Feb 7, 2021 - Sports

Pandemic-style Super Bowl

Illustration of the Vince Lambari trophy in a stadium with masks falling like confetti

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Super Bowl LV will be the most-watched TV broadcast of 2021, bringing roughly 100 million Americans together for a few hours of unity and entertainment.

Why it matters: All Super Bowls are culturally important, but this year's "Big Game," more than any before it, will offer a reflection of the country.

  • American citizens, and even those watching from abroad, will gauge the national state of affairs by what they see on the broadcast.
  • "The game represents an odd chance for an American makeover — a new year, a new administration, a new outlook," writes NYT's John Branch.

The big picture: When the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV in Miami, "social distancing" was not even a term.

  • 369 days later, it is our way of life — and will be on full display in Tampa, where there will be more cardboard cutouts (30,000) than fans (25,000).
  • Upon entry into Raymond James Stadium, each fan will be given a face mask, an item that was foreign to us a year ago, yet is now an important member of the wallet-keys-phone checklist before leaving the house.

What to watch: The pregame festivities will be subdued, setting the tone for a four-hour broadcast in which the NFL and CBS must find a delicate balance between pure "escapism" and the reality of the moment.

  • Three honorary captainsa nurse, teacher and a Marine veteran — will take part in the coin toss.
  • Amanda Gorman, fresh off her star turn at President Biden's inauguration, will recite an original poem.
  • The national anthem, a duet by Jazmine Sullivan and Eric Church, will be preceded by a performance of "America the Beautiful" by H.E.R.

The bottom line: Super Bowl LV will be a restrained spectacle, but there's still potential for plenty of magic, starting with the dream QB matchup of Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady.

Game details:

  • Time: 6:30pm ET
  • Network: CBS
  • Announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo
  • Weather forecast: 73°F, 56% chance of rain

Matchup: On one side of the ball...

Note: *Sammy Watkins, Vita Vea and Jordan Whitehead are all banged up but expected to play. Table: Michelle McGhee/Axios

The Chiefs are the poster child for "passing the eye test" (emphasis on passing).

Yes, but: While everything stems from Patrick Mahomes' singular talent, Andy Reid and OC Eric Bieniemy's evolving strategy can't be overlooked.

  • 40.5% of Mahomes' passes resulted in first downs this season (up from 36.5% in 2019), likely thanks to the decision to cut down on deep balls.
  • Last year, Kansas City completed a league-high 18 passes of 40+ yards; this year, that fell to just eight, but they scored on six of them and led the league with 69 passes of 20+ yards.
  • This more balanced attack, using the very real deep threat to open up the middle of the field for Travis Kelce and slot receivers, paid big dividends.

What they're saying: "Everyone fits the system because the system is built to include everyone," writes The Ringer's Kevin Clark.

"From a GM standpoint, you don't have to get pigeonholed into wondering if this guy is a good fit for what we do. If we like the guy, and we like the skill set, Coach will figure out a way to highlight it."
— Chiefs GM Brett Veach

On defense ... the Bucs are as well-equipped as anyone to stop the juggernaut they're facing, with a trio of reclamation projects — Ndamukong Suh, Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul — forming the league's most fearsome pass rush.

  • In the NFC title game, Packers star OT David Bakhtiari's absence opened the door for five Bucs sacks.
  • How many can they rack up with Chiefs star OT Eric Fisher similarly out?

Go deeper: 20 stats to know (For The Win)

Matchup: On the other side of the ball...

Note: *Antonio Brown missed the NFC Championship with a knee injury, but was a full participant in Thursday's practice. Table: Michelle McGhee/Axios

"No risk it, no biscuit," Bruce Arians' catchy coaching philosophy that could be loosely translated to "go big or go home," is proving rather successful when implemented by the right personnel.

  • Tom Brady, like 2019 Bucs QB Jameis Winston, led the league in intended air yards (total air yards on all passes, complete or not) and threw the second most touchdowns.
  • But while Winston's 2019 interception rate was by far the NFL's worst (4.8%), Brady limited the damage such a freewheeling strategy is prone to yield (2%).
  • Though 12 picks are Brady's most since 2011, he also cracked 40 TD for just the second time ever, liberated by a new system and armed with the best receiving corps of his career.

What to watch: Penalties, or more specifically, Tampa Bay's ability to draw them. Bucs' opponents were charged with 24 pass interference penalties during the regular season, the highest total since at least 1985.

"If pass interference were a person, it would be the Buccaneers' sixth most productive receiver, contributing more yardage to their passing game than tight end Cameron Brate."
— Mike Tanier, NYT

On defense ... pressuring Brady is of paramount importance, as his 84.3 QBR this year without seeing pressure was fifth best, but his 6.4 QBR (!!!) under pressure ranked 30th.

  • Here, the Chiefs do have matchup advantages, as stud linemen Chris Jones and Frank Clark could bully the Bucs' guard duo of Ali Marpet and Aaron Stinnie, who both rank near the bottom in pass-block win rate.

Go deeper: All 55 Super Bowl QB matchups, ranked (WashPost)

Meet the players who opted out

Collage picture of Damien Williams, Brad Seaton, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and Lucas Niang
Clockwise from top left: Damien Williams, Brad Seaton, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Lucas Niang. Photos: Getty Images

66 players opted out of the NFL season because of the pandemic. Four of them play for the Chiefs and Bucs. These are their stories.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (RG, Chiefs): The 2014 sixth-round pick was one of six Chiefs to play every offensive snap in Super Bowl LIV.

  • Why he opted out: He was the first NFL player to formally opt out, choosing instead to put his medical degree to use, working at a long-term-care facility near his native Montreal.
  • "If I am to take risks," he wrote in his opt-out statement, "I will do it caring for patients."

Damien Williams (RB, Chiefs): From 2014 undrafted free agent to Super Bowl star. His line in last year's game (133 total yards, 2 TD) was as good as anyone's.

  • Why he opted out: After his mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, he decided that being by her side was more important than anything else.
  • "My mom is my rock, my everything, so during a hard time like this, I think I should be next to her every step."

Brad Seaton (OT, Bucs): The 2017 seventh-round pick, and the lone Bucs opt-out, has bounced around the league but has yet to play a snap in his NFL career.

  • Why he opted out: "While I love the sport and know I will miss all aspects of being part of this year's team, I ultimately decided to put the health and safety of my family first," he wrote.

Lucas Niang (OL, Chiefs): The rookie third-rounder out of TCU was unlikely to start this year, but was seen as a possible future replacement for veteran tackle Eric Fisher ... who's missing the Super Bowl with an Achilles injury.

  • Why he opted out: He never provided specifics, but he of course never had to.
  • Of note: He was one of five rookies, but the only drafted one, to opt out.

Go deeper: Whatever happened to the players that opted out? (ESPN)

Go deeper