The past year has been all about protecting the most vulnerable members of our society.
So it’s fitting the Kansas City Chiefs’ ability to do just that likely will determine the outcome of Super Bowl 55 on Sunday.
The Chiefs will start a pair of backup tackles against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ ferocious defensive front. Mike Remmers will move over from the right to left side to replace inured Eric Fisher, and Andrew Wylie will start at right tackle in place of Mitchell Schwartz.
The wounded line will face a tremendous challenge from a Tampa Bay defense that sacked Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times in the NFC Championship Game and tied for fourth in the league with 48 sacks during the regular season.
Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is a magician in the backfield, deftly using his legs to avoid the pass rush while keeping his eyes downfield searching for big plays. But he, too, is playing hurt after suffering a turf toe injury that knocked him out of the divisional round victory against the Cleveland Browns.
If the Bucs can get to Mahomes consistently and slow down the high-octane Chiefs attack, they can become the first team to win the Super Bowl on its home field.
For evidence, look no further than last year’s championship game.
The San Francisco 49ers sacked Mahomes four times and had Kansas City rattled through the first three quarters. The NFC champions took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter, then they let Mahomes get comfortable in the pocket.
Behind better protection, he put up 21 points in the final period, and the Chiefs pulled away from their first championship in 50 years.
Tampa Bay’s pressure on Rodgers had a similar effect in this year’s NFC title game, but the Bucs finished the job. Shaq Barrett had three sacks and Jason Pierre-Paul added two, and Tampa Bay held the likely NFL MVP to just three points on three fourth-quarter drives in a 31-26 victory.
When he avoided the pressure, Rodgers put up big numbers. He finished 33-of-48 for 346 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. But the Packers finished just three of nine drives in the end zone.
The Bucs would love a repeat of that defensive performance in the Super Bowl.
It’s even more important to get to Mahomes because his weapons are much more dangerous than Rodgers’. For the same reason, Tampa Bay must be disciplined in its rush.
If the blitz doesn’t get home, Tyreke Hill and Jason Kelce can quickly make a defense pay. Hill’s speed can turn a quick checkdown underneath into a big play, and Kelce serves as a reliable “hot read” any time a play breaks down – whether it’s a result of pressure or not.
If there is a defensive blueprint for slowing down the Chiefs, the Bucs have the ability to execute much of it. It starts with a physical defensive line that can consistently keep Mahomes on the run, and that must be paired with a defensive backfield willing to joust with receivers and knock them off their routes.
No quarterback is better at improvising than Mahomes, so the defensive backs need to be disciplined, too. Mahomes can reach every part of the field, and no receiver is ever out of a play.
It’s a lot for a defense to handle. Some manage it for a drive. Some for a quarter. Some for a half.
San Francisco got almost all the way home last year before the dam burst.
Tampa Bay has the pieces it needs to keep the game close on defense, and in legendary quarterback Tom Brady it also has a playmaker who can match Mahomes’ late-game brilliance.
All of which is to say an upset certainly isn’t out of the question Sunday. In fact, with a banged-up offensive line and Mahomes at less than 100%, perhaps the Bucs even should be considered the favorite.
But if there’s one thing Kansas City’s quarterback has proven in his three seasons as a starter, it’s betting against him is perilous at best.
So I’m picking the Chiefs to become the first Super Bowl champion to repeat since the New England Patriots in 2003-04.
And I’m betting this Super Bowl lives up to the hype.