Looking for someone other than Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes to be handed the Most Valuable Player hardware at the end of Super Bowl 2021 Sunday night?
Someone other than Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill or tight end Travis Kelce, or Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans or tight end Rob Gronkowski?
Look no further than at the “Honey Badger.’’
Or “The Landlord.’’
Whichever alter-ego Tyrann Mathieu unleashes for the game. Or both.
The Chiefs safety is here, there and everywhere, a nightmare for opposing offenses. He’s a game-changing play waiting to happen whenever he’s on the field, which is all the time for the Chiefs’ defense.
The fact Brady threw three second-half interceptions in the NFC Championship game has to have Mathieu, who has seven picks this season, hyperventilating and salivating with anticipation.
If Mathieu turns out to be the star of the show Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, it’ll come as no surprise to Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians or defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Arians was the Cardinals’ head coach when Mathieu broke into the NFL, and Bowles was his first defensive coordinator. Now the two are trying to prevent Mathieu from blowing up their chances to win the Super Bowl.
“My favorite draft choice of all time,’’ is what Arians called Mathieu.
“He made me a better coach, because he came in a great player,’’ Bowles said. “I just tried not to mess him up. Leadership skills are natural for him. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen play this game — and I’ve been doing it a long time.’’
It’s remarkable that Mathieu has grown into the leader he is, given his dysfunctional and chaotic childhood. With his father in prison for murder and his mother handing him off, Mathieu was initially raised by his grandparents before eventually being adopted by an aunt and uncle after his grandfather died.
Mathieu has been on record saying that, as a youth, he took to marijuana because “it smoothed out all my highs and lows,’’ he told Men’s Journal in 2016. But smoking weed got him suspended by LSU for violating its substance abuse policy.
Mathieu has 22 crosses tattooed near his right knee as a reminder of the family, friends and other people in his life he’s lost, telling Men’s Journal: “I hear their voices always: ‘Keep going, keep going.’ It’s like they passed their strength to me when they died.”
Mathieu’s youth was all about survival, so it’s no coincidence that it’s the way he plays on the football field — with an abandon that sometimes pushes the rules to the cliff’s edge.
He joked this week that he’s gotten to know most of the league’s officials “and they know I’m a good guy.’’
Opponents might beg to differ when Mathieu is delivering debilitating blows to receivers over the middle or when he’s barking in the face of an offensive lineman who outweighs him by 100-plus pounds.
Mathieu’s passion is an inspiration to his teammates, who’ve come to embrace both the “Honey Badger’’ and “The Landlord.’’
Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark broke into a wide smile when asked about Mathieu this week.
“So, I’m going to break it down to you this way without talking about it too much, because we keep that confidential,’’ Clark said. “The ‘Honey Badger’ is going to make plays, he’s going to go out there and sacrifice his body, he’s going to make extreme, crazy interceptions. His mindset is always stuck on kill. The predator. Take over. He is very territorial.
“Then you’ve got ‘The Landlord.’ He demands his rent. Just like any other landlord, you come on his field you must leave it clean. The Landlord has to make plays and you have to pay for it.’’
This is how Mathieu described his alter egos:
“The Honey Badger is highly emotional and high-strung. He wants to make every play. Once the ball is snapped, he’s just like, ‘Go get the ball.’ ’’
“The Landlord is more reserved. He’s more collected. He knows what everyone is supposed to do and he knows where he’s supposed to be. He’s all about the team, all about the group.’’
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo hopes he has both the Honey Badger and The Landlord on the field at the same time Sunday, harassing Brady and his receivers.
“We all focus on what he does — the stats, interceptions, tackles and the whole thing,’’ Spagnuolo said. “To me, one of the greatest things about having a guy like that is he makes the other 10 [players] better.’’
Mathieu is two players packed into one 5-foot-9, 174-pound frame. Maybe they’ll hand out co-MVP awards Sunday night — to the Honey Badger and The Landlord.