The wait is almost over, football fans. We are just days away from watching one of the most highly anticipated Super Bowls in NFL history, as the Kansas City Chiefs are set to square off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There are so many storylines for this game. As a football writer, this is just a dream matchup. As also a fan of the game, I can’t think of a more compelling battle.
The biggest storyline of the last few weeks heading into the game is, of course, the quarterbacks. We have the GOAT in Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady facing what many consider to be the most talented quarterback in league history in Patrick Mahomes. This matchup of two truly legendary quarterbacks is what football fans deserve, and it’s even sweeter that we get this treat in a year that has been marred by COVID-19. If Brady wins, it just cements his legacy even more, which is saying something as he is already widely considered to be the greatest football player of all time. Winning a Super Bowl at the age of 43, in his first year playing with a new team, and against the defending world champs would arguably be the greatest accomplishment by a player in sports history.
If the Chiefs win, the conversation quickly becomes just how many Super Bowls will it take for Mahomes to pass Brady as the GOAT, and how many Super Bowl wins until this becomes one of the best dynasties in sports. With a win Sunday, Mahomes' first three seasons as a starter would include two Super Bowl wins, a regular season MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, and a narrow loss in the AFC Championship Game.
We know that with these two talented passers, this game will be a high-scoring affair. Both of these offenses ranked near the top in every statistical category, and this game actually marks the first time in Super Bowl history that the first- and second-ranked passing offenses will face each other in the game. With Mahomes and Brady throwing to weapons like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski, it's no surprise that these teams air the ball out all over the yard—and that definitely should continue in the Super Bowl.
While these two offenses do most of their damage through the air, they are both still formidable on the ground. Kansas City’s rushing attack was led for most of the year by rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Edwards-Helaire finished the season with 181 carries for 803 yards and four touchdowns while missing three games in the season (including the final two games) due to ankle and hip injuries. Edwards Helaire missed the Chiefs' first playoff game against the Cleveland Browns, but returned in a limited role against the Buffalo Bills. In Edwards-Helaire’s absence, back-up running back Darrel Williams has picked up the slack. Williams has come on strong for the Chiefs this postseason rushing for 130 yards and one rushing touchdown along with 25 receiving yards through the Chiefs’ two playoff games. Both players figure to see action in the Super Bowl and could split touches evenly.
Similarly, Tampa Bay’s leading regular season rusher and leading postseason rusher are two different players. Running back Ronald Jones enjoyed a breakout season this year, rushing for 978 yards and seven touchdowns on 192 carries. However, due to a fractured finger suffered in Week 14, as well as being placed on the COVID/Reserve list, Jones had to miss Weeks 15 and 16. He also essentially missed the Buccaneers' wild-card game against the Washington Football Team with a quad injury, opening the door for backup running back Leonard Fournette to get some run. Fournette more than seized his opportunity as his 132 total yards and one score were a big reason why Tampa Bay beat Washington. Jones wound up playing in both the divisional and conference championship rounds but took a bit of a backseat to Fournette and was outproduced in both contests.
This game will likely be won through the air—there isn’t really an argument that these two teams aren't at their best when they are passing the ball down the field—but I wouldn't be shocked to see one of these four running backs have a major impact on this game. We have seen this before in Super Bowls where a running back has a huge impact even though the quarterbacks are the stars. I remember back in 2006 in Super Bowl 40, Willie Parker altered the course of the football game as he exploded for a 75-yard touchdown run to give the Steelers a 14-3 lead. Parker wound up with 93 yards on the ground with the Steelers winning 21-10. Just last year with this same Chiefs team, we saw Damien Williams have a huge performance in the Super Bowl, rushing for 104 yards with 38 of those yards coming on a game-sealing touchdown run.
Even amidst a slew of pass-catching playmakers, these four running backs can certainly have their moments in this football game. The question is, which one will have the greatest impact on Sunday?
The answer to this question to me is none other than Leonard Fournette (aka #PlayoffLenny). Fournette has looked like a different player this postseason and has been running with something to prove. After playing second fiddle to Jones all season and being somewhat of a laughingstock among NFL media, Fournette is taking out his frustrations on opposing defenses in the playoffs. He has rushed for 211 yards and two touchdowns and has added 102 yards and one touchdown through the air. Fournette is running with a lot more urgency, looks a step or two quicker, and is delivering punishment upon contact.
I also believe Fournette was the easy choice because Tampa has been running the ball well this postseason, rushing for 115 yards per game, while the Chiefs defense has allowed 120 yards per game on the ground this postseason. Tampa will be able to move the ball on the ground Sunday, and I believe that is something they will try and do in an effort to minimize the number of possessions Mahomes and Co. have on offense. The Chiefs, on the other hand, know they don’t really need to run the football and are more than OK throwing the football 80% of the time because, for the most part, no team can stop them through the air. Additionally, Tampa Bay’s run defense is amongst the league's best, so it’ll be harder for Edwards-Helaire and Williams to get things going.
In the nine games that Fournette has touched the ball 10 or more times, the Buccaneers are 9-0. I believe Fournette will be a factor not just running the ball, but catching passes out of the backfield—a skill he has proven to be better at than Jones. Fournette will be counted on in a big way Sunday, and for a guy who was cut by the Jaguars before the season, been called a bust, and mocked for his lack of production, I can’t help but root for him.