around. Hill often lines up in the slot in KC’s 3×1 looks, anyhow. If Cover 1 is the coverage, Tampa would be using a faster, slot-savvy Dean on Hill (instead of Davis), while a robber comes down underneath.

Lining up on the other side of KC’s 3 by 1 sets as a boundary X-receiver is tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce had eight catches for 82 yards in the November matchup, and looks to be targeted even more in this game, as the Chiefs will look to give the Tampa defense a death by intermediate paper cuts, as opposed to downfield slashes.

Kelce’ extended route-tree, versatility (can line up as a ‘Y’ tight end, X-receiver, in the slot), quickness for his size and top-tier spatial awareness (to destroy zone coverage) make him almost impossible to defend.

As is the obvious and oft-stated case in this piece, whether Tampa is playing man or zone coverage, they must get pass-rushing pressure to stop Mahomes-to-Kelce.

The challenge of defending both Hill and Kelce is that single-high safety looks can be destroyed by Hill, where as two-high looks can be obliterated by Kelce.

Taking away a defender underneath allows Kelce to attack the middle part of the field. In zone coverage, Devon White (and Lavonte Davis) will need to keep his head on a swivel in the second level of defense by reading Mahomes’ eyes.

“It’s just going to take discipline,” Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David told the media on Tuesday. “Latching on to a man if we’re in man-to-man or if we’re in zone coverage. Matching onto a guy. Take away his zones and his reads. And you’ve just got to get to him. Quick as you can, fast as you can, any way you can. He makes magic outside the pocket, and that’s definitely something we’ve got to watch out for.”

But even then, Kelce is a master of finding the open crease in zone looks, and Mahomes is a master at finding or throwing him open. In both man and zone, Winfield Jr. may get the brunt of the job of defending Kelce. He should drop into the box on Cover 3 looks, even when Bowles’ defense lines up in a two-high design to start, and in man coverage, he should be tasked with guarding Kelce. (On top of this, the Bucs would be wise to knock Kelce off his route on the line of scrimmage via a linebacker, taking a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook, which has had some moderate success versus this Chiefs offense.)

On paper, the Tampa Bay defense finished fifth against the pass in DVOA this season, but that doesn’t really apply to the air-it-out Chiefs.

The best thing Tampa can do to counter Mahomes’ best two pass catchers is to generate pressure with just their front four (surprise! sound familiar?) while mixing in some more two-high (more 2-Man or safety dropping down in Cover 3, as opposed to Cover 2 or Cover 4) looks, while also not totally abandoning their single-high, Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages out of that pre-snap design. Also, be aware of screens and quick passes, and limiting those possible big gains with sound tackling at the second level (White, David).

Sounds easy enough, right?

Tom Brady vs Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones & Steve Spagnuolo

Venturing into the other side of the ball, a great chess match awaits in Tom Brady versus do-it-all defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

Recently on Chris Collinsworth’s podcast, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman compared the Chiefs’ Mathieu to an all-time great DB, as well a current stud in Arizona.

“He plays… and I hate to say it because it’s cliché and simple, and their games are totally different, but the tenacity and speed he plays with is similar to what Budda [Baker] does in Arizona, and what Tyrann used to do in Arizona,” Sherman said.

“The exception [with Mathieu] is in coverage. He is one of the most instinctual and gambling DBs I’ve ever seen, and he’s usually right. I’d compare him to Ed Reed in that regard, except he’s playing more in the box than single-high safety.”

There’s a famous clip in NFL FilmsA Football Life episode of Bill Belichick, where Brady and Belichick sit down in The Hoodie’s office to prepare for playing Reed when he was an All-Pro safety for the Ravens.

“You’re always so aware of where he is” Brady said of Reed in the clip.

“I remember playing him….five years ago…and every time you break the huddle, that’s where you’re looking at,” Brady said.

Although Mathieu is not quite at Reed’s peak level, he’s one of the game’s best defensive backs in present-day pro football, and Brady will likely treat Mathieu in the same mold.

But like Sherman said, Mathieu plays more in the box than as a deep safety, like Reed was. But Mathieu has the ability to line up anywhere, nonetheless. Pro Football Focus charted The Honey Badger lining up mostly as a slot CB (403 snaps) in 2020, while also playing a bevy of box safety (363) and free safety (275).

In a Patriots offense, Brady often looked to attack the short and intermediate areas of the field, which is where you would often see Mathieu as a robber defender reading the QB in both Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks.

Brady hasn’t abandoned the middle part of the field, but in Bruce Arians’ downfield passing scheme, the Bucs QB has magically become the game’s most efficient deep passer at age 43.

A lot of Brady’s throws are now targeting the perimeter to the likes of X-receiver Mike Evans and inside-outside receiver Chris Godwin, as well as sneaky-speed guy Scotty Miller. In theory, the added wrinkle makes Brady a bit more dangerous than he’s been since 2017, when he was a great deep passer in New England throwing to Brandin Cooks and company.

These throws can help Brady veer away from the chess match with Mathieu, who will often be reading Brady’s eyes, looking to snatch a middle-of-the-field interception.

But in the first half of the November matchup, the Chiefs made Brady and the Bucs offense look the quarterback’s age.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo blitzed Brady a ton in that game (see Matt Bowen’s tweet above), and played man coverage about two-thirds of the game. That’s a lot of man coverage for a Chiefs team that has an average pass defense (16th in pass defense DVOA), and has an unheralded DB group outside of Mathieu and underrated rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.

Spagnuolo, the former Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl 42, has been an overall nuisance for Brady throughout his career. TB12 is 2-3 versus Spagnuolo-coached defenses, and has posted a meager 58.8 Total QBR in those games.

Kansas City has the power up front to get to Brady at times with just four. Especially with Frank Clark and Chris Jones up front.

Jones is an All-Pro caliber player who has had his fair share of jawing moments with Brady in games, adding to the mental side of their battle.

The Chiefs would like to key on Ronald Jones/Leonard Fournette runs and Brady passes by having their front four week havoc all game, but that level of consistent pass-rushing pressure is hard to come by if your D-line is not the 2007 New York Giants.

But like his Giants defense, Spagnuolo should continue using unique stunts and other pressure-tactics to keep the Tampa O-line guessing, while keeping pressure on, and sometimes confusing, Brady. They’ll also likely continuing blitzing the GOAT, but Brady, Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will likely have some counter attacks for that this time around. That counter may be more pre-snap motion to give Brady a chance at deciphering man or zone coverage, like he often did in New England. 

Spagnuolo used some of his exotic blitz schemes from his Giants days on Brady in the November matchup, with defenders blitzing and on-the-line defenders backing up into coverage. They also ran a ton of Cover 0.

Brady will likely be thinking quick pass on these looks, but what Tampa would really like to do is establish the run game versus KC’s 31st-ranked run defense (DVOA), to set-up play-action throws.

This will anger some who rightly accuse Arians and Leftwich of leaning too heavily on the run at times this season, when you have Brady under center. But in this case, Tampa should look to find some success on the ground, which in turn keeps Mahomes and the KC offense off the field.

When KC undoubtedly loads the box up, Brady will look to Rob Gronkowski, yes, the “I mostly block now” Gronk should play a slightly bigger role in the passing game than other games this season. After all, he had a season-high six catches for 106 yards in the November matchup. 

For the Chiefs, this is where Mathieu comes into play. He should be the man-coverage option on Gronk on both play-action crossing routes and seam looks. Additionally, expect Spagnuolo to continue using weird coverages with defenders dropping back to clog up the play-action throwing lanes in the middle of the field.

This is where Brady’s improved perimeter, outside-the-numbers passing should come into play.

NFL Next Gen Stats — Tom Brady, Super Bowl 55
The table above by NFL Next Gen Stats shows Tom Brady’s improved downfield passing as the season went along. (Screenshot: NFL Next Gen Stats)

If Brady can throw well-placed balls on the outside, and if Evans, Godwin, Antonio Brown and others can win those 1-on-1 matchups, things will get difficult for KC. 

But expect Spagnuolo to use an insanely-wide array of calls versus Brady, while using more zone blitz than Cover 0, once Brady finds his prepared outlets to counter-attack Kansas City’s effective, man-coverage and blitz-heavy scheme from November. 

Let’s conclude — if Kansas City can limit Tampa’s run game, apply consistent middle pressure with Chris Jones, play solid man coverage and have Mathieu play well in his middle-of-the-field chess match versus Brady, the Chiefs will be in good shape defensively. 

If Tampa’s O-line holds up enough to give Brady time and produce a solid running game, then it’s just Brady and his talented core versus the Chiefs’ secondary and linebackers. Kansas City played solid man coverage last time around, but without pressure on Brady, they can’t expect to repeat that. Especially now that the past experience and film will lead to a slightly different Tampa game plan. 

Let the chess match begin. 

*******

PREDICTION: The legacy talk surrounds this game, but the key matchup is KC’s O-line versus Tampa Bay’s pass rush, and the key chess match is Tom Brady versus Tyrann Mathieu and the Steve Spagnuolo defense. The Chiefs defense is not very good on paper, but their stars have a knack for coming to play in the playoffs, making them a better unit than perceived. The Chiefs fared well versus Brady last time, but the Bucs did find a way to counter in the second half, almost coming back to win.

The great Tony Romo called that November game along with Jim Nantz and Tracy Wolfson for CBS, and the broadcast group will call Super Bowl 55 as well. Romo astutely forecasted this matchup at the end of their past meeting. 

“I think there’s a better than good chance…..that these two [Chiefs and Buccaneers] are going to be here in Tampa,” Romo said. 

“…I think they’re in the discussion after they evolved this offense today as the game was unfolding and Brady was getting upset.”

Romo proved to be right, as the Bucs haven’t lost since. Without a preseason or normal training camp, it took Brady longer than expected to adjust to Arians’ offense scheme, but here we are.

Tampa will likely play this game much differently offensively. But even with that, I would pick the Chiefs if not for the state of their offensive line. I think that becomes the biggest storyline, and I think it plays out as expected. Consistent pressure on Mahomes will do just enough, forcing a key turnover or two, and limiting Kansas City’s passing game, despite Mahomes’ worthy attempt to counteract a short-handed blocking group. 

On the other side, Brady will throw for two scores and 300-plus yards, winning his record fifth Super Bowl MVP award, while the Buccaneers celebrate their second Super Bowl title, becoming the first team to win a home Super Bowl after being the first team to host one. 

BUCCANEERS 30, CHIEFS 27. 

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