Kansas City Chiefs @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sunday, 23:30 GMT
Live on Sky Sports NFL & BBC Two
Mahomes magic keeps Kansas machine running
As far as Super Bowl matchups go, Tom Brady vs Patrick Mahomes is pretty much the dream scenario. Brady is the most successful quarterback in playoff history, arguably the greatest of all time, but Mahomes is, undoubtedly, the contender to the Tampa man's crown.
In his three years as a starter the 25-year-old has established himself as an absolute must watch player, throwing 114 touchdowns and averaging Over 300 passing yards per game. His chemistry with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill makes him a constant threat but it is his ability to improvise that makes him almost unstoppable, consistently completing passes that few other quarterbacks would even think about attempting.
While obviously a generational talent, Mahomes certainly benefits from the freedom afforded him by the Chiefs' head coach Andy Reid. In a 21 year head coaching career, Reid is 23-5 in games where he has a week to prepare and his aggressive style will be on display yet again on Sunday.
Reid has been praised throughout his career as a dynamic coach who loves to attack, something that has been key in Kansas' run to the Super Bowl. In the Divisional round, even with Mahomes on the sideline with a concussion, the Chiefs executed a successful fourth down conversion to end the comeback hopes of the Cleveland Browns.
Reid's side followed up that performance in the AFC Championship, by going back to their bread and butter. Mahomes returned to the lineup and picked apart the Buffalo Bills with his two favourite targets. Kelce and Hill combined for 22 catches, 290 yards and two touchdowns as the Bills struggled to deal with the two biggest names in the Kansas passing game.
It is the willingness to attack that has served the Chiefs so well throughout Mahomes' tenure and that makes them even better when playing from behind. With Mahomes as starter, Kansas City are 6-1 in the playoffs trailing by at least nine points in four of those six wins.
In fact, the only loss came in an overtime defeat to the New England Patriots, a game where the Kansas offence never saw the field in the extra period.
Effectively, if Tampa Bay give Mahomes a chance to win the game late on it is very likely he will make them pay. There is a reason that last year's Super Bowl MVP is favourite to win the award again.
Hardman a potential X-factor in explosive offence
The Kansas City offence is a veritable who's who of star names. Mahomes, Hill and Kelce dominate the headlines, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a solid rookie season and is now being ably supported by Darrel Williams but it is Mecole Hardman who could be a difference maker on Sunday night.
A second year receiver from the University of Georgia, Hardman more than lives up to the nickname 'Jet' and has the ability to score from anywhere. In the AFC Championship game the 22-year-old had a mixed night, fumbling a punt return to give Buffalo a chance to score, but he bounced back almost immediately. A well designed run play saw him show off his speed, before atoning for his error with a touchdown catch to put his side back in contention.
Hardman's versatility gives him the ability to attack Tampa Bay in a number of ways, particularly as his skillset seems to match up well against Tampa's weaknesses. The 22-year-old's main role in the team is as a kick returner, and New Orleans Saints return man Deonte Harris showed that Tampa's special teams unit are susceptible to giving up big plays, but the Chiefs man will want to add to his offensive output in his second Super Bowl.
With wide receiver Sammy Watkins facing a race against time to be fit, the stage is set for Hardman to have a bigger role in the offence which bodes well for his chances.
In their three playoff games, Tampa Bay have had reasonable success at stopping their opponents number one receiving option, cornerback Carlton Davis held the talented trio of Terry McLaurin (Washington), Emmanual Sanders (New Orleans) and Davante Adams (Green Bay) to a combined 180 yards in their losses.
With Davis's success mirrored by linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White who followed opposing tight ends all over the field, both Hill and Kelce could be in for tough night and Mahomes may well look to his other options.
Unfortunately, the weak link appears to be Tampa's second corner, Sean Murphy-Bunting. The 2019 second round pick has shown a knack for interceptions, with one in each playoff game, but his aggressive technique has been attacked by every quarterback he has faced. While their teammates struggled, Cam Sims, Tre'Quan Smith and Marquez Valdes-Scantling had a combined 304 yards and three touchdowns against Murphy-Bunting.
Look for Mahomes and Hardman to connect on a number of occasions and with that in mind, Hardman's receiving line looks way too low at 28.5 yards. The youngster should cover that with ease.
Spagnuolo can continue Brady success
Offence is, undoubtedly, king in Kansas City but it is impossible to have this much success without an effective defence. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has had a long coaching career highlighted by two Super Bowl wins, last year's victory saw the Chiefs hold the 49ers to just 20 points as a familiar game plan emerged, with the defence holding their opponents at arms-length, keeping mistakes to a minimum and relying on their formidable offence to win the game. However, the first title that is perhaps more instructive.
In 2008 the New York Giants defence, under Spagnuolo's leadership, thwarted a Tom Brady led New England Patriots side and stopped their chances of an unbeaten season. This was the first of a five matchups between Brady and Spagnuolo led defences, and the defensive coordinator holds a 3-2 record in the head to head, with two of those wins coming in his time with Kansas City.
Spagnuolo's game plan involves using a number of smaller, quicker defensive lineman to attack the offensive line and target Brady's famed lack of mobility. Frank Clark and Alex Okafor certainly fit that mould and will be key to Sunday's action.
While Okafor and Clark chase Brady, and defensive tackle Derrick Nnandi is responsible for plugging the running lanes, the Chiefs secondary face a daunting task. Tyrann Mathieu and Bashaud Breeland will be required to try and stop Buccs receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin one of the most dynamic duos in the league.
The Chiefs defence will be heartened by Brady's struggles in the second half of the NFC Championship game, where he threw three interceptions, and will look to create similar chances in Tampa on their way to a title.