By MIKE HERNDON
All the talk heading into Sunday’s Double Nickel Super Bowl is about the matchup in the trenches – specifically, Kansas City’s offensive line against Tampa Bay’s defensive front.
And with good reason: The Chiefs are expected to be without both starting tackles, as Eric Fisher tore an Achilles in the AFC Championship Game win over Buffalo and Mitchell Schwartz has been sidelined since October.
Meanwhile, a Tampa Bay defensive front led by Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul is fourth in the NFL this season with 48 sacks. Patrick Mahomes may be the best quarterback in the NFL, but every quarterback needs at least some time to throw.
Green Bay was without its All-Pro left tackle, David Bakhtiari, in the NFC Championship Game and it cost them, as the Bucs harassed Aaron Rodgers throughout the game. Barrett had three sacks, Pierre-Paul had two and Tampa Bay won 31-26.
At pivotal as this matchup seems, however, it’s not the only matchup that will determine who hoists the Lombardi on Sunday night. A few others:
Kansas City CBs vs. Tampa Bay WRs
Kansas City’s defense gets overlooked because of Mahomes and the offense, but it’s no pushover. The Chiefs’ secondary in particular has quietly had a strong postseason, allowing 215 yards per game through the air. L’Jarius Sneed may be the best rookie corner in the league. They’ll have their hands full with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, and they can’t forget about Scotty Miller the way Green Bay did at the end of the first half in the NFC Championship Game. If they give Tom Brady an inch, he’ll take three miles. But they limited Stefon Diggs to 77 scoreless yards and held Josh Allen under 300 in the AFC title game.
Tampa Bay LBs vs. Kansas City RBs
The Bucs had the stingiest run defense in the league this season, allowing just 80 yards a game, and they’ve gotten big Vita Vea back in the middle, making running a losing proposition on Sunday. The Chiefs haven’t shown much inclination to run anyway, generally preferring to let Mahomes air it out.
So why is this matchup a big deal? Because all of the Chiefs’ backs are capable receivers and, should Barrett and Pierre-Paul wreak havoc on KC’s backup OTs, Mahomes may need a safety outlet. Tampa Bay’s linebackers are a speedy group, however, led by the dynamic Devin White. If they can blanket the Chiefs’ backs in the flats, those pressures may turn into sacks.
Tyreek Hill vs. Anyone the Bucs line up across from him
The last time these two teams played, in November, Hill exploded for 269 yards and three touchdowns. He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. The Chiefs still only won by 3, but you can bet both teams will have adjusted their game plans this time around. Job One for Todd Bowles’ defense will be finding a way to slow him down. Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy will be focusing on what happens if they do.
Which brings us to:
Tampa Bay safeties vs. Travis Kelce
The Bucs were without starting safeties Antoine Winfield, Jr., and Jordan Whitehead against Tampa Bay and it didn’t kill them. Both are expected to play Sunday and Tampa Bay will need them. With Hill sure to command attention outside, Winfield and Whitehead are going to have to be prepared to handle the best tight end in the league, who had his best season yet in 2020 with 105 catches for 1,416 yards and 11 touchdowns. He will serve as an outlet if Mahomes is pressured, and a seam-splitter when he isn’t.
Who will win? The head says three of these five matchups (including the Bucs’ DL) favor Tampa Bay, and the eyes just watched the Bucs take advantage of another hot team with injuries at offensive tackle. But the gut tells me not to bet against the Chiefs, who have made a habit of digging themselves a hole and then blasting out of it like Lone Wolf McQuade.
I’m going to bet that Kansas City will give their backup tackles some help – those running backs may be blockers as much as receivers and runners on Sunday – and they’ll do just enough to give Mahomes time to work his magic. On the other side of the ball, Brady and the Bucs receivers will get their yards and their points, but I’m expecting the Chiefs to limit their big plays.
Both these quarterbacks are masters of the second-half comeback. I’m betting it’ll be Mahomes that’s behind at halftime. Give me Kansas City, 31-28.