Brady entered the league 17 years before Mahomes. He is closer in age to Mahomes’s father than to Mahomes. His NFC championship game victory over the Green Bay Packers in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at 43, is a testament to his defiance of age, his conditioning and his will. The reward will be playing his 10th Super Bowl in his home stadium, a first in NFL history.
Hoisting a seventh Lombardi Trophy will be a tall task against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, who dusted the Buffalo Bills in the AFC championship game. Brady may have the historical edge, but Mahomes is the best football player on Earth right now, and he is surrounded by Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, receivers whose skill sets have few matches in this or any era. They have operated on a different level than the rest of the NFL.
It will not be just Brady vs. Mahomes, of course. Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones, who may have been the second-best player in the Super Bowl last year, is the kind of rusher who can give Brady problems. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo played a big role in halting Brady’s perfect 2007 season as the New York Giants’ defensive play caller in the Super Bowl. The Bucs’ physical, fast defense will provide a challenge, but they’ll have to change their strategy from Week 12, when the Chiefs beat them, 27-24.
The next two weeks, though, will primarily be about Mahomes and Brady. One is going for his second Super Bowl championship in a row. The other is going for his seventh overall. Here is what to know.
Um, Aaron Rodgers is playing for the Packers next year, right? The Packers quarterback turned a solemn virtual news conference into an eyebrow-raising offseason story line with a handful of cryptic comments about his future.
“A lot of guys’ futures that are uncertain, myself included,” Rodgers said. “That’s what’s sad about it, most, getting this far. Obviously, it’s going to be an end to it at some point, whether we make it past this one or not, but just the uncertainty is tough and the finality of it all.”
“There’s a lot of unknowns going into this offseason now,” Rodgers added. “I’m going to have to take some time away, for sure, and clear my head and just kind of see what’s going on with everything. But it’s pretty tough right now, especially thinking about the guys that may or may not be here next year. There’s always change. That’s the only constant in this business.”
Rodgers and the Packers parting ways would make no sense. He has said he wants to play into his 40s and finish his career in Green Bay. The Packers have no real salary cap crunch and would be unable to upgrade from the presumptive MVP. “Hell yeah, he better be back here,” Coach Matt LaFleur said.
The Packers drafted Jordan Love in the first round last year to be Rodgers’s heir apparent, which raised the issue of Rodgers’s future in Green Bay. But this season put all those questions to rest — until Rodgers’s comments raised them again Sunday. It would be a shock if Rodgers isn’t a Packer next year, and his thoughts probably stemmed from speaking in the minutes after a gutting loss. Still, the offseason just got a little more interesting.
The Chiefs suffered a big loss. In the fourth quarter, left tackle Eric Fisher suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury, revealed Monday to be a tear that will keep him out of the Super Bowl. The Chiefs were already thin on the offensive line after losing their best blocker, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Along the offensive line, only center Austin Reiter will start the Super Bowl at the position where he began the season.
The Chiefs are playing the wrong team with a banged-up offensive line. Tampa Bay harassed Rodgers all game, one week after the Packers’ offensive line allowed Rodgers to be hit once against a Los Angeles Rams pass rush that included Aaron Donald. Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul would be threats against any line. The Chiefs will deal with them without their top two tackles.
LaFleur’s decision wasn’t as bad as many made it out to be. On fourth and goal from the 8-yard line with 2:12 left in the fourth quarter, trailing by eight, LaFleur pulled Rodgers off the field and kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to five. LaFleur was pilloried in the moment, and the criticism only amplified when the Buccaneers gained two first downs, killed the clock and ended Green Bay’s season.
But LaFleur faced a choice between two bad options, and the one he chose made some sense. By going for it, the Packers would have needed to convert a low-percentage fourth down, then convert the two-point conversion, which is a little worse than a coin flip. If that worked, they still would have needed to stop Brady in the two-minute drill when only a field goal would beat them. And if they survived Brady’s drive, they still would have needed to win in overtime.
By kicking, the Packers needed to walk a similarly perilous path to victory, but with the variable of overtime removed. They needed to stop Brady from getting a first down, then march about 80 yards for a touchdown, probably in about 100 seconds with one or zero timeouts left.
To win, they would have needed to make some improbable offensive plays and somehow stop Brady. The choice, really, was how they wanted to try to do that. Given how their defense was playing, it’s reasonable to think the Packers had a better chance to stop a drive meant to kill the clock than one meant to set up a field goal — and that’s without considering having to face Brady in overtime.
The decision felt terrible on a visceral level, because it took the ball out of Rodgers’s hands and risked not possessing it again. But the Packers were in danger of not touching the ball again either way, and Rodgers had already failed three times to score from the 8. The bottom line: The Packers were staring at a likely loss, and no choice LaFleur could have made would have changed that.
Todd Bowles deserves credit. Before he faces the monumental challenge of stopping the Chiefs, Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator drew praise for his plan against the Packers, who had the league’s best offense all season. The Bucs recorded five sacks and two turnovers against a team that typically plays spotless. Two sacks in the first half owed to Rodgers’s confusion reading coverages, leading him to hold the ball, which almost never happens.
Bowles is a member of the most diverse coaching staff in football, which includes two women along with Black offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators. Bowles may not be part of the staff after next year, because the former New York Jets coach will probably garner head coaching interest again.
Matthew Stafford is available, and a lot of teams could be interested. The Detroit Lions are in a favorable spot to land a big return after Stafford approached them after the season and suggested a trade may be in the best interest of both parties, a notion the Lions came to agree with.
Stafford is about to turn 33, is on a team-friendly contract — he’ll earn $43 million over the next two seasons — and has one of the most electric arms in football. The list of suitors will be long. The Indianapolis Colts might make the most sense unless they reunite Coach Frank Reich with Carson Wentz, because they have a contention-ready roster and need a quarterback in the wake of Philip Rivers’s retirement. The Colts can offer the 21st draft pick, but it may take more than that given the number of teams potentially interested.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will need a quarterback if Ben Roethlisberger retires. The Denver Broncos, with a new general manager in George Paton and a coach who needs a big season in Vic Fangio, may choose to move on from Drew Lock. The San Francisco 49ers may believe Stafford can push their offense to a level Jimmy Garoppolo cannot. Washington may decide it’s ready to build on this year’s fortunate division title, and it has the 19th pick to offer.
The New England Patriots still have a Brady-size hole behind center. If the Houston Texans are forced to trade Deshaun Watson, they could be interested, although they have a shortage of draft picks after squandering many in recent trades. (A Watson-for-Stafford deal with draft picks going to the Texans would be fascinating, but the rebuilding Lions may be reticent to deal picks.) Sean Payton has circled around several quarterbacks as Drew Brees has contemplated retirement in recent years, so the New Orleans Saints can’t be counted out despite their messy salary cap situation.
The coach hiring cycle has justifiably deepened frustration among Black coaches. Last year, after the New York Giants hired Joe Judge as their coach, agent Brian Levy, who represents a confluence of Black coaches, received a call from one of his clients. The coach asked Levy if he would have gotten hired with the résumé of Judge, who had been the Patriots’ special teams coach. “No,” Levy told him. “Probably not.”
There is nothing wrong with trying to be visionary in hiring a coach, as the Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles were in choosing Brandon Staley and Nick Sirianni, coordinators with more promise than experience. Both could turn out to be exceptional coaches. But there is no evidence that those speculative, out-of-the-box hires happen with minority candidates. The last example of it happening may be when the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin more than a dozen years ago.
There is also no evidence that suggests a White coach with Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s résumé wouldn’t be hired. Here’s a quick summary of the top offensive assistants who have coached in the past four Super Bowls: Mike LaFleur, the 49ers’ passing game coordinator, was just named offensive coordinator and play caller for the New York Jets. Matt McDaniel, the 49ers’ running game coordinator, was promoted to offensive coordinator in San Francisco. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels accepted the head coaching job in Indianapolis before backing out. The Colts instead hired Reich off the 2017 Eagles. The 2018 Rams did not have an offensive coordinator, but quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor was hired as the Bengals’ coach. Kyle Shanahan went from 2016 Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator to 49ers head coach.
In the past four years, that’s seven top offensive assistants who coached in the Super Bowl. Three have become head coaches. One was offered and accepted a head coaching position. Two have been promoted internally or externally. And one, Bieniemy, still has the same job — unless the Texans hire him, which remains a possibility.
Bieniemy is not the first coach, Black or White, to have to wait for his chance. But in the current environment of offensive preference, he is an outlier in how long he waited and how much success he has had.