When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to their first Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season, they took the NFL's top-ranked defense into a battle with the Oakland Raiders and the league's top-ranked offense. That was a bit of NFL history, as it was the first time the best offense and best defense had met in a Super Bowl. Buc fans will recall how that went, as Tampa Bay's 48-21 route included five sacks, five interceptions and three defensive touchdowns and became Exhibit A for the old chestnut, "Defense wins championships."
That was Super Bowl XXXVII, at the moment an unparalleled game in Buccaneers franchise history. Eighteen years later, the Bucs are about to face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, and once again it's a first-of-a-kind matchup, albeit one of a very different sort.
During the 2020 regular season, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs led the NFL with 303.4 passing yards per game. Tom Brady and the Buccaneers were second on the list with 289.1 passing yards per game. This is the first time in 55 Super Bowls that the top two passing teams in the league will face off against each other.
This unique matchup is different than the one 18 years ago, of course, because these top-ranked aerial attacks won't actually be facing each other on the field. Rather, they may be dueling it out in alternating series to see which one can put up the most points if neither defense is able to slow down the Brady and Mahomes assaults. Neither the Buccaneers nor the Chiefs finished in the top two in scoring in 2020, but they did combine for 60.4 points per game. Only four other Super Bowls have featured teams with a higher combined per-game scoring average.
So should we expect crowded airways and a lot of points in Super Bowl LV? There has never been matchup of the top two passing attacks in a Super Bowl but there have been six others that featured two teams in the top five. Here they are in reverse chronological order:
1. Super Bowl LI: Atlanta (3rd) vs. New England (4th). New England won, 34-28, in overtime after an incredible comeback and the two teams combined for 750 gross passing yards.
2. Super Bowl XLVI: New England (2nd) vs. N.Y. Giants (5th). The Giants won, 21-17, and the two teams combined for 572 gross passing yards.
3. Super Bowl XLIV: Indianapolis (2nd) vs. New Orleans (4th). The Colts won, 31-17, and the two teams combined for 621 gross passing yards.
4. Super Bowl XXVI: Buffalo (4th) vs. Washington (5th). Washington won, 37-24, and the two teams combined for 578 gross passing yards.
5. Super Bowl XIX: Miami (1st) vs. San Francisco (4th). San Francisco won, 38-16, and the two teams combined for 649 gross passing yards.
6. Super Bowl XI: Oakland (3rd) vs. Minnesota (4th). Oakland won, 32-14, and the two teams combined for 445 gross passing yards.
In general, they were high-scoring games with a lot of passing yards; the last game on the list was from the 1976 season, when the top passing attack in the league only produced 209.5 yards per game, so even 445 yards was a lot. Though it probably doesn't mean much, the team lower in the rankings won four of those six games.
The Buccaneers and Chiefs will play in the first-ever Super Bowl matchup between the two best passing teams in the league, but it probably won't be the last. The NFL's ongoing tilt towards the passing game is reflected not just in this upcoming matchup but in the fact the last four teams standing this year ranked first, second, third and ninth on the passing list.
Now, on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the extra time, will Antonio Brown and Antoine Winfield Jr. be available for Super Bowl?
- @leifmediatania, via Instagram
Let's throw Jordan Whitehead into that group, too, as he was the one new injury of significance to come out of the Bucs' NFC Championship Game win on Sunday. Whitehead, who had already caused two fumbles and delivered a number of crushing hits, left in the third quarter of that game with a shoulder injury and did not return.
Antonio Brown and Winfield both missed the game, Brown with an ankle injury sustained in the Divisional Round game at New Orleans and Winfield with an ankle ailment sustained in practice leading up to the Green Bay game. The good news for all three of those players, as our questioner notes above, is that there are two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. Brown will have had three weeks to recover from his injury in time, Winfield about two-and-a-half.
I usually try to avoid speculating on players' injuries because I have found it to be a fool's errand. So I'm not going to try to say with any degree of certainty if any of those three will play in the Super Bowl. Rather, I would suggest that you follow the Zoom calls with Bruce Arians, which start today, and the injury reports, which started yesterday.
That latter part is a bit strange, so don't be misled. Both Super Bowl teams will be producing injury reports during the "bye week," and at the end of the week they'll put out a report with game-status designations (out, doubtful, questionable or not listed) as if there was a game this Sunday, January 31. So if the Bucs thought a player might be doubtful to play in a game at the end of this week, that's how he'll be listed. However, there will be another round of reports next week ending in one on Friday that will have the true game-status designations for the Super Bowl
That being said, we can at least look at some of the evidence we have and then you can decide for yourself how optimistic you want to be.
Beginning with Brown, he did not practice all week leading up to the NFC Championship Game but Head Coach Bruce Arians repeatedly referred to him as a "game day decision." On Friday, the Bucs decided not to take Brown to Green Bay because injured joints can sometimes swell during plane flights. There are, of course, no more plane flights for the Bucs before the Super Bowl. Brown would not have practiced yesterday had the Bucs held one.
Winfield did go on the trip to Green Bay and he was still being evaluated on Sunday morning to possibly play in the game. In the end, he was held out, but it seems like a good sign that he was that close. He also would not have practiced on Wednesday.
Whitehead spoke to the media after Sunday's win and was asked if he thought with two weeks to recover he'd be back for the big game: His words: "Most definitely. Super Bowl, once in a lifetime, whatever it takes to be back." I'll also add that he was grinning ear-to-ear during that entire quote.
The unexpected name that popped up on the Bucs' Super Bowl bye week injury report was Lavonte David. He has a hamstring issue and would not have participated if the Bucs had practice on Wednesday. That's definitely something we'll want to keep an eye on over the next week and a half.
How big of an impact do you think Vita had during his return? Will we be able to get to Mahomes easier now that we have Vita back?
Well, first of all, Vita Vea played 33 of the Bucs' 71 defensive snaps in Green Bay, in his first game back since suffering a fractured ankle in Week Five at Chicago. 33! I have to admit, I thought he would be eased back into the action with 10 or 15 snaps, possibly portending a bigger role in the Super Bowl if the Bucs got there (which they did). Early in the game, it was clear that the Bucs were going to use Vea at the nose in obvious passing downs, but he eventually did even more than that. Apparently, Buccaneer coaches kept checking with him to see how he felt and he kept saying he was fine.
As is often the case with nose tackles, it's hard to quantify Vea's impact with numbers. He does not appear in the defensive stats page, so he didn't have any sacks or tackles or QB hits. But I think it's safe to say he had an impact on a pass rush that produced five sacks, its highest total in six weeks and more than double the two it had produced during the first two playoff games.
All of those sacks came from edge rushers Shaq Barrett (3.0) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2.0). Barrett got his first sacks since Week 14 (he missed one game in that span while on the COVID list) and Pierre-Paul got his first since Week 14 as well. Those guys deserve the credit for their accomplishments, and Barrett worked extremely hard on his own to get the game's first sack on Green Bay's opening drive. However, I think it's also fair to surmise that Vea's presence in the middle forced the Packers to pay more attention to him and give the edge rushers more one-on-one opportunities.
In fact, Barrett said as much himself after the game. He described his first sack as coming about because Aaron Rodgers tried to scramble to his left only to encounter Vea and be flushed back in the other direction right into Barrett's path.
"Vita's a big impact," said Barrett after the game. "We most definitely missed Vita. On the first sack, the quarterback was trying to go where Vita was at but he couldn't because Vita was right there and he flushed him right to me and it worked out perfectly. Just from that, not even run defense – run defense, he's a real important piece in there. Wherever Vita's at, he's going to take the gap next to him on both sides, and maybe one more gap. So we most definitely missed him."
What is your final score prediction for the super bowl? Do you think we've improved since the initial matchup?
Nooope. Nope, nope, nope. Not taking the bait on the prediction part of that question. I do, however, think the Buccaneers are an improved team since their Week 12 meeting with the Chiefs. I guess that's pretty easy to say since the Bucs have won every single game since that meeting, including two straight road contests against the top two seeds in the NFC.
The main difference is on offense. In the four games leading up to the bye week, including the one with Kansas City, the Buccaneers committed eight turnovers. They also were caught in a cycle of slow starts at that time of the season, on both sides of the ball, which led to a disastrous Sunday night game against the Saints and two failed comebacks against the Rams and Chiefs. Since the Chiefs game – and the bye week that followed – the Buccaneers have only committed five turnovers in seven games, and that was just two in six games before the NFC Championship Game. Until the second half of the contest in Green Bay, Tom Brady had thrown just one interception since Week 12, and that was a fluky play that bounced off the hands of a diving Scotty Miller. The Buccaneers have also led or been tied at halftime in all but one game since.
Tom Brady and Bruce Arians said on a nearly-weekly basis during the first three quarters that the team's offense was a work in progress, as Brady became more and more comfortable in Arians' scheme after having had no offseason program or preseason slate. I think you've seen something closer to a complete product since the start of December. In the seven games since, the Buccaneers have averaged 423 net yards, 322 passing yards and 34.2 points per game, and have averaged 9.0 yards per completion and 8.3 yards per pass attempts. Those numbers: Very good. They are all also significantly better than what the team did through its first 12 games. One absolutely huge difference between the Buccaneers passing attack as it stands right now compared to how it was operating in the middle-of-the-season stretch ending in the K.C. game: Brady is throwing it downfield with much better success.
I would also say the Buccaneers' offensive line has been playing its best ball over the last two months, both in terms of pass protection and opening holes between the tackles for the running backs. The emergence of "Playoff Lenny" has been a heady experience and with Ronald Jones having fresh legs and ready to supply big plays, the Bucs rushing attack is probably peaking at the absolute perfect time. Ali Marpet, one of the stars of that rising offensive line, thinks it was all just a matter of time before the offense came together the way it has.
"It's hard to say," said Marpet. "I feel like with these things it takes a lot of different guys being on the same page and doing it over and over again. And I think that's what we've done. I think time-on-task just helped us out."
Tampa Bay's defense probably isn't too much different than it was in Week 12, with the massive exception of Vita Vea being back and ready to wreak havoc in the middle. Devin White came back from his two-game absence on the COVID list and has seemed like a man on a mission ever since. Sean Murphy-Bunting has fully regained his confidence and has turned into an interception machine in the playoffs. The defense as a whole seems to have regained its touch when it comes to forcing turnovers, something that seemed to go away over the last month of the regular season.
All in all, I think it's quite clear that the Buccaneers are a better team now than they were in Week 12 when they met the Chiefs for the first time. Of course, Kansas City can probably say the same thing.