The Wrap - Championship Weekend

Given how their offense positively purred on the way to a 38-24 win over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game, the Kansas City Chiefs can feel slightly aggrieved that Tom Brady is getting most of the headlines around the NFL world this Monday.

And here I go falling into the exact same trap… but I will have more on the Chiefs and an attack that gained 439 yards while putting up 38 points and punting just twice later in this column..

For now, we have to pay homage to the career greatness of Brady, who will play in a record 10th Super Bowl in his own Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Sunday February 7. This upcoming game will be the 55th Super Bowl and by the time the action ends in Florida a week on Sunday, Brady will have played in almost a fifth of all of them.

Of all the remarkable statistics Brady has compiled in his Hall of Fame career, that's the one that he will take the most pride in. It's always been about playing in the biggest game of them all at the end of the year.

I once asked Brady about which was his favourite Super Bowl. His answer? "The next one."

It's not even close now when it comes to Brady's career marks compared to the other greats of this wonderful sport. The next-closest in terms of quarterback starts in a Super Bowl is John Elway, of the Denver Broncos, with five – half the amount of Brady.

There are many things that go into being a great quarterback. Probably too many to list here. But I was struck by this thought as Brady called his son down from the stands at Lambeau Field and celebrated with him after the 31-26 win over Green Bay… going to a 10th Super Bowl means just as much to Brady as going to his first at the end of the 2001 season.

Actually, it probably means more. He is 43 years old and his NFL status could not have been more uncertain in the Wild Card round of last year's playoffs as he watched Logan Ryan intercept his final pass at Foxboro and run it into the endzone for a nail-in-the-coffin score.

At that point, Brady looked tired and deflated. He had thrown just 11 touchdown passes in his final nine games in the 2019 season and was the lowest-rated quarterback in the NFL in the second half of that campaign with a mark of 80.8.

Fast forward a little over 12 months and his partnership with Bruce Arians, which has been the subject of much media speculation this season, has borne the sweetest of fruits. Brady looked positively giddy after throwing for 280 yards and three touchdowns to advance to the Super Bowl. Now, he blotted his copybook somewhat with three second half interceptions and there were throws he would most definitely want back when he watches the film, but I don't think that will damage his confidence one little bit.

The Bucs were still throwing on a final drive to run out the clock as Brady hit Mike Evans for nine yards and drew a pass interference penalty out of Kevin King on a shot to Tyler Johnson that effectively ended the contest.

Tampa are not afraid to take shots downfield. That is who they are and that is why Brady threw 40 touchdown passes during the regular season. They will continue to attack that very same way in the Super Bowl, with the added insurance that they can put together a strong team performance even though Brady gets most of the headlines.

Brady talked about this being "the ultimate team sport" after the win at Lambeau Field and he is, of course, right. But his personal dominance is noteworthy and deserves to be placed in the spotlight. Win or lose, Brady is disappearing over the hills and far away in terms of career achievements and I can only think of one player in a position to seriously challenge him on that front in the coming decade or more – the young man he will be facing on Super Sunday, 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes, who will be playing in his second Super Bowl and who already has Super Bowl and NFL MVP awards in his trophy cabinet.

And while all Super Bowls are fascinating affairs, that Brady versus Mahomes matchup makes this a particularly spicy affair. It should be a fun couple of weeks building up to such an historic showdown as this game will be the first to feature two quarterbacks who won the previous two Super Bowls.

It could also be Brady's last time on the big stage, but I'm not about to fall into that trap again. I think we might have talked about that very subject after his win over Atlanta in 2016, his loss to Philadelphia in 2017 and his win over the Los Angeles Rams in 2018.

Enjoy Brady in the big game on February 7 but there is every chance we see him in Los Angeles at the end of the 2021 season.

Who's Hot…

Tampa Bay's defense… Considering they are about to face the NFL's top-ranked attack from the 2020 season in Super Bowl 55, it's quite handy that the Buccaneers are playing some of their best defense of the year. In the Divisional Round win over New Orleans, Tampa Bay forced four turnovers with three of those setting up short-field touchdowns. They forced another two turnovers on Sunday and sacked Aaron Rodgers five times (three from Shaq Barrett and two from Jason Pierre Paul). How that pass rush fares against a Kansas City offensive line that will be without left tackle Eric Fisher (torn Achilles in the AFC title game) will be a key to Super Bowl 55. And how about the form of inside linebacker Devin White? The young defender has 26 tackles and two fumble recoveries in two playoff games since coming off the Covid-19 list.

Steve Spagnuolo… Kansas City's defensive coordinator terrorised Tom Brady at the end of the 2007 season when he held the same position with the New York Giants. The architect of that upset Super Bowl win, Spagnuolo parlayed that showing into a head coach role with the St. Louis Rams. He won't do the same again in 2020, but his defense could give Tom Brady fits in Tampa. Spagnuolo dialled up so many well-timed blitzes during the Chiefs' 14-point win over a Buffalo team that looked like another year or two is needed to be ready for such a big stage. The Chiefs used blitzes from defensive backs to keep Josh Allen penned in and off-balance. And it worked as they sacked him four times and picked him off once, with another two that should have been picked.

Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill… Patrick Mahomes is outstanding and off to an historic start to his NFL career and he works so well with Andy Reid as his head coach. But he also benefits greatly from being surrounded by skill position talent to die for, most notably tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill. For the second week in a row, these two dominant forces from the regular season went over 100 yards in the playoffs. Hill caught nine passes for 172 yards while Kelce added 13 for 118 and two scores. I'm not sure how you can defend this pair, but I know the task becomes something close to impossible once they are into their routes and downfield. I think defenses have to take chances at the line of scrimmage with Kelce and Hill, disrupting their timing with a physical bump here and there. Even then, they're still likely to get their yards and make big plays.

Who's Not…

Matt LaFleur… In big moments, it often takes bravery from a coaching point of view to succeed – you need to play to win the game, rather than play not to lose. And you should have a clear plan about how aggressive you are going to be and when you are in four-down territory. Or not, as the case may be. I felt like Packers head coach Matt LaFleur failed his team on Sunday night. On third and goal from the Tampa eight-yard line, Aaron Rodgers forced a pass into the endzone that fell incomplete. He had a lot of green grass in front of him and could possibly have scored. If not, he would have been at the one or two yard line. If LaFleur had told Rodgers he was going for it on fourth down, maybe his quarterback would have taken off on third down. With 2:05 remaining, LaFleur chose to kick the chip-shot field goal instead of giving his Hall of Fame quarterback one more shot. The Packers closet the gap to five points but never saw the ball again. After the game, a distraught Rodgers said: "That was not my decision."

Josh Allen… It was a heck of a record-setting year for Buffalo's third-year passer and he made huge strides as he accounted for 45 touchdowns in the regular season (37 passing and 8 rushing). But Sunday's loss at Kansas City was not Allen's finest hour. He tried to force a few too many plays and resembled the young quarterback who blew hot and cold in his first two years in the league. There were too many risky plays that made you scratch your head. Allen also made some wrong reads and didn't see open receivers. He threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns but only compiled a passer rating of 80.8.

Buffalo's offensive line… While I have just credited Kansas City's blitzing defense, it should also be noted that Kansas City were getting home without bringing extra rushers. Chris Jones was a particular menace from the defensive tackle position and I don't think Buffalo's front five had a good outing. They were responsible for some of the aforementioned poor decisions made by their quarterback.

The Fast Five…

  1. This could be the most popular head coach matchup in Super Bowl history. There is a lot of love around the NFL for Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and many, myself included, will be delighted to see Bruce Arians make the big game as a head coach for the first time at the age of 68.
  2. If the Chiefs are to move the ball during Super Bowl 55, it is likely to come through the air because the Bucs put up a big red wall when it comes to their run defense. It starts with a fit-again Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh up front backed up by speedy, playmaking linebackers in Devin White and Lavonte David. The Bucs allowed just 80.6 rushing yards per game to rank first in the NFL during the regular season and on Sunday they held the Packers to 67 rushing yards… one week after Green Bay gained 188 on the ground against the Rams.
  3. With only 22,000 fans in attendance at Raymond James Stadium – and 7,500 of them being vaccinated healthcare workers given free tickets – watch out for this Super Bowl ticket to be the most expensive in the game's history. People are going to pay silly money to see Brady and Mahomes go head to head. And I'm talking tens of thousands of dollars here.
  4. I think he probably just needs some time to cool off, but Sunday's post-match press conference left me wondering how badly Aaron Rodgers wants to return to Green Bay. I'm sure he will be fine with the passing of time, but he is clearly fuming with his head coach having seen yet another Super Bowl opportunity slip through his fingers.
  5. Much like his quarterback, Sean McDermott had a great year in Buffalo. But, like Allen, McDermott was at fault on Sunday night. Now, it might not have mattered in the end given how prolific Mahomes and the Chiefs were, but Buffalo's head coach was too conservative in the AFC Championship Game, particularly when kicking field goals either side of halftime. You need sevens and not threes when Andy Reid is dialling up plays for Mahomes, Kelce and Hill.

Fact of the Week

Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes are 2-2 when facing each other in their NFL careers, with Brady being the only QB to beat Mahomes in the playoffs (2018 AFC Championship Game). They met in Week 12 of this season with the Chiefs winning 27-24 in Tampa. In that game, Mahomes threw for 462 yards, three touchdowns and no picks for a rating of 124.7. Brady threw for 345 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 96.1.

Finish That Sentence

Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we do on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…

From Jordan Frost (@JordFrost) Patrick Mahomes, in 10 years time, will be…_ the owner of at least four Super Bowl rings and well on his way to being considered the greatest of all time. But, for now, the GOAT remains Tom Brady and while Mahomes will likely be favoured to win this upcoming game, the youngster may have to play second fiddle to TB12 for two weeks because, victorious or defeated, what Brady is about to do on February 7 should be truly celebrated.

From Mark Smith (@bumblesmith) This will not be Brady's last Super Bowl because…_ (okay, I'll play along)… he will be just as hungry in 2021 as he was in 2001. No player in the league hits re-set quicker and more effectively than Brady. And why not the Bucs? Brady will have even more comfort in Bruce Arians' attack and his weapons are not going anywhere. The line is solid and there are young stars emerging on defense. Win or lose on Super Sunday, the Bucs will feel good about their chances next season… providing number 12 returns.

From Richy Black (@mabuzzer)… Next season, Matthew Stafford will be playing for a team that doesn't historically waste the talents of outstanding players such as Stafford, Barry Sanders or Calvin Johnson. I would like to see Stafford take his strong arm and courage to Indianapolis and there is still time for him to enjoy a few playoff runs behind a rock-solid offensive line. Stafford turns 33 on Super Bowl Sunday and I would love nothing more than to see him on a winning club, year in and year out. I think he would be good for the Colts and they would be good for him.

From J. Henderson (@jhenderson)… The Super Bowl MVP will be…_ shared between Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. In a rare shift from history, the prize will not go to a quarterback. Mind you, if Hill and Kelce put up big yardage, the media will surely fall into the trap of giving it to Mahomes. I'm hoping for some originality and these two have been unstoppable in the playoffs. If it is going to a Bucs player and I will offer one up in the interest of fairness, how about Shaq Barrett after a night where he exposes Kansas City's backup tackles?

Final Thought

I cannot believe we are here… just one game away from the on-time conclusion of the 2020 NFL season. Huge congratulations have to be offered to the NFL and while Super Bowl 55 is going to feel very different this year – I am going to sorely miss not being at the big game – February 7 should take on a celebratory feel. I have to admit that this lockdown – or these lockdowns, should I say – have been a lot more bearable knowing we all come together on Sunday nights to share our passion for the NFL. I don't even want to think about what I'm going to do come February 8! So, for now, let's just enjoy one last ride in this most unique of 2020 campaigns and get ready for a battle between two superstar quarterbacks who transcend their sport.

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