This was the way it should have ended, with inside linebacker Devin White dropping into zone coverage near the goal line, reading the eyes of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, then stepping in front of tight end Travis Kelce to tip and intercept the football, allowing Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense to run out the clock in victory formation.
While some were focused on the 31 points the Bucs scored Sunday in Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay — and the fairy tale journey of Brady winning a title in his first season with a new team, in a new city and conference, after 20 seasons, nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships with New England — the true essence of the victory can be captured by the number nine, as in points scored by the defending champion Chiefs.
For most the last three seasons the narrative had been that an opponent would need to score at least 30 to have a legitimate shot at beating Kansas City, because that was the baseline for what the Chiefs and their near point-per-minute offense would put up. The talk was that you could only hope to contain them, not stop them.
Bucs defenders took that as a challenge, particularly after Kansas City put up 17 first-quarter points on them in a November victory. They knew they had seen the best the Chiefs had to offer, and at the same time they were supremely confident that Kansas City had yet to see them at their best.
“We knew we were doubted,” said linebacker Lavonte David. “But we knew we could play football with these guys. You’ve got to take your hat off to them; they’re a great football team. But we knew we had a great football team, too. Just looking back at what they did to us in that Week 12 matchup, we were able to take away things that they like to do and we were able to just go out there and have fun.”
The Bucs made Mahomes look mortal and the K.C. offense look pedestrian. It was not only the first time Kansas City had failed to reach the end zone since Mahomes took over as the full-time starter to open the 2018 season, but also the first time the Chiefs had lost by double-digits.
Normally this is the point in the story where we pull back the curtain and discuss the exotic scheme that was devised by coordinator Todd Bowles, and yet by his own admission there wasn’t one. The Bucs played a lot of two-deep safety looks to take away the explosive plays and used David and White, a second-year standout, to patrol the underneath passes. The strategy was as effective as it was simple.
In the teams’ November meeting, wideout Tyreek Hill burned them for 203 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter and had 13 receptions for 269 yards overall. On Sunday, he had one catch for 5 yards in the first half and finished with seven for 73.
To further illustrate the importance of eliminating the deep pass, consider: In November, Mahomes was 10-of-15 for 280 yards with three touchdowns and a 149.3 rating on passes that traveled at least 10 air yards, according to Next Gen Stats, but on Sunday, he was 5-of-15 for 95 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a 28.5 rating.
“I have a lot of respect for Tyreek and (Travis) Kelce, as well,” said Bowles. “But we studied the first game and the rest of the games … and we put together a heck of a game plan and the guys followed it to a T. They believed in it and they executed it, for the most part, pretty good.”
There are times when Bowles is prone to understatements. This was one of them. He turned an offense that regularly looked as if it had the answers to the test beforehand into a unit that looked as if someone had switched up the exam. Mahomes has never been hunted so relentlessly from start to finish in his three seasons as a starter. I doubt it’s hyperbole to say that he had more yards retreating backward from the rush than he did moving forward.
It is not uncommon for Mahomes to pick up 67 yards on one pass play. Sunday he was limited to that amount for the first half and did not reach 100 yards until less than a minute remained in the third quarter. He finished with 270 yards passing, but much of it was when the game was out of reach. He was sacked three times and intercepted twice off tipped passes.
The Bucs’ front of Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Steve McLendon was relentless in its pursuit of the 2018 league MVP and 2019 Super Bowl MVP. The group’s ability to force Mahomes off his spot meant that Bowles did not have to utilize the blitz with any frequency.
Interestingly, during the week Bowles sounded almost embarrassed for the questioner (me) when asked if his group was hungry to get after a Chiefs line that would start backups at both tackle positions, with Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz out because of injury. “I’m not eating the cheese,” he said, pointing out that the line was good enough to get Kansas City to the Super Bowl. And yet it was a total mismatch once the game started. Mahomes never had a chance.
For David, who in his ninth season with the Bucs is one of the franchise’s longest-tenured players, all he wanted as a chance to participate in the playoffs. The team failed to advance in each of his first eight seasons, finishing last in the division six times and third another time. Such futility can be mentally draining for a veteran, which is why David likely appreciated Sunday’s victory as much, if not more, than anyone else.
He spent part of the week looking through old clips of the last time the Bucs won the Super Bowl, during the 2002 season. He saw franchise greats such as Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. They had a special place in history and he wanted the same for himself. Sunday he got it.
“The feeling is indescribable,” he said. “It’s everything you dream of as a kid to play this game at a high level. To be called a world champ, you go down in history as one of the best teams to ever play this game. You’ve got to put that at the end of my name every time now: Lavonte David, world champion.”
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