If the last year has taught us a lesson, it’s to not take anything for granted. That said, to have the Super Bowl mere days away is something sports fans should cherish.
There were times in the spring when some wondered whether the NFL should even hold its draft — virtually, mind you — amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Conversations about the feasibility of an actual season followed, and on more than one occasion, the 2020 campaign felt like a pigskin house of cards ready to topple with one or two more positive tests.
Yet, here we are. Somehow, the NFL has been able to push through the pandemic and will play Super Bowl LV as scheduled Sunday night when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcome the Kansas City Chiefs to Raymond James Stadium.
Will the Bucs become the first team not only to host the Super Bowl but hoist the Lombardi Trophy in their own stadium? Or will Patrick Mahomes rip the torch out of Tom Brady’s hands and declare the NFL his own with a second straight title?
NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian will, for the last time this season, try to settle that debate with their weekly against-the-spread picks.
Here’s how they fared during championship week and the season thus far.
Mike Cole: 1-1 (121-137-10)
Ricky Doyle: 0-2 (129-129-10)
Andre Khatchaturian: 2-0 (123-135-10)
Now, here are their Super Bowl LV picks, with the line via consensus data.
(-3) Kansas City Chiefs vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6:30 p.m. ET, at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
The Sharp Football site did a very interesting look at how DVOA rankings play out in the Super Bowl. A couple of the bigger takeaways included “top-five ranked offenses have a 2-5 record when facing a top-five defense,” and the team with the higher-ranked defense has won the previous two matchups of teams with top-five offenses. That’s a long, admittedly complicated way of saying defense does matter in the Super Bowl, and Tampa Bay (DVOA No. 5) has a much better defense than Kansas City (No. 22).
The Bucs have been the best team in the NFL over their seven-game winning streak, in large part because of that defense. Tampa Bay’s pass rush is disruptive, as Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers can attest. Now, they go up against an offensive line that could be without Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher.
Tampa feasted on Green Bay’s offensive line without top tackle David Bakhtiari, and this feels like a similar situation. Sustained pressure up front should help the Bucs limit the Chiefs’ big-play potential, which is what doomed them in these teams’ Week 12 matchup. Eventually, they got that fixed, and the Bucs made a game of that one. As long as they don’t make similar mistakes this Sunday, they’ll be in position to win this game late. And if that’s the case, are you really willing to bet against Brady?
Trying to avoid analysis paralysis. The Chiefs have won 25 of their last 27 games dating back to Week 11 of the 2019 season. Sure, they’ve gone just 1-8-1 ATS in their last 10 games, but the bulk of those contests featured inflated spreads and were of little consequence. Kansas City, which is 15-4-1 ATS in its last 20 games when favored by three points or fewer, has played its best football when the stakes are raised. And I just can’t pass on the opportunity to back Mahomes, the best quarterback on the planet, with such a short number.
The Bucs’ defense definitely will be better prepared than it was in Week 12 — a low bar to clear, obviously — and having cornerback Jamel Dean healthy this time around will be critical in Tampa Bay’s effort to slow Tyreek Hill, in particular. But there are questions on the back end — safeties Antoine Winfield and Jordan Whitehead are dealing with injuries — and that’s concerning when facing Kansas City’s high-powered offense, which ranked third in explosive pass rate and basically operates on its own speed setting.
There also could be opportunities for Kansas City to lean on its running backs in the passing game if Tampa Bay devotes too much attention to slowing Hill and Travis Kelce. The Bucs allowed the most receptions (101) to running backs during the regular season, and Tampa Bay’s linebackers are exploitable in coverage, for as daunting as they are in terms of rushing the passer. Expect some offensive ingenuity from KC.
And don’t sleep on Kansas City’s defense. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (the Giants’ DC when New York upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII) know a thing or two about Mr. Brady.
Not enough is being made of Fisher’s absence. In 2019, the star left tackle missed eight games and the Chiefs went 4-4. When he did play, the Chiefs were undefeated. Schwartz also is out for Kansas City, whose decimated offensive line has to go up against Tampa Bay’s ferocious pass rush, which finished second in QB hits this season. This isn’t good news for Mahomes, who was walking with a limp in the AFC Championship Game.
Mahomes can’t expect to get much help from his running attack because of the Bucs’ elite rush defense, which allowed the fewest yards per carry this season. All of this might make it difficult for the Chiefs to keep up with the Bucs, who get to wake up in their own beds in a de facto home game.
Tampa Bay’s running attack should take advantage of Kansas City’s porous rush defense, which had the second-worst expected points contributed on Pro-Football Reference. The Chiefs also allowed the most receiving yards to running backs, so expect Brady to employ short passes to his backs. Success on short passes could create unpredictability on deep passes. Brady threw more deep passes than any QB this season and led the NFL in deep-pass touchdowns with 14.