When the postseason began, the Kansas City Chiefs were sitting pretty. Holding the AFC’s first seed, they were able to sit out the first week of the playoffs — and they’d already faced (and defeated) five of the 14 teams that had entered the playoffs.
Kansas City beat them 27-24 on the road during Week 12, running out to a 17-0 lead on the strength of a phenomenal performance from wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who had 203 receiving yards (and two touchdowns) in the first quarter alone.
But in the fourth quarter, 43-year-old Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady completed 12 of 16 passes for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns, closing Kansas City’s lead to just three points with four minutes remaining. The Buccaneers then chose to kick off deep — and the Chiefs ran out the clock.
“In this league, you’ve got to stay aggressive all the time,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told reporters on Thursday. “I mean, teams are just too good [when] you get to this level here.”
Players like safety Tyrann Mathieu wanted to make it very clear that just because Kansas City has already defeated Tampa Bay this season, his teammates aren’t taking their championship game opponents lightly.
“I don’t think I was too happy after the Tampa Bay game,” chuckled Mathieu. ”Obviously, we gave up some big plays. But most of those things were technique things — things that we can clean up. So it’s all about us just going back over the details — going back over the little things — understanding that we’re playing against Tom Brady. It’s going to take four quarters to put this guy away.”
Since their loss to the Chiefs, Tampa Bay has won seven straight games to reach the Super Bowl; Brady (and his receivers) have played exceptionally well. Reid even appeared to reference the ghost of a playoff game Chiefs fans might rather forget: the 2018 AFC championship, in which the Brady-led New England Patriots ran out to a 14-0 halftime lead.
“Tom’s looked as good as he looked in that first half,” said Reid of Brady’s performance in recent games. “It’s a tribute to their coaches — and Tom and the guys around him.”
Some have suggested that Tampa Bay’s hot streak actually began at halftime of their game against Kansas City.
“I think when they played us, they kind of re-adjusted some things,” said Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones. “They had a week off and had a lot of guys get acclimated to the system that Tom Brady likes. They’ve been playing well — especially the later part of the season, when they went down to New Orleans and sealed the job on them. And then they went to Green Bay — which was the number one offense — and played outstanding. So they’re definitely a different team than from when we played them.”
“A lot of those guys,” explained Mathieu, “this is their first time playing together. I think great things take time. I think those guys have been able to settle in, create some familiarity with one another. They’ve got two running backs that can really run the football well. That can only add to the play-action and deep shots down the field.”
But for Reid, the threat posed by Brady and the Tampa Bay offense isn’t the only problem.
“The Bucs are good on offense, they’re explosive on defense,” he noted, “so you’ve got to do the best you can to score points and stop them. That’s really what it comes down to.”
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes agreed.
“I think they have a really good defense in general,” said the reigning Super Bowl MVP. “I mean, obviously the front is special at every single position — but the whole entire defense, they make a lot of plays.
“So for us, you have to have trust in those guys up front. They work their tail off just like everybody else. I’ve felt like they’ve done a great job all year of going up against a lot of good defensive fronts. For me, I just have to get the ball out of my hand in whatever way possible and not let those guys destroy the game. You want to make sure you get it to our playmakers in space — and try to see if we can make some plays happen.”
But this time, Mathieu isn’t interested in simply depending on the Chiefs offense to keep putting points on the board.
“It doesn’t matter how many points we’re up by — or what the situation is going into the second half — we’ve got to find a way to kind of close the door on Tom,” said the All-Pro safety. “He’s always shown the ability to put his team back into the game. [The Week 12 game] was a learning experience for us.”