The Super Bowl Nobody Thought Could Happen: A Debriefing of the 2021 NFL Playoffs

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Tom Brady (Buccaneers) vs. Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs). Who will come out on top? Image by Peter Mahler.

Peter Mahler, Sports Editor

Before last September, the idea that a full NFL season could take place without a COVID-19 bubble seemed impossible. The playoffs were largely an afterthought. Despite all of the virus-induced postponements and controversies, the NFL managed to pull together a season like no other. 

Now that January football has arrived, it’s time to take a look at the 14 playoff teams that have competed for a spot in Super Bowl LV.

In the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs secured their second number-one seed in three years, propelling them to the only bye week for their respective conference.

This offseason, the NFL made the first major change in playoff alignment since 2002 by switching to 14 playoff teams, two more than the original format. 

Previously, the top two teams in each conference received a bye week in the playoffs, which is essentially a one-week break as the other teams in the wild-card rounds compete to play them in the following round. With a seventh team, however, this reduces the bye to only the number-one-seeded team.

Led by young quarterback guru Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs posted the best record in the league at 14-2. Their high-flying offense is one of the main reasons for the Chiefs’ recent success as they attempt to defend their championship title.

Though the Chiefs’ offense has consistently been one of the most unstoppable in the league, they are not the only team that has been a nightmare for opposing teams to defend.

The top team in the NFC was the 13-3 Green Bay Packers, a team that dominated opponents with an onslaught of offensive firepower. 

Veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers made his case for winning MVP as he posted his career best in touchdowns and led the league in passer rating for the third time in his career. 

At 37 years old, Rodgers tossed 48 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions, a ratio that very few players in NFL history can boast. He became the first player in the league’s long history to throw 40-plus touchdowns in three separate seasons.

In addition, Rodgers had some of the best offensive weapons in the league in wide receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones, two young talents who combined for nearly 2,500 total yards and 27 touchdowns. 

Another team that mounted tons of points on opposing defenses was the Tennessee Titans, who won the AFC South for the first time since 2008 behind the fierce running of Derrick Henry’s 2,027 rushing yards. Henry became just the eighth running back in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards rushing in a season, and he sits just behind Hall of Fame Lions running back Barry Sanders in that category. 

Henry also added to his wild statline by becoming the first running back to lead the league in rushing for two consecutive seasons since Chargers legend LaDainian Tomlinson back in 2007.

Of all of the strange things to happen in 2020, perhaps the most wild was the Buffalo Bills overthrowing the New England Patriots as champions of the AFC East to earn their first division title in 25 years. 

The 13-3 Bills posted the most successful season in over two decades as their third-year quarterback Josh Allen made strides toward becoming one of the most lethal and accurate passers in the league. Allen broke numerous records in passing for the Bills franchise, namely passing touchdowns and passing yards.

The Bills also made a risky offseason trade for Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, a talented route-runner who had been experiencing conflict within the Minnesota locker room.

Though the trade could have potentially caused a rift within the tightly knit Bills team, it has easily been one of the best trades in recent memory. Diggs has become the only Bills wide receiver ever to lead the league in both receptions and receiving yards, instantly becoming Josh Allen’s favorite target to throw to.

In response to this newfound renaissance in Buffalo, Bills fans, aptly named “The Bills Mafia,” have been ecstatic.

“I was shocked,” said junior Rachel Harris, whose father is a longtime member of The Bills Mafia. “It was really cool to see how excited my dad got when watching the games and realize that we actually had a chance of going all the way this year.”

“He is one of the players that represents the future of Buffalo,” continued Harris, with regards to the emergence of Diggs as one of the best receivers in the game. For her, the dynamic duo of Allen and Diggs is a “chef’s kiss.”

The Bills offense, along with their already very stellar defense look poised to bring the city of Buffalo their first Super Bowl championship. After outlasting a hungry Indianapolis Colts team to win their first playoff game in 25 years, the Bills stifled the fiery Baltimore Ravens offense by holding them to just a field goal. Not even the reigning-MVP, Lamar Jackson, could overcome The Bills Mafia.

Another exciting moment in NFL history took place when the Cleveland Browns clinched their first playoff berth in 18 years. 

Those 18 long years proved to be harsh for Cleveland fans as they watched their team win only four games in a three year stretch from 2015 to 2017, becoming the second team in NFL history to go 0-16 during their dubious 2017 season, joining the ranks of the 2008 Detroit Lions as some of the biggest catastrophes to step onto a football field. 

With that being said, Cleveland fans no longer have to think about those awful years after going 11-5 in their rookie head coach’s first season. Kevin Stefanski, formerly a longtime Vikings assistant coach, has inserted himself into the conversation of winning Coach of the Year.
Though Browns fans had a lot to be excited about, it was just their luck when Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19 just before their first playoff game. This meant that the Browns would be without their head coach as they attempted to dethrone the AFC North champion Steelers.

The Browns’ neighboring archrival enjoyed a fantastic start to the season, going eleven games without a loss due to their elite defensive front.

T.J. Watt, an outside linebacker for the Steelers defense, led the league in tackles for loss as well as quarterback sacks, and is widely considered the favorite to win Defensive Player Of The Year.

However, near the tail end of the season, the Steelers lost three of their final four games, two of which were to inferior teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and the Washington Football Team; this left many NFL fans skeptical of the team’s legitimacy as a contender for the Super Bowl.

Despite the hesitance that many people had for the Steelers heading into the postseason, few imagined that they would find themselves down 28 points against the Browns in Pittsburgh… in just the first quarter. 

On the very first play, Steelers veteran center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s head, leaving the ball to roll into their own end zone for the Browns to score a touchdown. Things only got worse for the Terrible Towel fans as the Browns mounted more points with their fierce running game and a few boneheaded interceptions by Roethlisberger.

In probably the most stunning upset of this postseason, the Browns crushed the Steelers 48–37, with a large number of those Steelers points coming during garbage time. It was their first postseason victory in over 25 years.

As previously mentioned, the Steelers lost to the Washington Football Team in the regular season. And although Washington has hardly been consistent in the win column after going 7-9, they were still able to win the NFC East, thus giving them their first playoff berth in five years.

Besides the 2020 election cycle, there was perhaps no bigger circus than this year’s NFC East, a division where no team held a winning record all season. 

The year was punctuated by a Week 17 Washington victory as the 4-11-1 Eagles seemingly lost the game on purpose; they took out their rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts, who, although not too successful as a passer, held the team’s only two touchdowns as a runner. 

As a result of Philly’s decision, Washington won the game, knocking the New York Giants out of the playoffs and sending themselves instead; in addition, the Eagles fired their Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson just days after the game.

Even though Washington was officially in the playoffs, they had the unlucky privilege of facing Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and although fans could not have predicted their team to win the NFC East in 2020, it seemed like a longshot that the team would win a playoff game. 

To many NFL fans’ surprise, the Football Team stayed competitive with the talented Buccaneers; Taylor Heinicke, their little-known backup quarterback who had just been studying at Old Dominion University a month ago, was able to lead Washington as they went toe to toe with Tom Brady, something that seemed like a foregone longshot. Despite the loss, Washington fans were thrilled by their team’s resilience. 

Washington is no stranger to resilience in these past few seasons. Their new head coach, Ron Rivera went through cancer treatments early in the season and was able to overcome the disease while never missing a game all season. He would take I.V. shots during halftime, a testament to his will to lead his team.

Washington also had the embodiment of all comeback stories in quarterback Alex Smith, a man who nearly lost his life in 2018 when he experienced flesh-eating viruses within his fractured leg after a gruesome season-ending injury. Just the fact that Smith was able to step onto a football field again, much less lead his team to a playoff berth, is incredible.

Washington also boasts one of the most elite pass rushes in the league with second year defensive end Montez Sweat and rookie sensation Chase Young. The two, along with a stellar group of interior defensive linemen, have instantly become some of the fiercest defenders in the league.

Even with a loss to the wild-card-Buccaneers, Washington’s season has been nothing but successful considering they won only three games in 2019.

One thing that hasn’t changed with this year’s playoffs was the annual appearance of Tom Brady– this time sporting pewter and red.

Back in the offseason, the 43-year-old quarterback left the New England Patriots to join a star-studded Tampa Bay team looking to make the playoffs, something they had not done in more than a decade.

Despite some early struggles in adjusting to his new team, Brady led the Bucs past the New Orleans Saints on the way to the NFC Championship. There, they entered the frozen tundra of Green Bay where they toppled the MVP from his throne.

Brady, with his wealth of experience and knowledge within the playoffs, helped lead a young Buccaneers team to the Super Bowl, just one year removed from a 7-9 season full of disappointment. This also sent Brady to his tenth Super Bowl appearance, a feat that no player in NFL history has ever achieved.

Incredibly, the Buccaneers will be the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, as the game will be played in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

As the Buccaneers soak up the sun in the days before February 7, they must prepare for the high-octane Kansas City Chiefs, a team looking to repeat as Super Bowl champions. This will be the second postseason meeting between Brady and Mahomes, a quarterback matchup that will be highly anticipated. The veteran versus the kid. One legendary quarterback in his twilight years against the up-and-coming star.

Image by Peter Mahler.

With that being said, let’s see how these two teams stack up against one another.

 

First, there’s the NFC Champions: the aforementioned Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

The Buccaneers Offense:

Though they are led by an aging veteran at quarterback, the Bucs boast a youthful offense with a variety of talent for Brady to work with. They are surprisingly deep at wide receiver, with many key contributors like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller and even former-Steelers-wideout Antonio Brown for Brady to throw to. Brown had been out of football due to a variety of controversies on and off the field, but in his short time in Tampa, he has been able to make crucial catches in order to help his team win. Of course, Brady also has a familiar face to throw to with tight end Rob Gronkowski, his favorite target back in New England. With the running game, the Bucs have two work horses in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones, both young stars who work well when operating together. Fournette, a former first-round pick for the Jaguars, was recently acquired from Jacksonville prior to the season, and he had an outstanding postseason thus far. Jones has also been explosive whenever he’s had the opportunity to make a play. The man in charge of the offense is head coach Bruce Arians, a coach who came out of retirement in 2019 after previously coaching the Arizona Cardinals. Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” mindset with his offense results in giant plays that keep other teams on their toes; playing conservatively is definitely not in the playbook for this team. In order to beat the Chiefs, the Bucs will likely need to outscore them, a feat that not many teams have been able to do this year. However, the Bucs certainly have the offensive firepower to potentially do that.

The Buccaneers Defense:

Defensively, the Buccaneers perhaps pose the greatest threat to the Chiefs, as they have enough talent to go head to head with their offense. Coached by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers defense is outstanding at getting pressure on the quarterback, something that was on full display against the Packers in the NFC championship game. Aaron Rodgers was constantly under duress during the course of that game, which was one of the reasons why the Bucs were able to stop their offense. The men mounting that pressure upon the quarterback were outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, two players who are explosive at their positions. Barrett had three sacks against the Packers that day, a team that had one of the better offensive lines among the entire NFL. Pierre-Paul was just as aggressive as he had two sacks of his own. Behind Barrett and Pierre-Paul are inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White, one the most intimidating linebacker duos in all of football. David has been with the Bucs for nearly ten years and has constantly been the focal point of the team’s defense, where he has produced over a thousand tackles in his time in Tampa. White, on the other hand, is only in his second year, and he has been nothing short of productive, recording over 200 tackles already. The Buccaneers have a top-level front seven that will be able to make Patrick Mahomes uncomfortable when they meet him in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs will be missing their stalwart left tackle in Eric Fisher, a piece that they will desperately miss if they want to stop the Buccaneers’ edge rush.

As previously mentioned, the Buccaneers will face the Kansas City Chiefs, a team looking to win their second consecutive Super Bowl trophy, something that no team has done in over 15 years. 

The Chiefs Offense:

If the Super Bowl didn’t already warrant it, you might want to bring your popcorn for the Chiefs whenever their offense steps onto the field. Patrick Mahomes naturally gets most of the credit, but he alone is not the only reason this team has been ravaging opposing defenses with touchdowns. The Chiefs have some of the most explosive receivers in the game, specifically with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Although Hill may be the shortest man on the field at 5’5″, his lightning-quick speed has drawn comparisons to a cheetah, which is precisely why that is his nickname. Against the Buccaneers during the regular season, Hill burnt their cornerbacks en route to over 250 receiving yards, with a large number of those yards coming in the first quarter alone. Hill also had three receiving touchdowns to add onto his headache-inducing statline, which could potentially draw some concern for the Buccaneers defense as they meet him again on Sunday. Kelce was also unstoppable this season, recording 1,416 receiving yards, a record for a tight end. He has been Mahomes’ number-one target this year as they have connected for 11 touchdowns and 105 receptions throughout the season. The Chiefs also have rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a young weapon who, while not necessarily the flashiest player on the field, makes plays when he needs to. Darrel Williams and former Steeler Le’Veon Bell are also solid options at running back, providing the Chiefs with a well-rounded group of players for scoring on the ground if they need to. Though the Chiefs are dynamic on offense, their biggest weakness lies in their depleted offensive line. As previously stated, the Buccaneers have a potent pass rush, and protecting Mahomes from trouble could be the difference in whether Kansas City or Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ offense is led by head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, a combination of football minds that results in mind-boggling plays. Though the Buccaneers have the defensive talent to match Mahomes and the Chiefs, Reid and Bieniemy provide an unpredictable game plan that creates disaster for any opposing defense. 

The Chiefs Defense:

Although their offense deserves all the praise they get, the Chiefs defense has become a sturdy unit throughout the season due to some key playmakers across different positions. The defense’s leadership lies behind the pads of safety Tyrann Mathieu, a veteran player who signed with the team during their previous Super Bowl run. Mathieu is as talkative as he is intense, and his personality adds a fire to the team’s defense that few players ever could. Up front is defensive tackle Chris Jones, a powerful lineman who makes plays in crucial moments, particularly with stopping the run and in applying pressure on quarterbacks. The Chiefs also have a young pair of cornerbacks in Bashaud Breeland and rookie L’Jarius Sneed, both having key contributions in slowing down the Buffalo Bills offense during the AFC championship game. They held Bills wideout Stefon Diggs to a mere 20 yards in the first half, an impressive statistic considering Diggs was the league’s top receiver in that category. Though the Chiefs’ defense is not as game-breaking as the Buccaneers’ is, they can be sneaky in the ways that they disrupt opposing offenses. The key for them will be in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s game plan, as going against the greatest quarterback of all time is no easy task. Luckily for the Chiefs, Spagnuolo was one of the main reasons the New York Giants were able to upset the 16-0 Patriots back in the 2008 Super Bowl. Spagnuolo was their defensive coordinator at the time, so it will be interesting to see if he can pull off the same kind of magic for Kansas City.

The Buccaneers and Chiefs will prove to be a Super Bowl matchup full of excitement and tension. The narrative of this game will obviously lie in the two quarterbacks, Mahomes and Brady, who will face off in yet another huge game. Regardless of who wins, the game should prove to be a fitting end to one of the most bizarre NFL seasons in league history.