Brady vs. Mahomes: Super Bowl LV Prediction

We are now just days away from the first-ever Super Bowl matchup between two QBs who have won both regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. When the Patriots played the Seahawks in the 2014 Super Bowl, both Brady and Russell Wilson had previously won Super Bowls, but Russell Wilson was not the Super Bowl MVP when the Seahawks won it in 2013.

In terms of QB matchups, Super Bowl LV is easily in the top-5 all-time. It might even be the best ever. I’m going back through past Super Bowls and looking at the QB matchups and here are the top ones ever in my opinion, in no particular order:

  • 2009, Saints vs. Colts: Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning
  • 2001, Patriots vs. Rams: Tom Brady vs. Kurt Warner
  • 1997, Broncos vs. Packers: John Elway vs. Brett Favre
  • 1989, 49ers vs. Broncos: Joe Montana vs. John Elway
  • 1984, 49ers vs. Dolphins: Joe Montana vs. Dan Marino
  • 1968, Jets vs. Colts: Joe Namath vs. Johnny Unitas
  • 1966, Packers vs. Chiefs: Bart Starr vs. Len Dawson

And yet none of those matchups featured QBs who had already won Super Bowl MVPs and regular season MVPs. Drew Brees has never won a regular season MVP, and he only got a Super Bowl MVP after winning that Super Bowl over the Colts. In 2001, Kurt Warner had already won MVP and Super Bowl MVP, but Brady hadn’t won either yet as it was his first season as a starting QB. He won Super Bowl MVP after that game.

In 1998, John Elway had won regular season MVP once before in 1987, and Brett Favre won three straight MVPs from 1995-1997, but Elway had never won a Super Bowl prior to 1997. He didn’t even win Super Bowl MVP for the 1997 Super Bowl, Terrell Davis did. Elway won it in 1998, though. And when the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996, Brett Favre didn’t win MVP, Desmond Howard did.

So while we can debate whether this is the greatest Super Bowl quarterback matchup, it is not debatable that these are the two most decorated QBs to ever meet in a Super Bowl.

The best part about this matchup, and the sports media has beaten it to death by this point already, is the massive age difference between Brady and Mahomes. Brady is 43, Mahomes is 25. When Brady won his first Super Bowl in February 2002, Patrick Mahomes was just 6 years old. When Patrick Mahomes was born in September 1995, Tom Brady was just starting his freshman year at the University of Michigan.

Brady is basically universally recognized as the greatest quarterback of all time, but most people believe that given how incredible Patrick Mahomes has been in his first three years in the league, he has the potential to one day overtake Brady as the GOAT.

But if Brady wins this Super Bowl over Mahomes, can Mahomes ever truly catch Brady in the GOAT discussion? Brady will then have 7 rings including a head-to-head Super Bowl win over Mahomes. To me, that would make it largely impossible for Mahomes to ever pass Brady in the GOAT conversation, unless he wins like 10 Super Bowls in his career. Because when Mahomes’ career is winding down, we’ll debate his place among the all-time greats, and ask whether he’s surpassed Brady, but it will always come down to “But Brady beat him in the Super Bowl back in 2020.”

Brady is already the GOAT, but if he wins this one, he might become the Permanent GOAT. Because he’ll have beaten the one guy who could conceivably one day overtake him as the GOAT. It will also be his first Super Bowl title away from Bill Belichick. Most people don’t believe Brady has anything left to prove, but clearly he wants to prove it to himself that he can win without Belichick.

Conversely, if Mahomes beats Brady in this Super Bowl, he could theoretically pass Brady to become the GOAT without winning 6+ Super Bowls in his career. He could win like 3-4 and then have the added benefit of the head-to-head win over Brady to compensate. It’s not really fair to put this much pressure on Mahomes–“if you don’t beat Brady, you’ll never be the GOAT!”–but such is the nature of sports. And Mahomes is fine with it, I’m sure. Pressure doesn’t really seem to get to him. Of all the great things you can say about his football talent and skill, perhaps the most underrated thing about him is his emotional stability. He never gets too high or too low. He’s one of the most mentally-tough guys to ever play the game. The moment is never too big for him.

Mahomes will now play in his second Super Bowl in three years as a starter, and he would’ve been three-for-three had Dee Ford not lined up offsides in the 2018 AFC Championship game. That is simply remarkable. The last quarterback with this much success this early in his career was… Tom Brady, go figure. Three Super Bowls in his first 4 seasons as a starter (2001, 2003, 2004).

Andy Reid will coach in his 3rd Super Bowl, and remember his first Super Bowl appearance as a head coach was in 2004 as head coach of the Eagles. He faced off against, who else? Brady and the Patriots. Reid’s Eagles came up just short in that game, losing 24-21, but luckily Reid was finally able to get a ring last season. Andy Reid has been one of the NFL’s best coaches for a long time now, but he hadn’t won the Big One. In this game he gets the opportunity to really cement his place among the all-time greats. Having one Super Bowl is great, but if Reid wins a second, he instantly becomes a top-10 all-time head coach. He’s already 6th all-time in career wins with 221, and he should move past Curly Lambeau (226) into the top-5 next season. With two Super Bowl titles, and having led two different franchises to the Super Bowl in his career, there will be no doubt at all that Andy Reid is one of the very best coaches to ever walk the sidelines in the history of the NFL.

The Bucs are the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium, but go figure, it’s the one year there’s a global pandemic going on and the stadium capacity is limited to about 25,000 fans. You could say it’s bad timing, but the pandemic was also a blessing for the Bucs, as they had to win three road games in order to get to the Super Bowl, and I just have to believe the fact that the stadiums were mostly empty made doing that a hell of a lot easier. When you think about the fact that the Bucs went to New Orleans and then to Green Bay and won both times, that is not an easy thing to do. Those are two of the hardest places to play, and I’m not sure the Bucs would’ve been able to win those games had the stands been full. So while it sucks for the Bucs that they won’t have true home-field advantage in the Super Bowl, they were also very fortunate during their road playoff run that NFL stadiums had to be largely empty this season.

So that’s what’s at stake here. But what about the game itself?

Since the matchup was finalized two Sundays ago, I’ve been leaning Bucs the whole time. My statistical rankings have loved the Bucs all season long, and I kept saying not to give up on the Bucs even as they were losing a bunch of games to good teams. But I picked against the Bucs twice in the playoffs: at the Saints and at the Packers. So after the Bucs beat the Packers, I was ready to stop doubting Brady.

But then I remembered that Steve Spagnuolo is the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator. Spags was the Giants’ defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants upset the 18-0 Patriots. He is 3-2 in his career against Brady including that Super Bowl win, plus a week 14 regular season matchup in 2019 where the Chiefs beat Brady’s Patriots 23-16 and then the week 12 regular season matchup between the Chiefs and Bucs this year.

Is Spags’ Brady’s kryptonite? He’s now got two Super Bowl titles on his resume as a defensive coordinator, and has established himself as one of the best defensive coaches in the game.

It’s pretty cool that we’ll get another Brady-Spags matchup in the Super Bowl, however this Chiefs team isn’t built the way the 2007 Giants were built. Spags’ Giants team that beat Brady in the Super Bowl leaned on its front four: Michael Strahan, Osi Umeniyora and Justin Tuck were all over Brady in that game. The 2020 Chiefs have a good line–Chris Jones, Frank Clark–but it’s not the centerpiece of the defense, and it’s not quite on the level of that 2007 Giants defensive line. So I don’t think Brady will be under siege all game like he was in 2007.

But I think the presence of Spags is significant enough for me to reconsider my initial lean in this game. Not only does he know how to beat Tom Brady, but he was the guy who basically created the blueprint for how to do it in that 2007 Super Bowl. Ever since then, people have been saying, “To beat Brady, you have to put pressure on him and hit him continually.”

Of course, Brady is going to be ready. He remembers that 2007 Super Bowl better than just about anyone. He knows who Steve Spagnuolo is and has a good idea of what’s coming. Brady and Bucs’ offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich are going to be watching hours upon hours of film in preparation for this game.

Apparently Brady’s wife and kids went on vacation following the Bucs’ win over the Packers in the NFC Championship in order to give Tom the house to himself for a full 12 days so he could prepare for the game. So the guy has just been sitting there by himself in his house watching film mentally preparing for the past 10 days, obviously with practices sprinkled in there. So Brady will be ready, although there was never any question about that to begin with.

The big thing we have to focus on here is the fact that these teams have already played once this year: the Chiefs went into Tampa and beat the Bucs 27-24 on November 29. Most of us remember that game for Tyreek Hill’s 203 receiving yards in the first quarter, allowing the Chiefs to jump out to a 17-0 lead. But after that first quarter, the Bucs made some adjustments on both offense and defense and turned it into a close game.

Patrick Mahomes threw for 456 yards against the Bucs’ defense, which is a cause for concern going into this game. Though the Bucs’ secondary has improved since then, they are still my biggest concern looking ahead at this game. Though the Packers obviously lost, Aaron Rodgers had a good amount of success throwing against that Bucs’ secondary in the NFC Championship. He was 33/48 for 346 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT, with a 101.6 passer rating. I have a feeling Mahomes will have a big game, too.

The Bucs’ strength is their pass rush and their front seven. They were able to sack Aaron Rodgers 5 times in the NFC Championship, and they took full advantage of the fact that the Packers’ All Pro LT David Bakhtiari went down with a torn ACL early in January and missed the game.

The Chiefs are dealing with some serious offensive line issues as well: starting tackles Eric Fisher (torn Achilles) and Mitchell Schwartz (back) are both going to miss the game. This is bad news for the Chiefs, as the Bucs have a couple of top-flight edge rushers in Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. I fully expect those two to flat-out abuse the Chiefs’ backup tackles in this game.

However, if there’s one quarterback in the league who will be able to compensate for an ineffective offensive line, it’s Patrick Mahomes. The guy seems to be even better when he’s forced to scramble and improvise. He can just keep running backwards until somebody gets open, and his arm is so strong that he can complete deep passes even if he’s 15-20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. So by no means would I be concerned about Patrick Mahomes missing his starting tackles in this game. He’s the one quarterback that can be just fine if the pocket is continually breaking down.

The Bucs’ main concern in this game should be Tyreek Hill. For some reason, in their regular season matchup, the Bucs kept cornerback Carlton Davis on Hill one-on-one, and it did not go well. Hill burned him several times and was backflipping into the endzone after his second TD of the first quarter. Carlton Davis is not a bad cornerback. In fact, he’s actually a pretty good cornerback. He’s just not fast enough to handle Tyreek Hill on an island. Nobody is. So Tampa is going to have to figure out a way to give him some help and prevent Tyreek Hill from beating them deep in this game. You’re not going to completely shut him down, but you obviously cannot let him get 269 yards like he did in the week 12 matchup.

If you look at Tyreek Hill’s season stats this year, plenty of teams have held him largely in check. In 12 of his 17 games this year (regular and postseason combined) he was held under 100 yards. In 4 games this year, he was held to under 100 yards and 0 TDs, however one of them was that Sunday Night game against Denver where he actually caught the touchdown pass and didn’t even realize it, the refs called it incomplete, and Kansas City didn’t even realize they could’ve challenged it and got the TD. So there is a precedent for containing him.

And the Bucs themselves fared pretty well against him after the first quarter of that game. He finished the game with 269 receiving yards but 203 of them were in the first quarter.

Now, this could’ve just been because Kansas City started playing more conservatively after going up 17-0 in the first quarter. Even though there’s still 3 quarters left in the game and you’re only up 3 scores, you’re inevitably going to get less aggressive and more conservative when you get out to a hot start like that.

But the game certainly was not over and Kansas City knew that, so you have to give the Bucs some credit for making adjustments.

Basically the way I see it is that Tampa can play 1-deep safety and risk getting beat over the top by Hill, or they can play 2-deep safeties and risk getting beat underneath by Kelce. Pick your poison. Travis Kelce is the main reason all teams don’t just play 2-deep safeties automatically against Kansas City. Because you’d think it’s a no-brainer that that every opposing team would basically run a prevent-style defense against Kansas City, but it’s not possible when you have to deal with Kelce underneath. Kelce is too fast to be covered by a linebacker and too big to be covered by a safety, so his presence is another huge problem for the Bucs’ defense. He opens up the deep ball for Tyreek Hill, and Tyreek Hill opens up the short and medium routs for Kelce.

There are no easy or simple solutions for slowing down this Kansas City offense. There’s a reason they’re 25-2 in their past 27 games, and one of those losses was week 17 this season when they basically rested all their most important starters. So it’s really 25-1.

There is no real sure-fire gameplan for beating Kansas City. They’re just so good.

In the week 12 matchup, the Bucs actually did pretty well holding Kelce in check: had 8 catches for 82 yards, which are still really good numbers for a tight end, but Travis Kelce is not just a normal tight end. Those 82 yards were the 6th-fewest he had in a game this season, as unbelievable as that sounds. And it was one of five games this year where Kelce failed to score a touchdown. If you’re Tampa, you’ll take 8 for 82 and no TDs out of Kelce all day. That’s about as close as you’re going to get to shutting him down.

The good news for Tampa is that they’ve already played the Chiefs and so they can use that earlier game as a sort of experiment, a trial-and-error evaluation. They will base their gameplan for the Super Bowl off of what worked and what didn’t work in that game. You have to assume they’ll be better in this game than they were in the regular season matchup, and they still almost won that game. The Bucs scored a TD to make it 27-24 Chiefs with about 4 minutes left in the game. Kansas City got the ball back, but the Bucs just couldn’t a stop and Kansas City was able to run out the clock. Had they been able to get a stop, they would’ve had an opportunity to either win the game or at least take it to overtime.

That’s where the Chiefs are most dangerous, and it’s why despite so many teams playing them so closely, they’ve been able to win all these games consistently. They are the best closers in the league. Nobody is better than they are at moving the chains and running out the clock. You saw it against the Browns in the divisional round even with Mahomes injured: Chad Henne ran the ball to get it within inches of the first down, and then they ran that same out route to Tyreek Hill that they’ve run so many times late in games to ice it.

The biggest thing about the Chiefs is that they seem to have gotten back on track after a bunch of close wins. Their 38-24 AFC Championship win over Buffalo was their first two-score win since week 8 when they beat the Jets 35-9. The big question during that 8-game stretch was whether or not the Chiefs would be able to “flip the switch” come playoff time, and it looks like we have our answer. After falling behind 9-0 to Buffalo, the Chiefs reeled off a 38-6 run and put that game away by the middle of the fourth quarter. The 38-24 final score was much closer than the game actually was.

But Tampa is a much better team than Buffalo. Buffalo, as I’ve written before, probably should’ve lost to the Colts in the Wild Card round and easily could’ve lost to the Ravens in the Divisional round. I think the Bills lucked out a lot to get to the AFC Championship game. I’m not trying to downplay the Chiefs’ win in that game, I’m just saying the Chiefs will be dealing with a whole different beast on Sunday.

There’s so much about this game that I haven’t even gotten into. I touched a bit on Brady vs. Spags, but there’s so much more to it. The Bucs have a ton of weapons offense who were all a major part of this team’s incredible run this year. There’s just so much star-power in this game between both teams. It’s a true heavyweight bout. In order to get to everything this would turn into a very long article, and it’s already pretty long so I’ll cut it off here.

I was leaning Bucs at first but now I think I’m leaning Chiefs. They’re 25-1 in their last 26 games they’ve actually tried to win, their defensive coordinator has had tremendous success against Brady historically, and their offense is basically unstoppable. This team is on a truly special run right now and I think it continues with a second straight Super Bowl win. Even with a beat-up offensive line, I think Mahomes’ mobility and ability to throw on the run will be enough to compensate. I think we see a high-scoring(ish) game with lots of fireworks and the Chiefs end up winning 34-30.

I hope it comes down to the very end. I hope we see an all-time classic, because it would be fitting for these two QBs. I would not rule the Bucs out at all in this game, though. I think they are more than capable of winning and I would not be surprised if they did. It wouldn’t be an upset at all.

This will be my third game in a row picking against the GOAT, and I could totally see him proving me wrong for a third straight time. I just think the Chiefs will be able to get a few big stops that will end up being the difference in the game.

But it’s such a good matchup that my lean on the Chiefs isn’t real strong. I’m like 60-40 Chiefs at this point.

***

Header image credit: Sporting News

Octavian

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