By Paul HighamBBC Sport
Last updated on .From the section American Football
|Venue: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay Date: Sunday, 7 February Start: 23:30 GMT|
|Live coverage: Watch on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer and online; Listen to commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live; Live text and in-play clips on the BBC Sport website and app.|
It’s a fitting finale to the most unique of NFL seasons and the blockbuster game that everyone wanted to see, as the widely-recognised greatest of all time Tom Brady takes on arguably the greatest talent of his generation in Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl 55.
In these Covid times Sunday’s showpiece match between Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs will be very different off the field, but promises to be a classic on it.
But will Brady or Mahomes be celebrating at the end? Who else could influence the game? And how will the coaches try to outwit each other?
The GOAT versus the Baby GOAT?
Brady, 43, has rolled back the years in his first season at the Bucs to get them to their second Super Bowl and what will be an incredible 10th appearance personally.
A winner six times with the New England Patriots, Brady is considering playing until he’s at least 45, and that seems highly likely given he has looked at his best this season, with his 4,633 passing yards the fifth most of his career and crucially the 34 passes of 20 yards or more the most he has ever thrown – showing that his arm is as strong as ever.
While Brady is eyeing a seventh Super Bowl ring, Mahomes is looking for his second and to make the Chiefs the first team to defend their Super Bowl title since Brady himself with the Patriots 17 years ago.
There’s the largest age gap between quarterbacks (18 years and 45 days) in Super Bowl history and in terms of styles they’re polar opposites.
Mahomes is a dazzling mover, a creative passer capable of no-look throws and sidearm strikes, while Brady is the cerebral pocket passer who studies defences at the line and decides where to attack before the ball even gets into his hands.
What binds these two modern greats, even at opposite ends of their careers, is their sheer desire to win that extends off the field and into every training session of every day throughout the season.
Brady has always put winning ahead of ego, of passing numbers, and even of zeros on his contract at times, and Mahomes is aiming to emulate Brady in that as much as his unfathomable success, to join the true elite of American sport.
“If you look at guys like Tom, Michael (Jordan), Kobe (Bryant), LeBron (James), A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), all these special guys, at the end of the day you see their work ethic and drive to win is just different than everybody else’s,” said Mahomes.
“That’s what makes them special, and hopefully I can try to do whatever I can to have that same work ethic and drive in my career.”
A Super Bowl like no other
Coronavirus restrictions have taken some of the fizz out of what may have been the most hyped-up Super Bowl of all time – Mahomes versus Brady with the Buccaneers being the first team to play in a home Super Bowl, but it’s on the low-key side for obvious reasons.
The regular media free-for-all has been done politely via video conferences, with mute buttons being a welcome addition for some, while the Chiefs have remained in Kansas City throughout the week and flew in at the weekend. Whether that calms nerves and helps them treat it as a normal game remains to be seen.
The NFL have limited attendance to 22,000 fans inside Raymond James Stadium, including 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers who have been invited as a show of gratitude for their work during the pandemic. Traditional Super Bowl parties and fan gatherings around the city have also been scratched or limited as a precaution.
An eagerly-anticipated half-time show will feature The Weeknd, who insisted there would be no surprise guests and said the stage for his performance has been built “within the stadium” for safety reasons.
History will also be made on the sidelines as Sarah Thomas becomes the first woman to officiate in the Super Bowl.
Strengths and weaknesses
Most pundits are expecting a thrilling shootout, with Mahomes to shine with his unorthodox throws and off-script running ability.
Around him he has speedy receivers everywhere, and probably the fastest in Tyreek Hill, who scored three touchdowns when the teams met earlier in the season.
Tight end Travis Kelce, who had his own primetime TV dating show, is a primetime player setting records as he goes, while on defence Tyrann Mathieu (known as the honey badger) is their play-maker who often seems everywhere.
The big problem for the Chiefs comes on their offensive line – the big men tasked with protecting Mahomes – as injuries mean they’ve had to re-shuffle. With Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul haranguing Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers all night in the Championship game two weeks ago, Mahomes will see a lot of those two close-up on Sunday.
For the Buccaneers, Brady has probably the best set of attacking options he’s had in his entire career, with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Cameron Brate top pass-catchers, and the outstanding tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Chiefs won 27-24 during the season, with Mahomes carving up their defence so look for Tampa Bay to try and run the ball as often as possible with Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones. Brady’s biggest strength is thinking on his feet, taking what opposition teams give him and judging just what it will take to win.
Jack Nicklaus used to figure out what score he would need to win a major and play to that, Brady has proven over the years to have a similar sense of how to get the job done.