January 26, 2021

Super Bowl Preview

JON RALPH

BETTER than Federer.

Mightier than Usain Bolt.

More decorated than Tiger Woods.

Tom Brady didn’t need another Super Bowl for NFL aficionados to believe that his stunning record of success has him comfortably perched in sport’s pantheon above the likes of Federer, Woods and Bolt.

Six Super Bowl rings from nine attempts in 20 seasons was enough of an achievement for the sport’s purists even before he left New England in the off season either by jumping ship or being walked off the plank, depending on your take on his seismic exit.

Yet as first-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brady set up the ultimate Super Bowl decider against Pat Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs on Monday by stampeding into Lambeau Field to best Aaron Rogers’ Green Bay Packers, he added a coda that removes any question marks about that sporting greatness.

Hell, he doesn’t even need to win against a Kansas City team attempting to win back to back titles, although knowing Brady he will in his unbelievable 10th Super Bowl appearance.

Already in this most remarkable of seasons he has removed the tiny nagging doubt that his greatness was due to the scheming and tactical wizardry of Bill Belichick, his coach for all those titles at the Patriots.

Now even those of us who have questioned the manner and questionable morals in which New England achieved their success can only bow down to Brady’s greatness after winning a trio of road games to get within a single victory of another title.

So here we are with the Super Bowl everyone wanted but didn’t dare to believe we would even get to given the extraordinary toll of COVID in America.

A match-up of delicious proportions, with Brady already the sport’s GOAT and Mahomes the only player in the competition who you would give odds that might one day catch him, no matter how long they would be.

It came after an epic weekend of championship football, with Kansas’ glorious exhibition of offensive football overpowering the Buffalo Bills in a 38-24 thumping that saw Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and the game’s best tight end in Travis Kelce all explode when it mattered most.

Mahomes was never flustered despite a 0-9 deficit, a bout of turf toe and a concussion only days earlier, his three-touchdown, 325-yard masterglass no less watchable for the reality that he is capable of that high level most weeks.

Tyreek Hill’s nine-catch, 172-yard performance and Kelce’s 13 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns meant Kansas City never faltered despite the early deficit, with a defence that is a competition-worst in restricting scores twice holding Buffalo to critical stops.

Mahomes’ turf toe is the kind of injury that sounds innocuous but has robbed players of athleticism and mobility, yet he barely missed a beat.

Stepping back under centre after back-up Chad Henne’s heroics last week, he put together yet another statement game that shows if he might never achieve Brady’s record, he will remain the NFL’s most watchable player for the next decade.

Andy Reid’s only concern for the day was starting left tackle Eric Fisher’s achilles injury, with the star widely seen as the member of the offensive line KC cannot afford to lose.

To the winner go the spoils.

For Brady and Tampa Bay, three interceptions against Green Bay barely caused a ripple against a late costly penalty and a decision to kick a field goal instead of go for a fourth and goal at a critical stage of the contest.

The penalty in a game where the referees held the flags all day sealed the deal, as a holding call on Green Bay defender Kevin King with 101 seconds remaining for a line-ball jumper tug ending the contest.

In a game where only six penalties were called even Aaron Rogers labelled it a bad call.

Yet Green Bay’s wounds were self-inflicted, with coach Matt LeFleur deciding against a fourth-and-eight attempt with an eight-point deficit and 2.09m left on the clock.

You know the script – Green Bay kicked the field goal and Brady found a way to run out the clock courtesy of that key penalty despite the Packers’ three time-outs and the two-minute warning.

Afterwards MVP favourite Rogers admitted his future was up in the air despite his sublime season given the franchise’s decision to draft replacement quarterback Jordan Love in the first round despite four seasons on his contract.

Despite all of the cards stacked in Green Bay’s favour – home field, Rogers’ phenomenal quarterback play, those three turnovers – Brady still found a way home.

He has been beaten three times before in Super Bowls – twice by Eli Manning and once when Philadelphia played the perfect game full of trick plays, outrageous risks and a quarterback in Nick Foles who had all the stars align.

Manning’s twin Super Bowl victories over New England are harder to explain – including tearing down the Patriots’ tilt at a perfect undefeated season.

Yet no one will be surprised if Mahomes usurps Brady and co. in a fortnight at Tampa, even given the home-turf advantage. Mahomes, literally in kindergarten when Brady played in his first Super Bowl in 2002, already has a CV from the gods. As a Super Bowl victor with an MVP performance in that contest as well as two AFC titles at only 25, he also has one left-field achievement – he has never been beaten by more than one possession in an NFL game.

So expect this one to be a barn-burner, Brady forced to push the envelope to keep up with Kansas’ scoring rate but with a defence that buried New Orleans and then sacked Rogers five times on Monday.

His 40-touchdown regular season just kept on getting better, and no one can quantify the home field advantage because no one has ever done it before in a Super Bowl.

Raymond James Stadium is hosting its third Super Bowl and the fortnight ahead would normally be one of the most rollocking in NFL history. This time the contest itself will have to make up for the lack of a full house and mad tailgating antics that are synonymous with the Super Bowl.

At home, I will be watching aware both outcomes have their own compelling narrative, with one eye on the game and another on the vaccination statistics in California.

The contest will mark the 12-month countdown to the 2022 Super Bowl at So Fi Stadium in Inglewood, California. A posse of friends and I have every intention of making that trip for another incredible Los Angeles adventure.

Brady’s greatness against Federer’s legacy is a much better drip-tray discussion than American politics, and surely by February 2022 we will be on a plane to the City of Angeles.

There is every chance we will see Mahomes strutting his stuff on track for a Super Bowl three peat.

But given the durability and freakish ability to lead his team to titles, who would bet against a 44-year-old Tom Brady bidding for his third title in four seasons and eighth overall, the same number as Bellichick across his entire NFL career.

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