No matter the outcome on Sunday evening, the new face of the NFL will officially take over.
As the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ascend on Raymond James Stadium to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the greatest matchup in quarterback history awaits us. The most decorated field general of all time will pass the torch to the kid who may, one day, take that title if his career path continues on its current trajectory. For Patrick Mahomes, though, coming up on the short end of the stick on Sunday doesn't signify a downward spiral. It's just the next motivating factor in a career that anyone would give an appendage for, and it's only his third year at the helm. It takes years and years of disappointment, struggle and hard work to reach the top of the NFL mountain, but the "years and years" portion has evaded the young star out of Tyler, Texas. Coupled with a talented bunch and an exceptional coaching staff, Mahomes fell right into the perfect situation in Kansas City that has primed him to be a serious contender for seasons to come. A career that no one ever could have dreamed of. A career that is, well, similar to his counterpart on the turf this first Sunday in February.
Tom Brady is certainly at the end of the road, but it sure seems like the paving continues. Albeit at a much slower pace, the 43-year-old Buccaneers starting quarterback (that's still weird to type) has a Tampa Bay team in a position they've only been once before. The last time the Bucs captured glory, a 34-year-old Brad Johnson led Tampa Bay to their first championship (yes, I know it was mostly a defensive performance, but the QB gets the glory...you know that). That game was played on the West Coast in San Diego, California. This one? Right at home in Tampa.
The Buccaneers are the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl on their own home field, but will enter as underdogs. Considering they played (and won) all three of their playoff games this season away from home, this one has to be much easier, right? Right? Bueller? Well, no, it won't be. Obviously this will be the toughest game yet, but luckily they have a little experience against the Chiefs. The two teams met in Week 12 in that same Raymond James Stadium, with Kansas City edging Tampa Bay, 27-24. Sunday marks the 14th time in NFL history that two teams will meet in the Super Bowl after matching up in that same regular season. In six of the previous 13, the team that won the regular season also won the Super Bowl. However, no AFC team has ever pulled off the feat. Conversely, out of the seven occurrences where a team pulled off the split, the Tom Brady-led Patriots were victorious in the Super Bowl once and fell victim to the 2007 New York Giants once (perhaps, you remember the not-so-undefeated season? Interestingly enough, all four of the Giants Super Bowl wins came against teams they played during the regular season...but I digress...I love me a good pattern.) The betting line for Sunday? Kansas City is a three-point favorite. Take that as you will, but the stars are aligning once again.
As far as a prediction goes, this is a matchup that might seem like it's a little lopsided. Kansas City's offense is the tops in the league, being the only team to top an average of 400 yards per game. The Buccaneers were seventh, but also boast the league's sixth-best defense. This will be the first matchup in Super Bowl history featuring the top two passing teams in the league. So naturally, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks (as it usually always is, but this one is more highly-touted than most). The key to the game is always who can get to the quarterback. We know what the deal is with Brady. You rattle him, he doesn't do well. With Mahomes? You hit him, he doesn't care. He'll hit with you a no-look next time and make you look silly. But the Buccaneers defense, while shaky between the 20s this postseason, has shown out in critical situations and picked up big stops when they needed them most. Don't get me started on the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay. It's over, we're not going back in time. This truly will be a test of defenses and this is the ultimate example of "Defense Wins Championships." Whichever team has the ball last very may well win, so it will be up to that defense to win it for their side. I foresee this exact situation playing out on Sunday. The Chiefs will fall behind by at least ten in the first half, storm back to take the lead, then Tom will lead the Buccaneers back down the field to take the all-important three-point lead with 1:14 remaining on the clock. And then we will all watch as Patrick grabs that torch and becomes the first back-to-back Super Bowl-winning quarterback since the man on the other sideline.
Chiefs 33, Buccaneers 29
Erik Pessolano (@erik_pessolano)
Photo Courtesy: USA Today (Mahomes) and Getty Images (Brady)