The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs are meeting in Super Bowl LV, and neither team got there by accident. The Buccaneers and Chiefs share a lot of statistical strengths, including positive turnover ratios, high per-game scoring totals, excellent pass protection numbers, yards-per-play averages north of six and an ability to move the chains on a consistent basis. This is also the first Super Bowl ever matching the top two passing attacks in the league.
If there is an area in which Tampa Bay has a clear edge, it's in the red zone when the Bucs are on offense. Tampa Bay ranked seventh in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage (68.9%), while the Chiefs were dead last on defense at 76.6%.
And if there is an area where the Chiefs seem to have a huge advantage, it's in converting medium-to-long third downs. During the regular season, Kansas City converted an incredible 51.9% of its third-down tries between seven and 10 yards, obviously ranking first in the league in that regard. The team ranked 32nd? Tampa Bay, at 21.2%. (Things are cheerier for Tampa Bay from beyond 10 yards, with the Chiefs tied for third at 23.7% and the Bucs tied for ninth at 18.8%.)
The Bucs' defense ranked 14th in the league in overall third-down defense and that's a good sign heading into a matchup with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' dynamic offense. The Bucs' defense needs to get off the field more frequently than the Kansas City defense does, and that will involve stopping Mahomes from climbing out of big holes.
"I don't think there is anything worse than giving up a third-and-14 on defense, other than giving up a touchdown," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "It demoralizes a defense. You think you're off the field, then you're back out there for more plays. You'll see a lot of big plays happen after people give up that type of down-and-distance third-down conversion. For us, it all starts with protection. I know for Kansas City, it's Patrick. He extends a lot of plays and makes a lot of plays happen. For us, it's more designed protection, running good routes and throwing and catching it."
The good news for the Buccaneers is that they are not at a huge disadvantage in this category if one focuses on the postseason. Tom Brady and the Buccaneers are eight for 16 on third down tries of seven to 10 yards in the playoffs, or a cool 50.0%, and they've even converted two of six tries from beyond 10 yards. The Bucs were five for eight from seven yards and beyond in their NFC Championship Game win in Green Bay.
Brady would prefer to face as few long third downs as possible on Sunday, of course.
"It feels good to do that just because you get kind of behind the down-and-distance on first and second down, it leaves you in third-and-long," he said. "Then you're able to bail yourself out of that situation. It's a hard thing to do. I wouldn't try to make an all-day-long trying to stay in third-and-long and see if we can make a bunch of plays. It's very low-percentage football. We're going to have to play well on early downs, keep our third downs manageable, eliminate negative plays, eliminate negative runs, sacks, penalties, all of those things are really important. It's got to be a really clean football game because if you get stuck behind the down-and-distance, these guys do a really great job of getting you off the field. I think every play we're going to have maximum concentration. We have probably 70 plays left in the season so all of them are going to have to be our very best."
Brady is right, of course, and you would expect that from a man who has already played in nine Super Bowls. He has experienced the feeling of knowing that every single snap counts, that there is no tomorrow, no chance to get back on track if you make too many mistakes. There will inevitably be some long third downs on both sides in Super Bowl LV; if one team or the other does a better job of converting them, that could be the difference.
"The one thing about this game, you're playing the other best team in the league, so there's not a lot of margin for error," said Brady. "If you do anything unsound it's not going to work. Your execution has to be at your best. It should be that way. That's the way this game should be played. It should be the highest level of execution. It's the most time to prepare, concentration, focus. You've got to lay it on the line and try to make the plays when we've got them. When they're there to be made, we have to make them."