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Five things to watch in Super Bowl LV

An exciting championship matchup will be more than a battle of two great quarterbacks.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s ridiculous how easily and nonchalantly the Kansas City Chiefs executed their Run It Back tour in the 2020 season.

The Chiefs (16-2) backed up all their offseason talk, getting back to the championship game with a season that was quietly dominant from start to finish. They’ll face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-5), who — like last year’s Chiefs — have played their best, most complete games at the right time of the season.

The leading storyline is about the two quarterbacks: the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady. One could strengthen his young legacy with a second championship in three seasons as a starter — while the other has a chance to be recognized among the all-time greats in professional sports history.

Those two will share the spotlight — but there are five other things about this game that will play a huge factor in who comes out on top:

1. Handling a tough Tampa Bay defensive line

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how healthy the Chiefs’ offensive line was going to be, blocking the Buccaneers’ defensive front was going to be a challenge. But shuffling around the offensive line’s starters has put Kansas City in an unfavorable position.

With left tackle Eric Fisher’s Achilles injury, the Chiefs’ best offensive lineman is... maybe... Mike Remmers? Andrew Wylie? Either way, they’ll need to be. Lately, Tampa Bay has been effective with pass pressure. In the NFC Championship game, they got pressure on Aaron Rodgers on 30% of his dropbacks. In those situations, Rodgers was sacked five times — the same number of passes he completed.

They have a dangerous edge-rushing duo. In the postseason, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett have averaged more than seven combined pressures per game.

Still, when these two teams played in Week 12, the Bucs’ pass pressure affected Mahomes as much as any team’s pressure usually does: not very much. He scored a touchdown and converted six first downs in the 18 plays where he was pressured — although a strip-sack in the second quarter kept the game closer than it could have been.

Tampa Bay’s pressure will have to affect Mahomes a lot more than it did in the first matchup.

2. Pressuring Tom Brady

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On the flip side, the Chiefs’ ability to get to Brady will be a huge factor in this game. Mahomes being pressured would likely affect his performance only minimally — but a consistently-pressured Brady would be bad news for Tampa Bay.

Out of all qualified quarterbacks this year — including the postseason — Brady has the fifth-worst passer rating under pressure. He also had the fourth-worst completion percentage and threw the fourth-most interceptions in those situations, averaging just 4.9 yards per attempt. When pressured during the last two postseason games, his combined passer rating has been 0.0.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ pass rushers are coming off of one of their most impactful games of the season. Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen was visibly confused and frustrated — but it’s hard to see that happening to Brady. With an excellent offensive line in front of him, the Chiefs will need incredible effort from their front four — along with the creative blitzes that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can cook up.

Defensive tackle Chris Jones has a history of getting to Brady and having something to say afterward. The more that happens, the better — as long as he doesn’t take it too far.

3. A multiple, high-volume Chiefs passing attack

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Another way to counter the inevitable pressure that Mahomes will face is a great game plan. Some may suggest slowing down the pass rush by establishing a run game, but I disagree.

Running the ball will be a waste of time. Not only is the Chiefs’ offensive line banged up, they’ll also be facing a Bucs defense that ranked first in the NFL in total rushing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed per attempt. They’ve also recently benefited from the return of defensive tackle Vita Vea, who is a huge run-stuffing force on the interior of their defense.

The Chiefs should come out firing in the passing game. That doesn’t mean dropping back five steps and waiting for deep routes to open. Instead, the Chiefs need to come in with a great package of screen plays, misdirection play-action passes and quick throws to players in good position to make a play after the catch.

Andy Reid should trust Mahomes to make the right plays with the ball in his hands. Instead of wasting an early-down play, put the ball in Mahomes’ hands and let him make the right decision.

4. A Chiefs’ secondary with momentum

NFL: AFC Championship Game-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Bills, the defensive line’s pressure on Josh Allen was impressive — but he was holding onto the ball too long for a reason: as a whole, the Chiefs’ defensive backs are playing as well as they have all season.

The biggest factor in that notion is the re-emergence of safety Juan Thornhill. His four passes defended against Buffalo — including a very catchable dropped interception — were not fluky. They were a direct result of Thornhill looking sprier as an athlete and more explosive coming downhill from his over-the-top position. His ability on the back end will make Brady think twice about testing him with intermediate and deep passes.

The other budding star is cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — who has become the Chiefs’ most relied-upon slot defender. He will have his hands full with Tampa Bay receivers like Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown — although they will put Mike Evans in the slot as well. On 44 slot coverage snaps this postseason, Sneed has allowed three catches on seven targets — resulting in a 62.2 passer rating.

These two young playmakers in the Chiefs’ secondary could make the difference for their defense — especially considering neither of them was playing at this level in the original Week 12 matchup.

5. The Andy Reid specials

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Although I saved it for last, this might be the one aspect of this game that I’m most excited to see: the creative, innovative plays that Coach Reid likely has up his sleeves.

He didn’t waste any time digging one up the last time these two teams met. On the Chiefs’ opening drive in Week 12, a double-reverse ended up with tight end Travis Kelce having a chance to throw to Mahomes in the end zone — but the pass fell incomplete. That was one of the last times we’ve seen Reid call a trick play this season — although they did attempt a bizarre throw from wide receiver Sammy Watkins to Mahomes in the Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

I believe Reid shut down that section of his playbook until Super Bowl Sunday. Just like last year, we’ll see Reid break out these plays — like Rose Bowl right parade — in short-yardage scenarios and red-zone situations. If the opportunity presents itself early, they’ll do it; the famous Rose Bowl play happened in the first quarter of Super Bowl LIV.

We’ve seen the pre-snap motion from Mahomes, but we may see Reid take that to a different level for a play or two on Sunday.

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