Three things to watch in Super Bowl LV; plus Packers, Bills takeaways

It took reaching the AFC Championship Game for the Kansas City Chiefs to finally bag that two-score win everyone was moaning about. The Bills managed to steal two extra possessions and score on a 3-yard touchdown “drive,” and they still weren’t particularly competitive. Kansas City’s 38-24 victory over Buffalo on Sunday felt familiar because, for the second straight season, no AFC defense came close to stopping Patrick Mahomes. The Raiders are apparently the only team that can match the Chiefs in a shootout.

Mahomes has directed 13 drives in these playoffs, excluding kneeldowns, and the opposing defense has stopped him from scoring a touchdown or attempting a field goal exactly once. That one time, the first drive Sunday night, ended with a drop by Tyreek Hill on a beautifully thrown pass by Mahomes 40 yards down the field. Chad Henne has the Chiefs’ only offensive turnover of the postseason, and their defense just played its two best games of the season in successive weeks. Mahomes’ toe, by the way, looks just fine, thanks.

It may take a near perfect game by the Buccaneers to beat these Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, but that also was the consensus around Tom Brady’s team the last time he faced them in the playoffs, back when he helped push the Pats past Mahomes and Co. in the 2018 AFC title match. Brady is playing just as well now, at age 43, as he was then, and he’s supported by a balanced, loaded Tampa roster getting contributions from every position group.

I’ve believed all season that the Bucs’ ceiling was higher than that of any other team outside Kansas City, and their three road playoff wins have proven the team’s toughness. They may even be able to do something wild in two weeks, like force the Chiefs into a turnover or make them punt a few times.

With that in mind, I’ll present three early thoughts on Super Bowl LV before examining what’s next for the Bills and Packers after tough season-ending losses:

1) The Bucs won’t go down kicking field goals

I still can’t believe Bills coach Sean McDermott kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line and on fourth-and-3 from the 8-yard line. Both kicks came while down 12 points. McDermott is a defensive coach, and those calls came from a man who couldn’t quite believe what his defense was showing him, expecting stops that never materialized. The Bills have perhaps the best short-yardage quarterback in football in Josh Allen but didn’t ask him to make plays.

It probably wouldn’t have changed the result of the AFC Championship Game if McDermott had played those situations differently, but I’m not worried about Bucs coach Bruce Arians taking a similar approach in the Super Bowl. The Bucs ooze aggression on both sides of the ball, and Arians’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 from midfield with 13 seconds left in the second quarter was just as gutsy as the touchdown pass from Brady to Scott Miller that followed it.

Offense wins championships. Field goals get you sent home. Andy Reid knows it, Bruce Arians knows it, and they both will trust their quarterbacks in big spots more than McDermott or Packers coach Matt LaFleur trusted theirs on Sunday.

2) The loss of Eric Fisher is a big deal

The Chiefs’ starting left tackle went down with an Achilles injury in the fourth quarter and will miss the Super Bowl. That’s a rough development for a team already without right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. The Chiefs only need to look to the NFC Championship Game to see how Shaquil Barrett (three sacks vs. the David Bakhtiari-less Packers) and Jason Pierre-Paul (two sacks) can eat up backup-level tackles. Even though Vita Vea didn’t make a big impact on the stat sheet against Green Bay in his return from injured reserve, his push on third downs helped Barrett and JPP have their best game since … Vea last played in October.

No team is better than the Chiefs at making big plays off quick throws or designed runs by wide receivers. Mahomes only attempted one throw over 20 yards on Sunday, that first-drive drop by Hill. Plays like that don’t require much time in the pocket, but the Chiefs still want Mahomes to be able to take deep drops on occasion. That’s going to be a lot tougher without Fisher.

3) Steve Spagnuolo gets another shot at Brady

All of the coaches who made the Super Bowl are aggressive, including both defensive coordinators. Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo cooked up Allen with pressure better than any coach since … Spagnuolo did it in Week 6. The Chiefs’ underrated secondary played excellent man coverage for most of the game.

It will be much tougher to confuse Brady, but the defense can afford to be aggressive because the Chiefs know they can survive mistakes with Mahomes on their side. Spagnuolo doesn’t have the same front four as he did when he helped the Giants topple Brady in Super Bowl XLII, but he also has a far bigger margin for error.

I’m not surprised the Chiefs’ offense has hit another gear in the playoffs, but I’m shocked at how well the Chiefs’ defense has played against the powerful Browns and Bills offenses. Frank Clark (two sacks) finally came alive Sunday. Safety Juan Thornhill was everywhere. And under-the-radar cornerbacks like L'Jarius Sneed were fantastic. The Bills averaged 4.5 yards per passing play Sunday, which would have been even more eye-opening if they didn’t have similar numbers last week against the Ravens.

The Chiefs will win the Super Bowl if their defense continues to play this well. On the bright side for the Bucs, there weren’t many signs entering the playoffs that the Chiefs’ defense had this type of run in it.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE VANQUISHED?

1) The Packers need to do whatever possible to make Aaron Rodgers happy. Rodgers’ postgame comments about his “uncertain” future in Green Bay may have just been the emotional aftermath of another brutal loss in the NFC Championship Game. That’s what I’d assume if it was almost anyone else, but Rodgers is so careful and calculated in his messaging that it’s hard not to wonder what else was at play.

Rodgers obviously wasn’t thrilled when the Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round of last April’s draft. Perhaps Rodgers just needs time to cool down, or perhaps some new guaranteed money in his contract would do the trick. Maybe he’s seeking a promise from the team to spend on a wide receiver in free agency or the draft. There is almost no reason to believe, based on everything Rodgers has said, that retirement is an option. There is no reason to think he would try to force a trade, or that the Packers would entertain the notion. Still, keeping Rodgers happy after an MVP season where he looked at home in LaFleur’s offense should be near the top of general manager Brian Gutekunst’s priorities list this offseason.

The Packers are a veteran team that needs to maneuver into some breathing room under the cap. Pass rusher Preston Smith (who has a $16 million cap number, with a dead-money figure of $8 million, per Over the Cap) and offensive tackle Billy Turner (carrying a cap number of $8.425 million, with a dead-money figure of $4.5 million) are two starters who could be released, while it will be complicated to keep center Corey Linsley and running back Aaron Jones, who are headed to free agency. Still, the bones of the team that has gone 28-8 over the last two seasons can be mostly preserved. LaFleur might want to look in a new direction after two years of a forced marriage with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, but the quick online pivot to Rodgers trade destination articles seems geared more toward ginning up traffic than it does to reality.

2) The Bills weren’t ready Sunday. That doesn’t say anything about their season. The Bills entered the AFC Championship Game ranked first in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, an efficiency metric that accounts for strength of schedule and gives extra weight to the end of the season. They went from 20th in expected points added offensively in 2019 to fourth in 2020. Their offensive line and pass-catching groups, once problems, were among the league’s best. Allen played better and faster in his third season than even the biggest Allen diehards dared dream possible. The Bills weren’t far from winning a Super Bowl, even if it felt like their defense wasn’t going to stop Mahomes on Sunday, no matter what.

This is just what it’s going to be like for AFC rivals in the Mahomes era. There will inevitably be relative down years for the Chiefs, just like there were for the Patriots during the Brady era in New England, but Mahomes is always going to be there. Allen just needs to make sure he consolidates his growth.

The Bills weren’t quite balanced enough or ready for what the Ravens and Chiefs threw at them the last two weeks with very different game plans. Allen took too many sacks (four) Sunday and didn’t recognize blitzes well. He needs to take a page from Mahomes and learn when to take easy, short completions. Still, nearly all the key parts of the explosive Bills offense will be back.

Linebacker Matt Milano and right tackle Daryl Williams are the team’s two best free agents. The Bills are near the league’s middle in cap space, per Over the Cap, which could force some tricky decisions on players like defensive ends Mario Addison (with a cap number of $10.225 million and a dead-money figure of $4 million) and Jerry Hughes (cap number of $9.45 million and a dead-money figure of $2.1 million) and receiver John Brown (cap figure of $9.75 million and a dead-money figure of $1.6 million). And then there’s the fact that Allen will be eligible for a significant extension this offseason.

McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have earned the full benefit of the doubt that they will make the right decisions. It is always difficult to get back to the AFC Championship Game, but the offensive foundation they laid with Allen points to annual contention.

Their defense — especially the pass rush — needs to be freshened up. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver, their top-10 pick from 2019, hasn’t quite delivered. This was the worst Bills defense on balance of the McDermott era, although that didn’t matter much when the Bills’ offense was playing like it was from the Jim Kelly era. That’s why Allen’s development, in an offense-first league, mattered so much more than a so-so season on defense. Allen and Stefon Diggs aren’t going anywhere but up, and the same could be said of the Bills.

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