It seemed like an impossible task back in the spring and summer. Playing an NFL season during a pandemic felt foolish at times, amazing at others, and, incredibly, the league pulled it off.
Sunday’s Super Bowl LV is the culmination of the most unusual NFL season ever. A season when we grew accustomed to no fans in the stands and masks on the sidelines, while the players and coaches dealt with daily nose swabs.
The Chiefs and Buccaneers will meet Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in the 269th game of this NFL season, with the Lombardi Trophy on the line. The coronavirus led to postponements and games on Tuesdays and even one on a Wednesday afternoon, but it did not cause the NFL to cancel any games. The Titans and Ravens dealt with outbreaks. The Broncos played a game without a true quarterback. The Browns played a playoff game without their head coach.
Now, we’ve made it to the end, and the focus on Sunday night will be on Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, not viral loads and false positives.
“There’s so many people that had to work together to get this done,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters this week. “There were doubters. Obviously, there were people that didn’t believe we could do it. Obviously, we had a lot of unknowns ourselves.
“But we believed that staying on schedule and working towards trying to get to 256 [regular-season] games done — as we sort of say shorthand, avoid the asterisk. I think we were able to do that, but we’ve still got a few days left here, so we’re focused on making sure we finish out strong.”
The Chiefs dealt with one last COVID-19 scare this week after a barber who was cutting some of their players’ hair tested positive. It resulted in two players being held out of practice for most of the week, but both are expected to play Sunday.
Every Super Bowl trophy is special, but this year’s carries a little added meaning for the teams.
“It’ll make the run well worth it,” Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones said. “Getting your nose swabbed every day, having to adjust to the type of conditions in order to play the game. I think that’s a huge step right there, as players that we had to adjust to. Actually winning the Lombardi Trophy, I mean, that would be remarkable and that would be unexplainable, especially during this time in America. If we was able to win it and pull this off, I think it’d be up on the ladder for most highest achievement.”
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes vs. Buccaneers DC Todd Bowles
Slowing down Mahomes is something no one in the NFL has been able to do. Now it is up to Bowles, the former Jets coach who is now overseeing the Tampa Bay defense.
When these two teams met in November, Mahomes threw for 462 yards and three touchdowns in a Kansas City win. Bowles knows his unit must have a better outing this time if they are going to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s a nightmare,” Bowles said of preparing for Kansas City. “They’ve got a lot of talent. They’ve got a lot of speed. We played bad due to the fact that those guys made us look bad. We didn’t play well in that game. They give you problems all the way around for four quarters. We have to be at our best.”
Bowles is going to have to find a way to get to Mahomes and make him uncomfortable. The Chiefs are missing their starting tackles and Bowles may be able to generate pressure off the edge. Whether the Bucs get to Mahomes or not could decide the game.
Tough hill to climb: Kansas City has weapons all over its offense, but none is as scary as wide receiver Tyreek Hill. The Buccaneers know that better than anyone. Hill torched them for 13 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns in their November game. Hill’s speed gives him the ability to swing the momentum in a game with one play.
Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis was beaten for most of those yards when the teams played in November. Davis vowed not to be fazed by the first game this week.
“I’m going to bring the same mentality,” Davis said. “And that’s to dominate. I play defensive back in the NFL, so you’re going to have your share of losses. It doesn’t change who I am, what I do, or how I approach the game. I’m going to continue to be a dog and go out there and give it my all every time.”
Tom terrific: The speculation a year ago was whether Tom Brady would remain with the Patriots or move on. He answered that question in March when he signed with the Buccaneers. Now, he has his new team in the Super Bowl in his first season with them. It is another line on the résumé of the man widely recognized as the greatest to ever wear a helmet.
Brady has a chance to add to that résumé again on Sunday in his 10th Super Bowl. He is looking for his seventh Lombardi Trophy. He also holds nearly every Super Bowl passing record there is. He can add to them, as with his 18 career touchdowns in the game, which already dwarfs No. 2 on the list Joe Montana’s 11.
The repeat feat: There are many reasons to believe the Chiefs should win this game, but here is one thing working against them: It has been 16 years since a team has been able to repeat as Super Bowl champion. The task of going back-to-back is extremely difficult. It has happened eight times in Super Bowl history, but just three times since unrestricted free agency and the salary cap were introduced 30 years ago. That system created more player movement and hurt potential dynasties.
Since the Patriots pulled off the feat following the 2003 and 2004 seasons, just two teams before the Chiefs made it back to the Super Bowl after winning it. The 2014 Seahawks and 2017 Patriots both suffered heartbreaking defeats in their quests to repeat. The Chiefs will now try to buck that trend.
Tight battle: This game features two of the best tight ends in NFL history. Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski ended his retirement to join pal Brady in Tampa Bay. He will be opposed by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who has taken the mantle of the game’s best tight end that Gronkowski once held.
Kelce set a record for tight ends this season with 1,416 receiving yards, despite sitting out Week 17. He has five straight 1,000-yard seasons. He had 105 catches this year, the first tight end ever to have two 100-catch seasons.
Gronkowski clearly is not the player he was when he was starring for the Patriots, but he can still make plays and Brady still looks for him at key times. Gronkowski had 45 catches for 623 yards and seven touchdowns this year.