Super Bowls are signposts, but even signposts need shorthand. You remember one, maybe two things from most championship games, either because they were objectively memorable or because they were microcosmic of the storyline and outcome. This holds true for one-sided, relatively boring games like Super Bowl 55, a 31-9 Buccaneers win that never really felt as close as even that. What I’ll remember from this one is more or less all you need to see to understand the result, which is impressive considering it’s a pair of incompletions.
This was the first time since college that Patrick Mahomes’s team lost by two scores, and the first time since high school that his team failed to score a touchdown. That’s not Super Bowl jitters; Mahomes was here last year. It’s entirely to the credit of Todd Bowles and the Bucs defense, specifically the front four and the relentless pressure it put on the Chiefs’ bargain-bin offensive line.
The Bucs blitzed just six times all night, yet still managed to pressure Mahomes on 29 of 56 dropbacks (the most in Super Bowl history)—27 of those with four or fewer rushers (the second-most of any game in the last 10 years). There’s no secret sauce to this: The Bucs’ pass rush has been deadly all year, and got better as the weather turned colder, while the Chiefs’ O-line, thanks to injuries and opt-outs, featured just one Week 1 starter still playing the same position. That’s a blueprint for a row of turnstiles.
This—large, fast men making life hell for quarterbacks—is how Super Bowls have been won since there have been Super Bowls. It’s been the only reliable way to beat even Tom Brady. But the line-of-scrimmage mismatch had never been against a QB like Mahomes before, whose scrambling abilities and knack for tossing lasers from incomprehensible angles had managed to bail out his pass protection until this point. He tried his damndest to do it again on Sunday, but Tampa demonstrated what happens when its irresistible force came up against a very moveable object.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the lead at least three scores, the Chiefs were in score-on-every-drive-or-lose territory. On third down, the Bucs collapsed the pocket instantly, sending Mahomes running and spinning for his life, being menaced by each down lineman in turn, staying upright long enough to be finally grasped by linebacker Shaquil Barrett. But even while being dragged down, he managed to put some heft behind a ball to the corner of the end zone, where only a red jersey had any shot at it.
That was probably the most impressive single athletic feat of the entire game, tied only with the very next play, on which Mahomes again was forced to scurry, and again somehow got off a hell of a pass, this time with his body near horizontal.
This was the game in two plays. According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes scrambled for a total of 497 yards before throwing the ball or being sacked, the highest total in any game since they started tracking that in 2016. Here’s what that looks like, and what it looked like for Brady, who had all the time in the world.
Mahomes tried, man, he really did. He tried to extend plays, even as the walls closed in. He made throws that only he could make, because he was forced to make them. None of it was enough, because Tampa’s front four was ceaselessly battering down his front door, and his side doors, and was waiting for him in the backyard. Everything flowed from there. The Chiefs’ lack of a run game, and Tampa’s ability to keep its DBs and LBs in coverage, meant that Mahomes would have to perform true magic, and he tried, but sometimes you just run out of space and time. The Bucs spared him neither.