The Bucs needed to play their best game to dethrone the Chiefs. They got even more
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a modest 7-5 after falling to the Chiefs, 27-24, back on Nov. 29. Patrick Mahomes had just thrown for 462 yards and three touchdowns, and the Chiefs’ looked well on their way to another AFC crown.
Tom Brady’s new Bucs team had as much overall talent as any in the league, but in a season where the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the preseason and in-person offseason team activities, reaching their ceiling with their new quarterback was proving to be a challenge. Still, with four games left in the regular season against a friendly schedule, there was plenty of time left. A rematch against the Chiefs in Tampa on Feb. 7 in Super Bowl 55 was very possible.
The Bucs then rattled off seven consecutive wins, looking more dangerous with each passing week. That included three playoff wins on the road, including an upset victory over the top-seeded Packers. The rematch against the defending champions was set and the Bucs finally seemed to be reaching their full potential.
That being said, Brady said earlier in the week that he still didn’t think the Bucs had hit their ceiling yet. Against the Chiefs, who carved up the Browns and Bills for a combined 877 total yards of offense in their two previous playoff games, Tampa Bay needed to play its best game of the season to have a chance.
The Bucs did just that, and then some, dominating the Chiefs on both sides of the ball on their way to a 31-9 victory.
It was Brady’s seventh Super Bowl, which is now more than any franchise has won in the history of the NFL. The 22-point win was also his largest margin of victory in the Super Bowl by 12 points.
“I’m so proud of all these guys out here,” Brady said. “Everything we dealt with all year – we had a rough month of November, but (head coach Bruce Arians) had a lot of confidence in us. The team had a lot of confidence. We came together at the right time…We ended up playing our best game of the year.”
Brady threw for just 201 yards in the game, but he completed 21 of his 29 passes and threw three touchdowns.
Two of those went to Rob Gronkowski, his longtime security blanket in New England who came out of retirement before the season to join Brady in Tampa Bay. The two now have connected on 14 touchdowns in the postseason, passing Joe Montana and Jerry Rice for the most ever by a quarterback-receiver duo in the postseason.
Gronkowski also joined Rice as the only players in NFL history with multiple touchdown catches in multiple Super Bowls.
“This Buccaneers organization, they were an organization ready to win,” Gronkowski said. “The players here were ready to win, and to come here and be a small part of it and have a situation like this, with so many great players and be Super Bowl LV champs, it’s just surreal.”
The Bucs’ ran just seven total plays on their first two drives, but after Harrison Butker gave the Chiefs a 3-0 lead on a 49-yard field goal, the Bucs scored touchdowns on four of their next five drives to open up a 28-9 lead with 7:45 left in the third quarter. The lone drive they were held out of the end zone required a fourth-and-goal stop at the 1.
Leonard Fournette, who signed a one-year deal with the Bucs in the offseason after being released from the Jaguars, had his best game of the year with 135 total yards and a touchdown.
The Chiefs’ undisciplined play on defense burned them, as they committed eight penalties in the first half. Several of them extended Tampa Bay drives when they had a chance to get off the field and eventually led to points.
Here were among costly penalties against the Chiefs in the first half:
- Holding penalty against Bashaud Breeland covering Mike Evans on first-and-10. Led to Brady’s first touchdown to Gronkowski five plays later.
- Unnecessary roughness penalty against Chris Jones for hit on Ryan Jensen. Would have brought up third-and-7 from TB 33. Led to stop on fourth-and-goal.
- Holding penalty against Ben Niemann that wiped out a 56-yard punt by Tommy Townsend. The down was replayed and Townsend’s next punt was only 29 yards to the KC 38.
- Holding penalty against Charvarius Ward that negated a Tyrann Mathieu interception on third-and-4.
- Offside penalty against Mecole Hardman on fourth-and-5 field goal attempt. Led to second Gronkowski touchdown next play.
- 32-yard pass interference against Breeland covering Evans to move the ball to the KC 24
- Pass interference against Mathieu covering Evans on first-and-goal from the 9. Gave TB the ball at the 1 and led to a touchdown pass to Antonio Brown next play
The pass interference call against Mathieu was an uncatchable ball, and one could probably say the same about the pass interference call on Breeland right before that. However, most of those penalties were reasonable, and a lot of them came in critical situations.
Brady will draw plenty of headlines for winning his seventh ring, but the most dominant unit of the night was the Bucs’ defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles called a masterful game and stifled the Chiefs’ offense more than any team has in the last three years.
“You can’t give him enough credit,” said Arians, who at 68 years and 127 days old became the oldest head coach to ever win the Super Bowl. “I think he got a little tired hearing about how unstoppable they were. I thought he came up with a fantastic plan.”
Since Mahomes took over as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback in 2018, no team had previously held them to single-digit points in 54 games. In those 54 games, only twice had Mahomes been held without a passing or rushing touchdown. It was also the first time in his eight career playoff games he was kept out of the end zone.
Sunday marked the first time Mahomes lost a game by more than eight points in his career. The Bucs defense held him to just 4-of-12 passing on third downs and his first completion on such plays did not come until 5:43 left in the fourth quarter. His 52.3 passer rating was the worst of his career.
“They had a good game plan,” Mahomes said. “They kind of took away all our deep stuff, took away the sideline, and they did a good job of rounding to the football and making tackles. We weren’t executing early, I had a few miscues, we weren’t on the same page, but credit to them. They played a heck of a game.”
Bowles knew his defense would need to limit the Chiefs’ explosive plays after Tyreek Hill had touchdowns of 75 and 44 yards in the first quarter of the regular-season meeting. His focus was to take away Mahomes’ first read with tight coverage, forcing him to stay in the pocket a split-second longer to allow the defensive line to get pressure on him against a Chiefs offensive line playing without their two starting tackles in Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz.
The result was holding a team that led the league in 20-yard pass plays to zero plays over 14 yards in the first half.
“You take away the first read, you know he has to drift and hold it, and we know that’s a dangerous thing because he can run and make plays with his feet,” Bowles said. “We didn’t want him sitting in the pocket, just zinging dimes on us all day either. The D-line got some pressure on him, was making him run, making him a little bit uncomfortable, and I thought that was key for us.”
Kansas City’s replacement tackles, Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie, struggled against the Bucs’ front all night. Remmers mostly played at right tackle this season in place of Schwartz, who sustained a back injury in October. He was the Chiefs’ primary left tackle Sunday. Wylie, on the other hand, is a guard but was needed to start at right tackle. Ten-year veteran Stefen Wisniewski started at right guard in Wylie’s place.
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Bowles called blitzes on only 9.6% of Mahomes’ 56 dropbacks, the lowest rate by a Bowles-led defense in the last five seasons. When Tampa Bay rushed four, it generated 16 QB pressures. In all, the Bucs generated 38 total pressures to just five for the Chiefs.
Bowles also had his defense align in two-high safety looks 87% of the time, which was the highest rate by a Bowles-led defense over the past five seasons. Mahomes was just 13th in the NFL in EPA against such looks this season. On passes thrown 20 or more yards down the field Sunday, he went 0-for-6 with an interception.
“He had a great game plan,” linebacker Lavonte David said of Bowles’. “We didn’t even blitz a lot. We let our D-line eat, and guys underneath took care of the coverage. We were able to eliminate what they wanted to do, to fly around and make plays.”
In total, Mahomes was pressured on 29 of his 56 dropbacks, the most of any quarterback in Super Bowl history. He was often running for his life to try to make a play in the second half. In fact, Mahomes ran a total of 497 yards before his passes/sacks tonight. That’s the most pre-throw/pre-sack yards run by a quarterback in any game this season.
“No touchdowns was unheard of for the Chiefs’ offense,” said outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who had a sack, four quarterback hits and 11 quarterback pressures. “Nobody would have thought the Chiefs would have never scored a touchdown in a Super Bowl game.”
Bowles has been widely regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the sport over the last several years. He was fired as the Jets’ head coach in 2018 after three seasons, but he has made a strong case over the past two years to get another shot.
The Bucs came a long way since that first meeting against the Chiefs back in November. To go from 7-5 to being the first team to ever win the Super Bowl in its home stadium against the defending champions will go down as one of the greatest stories in recent NFL history.
Brady and Gronkowski had already experienced their fair share of postseason success, but for the city of Tampa, Sunday night was a long time coming. Before this year, the Bucs hadn’t won a playoff game since their last Super Bowl in 2002.
But on Sunday night, when they needed to play their best game of the season, they turned in a flawless performance to come out on top in the most challenging season ever.
“It’s amazing,” David said. “We knew we were doubted. We knew we could play football with these guys. You take your hat off to them. They’re a great football team. But we knew we had a great football team, too. The feeling in this locker room is incredible. Guys are jumping for joy. It’s a great feeling. I’m glad I’m celebrating with the great group of guys we have. We’re going to be forever remembered.”
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