NFL Best Bets: Super Bowl

Last week ATS: 1-1

Overall ATS: 36-36-1

Super Bowl: Kansas City Chiefs (-3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The only path to the Bucs winning is by taking a page out of the San Francisco 49ers’ game plan from the last Super Bowl, and finding a way to generate pressure on Patrick Mahomes by rushing four down linemen, and playing their other seven defenders in coverage. If they can do that consistently they have a chance to win. If they can’t, then the Chiefs are going to realize their Run It Back campaign.

The Bucs have the type of defensive line to accomplish that, and they’ll be playing a Chiefs offensive line that is as battered and banged up as any Super Bowl team you’ll ever see. Kansas City is missing both their starting tackles (Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher) and both their starting guards (Kelechi Osemele and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif), and are going to go ahead with a makeshift line featuring just one starter from last year’s Super Bowl.

I can’t overstate the significance of this matchup — between Tampa’s D-line and KC’s O-line — because besides from that nothing else matters. If Patrick Mahomes has time in the pocket he is going to find tight end Travis Kelce for 8-12 yards whenever he wants to; he’s going to hit Tyreek Hill down the field; and when both of those guys are covered, likely when the defense is running a double team on both guys, then Mahomes will take his pick between Sammy Watkins and DeMarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman. Give Patrick his time, and the Chiefs will win their second straight Super Bowl.

If the offensive line isn’t able to protect him, then all bets are off. Then, and only then, could you see a game that looks a lot like last year’s Super Bowl, where the 49ers were firing, and in Mahomes’s face over and over again. Sure, Pat still has the mobility in and out of the pocket to make things happen, buying enough time to improvise long enough for his receivers to get open, but it’s certainly not the recipe to moving the ball as comfortably as the Chiefs would like. One way or another, I don’t think it will take long before Kansas City knows if their line can hold up.

If it can’t, then Andy Reid will have to dial up a game plan that is centered around Mahomes getting rid of the ball quickly — to shallow crosses and slants — and will feature more from the running backs. I think the Chiefs are good enough at being multiple, at knowing how to attack any defense playing any style of football, to win. It just won’t be ideal, and won’t be as efficient, if Tampa Bay’s pressure up front forces them to dink and dunk down the field.

On the other side of the ball, Tom Brady and the Bucs have explosive playmakers. Running backs Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette are both home run hitters out of the backfield, and the troika of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are each capable of beating man-to-man pressure — which the Chiefs will dial up all night.

I think Tampa Bay is more comfortable going with a run-first approach; that would save Brady from facing an onslaught of Chris Jones and Frank Clark and any number of Chiefs’ blitzes from members of the secondary. But I don’t think it’s a prerequisite that the Bucs are going to run. They can execute their short passing game and goad Kansas City into dropping more defenders, which would open the door for Jones and Fournette to pick up easy yardage.

Ultimately what Tampa Bay is able to do on offense will be dictated by how fast of a start they get out to. If the Chiefs are winning by two touchdowns out of the gate, it will be a feeding frenzy for Kansas City’s defensive line and secondary, which are more than capable of registering a bunch of sacks and a couple interceptions to boot (respectively). The Chiefs’ defense has come on strong during the playoffs, creating more pressure upfront than at any point during the regular season, and getting massive contributions from everyone in the secondary, including Juan Thornhill (who was dormant for most of the year).

If, however, the Bucs are able to jump out to a two-score lead of their own, then it ought to be panic time for the Chiefs. I know that sounds dumb, since they have made their living in the playoffs the last two years by erasing double-digit leads, but Tom Brady is a different animal. He has the experience to manage a game from ahead, and the Bucs running and play action game will be the death of the Chiefs if they spot the Bucs 10 or 14 points.

In the end the Kansas City Chiefs are playing for history. They are playing to be the first team in like two decades to win consecutive Super Bowls. Unsurprisingly, the last guy to do it was Tom Brady. And wouldn’t you know it, Andy Reid was the coach of the team who lost to Brady to give him his second straight Super Bowl win.

I’m picking the Chiefs to win and cover not because I’m a lifelong Chiefs fan and can’t set aside my biases, but because I truly believe they are the best team and that they aren’t satisfied by just winning one (last year). It’s a daunting task to repeat as Super Bowl Champions, especially since the NFL is built on parity, but Kansas City is just different. Patrick Mahomes is the best player in the world and he knows it. He knows that his legacy in many ways will be defined by how he performs here, in this Super Bowl, against the best quarterback who has ever lived.

Speaking of Tom Brady, I actually kind of like that he’s on the other side. It’s intimidating for sure, being a football fan, but thinking about it from the perspective of a Chiefs defender — whether it be on the defensive line or in pass coverage — they have to be chomping at the bit to show the world how human the best quarterback of all-time is. They want to knock his head off. They want to pick him off. They want to beat him down and use their play to tell everyone that they have the best quarterback of all-time playing for them.

Lastly, no one really talks about the 2018 AFC Championship Game anymore, but I remember. The Chiefs certainly remember. That was the night that Tom Brady and the Patriots rolled into Arrowhead Stadium and beat the Chiefs 37-31 in overtime, in a game where Mahomes never got to possess the ball at the end. I think Kansas City used that game as fuel to win the Super Bowl last year, and for some reason I think it will be on their minds as they take on Brady for just the second time in the postseason.

I think the Chiefs offensive line will be tested early and often, and I think Mahomes is going to have to ad-lib to get his second Super Bowl. But the Chiefs have been here before, and other than Tom Brady the Bucs haven’t. I see some blowout potential in this spot if the stars happen to align, though in the end I will take the traditional route and just assume that since Patrick Mahomes is on the field, then Kansas City is going to win. They are going to make history, and put themselves down in the books as one of the best teams that’s ever played the game.

Score prediction: Chiefs 37, Bucs 29

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