The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs will meet on Sunday to decide who will be crowned champions at the end of the 101st season in NFL history, and we're counting down the hours to the 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff of Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium. After two long weeks of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Mike Evans. When the Buccaneers and Chiefs met in Week 12 of the regular season at Raymond James Stadium, Evans caught two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to draw the Buccaneers within three points in an eventual 27-24 loss. That was part of a hot streak for the seventh-year receiver, who caught 25 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns over the final five games of the regular season then grabbed two more touchdowns in the playoffs. Kansas City plays an aggressive style of defense including more press coverage on outside receivers than any other team in the NFL. Charvarius Ward, in particular, presses on 65% of the outside receivers he covers and he mans the left side of the Chiefs defense so he'll get a shot at Evans every time the big and physical Buccaneer wideout splits to the right. The Buccaneers' offense is equally aggressive under "no risk-it, no biscuit" Head Coach Bruce Arians and it will just be a matter of time until Tom Brady goes deep on Super Bowl Sunday. If so, it's a good bet he'll be looking in the direction of Evans, who led the Bucs during the regular season in catches (10), yards (318) and touchdowns (three) on deep passes. Brady has also targeted Evans on deep balls nine more times in the postseason. Oh, and who led the NFL in touchdowns scored against press coverage in 2020? That would be Mike Evans, who had eight of them (he tied for the lead, to be exact). Evans has already cemented his place in NFL history by becoming the first player ever to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, but this is his first trip to the postseason and, obviously, his first Super Bowl exposure. He's likely to make the most of it.
ILB Lavonte David. Davis has waited even longer than Evans for his first postseason experience, but even nine years into his career he is still playing at peak level and is one of the most important pieces in the Bucs' defense. With the postseason included, David has racked up 137 stops, 13 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, one interception, eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. David is a good of a bet to create a negative play by the Chiefs offense as any Buccaneer defender; since he entered the league in 2012 he ranks fourth among all NFL players in forced fumbles (24) and third in tackles for loss (128). Since the Chiefs are more likely to move the ball consistently through the air than on the ground, David's well-developed coverage skills will be important. According to NFL Next Gen stats, there were 67 NFL linebackers who were targeted as the nearest defender on a pass attempt at least 25 times this season, including David. He allowed just 3.1 yards per reception on those targets, second-lowest among all those players. His 60% coverage success rate also ranks sixth among NFL linebackers. In Week 12, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce did catch five passes for 56 yards with David as the nearest defender, so the Buccaneers linebacker will be looking to flip the results of that matchup on Sunday. With Tampa Bay's defense trying everything it can to slow down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' explosive offense, not to mention deal with Andy Reid's inevitable new wrinkles, communication between defenders will be critical. David's vast experience and football instincts make him well-equipped to adjust on the fly and get his fellow defenders in the right place.
C Ryan Jensen. Speaking of adjustments on the fly, Tampa Bay's offense will have some of those as well against a Chiefs defense that ranked fourth in the league in highest blitz percentage. As Jensen noted earlier this week, communication on offense starts between the center and the quarterback and then is sent out to the rest of the players. Jensen, who is at the pivot of an offensive line that ranked second in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play (3.52%), knows how important it will be to give Brady time to throw in the Super Bowl. "Any quarterback is more comfortable in a clean pocket, so that's going to be huge this game with Kansas City and how much they blitz and how they blitz from any place on the field," he said. "As an offensive line and tight ends and running backs, when we make adjustments that's going to be huge in keeping Tom clean. And when Tom stays clean he's very dangerous." The Buccaneers' running game has also come alive in the postseason and has done most of its damage on runs that start between the tackles. According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers averaged 4.64 adjusted line yards per carry when running behind the center and guards in 2020, the seventh-highest mark in the league. And while Jensen will be snapping to the most experienced Super Bowl player ever, most of the rest of his offensive teammates will be playing for their first NFL championship. It is likely to be an emotionally-charged evening and Jensen already plays with an emotional edge, to his advantage. Look for him to be one of the Bucs' vocal leaders on Sunday night.
CB Carlton Davis. By several measures, Davis has been one of the most difficult cornerbacks in the NFL to complete passes against over the past two seasons. He led the NFL with 37 passes defensed over the 2019-20 seasons, seven more than the next player on the list, and in the same span allowed a completion percentage of 54.8% as the targeted defender, eighth-lowest among NFL cornerbacks. That list has a minimum requirement of 150 targets, but for Davis that's on 221 targets, by far the most of any player in the top 10. It is unquestionably true that the first Bucs-Chiefs matchup in Week 12 was Davis's toughest game of the past two years, as he was in man-to-man coverage on a good number of the 13 passes Tyreek Hill caught for 269 yards. However, Davis has been the Bucs' top cover corner for the past two seasons, occasionally shadowing an opponent's top receiver and taking him out of the game. The Bucs didn't do that specifically against Hill and the Chiefs on Week 12 and probably won't again in the Super Bowl, but there will definitely be routes on which Davis is the primary defender against the Chiefs' incredibly speedy wide receiver. He expects the Bucs' defense to produce different results this time around. "I'm going to bring the same mentality," said Davis. "I'm going to always be myself. It didn't work out the first game, as far as what we did and our game plan, but we've corrected it and we've got a great game plan going in. But I'm going in with the same mentality, and that's to dominate."
QB Tom Brady. Come on – you didn't think we were going to leave Tom "Six Rings" Brady off this list, did you? The pairing of the most accomplished player in Super Bowl history and Chiefs' phenom Patrick Mahomes is undeniably the central storyline for Super Bowl LV. Brady will be playing in his 10th Super Bowl and if he gets a seventh ring he'll have more Super Bowl championships as an individual than any NFL franchise has. There is definitely a sense that if anyone has a chance to someday challenge Brady's career accomplishments, it will be Mahomes, who is still just 25 and is seeking a second Super Bowl victory to go with his 2018 NFL MVP award. It was the earthshaking addition of Brady in March that put a talented team over the top and back in the big game for the first time in 18 years. Of course, the Buccaneers won't win Super Bowl LV simply because they have Brady on their side – he said himself earlier this week that past Super Bowl experience means nothing once the game starts – but fortunately he has also been playing extremely well during the team's seven-game winning streak. In that span, he has completed 62.9% of his passes, tossed 19 touchdowns against four picks and thrown for 313.3 yards per game. He had been picked off just once over a span of 24 quarters (he didn't play in the second half in Week 16) before a three-interception blip in the second half of the NFC Championship Game. Having Brady at the helm of offense should give his teammates confidence in one thing: If the game is close at the end and the Bucs need a touchdown or field goal drive to win it, they've got the right man for the job. Brady's 14 game-winning drives in the postseason are the most in NFL history and more than double the next man on the list (John Elway, six).
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 45.2%. Kansas City's defense had the fourth-highest blitz rate in the NFL in 2020, but they dialed it up even more against the Buccaneers in Week 12. The Chiefs blitzed Brady on 45.2% of his drop-backs, the third-highest blitz rate he faced all season, including the playoffs. Tampa Bay's offensive line has handled the blitz well for the majority of the year and has been particularly strong in its protection of Brady over the last two months. However, the Chiefs' blitzes were relatively effective in Week 12, as Brady was held to a 60.1 passer rating on those plays, as opposed to 130.9 on non-blitz plays. Both of his second-half interceptions came against a blitz. Given those numbers and the Chiefs' generally aggressive approach, it seems likely that the Bucs will have to pick up a lot of blitzes in the Super Bowl.
- 59, 12. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019, his first season in Tampa, and according to NFL Next Gen stats was once again one of the league's most effective edge rushers in 2020. He finished third in the NFL in QB pressures for the second year in a row, with 59, and since the start of the 2019 season he has caused 12 turnovers on pressures, the most in the league in that span. Barrett has logged multiple QB pressures in each of his last 17 games, including the playoffs, the longest active streak in the NFL. His three sacks in the NFC Championship Game were a critical factor in the Bucs ability to keep Aaron Rodgers in check and win a trip to the Super Bowl. Barrett's presence in the Chiefs' backfield is likely to be just as important.
- 134.2, 2,148. That first number, remarkably, is Mahomes' passer rating on plays when the opponent sends a blitz. Some of that is because he is so adept at escaping the pressure, extending plays and throwing on the run. His 2,148 passing yards on plays where it takes more than four seconds to leave his hand since the 2018 season are second only to another on-the-run magician, the Texans' Deshaun Watson. This is probably the reason that Mahomes has only been blitzed 21% of the time this season, second-lowest among all NFL quarterbacks. The Bucs, who overall blitzed 38% of the time in 2020, sixth-most in the league, only used that tactic on 17% of Mahomes' drop-backs in Week 12, and he still completed two touchdown passes against it.
- 37-6, 41-6. In 54 previous Super Bowls, one team or the other finished the game with a positive turnover ratio on 43 occasions (the other 11 games had an even ratio). Of those 43 teams to win the turnover battle, 37 of them also won the game. The Buccaneers obviously know this well after setting Super Bowl records in SBXXXVII with five interceptions and three pick-sixes on their way to a 48-21 route of the Raiders and the NFL's most prolific offense. The current Bucs have recent evidence of this as well, having forced seven giveaways over their first three postseason games, six of which they turned into touchdowns. Overall, Tampa Bay had a points-off-turnovers edge of 41-6 over there three vanquished postseason opponents. That's a 35-point differential; overall, the Bucs only outscored those opponents by 29 points.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- The Chiefs officially ruled Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher out for the Super Bowl on Friday due to the Achilles tendon injury he suffered in the AFC Championship Game against Buffalo. After he left the game, the Chiefs moved right tackle Mike Remmers to the left side, slid right guard Andrew Wylie out to right tackle and brought Stefen Wisniewski in to play right guard.
- The Buccaneers will have their full Week-One starting defense back on the field together for the first time since Week Five. Defensive lineman Vita Vea was lost to an ankle fracture that week but just returned to play in the NFC Championship Game. Meanwhile, inside linebacker Devin White missed the Wild Card game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list and rookie safety Antoine Winfield was out of the NFC Championship Game with an ankle injury. Winfield, fellow starting safety Jordan Whitehead and inside linebacker Devin White were all injury concerns during the two-week lead-up to the Super Bowl, but none of them was listed as being out, doubtful or questionable on Friday's injury report.
- The Bucs could be without two key performers on offense, however. Wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was one of the team's most productive pass-catchers during the final month of the season, missed the NFC Championship with a knee injury and is questionable for Sunday even though he was a full participant in Friday's practice. Meanwhile, tight end Cameron Brate, whose 149 receiving yards in the 2020 playoffs are a new Bucs record for his position, is dealing with a back ailment and is also questionable to play. He did not practice on Friday.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE CHIEFS
For the second game in a row, the Buccaneers are facing an offense that ranks in the top five in a wide variety of offensive categories, including yards per game (1st), yards per play (2nd), passing yards per game (1st), interception percentage (2nd), sack percentage (4th) and first downs (tied for 1st). Tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill have combined for 3,201 yards and 29 touchdowns in 17 games in 2020 (neither played in the regular season finale), or 188.3 yards and 1.7 TDs per game. Kansas City's defense most notably picked off 16 passes during the regular season and has two more in two playoff games, including one by jack-of-all-trades defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker has made 29 of 32 field goal tries, including the postseason, and he's 5-for-5 from 50 yards and beyond. In addition to all of that, here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs.
As noted above, the Chiefs blitz at a very high rate, and specifically they like to send their defensive backs after the quarterback. Safety Daniel Sorenson blitzed 78 times during the regular season, third-most among all NFL defensive backs, though he failed to produce any sacks this year. Mathieu also blitzed 32 times in 2020 but, again, did not record any sacks. The defensive back the Bucs need to pay attention to in their protection scheme is the one most likely to blitz out of the slot, nickel corner L'Jarius Sneed. The Chiefs didn't use Sneed in their blitz game much at all until December, but they're using him a lot in that role now that they've discovered his knack for it. Over the first 13 weeks of the season, Sneed only blitzed four times and created no pressures or sacks. However, he has blitzed 23 times in the five games he's played in since Week 14 and has racked up not only six pressures but 4.0 sacks. He has had one sack each in the Chiefs' two playoff games so far.
Kansas City Head Coach Andy Reid is well-known for his creative play design and for piling one wrinkle on top of another to confuse opposing defenses and get players open for quick hitters. The Chiefs also attempt to do with a high rate of shifts and pre-snap motion; in fact, Kansas City used shifts or motion on 66% of their plays during the regular season, the third-highest rate in the league. In the AFC Championship Game, motion by Kelce helped spring wide receiver Mecole Hardman for a very quick screen pass that resulted in a three-yard touchdown. Since 2018, Mahomes has thrown touchdown passes on screen plays 11 times, four more than any other quarterback in the league in that span. Speaking of Hardman, he also had a 50-yard run in that game against the Bills, highlighting another wrinkle the Chiefs can throw at a defense if it tries to smother both Kelce and Hill. Like Hill, Hardman is extremely fast, as evidenced by the top speed of 21.52 miles per hour he reached during that run. That's the fast top speed hit by any ballcarrier in the playoffs this year.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On the challenge of facing talented Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl:
"He is unique. He is very unique. There are no other quarterbacks that run out to the right and throw all of the way back across the field to the left. You teach them not to do that, but he's great at it, so you let him do it. He's an amazing player to be able to backpedal and throw the ball so accurately down the field. A great scrambler. There's nothing about his game that isn't better than most."
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.