Welcome to Upset Watch's annual Super Bowl preview. In this article I'll cover the game trends to watch for, and give you my verdict on who will win Super Bowl LV.
This week we have plenty of Super Bowl-themed content on Pickwatch, so keep your eye out for:
- Upset Watch (which you are reading right now!)
- KC Joyner's Super Bowl pick
- Michael Schottey's keys to victory
- Our Super Bowl Round Table between, KC, Schottey and season winner, Christian d'Andrea
Announcement: MLB Pickwatch Launch Date!
This is as good a place as any to let you know that the Baseball version of Pickwatch will launch in the next 6 weeks! We've been hard at work to bring you a new improved version of Pickwatch. Our first stage is to launch our MLB site, which will cover all of the expert and fan picks that make up the bulk of our content on Pickwatch's NFL pages.
Work in Progress:
From there, we'll be offering a pro package, so you can see who picks each team best, and we'll have cash prize contests all season long.
Our NBA and NHL sites are also on the horizon, targeted for launch at the end of the year, so 2021 looks set to be our biggest yet as we expand into new sports for the first time!
Upset Watch Methodology
Here at Upset Watch, I work a little differently to other columns you may have read. By now I'm sure most of the regular readers dknow how happy I am to put aside any predisposed ideas of who will win and lose and look at games in the context of history and current form. In short, I'll pick the teams on merit, and if the underdog has any significant factors in their favor that have a statistical relevance to how they play, then we'll use that to guide our picks.
This season has been extremely strange for underdogs. Covid wrecked the collective defensive abilities of the NFL, leading to records in points and a greater emphasis on offense. It's not a coincidence that the two teams in this year's Super Bowl average around 30 points per game, as that has become pretty much the standard for playoff teams.
This season favorites won 67.8% of the time (there was a single tie), up from 66.1% last year. It's the kind of pace that makes it difficult to find upsets, but we should also be wary of not judging the biggest game of the season on merit. Ultimately, here are two teams who can clearly beat each other, and that warrants a more careful evaluation of the two teams.
As I mentioned in our AFC playoff preview, the Chiefs finished the regular season with the no.1 ranked passing attack in the NFL, but that's only half of the story.
The passing attack thrives for two reasons. First, it has an offensive line that is in sync with what it's Quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, wants to do. That's no easy task, given Mahomes's propensity to ad-lib.
The second major reason is the quality of receivers that Andy Reid has stockpiled. Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins tend to get the props, but it's Byron pringle, DeMarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman who provide the depth that sees Mahomes regularly have 8 or 9 different receivers each game.
How good is that offense? Well, it gives the Chiefs on average an extra +5.4 points per game on top of their opponent's average points allowed each week. That means if you're giving up anywhere near 25 points per game, you're in some serious trouble.
But all is not rosy for the Chiefs. They finished the season with some sloppy, uncharacteristically frivolous performances, almost losing to the Panthers, Falcons and even allowing the Broncos more than a shot. Even discounting the week 17 game where Chad Henne quarterbacked and the team was made up of backups, the Chiefs had covered just once since week 9, and never won by more than a single score until last week against Buffalo.
The Chiefs also have a slight aversion to defending the run, but it has usually not translated into defeats. Can the Bucs run on them? Sure, it just might not matter in the end.
How have the played in the playoffs?
They're certainly closer to their early season form than their late season form. The close games looked set to continue when they scraped by against Cleveland, but of course, that Browns comeback took place with backup Chad Henne in the game. When Mahomes returned against the Bills, the Chiefs looked imperious, scoring five offensive TD's and hounding Josh Allen all night. They looked a complete team, the question is whether that is the exception, rather than the rule.
Player to Watch:
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB
I'm not going to tell you to watch a bunch of guys like Mahomes and Hill, because the CBS broadcast will do that for you. Keep an eye on Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams at running back, though. If the no.1 ranked run defense can't stop them, you know the Bucs are in for a long night, but if they can, it may force the Chiefs to be more one-dimensional than suits them. They've racked up over 100 yards rushing in 11 games this season, without loss, and that includes 4 of their last 5.
Well, having Tom Brady has been a help. Tampa Bay now has the no.2 ranked offense and the no.2 ranked passing attack in the league, averaging 30.7 points per game. It's a truly pass-only attack though, as the Bucs rank 27th in the run game. Expect Brady to throw the ball constantly, regardless of the game situation.
Like the Chiefs, their offensive line is another strong point. Our friend Christian d'Andrea mentioned them as unsung heroes of this game, given their ability to keep Brady upright at the age of 43, and with what we might politely describe as 'limited' mobility.
The Bucs defense is good, albeit they underwhelmed as the season drew on. They remain first in rushing TD's allowed, and 1st in rushing yards allowed, and their +11 turnover differential tells you how careful Patrick Mahomes will need to be on Sunday, but their pass defense worsened considerably over the season, ranking 14th in the first half of the season, but 25th in the second half. The good news? The Chiefs were 26th in the same time period!
Apart from the aforementioned lack of a running game, and the weak pass defense, the Buccaneers' main weakness is their reliance on Tom Brady.
When the GOAT is on form, they are practically unstoppable, and it certainly feels like he has found a groove recently. The problem is that we can't overlook that Brady threw 3 interceptions last time out against the Packers, and when these two teams met in the regular season, Brady's 2 interceptions were the main catalyst for a narrow 3 point defeat. In short, if Brady is who he is 90% of the time, the Bucs have a great shot to win it, but there is always a 10% chance he goes rogue and has another multiple INT game, as he did 5 times this season against playoff teams.
How have they played in the playoffs?
It's been WILD. The Bucs scraped past a Washington team without a QB, then comfortably dispatched a team that had beaten them twice in the regular season (the Saints), before beating the Packers in a game that could arguably have been put away by both teams multiple times.
What has been interesting is that the Bucs have used the running game a lot more in the postseason. 142 yards rushing against a good defense in Washington, and 127 in New Orleans are not inconsequential numbers, and while they went back to the pass more heavily in Green Bay, they have a rushing touchdown in every playoff game so far, and have scored one in their last 7 games straight.
Player to watch:
Ndamokung Suh, DT
Suh is at the tail end of a career that is likely only missing one thing to make it to the Hall of Fame, a Super Bowl ring. Most importantly, in the context of this particular game, if Suh generates push up the middle, he's the guy who will have the most impact on Patrick Mahomes and his time to throw. He'll also be critical to stopping Edwards-Helaire and Williams from establishing the run, so keep an eye on Suh's push up the middle, it will tell you an awful lot about how difficult the game is going to be for the Chiefs offense.
I have deliberately left this column for a few days to let the research I have been doing sink in. Sometimes it takes a little time to digest what the meaning is, question yourself and the numbers, and then (hopefully) make the right call. I've done that, and this is my prediction:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will win Super Bowl LV by a score of 33-27.
Why? Well here are three reasons:
1: They offensively dominate teams who do not have elite defenses
Their offense has a blistering impact on opposing defenses, averaging +6pts per game on their opponent's average points allowed. The Bucs have not scored less than 30 points in a game since Minnesota in week 14, that's 6 games, averaging close to 36 points per game.
Now the Bucs struggled mightily against other playoff teams. All of their 5 losses this season came against their fellow postseason attendees, but that only tells half the story.
They faced the Saints three times (2nd ranked), the Rams (1st) and the Packers twice (7th). When you look at the calibre of the defenses that the Bucs faced in their losing games, it was an average rank of 5.8 over the course of the season.
2: They're getting better as the season wears on, and the Chiefs are faltering more often against the same teams.
I wanted to touch on one thing in particular, because the Bucs really overperformed against teams who both of these sides faced in 2020.
Against common opponents, the Bucs outscored the average points allowed of those teams by +6.5pts every game, the best in the league. For reference, the vaunted Chiefs offense? +2.9 points. The fact that the NFC South and AFC West faced each other this season has added an extra sample size to that data, and while the Chiefs faltered against the likes of the Panthers, Falcons and Broncos, the same cannot be said for the Bucs.
3: The Chiefs do not have a defense that can match Brady and his air attack, while the Bucs can cause issues for the Chiefs.
From the moment the Chiefs beat them in week 13, the Bucs became almost a caricature of their offense. Brady threw for over 365 yards in 4 straight games, and they 21 sacks in the games they've played since then. This is a team who found themselves, yet even as they did, the Chiefs seemed to drop a gear and allow teams to get close to them.
Let me put it this way:
When the Bucs have the ball, they have a distinct advantage over the Chiefs defense.
When the Chiefs have the ball, they have only a narrow advantage over the Bucs defense.
The Chiefs are going to spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out adjustments when Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, Lavonte David and co are around. Is the reverse true? There are some good players on that KC defensive line (Chris Jones and Frank Clark) but they aren't in the same bracket as the Bucs, and that is what the stats say too.
The Chiefs have looked stellar in the playoffs, but against who? Buffalo and Cleveland, both of whom had bottom half defenses and critical weaknesses that allowed Mahomes to play unimpeded. That is not going to be what happens on Sunday.
We all know who the Chiefs are, and picking against them can seem like a fool's errand in some ways. I actually picked against them last year and regretted it, but they are not infallible, and when the signs point towards an upset, we also shouldn't be afraid to pick it because it's Kansas City. That is what I grappled with over the early part of the week. Is it actually just too on brand to pick an upset in the Super Bowl?
But my conclusion was that this is not the Patriots dynasty (ironically), and there is no crushing inevitability about Kansas City's victories in 2020. The Chiefs were in battles every week of this season after they played the Jets in week 9 (actually for the first half of that game, the Jets held their own!), and largely it was because they simply can't play defense to the level needed to stop other teams, no matter what their ability to score themselves. The Chiefs more often drag themselves down to the level of their opponent, whereas the Bucs tend to play above that level.
It's a fallacy that the Chiefs have a distinct offensive advantage in this game, and that the decisive battle will be Mahomes against the Bucs defense. The opposite is true. The Chiefs are going to have a lot of work to do to stop Tom Brady and the Bucs offense, who averaged over 8 points per game more than Kansas City in the second half of the season.
I don't see the Chiefs currently existing on the same plane as Brady and the Bucs, and for that reason...
My pick for this game is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win 33-27, winning the Super Bowl on home soil, for the first time in NFL history, with the 6-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady adding a seventh ring to his collection.