On Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers soundly defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV. Normally in this space, I’d have a list of five things we learned from the game. But in this particular game, it all boils down to one.
1. Beware the Wild Card Super Bowl team
Thanks to all the media hoopla focused on Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady returning for his 10th Super Bowl start against Patrick Mahomes, it seems like people forgot an essential fact: the Buccaneers came into the postseason as the fifth seed — a Wild Card team.
Over the 50 years since the league created the Wild Card bracket, they were just the 11th team to make the final from the cheap seats. It had been a full decade since a Wild Card team — the 2010 Green Bay Packers — had pulled it off. And they won the title, too.
In fact, the last four Wild Card teams to make the championship game had won it. As it happens, Brady knew one of those teams well: the 2007 Giants. That was the team that knocked off Brady’s previously unbeaten New England Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII.
In that game, the Patriots — and most of the world — reasonably believed that the lowly 10-6 Giants had no chance against their offensive juggernaut. But in all the media hype about the Patriots’ pending undefeated season, no one seemed to notice that the scrappy Giants defense — coached by none other than current Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo — had turned it up several notches in the playoffs.
Today, that game is remembered for the famous helmet catch that sealed the win. But the victory came from the Giants’ defense holding the “unstoppable” Patriots offense to their lowest point total of the season.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
Some things that were true before Sunday remain true today. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is unquestionably the best player in today’s NFL. But even the best player in the game’s most important position cannot win every game all by himself.
The narrative about the Chiefs’ 2019 postseason run was all about Mahomes — the 51 points the team scored after they were down by 24 in the second quarter against the Houston Texans... the 21 points they scored when they were down by 10 in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers.
But Mahomes didn’t win those games by himself. He depended on his offensive line to protect him. He depended on his defense to keep their opponents at bay as he erased those deficits. Without them, he couldn’t have done what he did.
And you don’t need for me to tell you that he didn’t have those things on Sunday night.
I say it every season: the NFL postseason doesn’t necessarily determine the league’s best team. The champion is simply the team that can win three — sometimes four — games against the league’s best teams. It may not be the league’s best team that season, but it richly deserves to be named the champion.
Once in a while, a Wild Card team can win that third game and take a shot at winning the fourth. But if such a team gets that far, it should be respected for what it is: a team that is playing its best football at just the right time. While just 11 teams have now advanced to the Super Bowl as Wild Cards, seven of those teams have won those games.
The future for the Chiefs remains bright.
There’s every reason to expect that with Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy, Steve Spagnuolo — and yes, Patrick Mahomes — the Chiefs will continue to be contenders for the foreseeable future. To be sure, they have problems to fix — and in 2021, those problems could be significantly more difficult to solve than usual.
But let’s remember: even in their two-decade dynasty, Brady and the Patriots only made the Super Bowl nine times — and lost three of those games. There’s no reason to expect that Mahomes cannot play for two decades — and with the right help, achieve a similar record of success.
If that happens, this loss to the Buccaneers will just be a footnote in one of the greatest careers of all time. But getting there will require taking each game as it comes — and giving proper respect to each opponent.
Especially if they’re a Wild Card team in the Super Bowl.