The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have steamed into Super Bowl LV on a seven-game winning streak, becoming just the fourth team to get to the title game by winning three straight on the road. They've taken down a trio of division winners, the NFC's top two seeds and a pair of former Super Bowl MVPs to get within one game of the franchise's second championship. Their reward? A date with the NFL's winningest team over the past two years and the game's most electric superstar.
It is the Buccaneers who will try to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs from defending their Super Bowl LIV victory with a second straight championship. The Bucs may be red-hot, but the Chiefs have won 25 of their last 27 games, including one in Tampa in Week 12 of the 2020 season. One of those two losses came in Week 17, when Kansas City rested much of its starting lineup with the top AFC seed already clinched.
Kansas City brings the NFL's top-ranked offense in terms of net yards and net passing yards to Raymond James Stadium, with an attack that averaged over 400 yards and nearly 30 points per game. Like the Buccaneers, the Chiefs throw the ball better than they run it, but their ground game is actually middle of the NFL pack with 112.4 yards per game and 4.46 yards per carry. The Chiefs' offense is also in the top five in interception percentage, sack percentage, first downs, third-down percentage, yards per play and yards per pass play.
It starts with Mahomes, the 2018 league MVP who is on the short list for that award again in 2020. Mahomes' baseline numbers this season – 66.3% completion rate, 4,740 yards, 38 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 108.2 passer rating – are all magnificent, of course, but it's the manner in which he gets it done that sets him apart. For instance, the fourth-year passer threw for 951 yards while on the run this season (defined as when he's moving at 8-plus miles per hour), which is easily the most in the NFL. He's also essentially blitz-proof, posting a passer rating of 134.2 this season against the blitz. That's the highest such rating Next Gen Stats has calculated since it kicked off in 2016.
The Chiefs have emphasized surrounding Mahomes with dynamic weapons and the results at time seem unfair. In addition to all the downfield throws he can make with the flick of the wrist – occasionally while looking in a different direction – Mahomes also has seven touchdowns on "pop passes" since he became a starter in 2018, more than double any other quarterback. A pop pass is one that gets out of the quarterback's hand in less than 1.5 seconds and travels three or fewer yards in the air – in other words, plays that are designed to let the pass-catcher do all the work.
This statistic is easy to believe when you watch wide receiver Tyreek Hill at work. Hill had 1,499 yards and 17 touchdowns from scrimmage in the regular season (including 269 and three against the Bucs in Week 12) and made big plays on go routes and short passes. Against Buffalo in the AFC Championship Game, Hill turned a six-yard pass into a 71-yard gain, reaching nearly 21 miles per hour and covering more than 100 total yards in his meandering. Meanwhile, teams that want to pay a little extra attention to Hill are at risk of making it even easier for Travis Kelce, whose 1,416 receiving yards in 2020 were the most ever by a tight end in a single season. Much more on both Hill and Kelce below.
Mahomes can also put the ball in the hands of another extremely speedy receiver in Mecole Hardman, while Demarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins give the Chiefs incredible depth and breadth at the position. Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire showed flashes of brilliance in his debut campaign and is a natural pass-catcher. There is depth in the backfield, too, with veteran Le'Veon Bell and 2020 playoff standout Darrel Williams. If there is any area of concern on the Chiefs' offense it is with the line, which had an outstanding 2020 season but is now down both of its starting tackles after the Achilles tendon injury to Eric Fisher in the AFC Championship Game. Mike Remmers, who had been starting at right tackle in place of the injured Mitchell Schwartz, now moves to left tackle, with right guard Andrew Wylie kicking out to right tackle.
Kansas City's defense gave up 358.3 yards per game and 5.61 yards per play during the regular season to rank 16th and 18th in those categories. It was 21st against the run and 14th against the pass but helped hold down opponent scoring (22.6 points per game, 11th) by picking off 16 passes and causing 22 turnovers overall. Tyrann Mathieu, who quickly became the Chiefs' unquestioned leader on defense upon arriving in 2019, also led the team with six interceptions (plus one more in the playoffs) and is one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL. He and fellow safety Daniel Sorensen line up all over the field and are among the most blitz-happy safeties in the NFL.
Kansas City fields one of the NFL's most aggressive defenses under Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Chiefs' cornerback press outside receivers far more than any other team in the league and the defense blitzes on 39% of its plays, fourth-most in the NFL. Just like the Packers team that Tampa Bay just defeated in Green Bay, the Chiefs like to flood the field with DBs; they used a dime (six-plus defensive backs) on 35% of their snaps in 2020, third-most in the NFL. Up front, the Chiefs' defense features two premier pass-rushers in Chris Jones and Frank Clark. Jones, in particular, gives Kansas City the kind of up-the-middle pressure that is hard to generate in the NFL. If the Chiefs have a serious weakness on defense it's in the red zone. Surprisingly, Kansas City allowed the highest red zone touchdown percentage, 76.6%, in the entire NFL in 2020.
On top of how explosive the Chiefs' offense can be, the team also features a placekicker who rarely misses. Harrison Butker made 25 of his 27 field goal tries during the regular season and is four-for-five in the playoffs. Including the postseason, he's made all five of his attempts from 50 yards and beyond. The Chiefs were also the only team this season to score on a kickoff return (102 yards by Byron Pringle) and a punt return (67 yards by Mecole Hardman). Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter on Sunday when they take on the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium:
Patrick Mahomes is the premier difference-maker in the NFL as a whole, not just in Kansas City. He has already won six of his seven playoff starts and in the Chiefs run to the title last year he impressively brought the team back from double-digit deficits in every postseason game. If there is a lead that is safe against the 25-year-old superstar passer, it hasn't yet been discovered. Let's agree that Mahomes would be at the top of this list and look at four other Chiefs, because a team that is one win away from its second consecutive league title is obviously loaded with players who can make a difference in any given game. Here are four other Chiefs, besides Mahomes, who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Super Bowl Sunday:
1. WR Tyreek Hill. The Bucs know this is true from first-hand experience. In their Week 12 meeting with the Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium, Hill caught 13 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns, all career single-game highs (he has one other three-TD game), and he had 203 of his yards and two of his scores in the first quarter. With Hill, it's all about speed; he is, in effect, the fastest player in the NFL, surpassing 20 miles per hour on 19 routes this season, the most in the league. And he gets to top speed in a hurry, reaching an average of 10.74 miles per hour one second into his routes. No other player in the NFL even averages 10 miles per hour in the first second. Hill already affected Tampa Bay's defensive strategy in Week One with his first-quarter outburst. The Bucs played single-high safety on 61% of their snaps in the first quarter, during which Hill caught seven passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns on balls thrown outside the numbers. After that, Tampa Bay went to a two-high safety look for 72% of their snaps the rest of the way. Hill also performs well on the biggest stages, as evidenced by his nine catches for 172 yards in the AFC Championship Game. Hill has now topped eight catches and 100 yards in three straight playoff games, the longest such streak in NFL history. The difficulty in slowing down Hill is that defensive backs (and their coaches) have to decide whether it's better to play him tight or give him a cushion. Hill has 26 touchdowns on deep targets since he came into the league in 2016, the most by any player in that span. But he also has 10 touchdowns on crossing routes since 2018, again the most in the league in that span.
2. S Tyrann Mathieu. It was Bruce Arians' Arizona Cardinals who drafted Mathieu in 2013 and then helped him develop into the type of versatile chess-piece defender for which NFL teams are now always on the lookout. The Buccaneers, in fact, spent a second-round pick on Antoine Winfield, Jr. with the idea that he could be a "Honey Badger" type who can be deployed all over the field. Mathieu has the coverage skills to play in the slot, the instincts and awareness to handle the back end of the defense and the toughness to excel in the box. He led the Chiefs with a career-high six interceptions this season and has 10 picks in two years in Kansas City, 23 overall in his career. He had seven tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception in the Divisional round win over Cleveland, then turned in six tackles and a quarterback hit in the AFC Championship Game. Over the past two regular seasons, Mathieu has allowed an opponent passer rating of 59.9 when he is the nearest defender, which is fifth-best among safeties in that span. He can also rush the passer, with 9.0 career sacks, and he was part of one of the most aggressive blitzing defenses in the league, with 32 blitzes of his own. The Chiefs are more likely to bring Sorensen after the quarterback (NFL-high 78 safety blitzes), but the Bucs will need to be aware of Mathieu when he's down around the line of scrimmage.
3. TE Travis Kelce. Given what Hill produced in Week 12, the Buccaneers were probably reasonably pleased to hold Kelce to "only" eight catches for 82 yards in that same contest. Kelce's production is not only historic in terms of the tight end position, but about as automatic on a week-to-week basis as they come. He has had at least seven catches and 68 yards in the last 10 games in which he's played, and at least eight and 82 in nine of them. Here's Arians on trying to slow Kelce down: "It's really hard. He reminds me a lot of Tony Gonzalez back when he was unbelievable just trying to stop him. He's got wide receiver skills and he runs like a wide receiver. He runs routes like a wideout, he beats corners. … [W]e can't let [Mahomes] run around and make those plays that he and Kelce do so well." Several on-the-nose points by Arians. Kelce lines up like an isolated "Y" receiver on 29% of his routes, nearly double the rate of the next tight end on the list. On such plays, since 2019, he has been targeted 81 times and caught 52 passes for 761 yards and three touchdowns, all but the TDs the most by an NFL tight end. And, yes, he is particularly dangerous when the original play breaks down and Mahomes starts to wander around. On plays in which it took Mahomes four or more seconds to get rid of the ball this season, he targeted Kelce 22 times; the next most-targeted Chiefs player in that situation had just nine. Kelce turned those 22 broken-play targets into 11 touchdowns for 171 yards and two touchdowns. At one point, Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski owned the NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season, with 1,327 as a Patriot in 2011. Both Kelce and San Francisco's George Kittle broke that mark in 2018 and now Kelce has reclaimed it for himself with 1,416 in 2020, to go along with 11 touchdowns.
4. CB L'Jarius Sneed. Of the Chiefs' three primary cornerbacks – also Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland – Sneed had the most success in coverage this season, and he did so while playing quite a bit in the slot but also some on the outside. When opposing passers threw in his direction during the regular season they ended up with an "expected points added" (EPA) total of -18.8, the fourth-best mark among all NFL defensive backs, according to Next Gen Stats. During the regular-season, the rookie defender recorded 41 tackles, three interceptions, 2.0 sacks and seven passes defensed. He did all of that despite missing seven games due to a broken collarbone. The Chiefs nabbed the former Louisiana Tech standout in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, as the 16th cornerback taken overall, but Kansas City GM Brett Veach recently said he thought Sneed would be a first-round pick in a draft redo. In the last two months, the Chiefs have also started using Sneed to go after the passer out of the slot a lot more. He has blitzed 23 times since Week 14 and been quite effective doing so, with six pressures and 4.0 sacks. Before that, he had blitzed only four times all season. Sneed is currently working his way back from a concussion and would have been questionable if the Super Bowl was played last Sunday, but he's had two weeks to recover and would be a key cog in the Chiefs' defense if he can play in the big game.
Kansas City's passing attack piles up the yards (303.4 per game) while rarely putting the defense in a bad situation with giveaways (1.11% interception rate, second in the NFL). The Chiefs tied for the most first downs in the league and only allowed Mahomes to be sacked 22 times in 610 dropbacks. Six different Kansas City skill-position players caught at least 36 passes for at least 297 yards during the regular season. The Chiefs' defense was the sixth in the NFL in interception rate and allowed only 22.6 points per contest. Here are some more specific areas in which the Chiefs were among the league's best in 2020:
· Kansas City's third-down conversation rate of 49.0% is superb, though not the best in the league, as the Chiefs ranked third behind Buffalo and Green Bay. But where the Chiefs really excel when it comes to third down is on longer attempts. On third downs needing between seven and 10 yards, Kansas City converted a remarkable 51.9% of the time, easily the best in the NFL and the only team over 47%. On tries needing 11 or more yards, the Chiefs converted 23.7% of the time, third-best in the league. Some of this has to do with Mahomes pressing the ball downfield on third-and-longs; 61% of his passes on third-and-seven or longer traveled past the sticks in the air from 2018-20. That's the highest rate by any quarterback in the NFL.
· Kansas City's defense blitzes at the league's fourth-highest rate but didn't produce appreciably more pressure when doing so (24.5% pressure rate on blitzes). Fortunately for the Chiefs, their secondary has held up quite well even when their blitzes didn't hit home. On plays involving blitzes in 2020, the Chiefs allowed a completion rate of 57.3% (6th-best) and an 81.8 passer rating (5th-best) while intercepting eight passes (tied for first).
· The Buccaneers generated 76 plays of 20 or more yards during the 2020 regular season. The only team with more: Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs, who had 79. Kansas City scored on plays of 20 or more yards 17 times, tied with Oakland for the most in the NFL. The Chiefs had four different players with at least one run of 20 or more yards, including two wide receivers (Hill and Hardman), and they had nine different players with at leas tone reception of 20 or more yards.
· Super Bowl LV is technically a neutral-site game, even if the Buccaneers are the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. And even if there aren't many of the usual advantages of a home field this game, it is true that the Chiefs have to travel to take part in while the Bucs can stay comfortably at home. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, they will be facing perhaps the best traveling team in the league on February 7. The Chiefs have only lost one game on the road in the last two seasons combined, going 8-0 this year, including a Week 12 win in Tampa.
As good as the Chiefs' offense is in virtually every category, it has been surprisingly pedestrian in goal-to-go situations, scoring touchdowns on just 71.4% of such drives to tie for 22nd in the NFL. The Kansas City defense didn't generate a large amount of pressure despite its frequent blitzing, ranking 20th with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 5.75%. Even with the extremely speedy Hardman fielding most of the opposing punts, and scoring on a 67-yard return, the Chiefs only averaged 5.8 yards per punt return. In addition:
· Kansas City's defense was more susceptible to downfield passing in the second half of the season. After the team's bye in Week 10, the Chiefs gave up 100 or more yards on passes that traveled 10-plus yards in the air in seven of their nine games, including the playoffs. In one of the other two, the Bills got 99 yards on such passes in the AFC title game. That only happened to Kansas City twice in its first nine outings.
· The Chiefs' offense led the league in yards per game but could have done so by a wider margin by better avoiding penalties. Kansas City was flagged 105 times for 919 yards, the fourth and sixth-highest totals in the league in 2020, respectively. The Chiefs' biggest penalty problems were on offense at the line of scrimmage. Kansas City absorbed 23 offensive holding calls and 22 false starts, both of which were fourth-worst in the league. The Chiefs' defense was also flagged for 15 pass interference calls, fifth-highest total in the NFL.
· One of the reasons why the Chiefs surprisingly finished last in the league in red zone defense is that it couldn't generate any takeaways in that part of the field. Kansas City's defense forced just one red zone turnover all season, tied for the second-fewest in the league. The Chicago Bears were the only team with no red zone takeaways.
· This is admittedly surprising: The Chiefs' offense wasn't particularly productive in two-minute drills in 2020. Kansas City only scored 13 points on such drives this season, tying for 23rd in the NFL. The league average was nearly 22 points per team.
NEW FACES IN 2020
Kansas City went into the 2020 offseason with a championship-caliber roster, obviously, and didn't need too many additions or upgrades. The draft brought yet another big-time producer for the offense in the first round, as well as a new punter on Day Three. The Chiefs also added another veteran ballcarrier to the backfield during the season and has made some necessary O-Line depth signings along the way.
1. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs had the last pick in the first round in the 2020 draft and used it to break the seal on the running back position with Edwards-Helaire. The former LSU star started his rookie season with a 138-yard game against Houston in Week One, then saw his production rise and fall the rest of the way. He ended up with a team-best 803 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns, plus 36 catches for 297 yards and one more score.
2. G Stefen Wisniewski. Wisniewski, who has started 106 games over 10 years in the league, was cut by the Steelers on November 9 and the Chiefs signed to their practice squad 15 days later. He was elevated on game day from the practice squad twice in December before the Chiefs finally promoted him to the active roster. He could prove to be an important addition for Kansas City in the Super Bowl. With left tackle Eric Fisher going down last week with a torn Achilles tendon, the Chiefs will have to shuffle their offensive line. After Fisher was injured against the Bills, it was Wisniewski who stepped in at right guard as several other players switched positions.
3. RB Le'Veon Bell. When the Jets cut Bell in mid-October he quickly hooked up with Andy Reid and the Chiefs, signing in Kansas City just three days after his release. Bell's involvement in the offense has fluctuated since his arrival, peaking with a 15-carry game at New Orleans in Week 15 that resulted in 62 yards and a touchdown. Bell missed the AFC Championship Game with a knee injury but has a chance to return for Super Bowl LV.
1. T Eric Fisher/T Mitchell Schwartz. For the second straight game, the Buccaneers will play a team that recently lost a Pro Bowl left tackle to injury. David Bakhtiari's absence in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay probably had an impact on the Packers' pass protection, which gave up five sacks to edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. For the Chiefs, the loss of Fisher to an Achilles tendon injury is complicated by the fact that Schwartz, the former starting right tackle, has been on injured reserve since November. When Fisher went down in the AFC Championship Game, Mike Remmers, who had been filling in for Schwartz, moved from right tackle to left tackle and right guard Andrew Wylie kicked out to right tackle.
2. LB Willie Gay. Gay suffered a knee injury in practice last week and subsequently had surgery, which means he will miss Super Bowl LV. Gay was already dealing with an ankle injury at the time. He started eight games this season and contributed 37 tackles, a sack and three passes defensed.
3. WR Sammy Watkins. Watkins hasn't played since Week 16 due to a calf injury and he's only appeared in 10 games so far this season. Nevertheless, he ranks fifth on the team with 37 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdowns.