After a season truly like no other, there could only be one champion left standing. In 2021, that champion was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who, led by Tom Brady and a suffocating defense, dethroned the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in front of the Buccaneers’ home fans. Members of The Daily Californian’s sports staff share their takeaways from the 2021 Super Bowl.
What was the biggest play or moment of the game?
Kabir Rao: Going into halftime, Tampa Bay led Kansas City 21-6. Everyone seemed to think that the stage was set for another Patrick Mahomes-led offensive onslaught and come-from-behind victory. After all, two scores should have been light work for the Chiefs, and when they marched down the field for a field goal on their opening second-half drive, a shift in momentum felt inevitable. But the Buccaneers weren’t having it. Brady responded by orchestrating a 74-yard drive, Tampa Bay’s second-longest scoring drive of the day. The gut punch was a 27-yard touchdown run that looked all too easy for Leonard Fournette. It was a perfect demonstration of the Buccaneers’ dominance at the line of scrimmage. By taking almost four minutes off the clock and keeping the ball out of Mahomes’ hands while also extending its lead late into the third quarter, Tampa Bay executed its game plan to a T and crushed any chance of another Kansas City miracle.
Will Cooke: The questionable pass interference call on Tyrann Mathieu right before Antonio Brown’s touchdown catch in the second quarter demoralized Kansas City. Of course, had Mathieu not committed pass interference, Brady would still have had second-and-goal at the 9-yard line to work with, and the Bucs may very well have scored anyway. But it was the reaction the call elicited from Mathieu, the leader of the Chiefs’ defense, that turned the tide against Kansas City. Heading into the locker room, Mathieu was still in a rage, and the Chiefs were down 21-6. While it seemed a second-half Mahomes master class was possible, the energy surrounding the defense was less than ideal. Once Mathieu lost his swagger, Kansas City had little chance of keeping the game within reach.
Ethan Moutes: I hate to pile on punters because they have perhaps the most thankless job in the NFL, but Tommy Townsend’s 29-yard punt with 9:09 remaining in the second quarter felt like the kiss of death for Kansas City. The Chiefs had stuffed Ronald Jones II inches from the goal line on the Buccaneers’ previous possession, and while Mahomes couldn’t put together much of a drive, he at least managed to give the punting crew some breathing room with a 14-yard pass to Tyreek Hill. On fourth-and-8 from Kansas City’s 17-yard line, Townsend fumbled the snap but recovered the ball and sent a 56-yard punt sailing to Jaydon Mickens, who was brought down quickly at the Tampa Bay 30-yard line. But wait! For neither the first nor last time, the Chiefs were called for a costly penalty — in this case, a hold. Townsend kicked again, and while he handled the snap perfectly this second time around, he shanked the kick, and Brady took over from the Chiefs’ 38-yard line. From that moment on, the Buccaneers were in control.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: It’s hard to say what the exact turning point of a 31-9 route is. Nothing about a 22-point margin is entertaining (unless you rooted for the Bucs), nor does it result in key plays or moments. But things truly ended for Kansas City at the beginning of the fourth quarter. With 13:43 left in the game, the Chiefs needed to convert a fourth down in the red zone. Flushed from the pocket, Mahomes was forced to make a relatively insane throw into the end zone. A touchdown heave while flying parallel to the ground was turned down by the football gods, and Mahomes’ last-ditch pinpoint pass fell incomplete. The score never changed after Kansas City turned the ball over on downs. With less than a quarter left to play, the deficit became truly insurmountable.
What is your key takeaway from this game?
KR: In a league that slowly seems to be prioritizing offensive firepower over defensive strength, the Buccaneers won their championship with a defensive master class for the ages. Tampa Bay had its hands full with the NFL’s No. 1 offense, and yet defensive coordinator Todd Bowles schemed up one of the best games of his career and kept Kansas City out of the end zone. Few teams have performed that well against Mahomes and the Chiefs over the last three seasons. After Hill torched the Buccaneers for 269 receiving yards and three touchdowns earlier this season, Bowles’ defense adjusted and held the speedster to just 73 receiving yards Sunday. This game proved that even as the NFL becomes an offense-driven league, the key to a championship run is still a balanced roster. Trying to outscore the other team isn’t a surefire recipe for success — defense still matters.
WC: The hero storyline trumps all others, and worryingly so. Yes, Brady was a huge factor in the Buccaneers’ success this season, but to attribute anything more than a quarter of the team’s success to him is just lazy analysis. Even Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, cannot will a team to victory (although, based on postgame stories, someone with no knowledge of football might believe he did). Even Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl champion, could not make Tampa Bay boast the best run defense in the NFL, which limited the Chiefs to 107 yards rushing and forced Mahomes to throw the ball 49 times. Discussions about team sports have devolved into petty contests about wins, silverware and stars. But sports have always been more nuanced, and those debates must reflect that.
EM: An offense is only as good as its line. Mahomes played his heart out, escaping the pocket to make awkward throws and pick up first downs with his legs, but the play of his banged-up offensive line limited him to an unprecedented extent. Without former Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher, the 2020 Super Bowl MVP was forced to get the ball out of his hands fast as the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh collapsed the pocket around him. With Mahomes under constant duress, the Chiefs’ offense never managed to find the end zone — a first in Mahomes’ time at the helm — or any semblance of a rhythm.
JKS: Perhaps the most important takeaway is Brady’s continued relevance. Love him or hate him, Brady’s influence and ability at the age of 43 is the football equivalent of Julius Caesar winning a modern presidential election. No one is supposed to be this good for this long, yet Brady is. There’s no reason to think a Buccaneers squad built on a solid defense can’t be back next season, and there’s even less reason to think the Chiefs won’t make another run. Both Mahomes and Brady showed that they are great and that they still have more to offer.
What does this game mean for the future of the NFL’s landscape?
KR: Even though the Buccaneers hail from the NFC, this year’s playoff bracket proves that the league’s power has shifted to the AFC. Along with Mahomes, much of the promising quarterback talent is concentrated in the AFC. Perhaps, as Brady did this past offseason, more quarterbacks (Deshaun Watson, anyone?) will migrate to the NFC as Drew Brees and others call it quits. And speaking of signal-callers, this game had major implications for the “greatest of all time” conversation. As of now, Brady is the definitive GOAT. While there was belief Mahomes could catch him, a head-to-head loss to Brady on the biggest stage puts the conversation on hold for now. Keep in mind that Mahomes is just 25 years old and only getting better — when he hangs up the cleats, he could likely hold most of the NFL’s passing records. But to catch Brady, he will need to capture six more rings — assuming Brady does not win any more — and that will become increasingly hard as he moves off of his rookie contract. It is premature to try to predict how these two players will stack up 10 years from now, but it appears we may have another LeBron James versus Michael Jordan argument on our hands.
WC: We’ll likely see more and more superstars join other superstar players to make a championship run (a la Kevin Durant joining the 2016 Golden State Warriors). As soon as Brady announced that he would join the Bucs last year, talks of big names joining him in the Sunshine State began. A retired Rob Gronkowski, who perhaps was spiraling due to a dearth of parties, flew down to Tampa. Brown, one of only two players since 2014 to have more touchdown catches than Mike Evans, joined Evans on the Bucs in October. Fournette, a former top-four pick and just the third player ever to score a touchdown in four straight games in the same postseason, jumped on the Brady train too. Brady may be an anomaly, but superteams may be the wave of the future.
EM: This game offered very few implications for the future. It represented the postponement — if not cancellation — of a Chiefs dynasty and the continuation of Brady’s dominance, the likes of which has never been seen in football. If the 2021 Super Bowl said anything about the future, it’s merely that the future hasn’t arrived yet. What we saw wasn’t a passing of the torch from Brady to Mahomes but rather Brady holding the torch above his head while the Bucs’ defensive line pinned a wriggling Mahomes to the floor. We’re still waiting for the NFL power vacuum upon Brady’s retirement or for Mahomes to best him in a meaningful matchup. So what did we learn from the 2021 Super Bowl? That Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time. But we already knew that.
JKS: When Bruce Arians hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, he thanked his family. Then, he turned to his coaching staff and players. “This is your trophy. I didn’t do a damn thing.” It seems bizarre, but this Super Bowl could signal a shift to increasing player power. Arians was using a bit of hyperbole — he’s an NFL head coach, and he did do a thing, but he has a point. His players won the game, and a few of the most important of those players brazenly forced their way to the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay just won a chip with a leading passer, rusher and receiver who played for different teams last season or didn’t play at all. If some middle-aged dude from San Mateo can just change teams and stomp the league, why shouldn’t other players follow suit? Now Brady isn’t just some dude, but key players in the 2021 Super Bowl such as Fournette and Brown clashed with their previous teams and now have a ring to show for it. The Buccaneers do have a plethora of homegrown talent, but they may have opened up Pandora’s box. If you’re a great football player, why shouldn’t you control your own destiny?
What is your way-too-early 2022 Super Bowl prediction?
KR: Chiefs 27, Rams 23
WC: Packers 30, Bills 17
EM: Chiefs 37, Packers 20
JKS: Bills 26, Rams 17