And why not?
The Buccaneers have Tom Brady — nearly universally regarded as the best quarterback to ever play the game — while the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, who is almost universally regarded as Brady’s heir apparent.
What’s going to make the difference in this game between these two quarterbacks — each of whom has an impressive array of offensive weapons from which they can choose?
“I think turnovers obviously become an issue in games like this,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told reporters on Wednesday. “Special teams can be a deciding factor.”
In this, Reid is exactly right: in games between closely-matched teams, turnovers and big plays from special teams units are often deciding factors. But Reid wasn’t finished.
“And then I always come back to the offensive and defensive lines — and how they play.”
And therein lies the problem.
The Chiefs will enter the game with only one offensive lineman — center Austin Reiter — playing in the same position he occupied in the opening game of the season. Three players from that line — left tackle Eric Fisher, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and left guard Kelechi Osemele — have all been lost for the year.
Osemele essentially started the season as a replacement for right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, displacing Andrew Wylie on the left side so that Wylie could take Duvernay-Tardif’s spot on the right after the French-Canadian doctor opted out of the season. When Osemele went down, he was replaced by second-year interior lineman Nick Allegretti.
Veteran lineman Mike Remmers — signed in the offseason to back up nearly every position on the line — has spent most of it filling in for Schwartz. But on Sunday, he’ll likely be playing on the left after Fisher was injured in the AFC championship. Wylie will take his place at right tackle, while veteran Stefen Wisniewski — who became a Kansas City starter after Wylie was injured late in 2019, decamped to Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason and then returned to the Chiefs in late November — will be at left guard.
It’s been a wild ride — but it’s just the kind of challenge that Chiefs offensive line coach Andy Heck is always preparing to meet.
“We have had guys shuffle in and out of the lineup,” he told the press on Tuesday. “To me — and this probably has been a bigger year for that — to me, it feels like something that’s a constant in this league. You always have seasons where you’ve got to, ‘Hey, next man up.’ You’ve got to move a guy here to there — so in that regard, this is not unusual.
“You just approach it with a mentality that it doesn’t matter if you’re playing left guard or right tackle. There’s only a certain number of blocks you’ve got to make — whether you’re reaching a guy right, reaching a guy left or pass-protecting a guy who’s head-up inside-outside. You’re making the same blocks no matter what position you are. And then in terms of handling stunts and things like that, that’s a challenge for any offensive line.”
But Heck believes these reserve players will be up to the task.
“Our guys — over the course of the season, and [in] some cases years — have seen just about everything that you can throw at them,” he noted. “They can draw upon past experiences. Even if they’re playing next to a guy they haven’t played next to the previous week, there’s still a continuity there from training camp on through the season. So our guys, I feel like they play as one no matter where they’re at. They have that continuity.”
While it’s easy to dismiss this as an excuse, there is also some truth in Heck’s remarks. In one place or another, Remmers has been playing in almost every game since Week 3. Wisniewski was with most of the same players through last season’s postseason run — and he and Wylie were able to hold down the right side when both played there against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13. Allegretti has played surprisingly well.
But against a really good Tampa Bay defensive front with good pass rushers on the edges, it’s still worrisome. Heck suggested a number of ways the Chiefs could take the pressure off the makeshift line, including jet sweep passes to wide receivers, getting the ball out quickly, using more play-action and so on. All of these would force the Buccaneers to defend the Kansas City offense from sideline to sideline.
“And then the other thing,” said Heck, “is [that] we’ve got great people — great skilled people — executing those things. And speed. And so when you’ve got a top-flight quarterback, you’ve got speed at many of your receiver positions and you’ve got the best tight end in the league, all of that has to be defended. That does take a lot of pressure off the offensive line.”
It would be a lot more comforting to have the Chiefs’ starters back for the championship — but that ship has long since left the harbor. And as tough as the Tampa Bay defense may play in the trenches, Kansas City has managed to turn in the best record in franchise history while dealing with similar problems for most of the season.
Still... this battle could end up being one of the deciding factors in Sunday’s game. It will bear watching.