Super Bowl LV: Defense to Make the Difference
As intriguing as it is, Super Bowl LV is more than just Brady vs Mahomes - and the balance may just lie with the defensive coordinators. We bring you an in-depth preview and technical breakdown of what to expect and look at where the smart money can find value.
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Super Bowl LV: Game on
Super Bowl LV is in many ways a Super Bowl of contrasts.
It brings the perceived workman-like, humble nature of middle America up against the flash, sun-drenched, sun-tanned, fast-car, model lifestyle of Florida.
Two fundamental qualities that make great football players (and teams) is speed and size. On the field this weekend, these characteristics come into play in intriguing ways: For Kansas City, their strength in defense lies with their speed, while for Tampa Bay, it’s their size. On offence, that dynamic is switched, with Tampa Bay’s strength coming from their size.
Then of course, there are the Generals.
This may be a team sport, but unlike any other, one position is so much more crucial than the rest - and if either flinch in the face of the scoring power of the other, it could be over in a heartbeat.
Tom Brady has nothing left to achieve but further glory. It seems to attract itself to the man who redefined what the term means at the highest level, yet don’t underestimate his work rate and nous. He was the most high-profile free agent of all time, and teams knew if they picked him up there was a chance he’d bring them to this very podium.
And here Tampa Bay are.
For Patrick Mahomes, he’s been in three consecutive AFC title games. This is his second consecutive Super Bowl and given his age and rapid trajectory, he seems the most likely successor of Brady in terms of dominating all-time honours lists if he maintains this climb.
But these are all just numbers without context.
What Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes really are, are two different variations of playing the most complex, demanding position of any team sport in the world.
Brady has made a career out of barely being able to move in the middle of a sport that has men capable of breaking land speed records and human beings over 300lbs who can run a sub-5 second 40-yard dash.
How has he done it? Brady is a fanatic. He dreams about defensive alignments, ponders audible adjustments and eats coverage disguises for supper. His entire career has depended on him being one step ahead of whoever is in front of him, or on the opposite sideline - and it’s got him here.
Mahomes, for all that he can command an offense, relies more on extending play length and natural arm talent.
He is the antithesis of Brady and this potential passing of the torch doesn’t just represent a new figurehead, it symbolises a seismic shift in how quarterback is played in this league.
And with all that said, what if we told you that, up until this point, neither Brady nor Mahomes are the reason for the Buccaneers or the Chiefs landing in this Super Bowl to begin with?
The Coaching Trust
While the Buc’s Head Coach Bruce Arians and the Chief’s Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy are two superb schemers and understand just how to put their offenses in positions to win, their play-calling to this point in the post-season hasn’t been as innovative as people would have imagined.
The genius of these two teams actually lies with their defensive coordinators - Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles and Kansas City's Steve Spagnuolo.
Both of these men get it done in very different manners, too. The Chiefs do not possess a single above-average linebacker, but they’ve got raw speed at defensive back, a disruptive interior presence to make a quarterback move around and an MVP-calibre player in Tyrann Mathieu at safety/slot.
Tampa Bay possess the best linebacking corps in the entire league and probably the quickest, too. Lavonte David and Devin White are a track meet in their own right, and if Mahomes thinks he can dink and dunk underneath like he did against Buffalo, he’s in trouble.
Aaron Rodgers looked poor against Tampa Bay because of the lack of opportunities to throw the ball underneath rather than his accuracy letting him down. If you can’t run the ball and you can’t get quick completions from motion - like Mahomes did in the AFC title game and Brady has done his whole career - you need your big receivers to win deep downfield to open that up.
For all that Mahomes and Brady will, and have achieved, they can both be potentially handcuffed by the opposition defensive coordinator.
The ghost of Brady's past?: KC DC Steve Spagnuolo has been Brady's undoing before - in Super Bowl XLII vs the Giants.
Now how does this all translate to a betting perspective?
Super Bowl LV winner markets
Odds as quoted are correct at the time of writing, but please check the live site for the latest updates.
Money line: Kansas City Chiefs 1.62
Expect the Chiefs to play a lot of man-to-man like they’ve done all season. They’ve been able to do this because of a couple of factors, but primarily due to the fear of Tyrann Mathieu on one side of the field.
That means you almost always look away from him - which in turn gives defenders a better understanding of how to leverage their opposing receivers, and they know that should they lock them down at the line of scrimmage, the pass rush will eventually get there.
Kansas City don’t need elite pressure when they’ve got elite coverage, because one complements the other. It works the opposite way in Tampa Bay, where Antoine Winfield can act in a reactionary fashion because the opposing quarterback is often forced to dial in straight away on who he wants to get the ball to.
What Mahomes will be able to do is escape the pocket to alleviate the rush and force Tampa Bay’s corners to cover as long as the Chiefs’ unit have shown they can.
This isn’t to say that the Chiefs wouldn’t swap cornerbacks with Tampa Bay - just that they’re technicians rather than speedsters like the players Spagnuolo has at his disposal.
Green Bay’s Alan Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who combined for 177 yards in the NFC title game proved exactly that.
And Brady? Well, we’re not too sure what he can do apart from trying to craft up audibles based on defensive fronts. His best option will be to throw the ball on first down to bring up manageable rushing opportunities for Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette.
The Chiefs were dead-last in red-zone defense this year, and Brady should have no problem punching it in from close range when it comes to it, because again, Kansas City's strength is being able to cover for longer, not jamming at the line or handling large receivers in short spaces.
But getting there to begin with is the tricky part, especially as Spagnuolo possesses a shrewd IQ on how to avoid his personnel groupings being put in mismatches through motion.
Ultimately, Kansas City have more ways to move the ball - and in a game where reliance on running the football can only be deemed of secondary importance, the reigning champs look good.
Spread pick: Kansas City (-3 1.92)
Don’t expect Tampa Bay to be putting up a ton of points. It’s worth remembering how bad Brady looked against the Packers, only to be bailed out by a combination of Todd Bowles and Matt LaFleur, respectively, excelling and embarrassing themselves in equal measure.
Patrick Mahomes lost one game this season. He doesn’t lose games, almost as a rule. There are too many ways he can beat you and he possesses more guys on offense that require double-teams than anyone else in the league.
If your worry is the Chiefs’ offensive line up against three elite defensive linemen on the opposite side - Ndamukong Suh, Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul - that should be taken care of through a combination of screen passes, early-down deep shots and Mahomes moving the pocket so he can extend plays.
The Bucs won’t be able to rush Mahomes like they did Rodgers in the NFC game, and pending the health of his toe - which by all accounts is fine - he should be able to hit 30 points comfortably enough, even with his quick release options at the line of scrimmage eliminated by quick linebacking.
If Brady gets tight man-to-man coverage, he’ll sky throws like he did against Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander, and the game could be over by the end of the third quarter.
Totals: Under 55.5 points (1.95)
The Chiefs should comfortably put up 30 points, and they should be in a position to run the clock easily enough with the ball back in their hands.
It’s almost counter-intuitive because if scores come here, we expect it to be via long passes and red-zone runs rather than anything else, but there’ll be an entire quarter that’s going to feature situational football, as the Super Bowl always does, and teams won’t be trying to score on every drive like they will be in the first half.
Another convenient tie-in for this Under selection is Andy Reid often throwing the first series just to see what the opposition do in response to certain motions and packages.
There’ll be plays sacrificed for little more than misdirection and disguise. And with fewer plays intent on scoring, that should aid this market option.
As this is one of the elite betting events of the year, we at Cloudbet are providing a staggering array (close to 400!) of specials markets for you to ponder. We previewed some earlier, but here are some more to consider.
Based on the tendencies we predict, the following should prove good value if you’re looking for a shrewd investment.
Chief’s Travis Kelce to score first TD
There’s every chance Kelce gets motioned out in man looks so he can go vertical against either David, Winfield or White - and if the Chiefs get a single-high look, don’t be shocked to see Kelce run a rare go route against single coverage on the outside.
On top of that, there’s Kansas City's craft in the red zone that frequently utilises their east-to-west speed as a decoy to get Kelce right over the middle for shovel passes and sit routes.
He’s the primary target when it comes to scores and, much like peak-era Gronkowski, there’s nothing much you can do about it.
He’s favoured at 7.64, with Tyreek Hill right behind him at 8.24 to score the first TD.
Travis Kelce: Over 98.5 Receiving Yards
He’s truly impossible to cover. We can’t phrase it more succinctly than that - and no matter what amount of jam you place on him at the line, he’ll eventually become unstuck with clever play design, taking advantage of the space opened up for him by Tyreek Hill’s speed and his clever knack of finding soft spots in zones.
We don’t like the term “undefendable”, but unless the Bucs want to be taken to the cleaners by Hill on the outside all day, they’re going to have to surrender frequent receptions to Kelce and hope he has an off-day.
Which he won’t.
Total sacks: Under 4.5
If the Bucs wish to contain Mahomes, the only way they can do so effectively is by limiting his movement outside the pocket. This means sending fewer blitzes and just playing spies - which are defensive players simply given the role of keeping an eye on the quarterback. Their job isn’t to try and sack him, but rather to read his eyes and anticipate; stopping him in his tracks if he wants, or needs, to scramble.
With Brady, he’ll be well versed in throwing the ball away in situations where sacks look likely. Kansas City possess one of the best third-down-and-long stop rates in the NFL from a defensive perspective and the widely anointed GOAT won’t put them in those situations by taking sacks.
Aaron Rogers feels the Bucs' heat in the NFC title game.
Second Half Total: Under 27.5 points
The logic for this selection lies with the fact that Kansas City, who we presume at this stage will have a healthy lead, will lean more on converting rather than scoring - chewing clock time and letting their methodical nature starve Tom Brady of seconds on the clock.
Even if Tampa Bay do see a lot of the ball in the second half, the Chiefs will likely implement deep coverages - prevent defenses like Cover 4, or Cover 3 Man Under to avoid the big plays downfield. If scores come in the second half, we suspect they’ll be few and far between as Mahomes is 31-0 when leading at half-time, largely due to the fact that opposition quarterbacks make mistakes when feeling the pinch to keep up with him.
Super Bowl MVP
Unsurprisingly, the odds on MVP are led by the QBs and the Chief’s star players: Mahomes at 1.94, Brady at 2.86, Tyreek Hill at 11.0 and Travis Kelce at 11.7.
But we’ve spent a lot of time in this preview talking about defence.
Given Spagnuolo’s brilliance in dethroning Brady with the Giants over 10 years ago, it could be a wise play for value’s sake to side with a Chiefs defender.
For all the attention the Chiefs’ offensive weapons get, their defense is performing above themselves - and they possess the smartest defender in the game in Tyrann Mathieu. His ability to snuff out quick passes, disrupt in the run game, and even pressure the quarterback, means he’ll be flashing all over your screen time and time again.
Only two of the last seven MVPs have been defensive players, but we wouldn’t be totally shocked to see the Honey Badger come away with it.
And at odds of 70.5, sealing that deal may well feel like winning the Super Bowl yourself...
Strap in for a hell of a game.
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