Welcome to the Super Bowl edition of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted look at Sunday’s matchup between the Chiefs and Buccaneers.
What a strange and complicated feeling this is, huh? I can’t imagine Patriots fans ever being more invested in a Super Bowl in which the Patriots are not participating than this one.
On one side is Tom Brady, playing his 10th Super Bowl and going for his seventh Lombardi Trophy, but his first as a Buccaneer and an expatriated ex-Patriot. On the other his Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP who is trying to lead the Chiefs to becoming the first team to win back-to-back championships since the 2003-04 Patriots.
Brady and the Bucs endured some hiccups, falling to 7-5 after a 27-24 loss to the Chiefs in Week 12, a game in which Kansas City built a 17-0 lead and held on for the win. The Buccaneers haven’t lost in seven games since — a stretch reminiscent of the 2001 Patriots’ winning their final nine games after a loss to the Rams dropped them to 5-5.
The Buccaneers’ undefeated streak includes road playoff wins over Drew Brees and the Saints and Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, as well as the Washington Football Team. They’re rolling, and now they get to become the first team to play the Super Bowl at its home stadium.
But they’re not the favorites, and they shouldn’t be. Mahomes, whose father, Pat, pitched for the Red Sox three years before the Patriots drafted Brady, guided the Chiefs to a franchise-record 14 wins, with no signs of a Super Bowl hangover. The Chiefs, who beat the Browns and Bills on their journey to the Super Bowl, won’t be intimidated by playing at Raymond James Stadium. They were 8-0 on the road this season.
It should be easy to root for Brady, who gave Patriots fans two decades of extraordinary quarterback play for one of the greatest sustained dynasties in sports. But did I mention those feelings are strange and complicated?
Envy always crops up when an ex thrives elsewhere, and the ungrateful element of fans that uses Brady’s success as an opportunity to diminish Bill Belichick’s achievements are almost enough to make one root for the Chiefs.
Who are we rooting for? I’m not sure I can tell you for sure until Brady has the ball at his own 20, down 6 with two minutes left. And I expect such a scenario, or one quite similar, to play out. This game should end up being a gem, one we talk about for years to come. With those quarterbacks, how could it not?
Kick it off, Succop, or maybe you, Butker, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Brady or Mahomes
Travis Kelce: The Chiefs’ six-time Pro Bowl tight end produced one of the best receiving seasons by any player at his position. He set a record for a tight end with 1,416 receiving yards — second in the league among all pass catchers to Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (1,555) — on 105 receptions, 11 of which ended with a touchdown, and he didn’t even play in the season finale against the Chargers. He surpassed 100 receiving yards six times in the regular season, had more than 80 in 10 games, and had fewer than 50 just once. Ever-consistent, Kelce has gone over 100 yards in both playoff games, totaling 21 catches on 25 targets for 227 yards and three TDs in wins over Cleveland and Buffalo. The Buccaneers are familiar with his work — he caught all eight passes aimed his way for 82 yards in Week 12. For someone who began his career as a quarterback at the University of Cincinnati, Kelce’s Hall of Fame track as a tight end is impressive. This is also true: He’s had the second-best career among the tight ends in this game, especially once the blocking aspect of the position is considered. There’s only one Gronk, but Kelce has done a nice job of becoming his era’s Kellen Winslow Sr.
Mike Evans: Brady has so many weapons with the Buccaneers that N’Keal Harry wouldn’t be more than a third receiver on this team, tops. (Oh, c’mon, I’m kidding.) The one of greatest interest to Patriots fans, beyond the rejuvenated Rob Gronkowski, is Chris Godwin, whose skill set (if you can ignore the recurring bouts with the dropsies) could make him a coveted target in free agency. But the most dangerous is Evans, who finished with 70 catches for 1,006 yards and 13 touchdowns. It took Brady and Evans time to get on the same wavelength. Evans had two or fewer catches in four of the Buccaneers’ first seven games. But they’ve been rolling since, with Evans collecting a touchdown reception against the Saints and Packers, and posting three 100-plus-yard performances in the last six games, playoffs included. Brady has enviable weapons in his new football home. Evans, 6 feet 5 inches, 231 pounds, is the best receiver he’s had at his disposal since Randy Moss.
Jason Pierre-Paul: Brady must be happy to have him on his side this time. In 2011, Pierre-Paul was one of the Giants’ pass rushers who tormented Brady in the Super Bowl. Pierre-Paul, who had 16½ sacks that year, his second in the league, didn’t sack Brady in the game, but he batted down two passes, hit him once, and had a tackle for a loss. Nine seasons and a couple of mangled digits later, Pierre-Paul is now a force for the Buccaneers. He compiled 9½ sacks and four forced fumbles in the regular season, and had arguably his best performance of the season against the Packers, sacking Aaron Rogers twice and finishing with five tackles. The Chiefs will be without left tackle Eric Fisher (torn Achilles’), and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is recovering from a back injury. Pierre-Paul and his fellow pass rushers could end up being the X-factor.
Grievance of the week
I recently watched the end of Super Bowl LIII — the Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams, the perfect bookend to their first Super Bowl win over a different allegedly unstoppable Rams offense 17 years earlier.
When Stephen Gostkowski iced the game with a field goal to put the Patriots up 10 with 1 minute 16 seconds left, CBS’s Tony Romo says broadly of the dynasty:
“Enjoy it, folks. You’re never, ever going to see it again.”
Replied Jim Nantz: “Not it our lifetimes.”
Let’s see if they remember that if the Chiefs win Sunday. There’s been a race to anoint Kansas City as the “next Patriots” because Patrick Mahomes is going for a second straight Super Bowl in three years as a starter. That matches Brady’s early pace — again, if he wins.
If he doesn’t, he’s already behind a pace that is going to be impossible to match going forward.
There is no “next Patriots.” Nantz and Romo knew this two years ago. Everyone else should know that, too.
Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill vs. Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis and plenty of help
Buccaneers receiver Scotty Miller recently said on “The Dan Patrick Show” that he is the fastest receiver in the NFL. It was impressive that Miller said this with a straight face considering he had the opportunity this season to see the legitimate fastest receiver in the league submit a historic performance against his Bucs.
In the teams’ Week 12 matchup, Hill, the Chiefs’ All-Pro receiver whose Twitter handle, appropriately enough, is @cheetah, put together one of the most explosive opening quarters imaginable. Hill had seven catches for 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Chiefs took a 17-0 lead in the first 15 minutes. According the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Hill ran faster than 20 miles per hour on both of those touchdowns.
He finished the game with 13 catches for 269 yards and three scores — the touchdowns covering 75, 44, and 20 yards. Much of the damage was done with Davis, a third-year cornerback who started 14 games in the regular season, in coverage. He was the primary defender for 211 of Hill’s 269 yards. That’s a lot of time spent chasing a cheetah.
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles did adjust and neutralize Hill somewhat after the break, holding him to 66 yards in the second half. But that’s still a 132-yard pace over a full game.
The Buccaneers are hoping speedy safety Jamel Dean, who missed the Week 12 game because of injury, can provide some support in dealing with Hill. And it’s not out of the question that cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting gets the first crack rather than Davis.
This much is certain. The Buccaneers’ defensive backs know firsthand who the fastest receiver in the league is. It’s not someone they face in practice.
Or, Brady had better play better in the fourth quarter than Jimmy Garoppolo did last year . . .
While Patriots fans may be conflicted depending on their feelings about Brady and the chatter about a Chiefs dynasty, the NFL is thrilled. This has been the league’s dream matchup since Brady signed with the Buccaneers last March, something CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, whose network has the broadcast rights this year, acknowledged this past week.
Much of that appeal, obviously, is the quarterback matchup, perhaps the most compelling in Super Bowl history. (Yes, even more so than Kerry Collins vs. Trent Dilfer.) Brady is the greatest ever to play, something that was beyond debate after the rally from down, 28-3, against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Mahomes, at 25 years old and percolating with a point guard’s creativity, is the most talented young quarterback the league has ever seen, and his accomplishments are mounting.
It is a privilege to watch this pair of quarterbacks compete. The have different skills and come from different generations, but their results are strikingly similar.
Only one can win on Sunday, and it will be the one who has the football last. I’m still not sure if I’ll be rooting for Tom Brady, Buccaneer; I need to be in that moment to know. But the outcome, if not the uniform, sure will look familiar.
Buccaneers 35, Chiefs 33.
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.