We’ve made it, almost. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will meet the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Both the Chiefs and Buccaneers overcame some turnovers to take commanding leads that were rarely realistically in danger. The last time these two teams faced each other in Week 12, they combined for 960 yards of offense, 798 of it through the air. We’ll have plenty of time to break down what could happen when these teams meet again on February 6, but for now, we’ll dive into how these teams secured victory on Sunday to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LV.
The Chiefs Finally Turned It On
What is left to say about the Kansas City Chiefs? All regular season we wondered if there was another gear the Chiefs had after they cruised through a number of close games during the regular season. The answer is apparently yes.
The Chiefs did it while sticking to what they’ve done for most of the season when teams played them the way the Bills did in this game. Like in Week 6, Buffalo played back with two deep safeties and a light box. Unlike in Week 6 when the Chiefs obliged with the run, Kansas City took advantage of the loose zone coverage and took easy completions down the field.
That deep coverage has prevented the Chiefs from hitting the big explosive play down the field and in the game Patrick Mahomes was 0-for-1 on throws that went over 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. He finished the game with an average depth of target of just 5.8 yards and an average time to throw of 2.47 seconds, per Next Gen Stats. Both of those figures were the fourth-lowest of his career. Mahomes didn’t need to throw deep because he was nearly perfect on everything else he did. He still managed 8.6 yards per attempt. The Chiefs knew how the Bills were going to defend them and they were ready.
Throughout the season, Travis Kelce has been the go-to against these two-high looks. The deep safeties leave the middle of the field open and Kelce has thrived finding space. He led the league in targets, receptions, yards, touchdowns, and Expected Points Added against two-high looks this season. Here were his numbers through the Divisional Round compared to the next highest player in each category:
Travis Kelce vs 2-high, 2020
|Next Best Player
Kelce finished the game with 15 targets, 13 receptions, 118 yards, and two touchdowns. There were no answers for Kelce. Early in the game, Tremaine Edmunds had the unenviable task of being responsible for Kelce. That led to six targets in which he was the closest defender in coverage, which resulted in five receptions for 56 yards.
Throwing to Kelce was basically the way the Chiefs picked up free yards in this game as opposed to when they ran the ball in the Week 6 matchup. Kelce was pressed on just 20.6% of his routes in this game and he was closely covered (a yard or fewer of separation) on only two of his 15 targets, per Next Gen Stats. His average depth of target was 4.8 yards past the line of scrimmage. He was worth 0.78 EPA per play, according to nflfastR, with an 80% success rate.
Of course, not everything was as easy as the Chiefs made it look. This 11-yard gain on a third-and-6 that helped set up a Clyde Edwards-Helaire touchdown run was Mahomes making magic in the pocket against a free rusher and incredible chemistry with Kelce.
During the regular season, the Chiefs let a lot of inferior teams hang around until the end and there was rarely the final death blow delivered early. That wasn’t the case against Buffalo as the Chiefs refused to take their foot off the gas. Up 31-15, Kansas City had a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line. The Chiefs sent Mecole Hardman in jet motion, which took the attention of most of the Bills’ defense. Kelce snuck out the opposite way for a wide-open touchdown.
Having Kelce alone would make the Chiefs a dangerous passing attack, but they were also able to get Tyreek Hill going with the heavy use of zone coverage. Hill was only pressed on 19% of his routes and none of his 11 targets were considered closely covered.
The Bills were more aggressive on defense than in Week 6 when they didn’t send a single blitz against Mahomes. That didn’t matter much. According to Next Gen Stats, Buffalo blitzed on 23.1% of Mahomes’s dropbacks and pressured him on 20.5% of his dropbacks. Despite that pressure, he was only sacked once and there was always a quick open answer when the quarterback needed it.
The opposite was the case when the Bills had the ball. It wasn’t just the Chiefs offense that was able to turn it up, the defense had one of its best games as a unit. Josh Allen looked more like the 2018 and 2019 versions than what we saw throughout 2020. His process was rushed, he panicked under pressure, and there were few easy outlets when things went wrong.
Allen was under pressure on a quarter of his dropbacks and he was hit 10 times. He compounded that by taking bad sacks and forcing throws under pressure. Seven passes were defensed and Allen threw into tight coverage on 18.8% of his pass attempts.
The Bills came out flat to start by trying to counterpunch before the Chiefs gave them a reason to do so. Buffalo came out with a number of short passes to running backs and early down runs. Neither of those were successful. They were bailed out by a muffed punt and a 1-yard touchdown drive to go up 9-0 early, but the Bills were never really in control of the game.
Buffalo finished the game with negative EPA on early down passes (-0.06) and there wasn’t enough in the tank to make up for it. The Bills finished 5-of-14 on third downs (35.7%) and converted just 2-of-5 red zone trips into touchdowns.
Sean McDermott decided to kick two short field goals that cost his team a chance to get back into the game. The first was somewhat defensible on a fourth-and-goal from the Kansas City 2-yard line with only 11 seconds left in the half. Part of the advantage of going for it near the goal line is if the play fails, the opposing offense is pinned deep in their territory. That disappears late at the end of the half, but it’s hard to beat the Chiefs with field goals no matter the situation The EdjSports model had it as a 2.2% pre-snap win probability error and Ben Baldwin’s model at it as a 3.2% win probability swing.
Then on their first drive in the second half, the Bills kicked a 27-yard field goal on a fourth-and-3 from the Kansas City 8-yard line while they trailed 24-12. EdjSports had that as a 2.3% win probability error. McDermott has been one of the best coaches at fourth down decisions since he took over and especially in 2020, but he played not to lose while losing against the one team those kinds of decisions can’t be made against.
The Buccaneers Had Fewer Weak Links
Tom Brady didn’t have his best game against the Green Bay Packers. He completed just 55.6% of his passes, 2.1% below expectation per Next Gen Stats, but the passes he did complete were meaningful. The “book” on Brady is to get pressure with four and that’s what the Packers tried to do, but it didn’t work often. Green Bay blitzed on 21.6% of Brady’s dropbacks but only had five total pressures in the game. Without the added pass rush, the Packers also didn’t have the secondary to hold up in coverage against Tampa Bay’s receivers.
Jaire Alexander continued his play as one of the league’s top corners. He was targeted four times and allowed no receptions. He had an interception in coverage and another on a tipped pass. He helped limit Mike Evans to just three receptions. But defense is a weak-link position in the secondary and the Buccaneers were able to pick apart the non-Alexander parts of the Packers’ cornerback group. Chandon Sullivan was targeted early, though the go-to target was Kevin King. Among 148 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps in the regular season, Alexander ranked 12th in yards allowed per coverage snap, Sullivan ranked 21st, and King ranked 68th.
Against the Buccaneers, King was targeted seven times. He allowed four completions, 69 yards, and two touchdowns. It could have been worse. There was a pass that went through Evans’s hands in King’s coverage that could have been a long completion. He was also called for defensive pass interference on the deciding third-and-4 with 1:46 left in the game. King’s penalty was called in an otherwise “let ‘em play” kind of game. But a clear hold of Tyler Johnson’s jersey made it difficult to ignore.
There were comparisons to an uncalled play between Sean Murphy-Bunting and Allen Lazard earlier in the game that resulted in a Murphy-Bunting interception, but outside of the clear jersey pull, the difference might have been the separation created. Lazard and Murphy-Bunting were tight together for the entire route, while Johnson was easily set to run away from King without the hold.
One of these plays got called as holding. pic.twitter.com/c9GTQpMGm1
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) January 24, 2021
The two touchdowns allowed by King were also killers and a sign of a lack of a sound defensive plan from defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. The first touchdown came against Evans in the red zone. Kings and Sullivan were matched up against Evans and Chris Godwin to the left, while Alexander stayed to the right on Johnson. This was what the Packers have done for most of the season with Alexander on one side. He hadn’t shadowed a receiver on over 50% of their routes in a game since Week 7 (though he was on Evans for 76% of his routes in Week 6 and held him to one target).
On the first touchdown, King was six yards off Evans at the line, per Next Gen Stats, but Evans ran straight past him and King had one of the worst timed jumps in an attempt to bat the pass away.
The second touchdown came against Scotty Miller with eight seconds left in the first half, on a drive set up by the Murphy-Bunting interception. In an end of half situation with no timeouts left for the Buccaneers and the middle of the field virtually eliminated, the Packers played a single-high safety with man coverage. Miller ran right past King, who had no help over the top for an easy touchdown, which allowed the Buccaneers to take a 21-10 lead into the half.
Tampa Bay spent much of the game creating mismatches and picking on the weaker links in the Green Bay defense. Chris Godwin was the team’s leading receiver. Cameron Brate got involved. Even Leonard Fournette had positive receibinf opportunities. The worked mismatches were apparent on third downs, where the Buccaneers finished 9-of-14 for 0.91 EPA per play with a 69% success rate, per nflfastR.
Those third down conversions really helped an offense that struggled on early downs. The Buccaneers averaged -0.10 EPA per play on 23 early down rushing attempts and -0.14 EPA per play on 24 early down pass attempts. With time, Brady was able to find the right outlet on third down, which turned out to be the biggest factor in the game.
This wasn’t completely out of line for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay was eighth in EPA per play on early downs this season, but improved to third on third downs.
When the Buccaneers topped the Packers in Week 6, the blitz played a huge part. Tampa Bay’s defense again got to Aaron Rodgers and the blitz wasn’t always necessary to get pressure. The Buccaneers still blitzed on 32.1% of Rodgers’s dropbacks (slightly below their 39% blitz rate from the regular season). They were able to get pressure on 13 dropbacks (24.5%) and Rodgers was sacked five times. Most of those pressures and sacks came from the defensive line. Shaq Barrett had four pressures and three sacks. Jason Pierre-Paul had four pressures and two sacks. Vita Vea had three pressures in his return to action. Ndamukong Suh had two.
The Buccaneers were even giving out some wild looks when they weren’t blizting. On the first sack of Rodgers, the Packers had three down linemen and Suh as a standup linebacker behind them. It was just a four-man rush, including Suh.
The Packers got worked on the edges in this game. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Green Bay finished with a Pass Block Win Rate of just 57%, which is significantly below their league-leading 74% from the regular season. Ricky Wagner and Billy Turner were both liabilities at tackle in this game and that forced Rodgers to get the ball out quickly even when the pressure didn’t get to the quarterback.
Tampa Bay also got aggressive in coverage with more 2-man than they’ve played all season, which kept two safeties back to protect against the deep ball but also kept tight man coverage against Green Bay’s receivers. Davante Adams was pressed on 56.9% of his routes, according to Next Gen Stats, and he was limited to an average depth of target of just 7.5 yards past the line of scrimmage.
But unlike the Week 6 blowout, when the Packers trailed big in this game, they didn’t panic. Rodgers was still able to stay in rhythm as the offense continued to move the ball throughout the game. The Packers had chances in the game. They forced three turnovers, but turned those into just seven points. After finishing the regular season as the top red zone offense in the league (first in touchdowns per red zone trip at 80%), they converted only two of their four trips into touchdowns against the Buccaneers.
The final red zone trip was the most costly. The Packers trailed by eight late in the game and faced a third-and-goal from the 8-yard line with 2:15 remaining. Rodgers was in empty and scrambled after the snap. With room to potentially run, Rodgers forced a pass to a tightly covered Adams and the Packers decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-8.
Green Bay’s decision to kick a field goal was a mistake at the time. EdjSports’ model had it as a 3% pre-snap win probability error. Other models didn’t have it as drastic, but favored to go for it. Fourth-and-8 is hard to convert, which is why some of the fourth down models didn’t overwhelmingly favor go, but that brings Rodgers’s non-scramble into play. Rodgers might not have scored if he took off, but the yards gained would have made the decision to go much easier for the Packers.
Even so, Green Bay kicked the field goal and never got the ball back. It was a conservative decision for a coach who had been the most aggressive on fourth downs this year. There were a number of reasons the Packers lost the game, from poor protection to a lack of depth in the secondary, but when the Packers finally had a chance to rely on their strength to potentially tie the game, they hoped a defensed that had been picked on all game could get a stop.