Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (16-2) in Super Bowl LV
Tom Brady will be appearing in his 10th ever Super Bowl in Super Bowl 55, an incredible number that is double the next highest total and that is more than all of Brady’s Hall-of-Fame contemporaries combined. This one will be unique from all the others because he’ll be doing it with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in his first season with the team after two record breaking decades in New England. Brady is being given most of the credit, understandable if you just pay attention to team’s records, as the Buccaneers improved from 7 wins to 11 wins and a Super Bowl appearance, while New England fell from 12 wins to out of the playoffs with 7 wins, after Brady had made the post-season in 16 straight healthy seasons in New England.
However, that is far from the whole story and ignores the reasons why Brady headed south in the first place. The Patriots won 12 games last year, but Brady and the offense weren’t the primary reason they won those games, as the Patriots had a dominant defense, but an offensive supporting cast that left a lot to be desired, especially in the receiving corps and especially down the stretch as injuries mounted. The Patriots’ defense led the league in first down rate allowed by a mile, but their offense ranked just 21st in first down rate, their lowest finish since before Brady arrived.
The Patriots didn’t make any major upgrades to their receiving corps last off-season, so it’s likely the Patriots’ 2020 offense would have resembled their 2019 offense if they had kept Brady, rather than the 2020 Buccaneers’ offense, which has a much better receiving corps. That still would have been enough for the Patriots to make the post-season had their defense continued playing at a high level like in 2019, but the Patriots’ defense is where they had by far their biggest dropoff from 2019 to 2020, finishing the 2020 season ranked 23rd in first down rate allowed.
Given how much their defense fell off, it’s very likely the Patriots would not have made the playoffs even if they had kept Brady and, by some metrics, the Patriots were better offensively in 2020 with Cam Newton leading a run based attack than they were in 2019 when they relied primarily on an ineffective aerial attack with Brady throwing to arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. The 2019 Patriots ran a league leading 1,126 plays because their defense kept getting them the ball back so often, 115 more plays than they ran in 2020, but the 2019 Patriots only managed 6 more first downs than the 2020 Patriots and they averaged fewer yards per play as well, 5.3 vs. 5.2.
The Patriots have gotten a lot of criticism for not bringing back Brady, but that would have required at least matching a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar contract for a 43-44 year old quarterback who might not have even gotten them back to the post-season in the first year of the deal. For a team that needs to rebuild and reload, that kind of contract could have set them back a year or two. The contract obviously has worked out for the Buccaneers, but it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges, because the Buccaneers are built to win now much more than the Patriots and were right to be aggressive to try to capitalize on that.
Brady, of course, likely recognized the two teams were heading into opposite directions, which is why he made the decision he did. For all the talk about how Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl because of what he did as a player this season, what Brady did this off-season as a scout probably has more to do with him being back here than anything. The Buccaneers were not widely discussed as a potential destination for Brady last off-season, but I put them at the top of my list for Brady last February and, while I wasn’t expecting Brady to actually leave New England, it was easy for me to see why he picked the Buccaneers when he picked them.
The Buccaneers won just 7 games in 2019, but they finished 9th in first down rate differential, suggesting they were better than their record. They also had a massive need at quarterback after years of subpar play from Jameis Winston, they were well coached, going into the second season of the Bruce Arians regime, and they got a lot better down the stretch in 2019, particularly on defense, leading to the Buccaneers winning 6 of their last 9 games, with the exceptions being a loss to the division leading Saints and two losses by less than a score in games in which Winston threw at least one pick six. Tampa Bay’s loaded receiving corps was the main draw, but this was a talented roster overall, beyond their pass catchers and, after Brady brought his friends Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski along for the ride, Tampa Bay suddenly became legitimate contenders.
Brady, for his part, played at an above average level and was obviously a massive upgrade over the backup caliber Jameis Winston, but Brady is not the same player he was in his prime or even a few years ago when he could single handedly elevate a team with an underwhelming supporting cast to the league’s highest stage, likely part of the reason why Brady looked for a better football situation to spend the twilight of his career last off-season. Focusing too much on Brady overlooks the talented players and coaches (including defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) that the Buccaneers have throughout their roster and throughout their staff, which is a huge part of the reason why the Buccaneers are where they are.
For Brady, being in the Super Bowl is nothing new, but what is relatively new is that he won’t be favored, with the Buccaneers listed as 3.5 point underdogs. Brady led the historic upset as massive underdogs in his first Super Bowl appearance back in Super Bowl 36, but he’s been favored in each of the past 8, covering in just 3 of them. Brady and the Buccaneers being underdogs has everything to do with the team on the other side, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and have been presumptive Super Bowl favorites all season, having lost just one meaningful game.
For Mahomes, this is his second straight Super Bowl appearance and, in 3 seasons as the starter, he’s lost just once in the post-season, in 8 appearances. His one loss was to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship, one of four matchups between these two quarterbacks in just the 3 seasons that Mahomes has been the starter. The 4th matchup was earlier this season when the Chiefs won by a field goal in Tampa Bay in a matchup that previewed the Super Bowl, both in matchup and in location, with the Buccaneers being fortunate enough to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The common narrative is that the Chiefs dominated that game and the Buccaneers came back in garbage time, but the Buccaneers’ score to cut it to a field goal came with over four minutes left on the clock and two timeouts left for Tampa Bay, so those were hardly meaningless possessions. A better way to think of that game is that both teams dominated a single quarter (the Chiefs in the 1st jumping out to a 17-0 lead and the Buccaneers in the 4th cutting it from 27-10 to 27-24), but that the Chiefs played slightly better overall. How much better overall may be very slight though, as the Chiefs only won the first down rate battle by just 0.66% and actually had slightly fewer yards per play (7.6 vs. 7.5).
Winning close games was a big part of the story of the Chiefs’ season this year, as they snuck out 8 of their 14 wins by 6 points or fewer, including several against teams much worse than the Buccaneers. Overall, the Buccaneers actually had the edge in point differential (+137 vs. +111), DVOA (33.7% vs. 25.2%), and schedule adjusted first down rate differential (4.25% vs. 3.36%) on the season and, even though they won 3 fewer games, they had significantly more double digit wins (8 vs. 5). Wins by larger totals tend to be predictive of future winning at a much higher rate than close victories.
Some ignore that most of the Chiefs wins have been close because the Chiefs have Mahomes and they assume that quarterbacks of his caliber can consistently win close games. Even ignoring the obvious fact that even the most elite quarterbacks couldn’t consistently win 88.9% of their one score games like Mahomes did this season, there isn’t much evidence of elite quarterbacks even consistently winning close games at a significantly higher than average rate. Entering this season, Mahomes was just 9-8 in one score games in his career, as dominant as he was in his first two seasons in the league. In fact, the only quarterback who has seemed to be able to consistently win close games is the quarterback on the other sideline, who is a remarkable 94-44 in his career in one score games.
In addition to his dominance in one score games, Brady has somehow been even more dominant in tough games like this. Not only is Brady 33-11 in the post-season, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 56-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 44-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 42-13 straight up record in those games.
As an underdog, Brady is 28-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 21 of 30 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 4-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including their 3-point loss as 3.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs earlier this season and their wins over the Saints and Packers in their past two games.
It will take a lot more than just Tom Brady to win this game, but the Buccaneers have it, with arguably the most well-rounded roster in the league and a better overall team than the Chiefs, who may have the passing game stars, but have questions on defense and on the offensive line, particularly with the Chiefs now being without both of their starting offensive tackles, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who are one of the best duos in the league when healthy. This offensive line was already not the same since losing Schwartz in week 8, a 11-game stretch in which they’ve won by more than 6 points just twice and Fisher going down in the Chiefs’ last game in the AFC Championship makes things much worse.
The Chiefs have done a good job of rebuilding their offensive line on the fly this season, but they figure to be overmatched against a tough Tampa Bay front. I like the Buccaneers to pull the upset straight up and, even if they can’t, they should be able to keep it close, especially in what will be something of a home game for the Buccaneers. About 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer and the Chiefs haven’t blown out most of their opponents this season. The Buccaneers seem like a relatively safe bet against the spread and a great value on the money line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +150
Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5