Yet the big fact hovers that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just reached 2-0 in lifetime Super Bowls because their defense managed to spend their last three games shutting down Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and, in Sunday’s 31-9 Super Bowl LV victory, Patrick Mahomes. Clearly, they became unstoppable once they survived Taylor Heinicke.
Brees wound up 19 for 34 for 134 yards with three interceptions and a toothless second half. Rodgers went 33 for 48 for 346 but got sacked five times and found Tampa Bay too thorny when Green Bay had chances. Mahomes reached halftime Sunday night at 9 for 19 for 67 yards.
Those numbers just looked bad-dream wrong.
By the end, they stood at 26 for 49 for 270 yards. Even Mahomes’s improvisational theater came to suggest desperation more than imagination. Kansas City didn’t get any touchdowns. Kansas City didn’t get any touchdowns. Repeat it enough, and you might coax yourself into believing it.
“Yeah, I can’t give them enough credit,” head coach Bruce Arians said after Super Bowl LV, having said beforehand, “We’ve been winning with defense.” So while the 2020-21 Bucs finished sixth in the league in total defense where those 2002-03 Bucs had finished first, the former does have one edge. It overcame three greats where the old guys solved some very-goods: Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Rich Gannon.
“While the guys up front hunted, the guys in the back covered, so we worked hand-in-hand tonight,” said defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, having himself one doozy of a winter. The collaboration included some world-class “pushing the pocket” from one 34-year-old Ndamukong Suh, the lineman who got a first Super Bowl title in an 11th NFL season with a fourth NFL club.
“Especially when you’re struggling and playing a really good defense,” Mahomes said, “it’s hard to get drives going and get in the end zone.”
Hints of the red tide came in Week 12 when the two teams met. The Chiefs looked like the Chiefs in surging to a quick 17-0 lead, but the Bucs figured out some things and drew within 27-24 by the end. While conscientious sorts ought to remember that Kansas City lost left tackle Eric Fisher in the AFC championship game, and left tackles do matter deeply in American life, the Tampa Bay defense still seemed to gather excellence as the postseason went along. By the time it lined up opposite Kansas City again, it had become about as much of a beast as modern times will let a defense become.
The NFL’s state-of-the-art offense wound up with its ideas looking spent and its space looking scarce. Its big show had been ground into granular plays. “Just keep them in front of us,” Arians said, “and tackle real well.”
Bowles managed to direct pressure on 57 percent of Mahomes’s drop-backs in the first half, according to ESPN. Barrett and David kept turning up in ideal places at pivotal moments. White was marvelous again in his first postseason and second year in the league, with 12 tackles, eight solo tackles and a fitting, closing interception in the end zone. A secondary of a rookie, two second-year players and two third-year players seemed to keep getting older and wiser, all for a team that bolted from 7-5 to a closing 15-5.
“I love playing for Coach Bowles, man,” second-year cornerback Murphy-Bunting said. “I love it so much. I really do.” He referred to Bowles as “a mastermind.”
“The biggest thing,” Bowles said, “was trying to take away the first read.” Then the chases were on, and the chases were many.
“Listen, Todd had a good plan,” Kansas City Coach Andy Reid said, “but like I said, I could have done a whole lot better putting the guys in position to make better plays.”
Last Super Bowl, the Chiefs reached the seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter down 20-10 but still rich in realistic hope against a defense that had just about solved them. This Super Bowl, the Chiefs reached that mark down 31-9 and obviously done against a defense that already had solved them.
“You could honestly feel it with the change and the growth in the locker room,” said Barrett, “and that’s why we’re leaving with the Lombardi Trophy.”