When Patrick Mahomes starts at quarterback, the Chiefs have won 25 of their past 26 games, including the AFC playoffs and Super Bowl 54. The Buccaneers are only field-goal underdogs in Super Bowl 55, but the odds are stacked against them to pull off the upset.
Having six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady helps a lot, and playing the game in Tampa Bay helps a little. So does the experience of hosting and losing to Kansas City during the regular season.
But that said, the Buccaneers must play a near-perfect game to stop the near-perfect Chiefs QB from winning his second consecutive ring. The 27-24 loss in Week 12 wasn’t as close as the score indicated as Tampa Bay posted two fourth-quarter TDs to close the final gap. The Bucs did stop the run as usual and shut out the Chiefs in the red zone, but the rest of the game stats suggest they were dominated.
Here’s how the Buccaneers can learn from that setback — and also from what the Raiders did to beat Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 5:
Five key to a Buccaneers upset over Chiefs in Super Bowl 55
1. Commit to the running game and try to flip time of possession
The Buccaneers rushed only 13 times in Week 12, but they gained 75 yards for a hearty 5.8 yards per carry against a weak Chiefs run defense. The Chiefs held the ball for almost 37 minutes in Week 12, giving them a near 14-minute advantage over the Buccaneers.
When the Raiders upended the Chiefs, they rushed 35 times for 144 yards. They also held the ball for more than 35 of 60 minutes.
The Bucs have two well-rested strong backs in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones, who was up for chunk running in the first matchup. They have a good interior offensive line anchored by left guard Ali Marpet and center Ryan Jensen. They also need to work at wearing down interior pass-rushing force Chris Jones.
On top of grinding away to keep the ball away from Mahomes, running well on early downs also will create more manageable third-down chances and set up play-action deep shots for Brady. It also means less exposure to the Chiefs’ overall defensive strengths against the pass, led by the pressure of Jones and end Frank Clark.
Even if the game script goes a little negative in the second half, the Buccaneers cannot get lured into Brady getting pass-happy vs. Mahomes. If the Buccaneers run around 25 times, they should get some results that can put them in position to steal the game.
2. Be the better third-down offense
The Buccaneers were 9-of-14 against the Packers in the NFC championship game, even unfazed by facing consistent third-and-long. Brady and the team’s efficiency there was required as Green Bay went 8-of-14.
In Week 12, the Chiefs went 6-of-12 while the Buccaneers were only 3-of-9. In Week 5, the Chiefs were contained to 6-of-14 while the Raiders, related to their rushing and ball-control success, were better at 7-of-14.
The Buccaneers couldn’t stay on the field to sustain drives against the Chiefs in Week 12 and by the time they had some offensive rhythm in the second half, the Chefs had built a comfortable lead based on big plays from Mahomes to Tyreek HIll.
With a different defensive game plan, where Hill won’t be left in single coverage against Carlton Davis, the Bucs will attempt to pressure Mahomes behind his backup offensive tackles with only four pass rushers while playing two-man zone. That should put Mahomes into more third downs, even if they might be more short to medium. The Bucs need to make their conversions with Brady facilitated while making it more challenging for Mahomes at times.
3. Stay aggressive and hit a few big pass plays
The Raiders did run the ball all over the Chiefs, but the reason they won 40-32 was the fact they also hit some home runs in the passing game with Derek Carr to put pressure on the Chiefs to respond. The Chiefs, with their shaky tackle situation in Super Bowl 55, will continue to adjust to more of a short-to-intermediate passing game with Mahomes.
The Buccaneers are known for their “no risk-it, no biscuit mentality” with Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich. Whenever Brady sees a potential one-on-one matchup developing downfield, he’s been ready to take his shot.
Carr delivered 59-yard and 72-yard scoring strikes to Nelson Agholor and Henry Ruggs III in the second quarter to keep things even with the Chiefs at halftime, positioning the Raiders to separate for the upset in the fourth quarter.
Mahomes and the Chiefs got the upper hand early against the Buccaneers with the 75-yard and 44-yard TDs to Hill, building a 17-0 lead after the first quarter. Brady did get pass plays of 48, 44, 37 and 31 yards in Week 12, but the Bucs would benefit from a few longer scoring home runs of their own.
With Mahomes needing to be methodical, Brady hitting on a true deep ball or two can be backbreaking to the Chiefs’ defense while also uplifting the Buccaneers’ defense.
4. “Win” the penalty battle
The Chiefs had 10 penalties for 82 yards in Week 12, which prevented them from really pulling away and putting away the Buccaneers, who had eight penalties for 57 yards. In Week 5, the Chiefs also had 10 penalties for 94 yards while that number was eight for 59 for the Raiders.
Kansas City had 115 penalties accepted (second-most in the league) for 1,006 yards (No. 4 in the league) during the regular season. The Chiefs have cleaned things up in the past two months and throughout the playoffs, with seven penalties for 55 yards vs. the Browns and only three penalties for 32 yards vs. the Bills.
Tampa Bay had some really bad penalty games early in the season, but also got more disciplined in a hurry with Brady in the second half. In the playoffs, the Buccaneers have had only 12 penalties against them for 94 yards in three games, with seven for 62 of that coming against the Saints in the divisional playoffs.
This is the hidden yardage battle of the game, and the Buccaneers every advantage they can get on both sides of the ball in that area.
5. Intercept Mahomes at least once
First, to make this count, Brady needs to protect the ball to out-duel Mahomes in the turnover column. Brady had two interceptions vs. the Chiefs in Week 12. He can’t get away with another three-INT game like he did against the Packers two weeks ago.
But just as critical as Brady playing mistake-free is getting a rare turnover error from Mahomes. He overcame two INTs vs. the 49ers in Super Bowl 54, but otherwise, he hasn’t thrown any in his other six playoff games combined. Mahomes had an anomalous three-INT game at the Dolphins in Week 14, but he was picked off in only four of his 15 starts overall in the regular season.
The Raiders, despite dominance running the ball, time of possession and big playmaking, still needed a late second-half INT of Mahomes from safety Jeff Heath to secure the Week 5 game by one possession. Getting the Chiefs to punt is a challenge and even if the Bucs do well in the red zone again, they still will be giving up points. They need to pressure Mahomes into throwing away one possession, which can also spark their own offense with Brady.
The Chiefs can still win Super Bowl 55 in many ways even if a few things are off with their game plan and play, thanks to Mahomes masking a lot of issues. The Buccaneers can’t afford to have any kind of sloppiness or lack of execution. The Raiders set up the blueprint, but he Bucs need every step of it to go right to shock the Chiefs with much more at stake.