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Our Guide To Super Bowl LV

After an NFL season unlike any other, the Super Bowl is finally here. And, true to form for Pandemic Sports™, it’s given us a surprisingly unsurprising matchup between Patrick Mahomes’s Kansas City Chiefs and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We’ll be breaking the game down using our Elo ratings, which track how well each team is currently playing (with adjustments for the quality of each starting quarterback), and also by identifying the facets of the game in which each team was best — and worst — according to ESPN’s expected points added1 (EPA) this season. Here is our guide to the good, the bad and the must-see this Super Sunday:

Tale of the tape: No. 1 Kansas City vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay

6:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Kansas City Category Tampa Bay
16-2 Record 14-5
5th Schedule strength 4th
1757 Elo w/ top QB 1700
1st League rank 3rd
Patrick Mahomes Starting QB Tom Brady
1st QB Elo rank 8th
3rd QB’s supporting cast 2nd
21st Avg. QB Elo defense* 7th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Pass defense
Run defense Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
53.4% 538 forecast 46.6%

*Measures the team’s average ability to suppress opposing QBs’ Elo performance this season.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The big strength-on-strength matchup of this Super Bowl involves Mahomes and a K.C. passing offense that ranks No. 1 in schedule-adjusted EPA this season against a Tampa Bay defense that ranks No. 4 in EPA against the pass. The Chiefs got the better of that battle back in Week 12, with Mahomes torching the Bucs for 462 yards2 and a 124.7 passer rating (as Tyreek Hill racked up an incredible 269 receiving yards and three scores on 13 catches). Needless to say, Tampa can ill afford a repeat of that performance Sunday — but it did better in two contests against a comparably great passing offense, that of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, while the Chiefs were not quite as dominant passing3 against the similarly great passing defenses of Miami and New Orleans in Weeks 14 and 15.


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Virtually no defense can truly stop Mahomes for 60 minutes, but even just slowing him down would give the Bucs a real chance to win. The biggest concern for Tampa Bay might be whether its blitz-heavy style on defense (39 percent of pass plays, which ranks fourth among all teams this season) will be an asset or a liability against Mahomes, who is lighting up blitzing opponents for a Total QBR of 96.4 this season — the best mark in the NFL. The Buccaneers were able to pressure Rodgers 21 times en route to their NFC championship victory, 10 coming as a result of blitzes. But will that have the same effect against K.C.? Mahomes is the league’s best passer (75.6 QBR) under pressure — because of course he is — and is even more dangerous outside the pocket (91.5 QBR) than in it (81.9), so the Bucs’ defenders have their work cut out for them no matter what they throw at him. Still, the ability to get in Mahomes’s face is associated with a big drop in accuracy even after accounting for the particulars of the throw. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes completes unpressured passes at a rate 2.3 percentage points higher than expected; his completion rate dips to 7.9 points below expected while under pressure. That offers hope to Tampa Bay — particularly since its defense ranks eighth in generating pressure (28 percent of pass plays) without the aid of the blitz.

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Beyond the headline battle, it’s worth watching how the Bucs plan to attack the Chiefs’ defense using Brady and company. After shutting down Josh Allen and the high-powered Bills offense in the AFC title game, Kansas City’s D ranks a respectable 10th in EPA against the pass — which stacks up solidly against Tampa’s No. 4 offensive ranking through the air. The Chiefs also have the league’s best pressure defense, getting to the QB on 36 percent of pass plays, while Brady has one of the league’s biggest QBR drop-offs when pressured this season. And it’s not as though the Bucs are primed to attack K.C.’s biggest defensive weakness: Although the Chiefs rank 30th out of 32 teams against the run in EPA, Tampa Bay’s rushing attack ranks just 23rd this season, with top rushers Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in the Bucs’ win over Green Bay.

Because of those tactical advantages, we might expect the Chiefs to be clear favorites over the Buccaneers on Sunday. Yet, the consensus in Vegas has Kansas City as just 3-point favorites, while our model gives K.C. a slim 53 percent chance of winning. It’s not really because Tampa is hosting the Super Bowl: Home field hasn’t been worth much in the NFL during this strange season. Instead, the Bucs’ argument probably rides on some combination of Brady Magic — he is the NFL’s all-time leader in playoff comebacks and game-winning drives, after all — and some other important indicators. Because K.C. spent most of the second half of the regular season squeaking out close wins, Tampa Bay actually has the better points-per-game differential this season (including playoffs), +8.4 to +7.2,4 and ranks higher in both total EPA and Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric. But just the same, it’s hard to bet against Mahomes, particularly when the X’s and O’s appear to favor his side too. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -1

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Footnotes

  1. Adjusted for strength of schedule by comparing an opponent’s EPA performance against the team in question with how it played against every other team on its schedule.

  2. Including 359 by halftime.

  3. With “only” 3.9 passing EPA per game, rather than 17.7.

  4. K.C. pulls ahead if we remove its Week 17 loss with backups starting, but only slightly (+8.6 to +8.4).

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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