Super Bowl LV Preview: An Analytical Guide to Sunday's Big Game
What else could you really want out of a Super Bowl matchup?
We have the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes against the new-look Tampa Bay Buccaneers with six-time champion Tom Brady at the helm. And the Bucs are playing this one in Tampa for an added wrinkle.
FanDuel Sportsbook pits the Chiefs as 3.0-point favorites, and the over/under is at 56.5.
Let's break down the big game from a few key areas, based on our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. You can read about NEP in our glossary, but if you're entirely new to an expected points model, don't worry. Just think of it like this.
While gaining 4 yards on 3rd-and-2 isn't a huge play from a yardage standpoint, it is a positive offensive play that will increase a team's chance to score points on that drive. A 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-15 isn't really increasing scoring chances, and the yardage is misleading.
Every incremental increase and decrease on each play is tallied up for teams and players in our database. That's NEP, and it's how we define and rank teams and players at numberFire.
Here's how each team ranks in opponent-adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency across the main categories.
Boy, this is good stuff. Two top-4 passing offenses against top-10 passing defenses -- plus polar opposites in rushing defense.
But I want to get more detailed than that and see what stands out in different areas of the game.
Mahomes Against the Blitz
On the full season, Mahomes averaged 0.36 Passing NEP per drop back, nearly three times the NFL average of 0.13. Adjusted for the opponents he faced, he put up 0.25 more expected points per drop back than he should've had he played to the defensive averages. So, yeah, really good.
In total, he trailed only Aaron Rodgers' 0.38 Passing NEP per drop back and Rodgers' 0.29 Passing NEP over expectation per drop back.
So it's natural that Mahomes thrived in various situations, but he especially did so against the blitz. Mahomes tallied 70.72 Passing NEP on 134 drop backs against the blitz, leading the NFL. In second place was Rodgers at a distant 43.33. On a per-play basis, Mahomes added 0.53 Passing NEP. The NFL average was just 0.10.
Mahomes also took just 4 sacks on those drop backs (3.0%), whereas the NFL average was 8.0%.
The Buccaneers? They have some intriguing splits when blitzing defensively. They generated a 12.2% sack rate when blitzing, third-best in the NFL, and they limited opponents to -0.09 Passing NEP per drop back.
Points came off the theoretical point board when the Buccaneers blitzed, and they were efficient at bringing down opposing quarterbacks. It'll be strength-on-strength when defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dials it up versus Andy Reid's offense.
Brady on Downfield Throws
Remember when Brady was getting a lot of flak for his inefficiency on downfield throws during the middle of the season? I sure do. Was it warranted? Maybe. But he threw at least 16 yards downfield on 21.0% of his pass attempts, the second-highest clip among all qualified starters (Drew Lock was first at 21.7%).
Brady's efficiency on such throws (0.63 Passing NEP per attempt) was better than the NFL average (0.55), but he did throw 13 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. In total, though, Brady gained the third-most Passing NEP (95.64) on downfield attempts in the NFL, trailing Rodgers (105.45) and Deshaun Watson (97.99). It's a big part of the Buccaneers' offense.
The Chiefs allowed opposing quarterbacks just 0.37 Passing NEP per attempt on downfield throws, 4th-best in the NFL, and only 6.2% of such throws led to touchdowns, the 8th-lowest rate in the league. Brady could struggle to hit the deep ball, but he will still take plenty of shots downfield if their offensive trends hold.
You may be thinking that Mahomes throws it deep a ton, but he really didn't this year. His average depth of target was 7.7 yards downfield (just shy of the NFL average of 7.8 yards), and his downfield attempt rate of 15.1% was below the league average of 16.9%. However, the Bucs are just 25th in Passing NEP per attempt allowed on the deep ball, indicating they're beatable (more on that in a bit).
Whether Brady can connect downfield or whether the Chiefs sling it deeper against an elite run defense will be a key to watch for throughout.
Tampa Bay's Run Game (and Play Action)
The Buccaneers have been pass-heavy since getting Antonio Brown in the lineup in Week 9. In fact, since then they rank fifth in pass rate on plays when their pre-snap win probability was between 20% and 80%, via numberFire's model. They throw on 65.6% of such plays. (The Chiefs are third at 67.7%.)
Of course, the run defenses couldn't be more different in terms of efficiency. The Bucs are the best adjusted run defense in the league (allowing -0.03 Rushing NEP per carry after opponent adjustments), and the Chiefs are the worst (0.17).
So the Bucs could stand to benefit from going away from their pass-heavy game plan to take advantage of the easy matchup on the ground.
Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette have been strong performers and have been on par with or outperformed the NFL averages in both Rushing NEP per carry and Rushing Success Rate, including the playoffs. Comparing that to the other two backs -- sure, just 41 attempts -- they look even more impressive within the context of their own offense.
I'm not advocating that the Bucs establish the run (which is a recipe for losing), but they can chip away on the ground -- and also leverage play action attempts.
On play-action passes, Brady is a stud this season and has averaged 0.36 Passing NEP per drop back, ranking 7th among 27 quarterbacks with at least 50 play-action attempts. The NFL average is 0.22, and the Chiefs allow 0.20 (16th).
Brady's plus efficiency against a mid-level play-action defense could be vital and open up the downfield game we just discussed. But will the Bucs buck the pass-heavy trend to take advantage? Fournette's rushing attempt prop is 11.5 on FanDuel Sportsbook, and Jones' is 8.5.
Containing Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce
Hill (27.6% of the targets) has averaged 2.0 downfield targets per game and 1.0 in the red zone while also averaging 100.0 air yards per game and 141.0 receiving yards. Kelce (34.2% of the targets) is averaging 4.0 in the red zone and 113.5 receiving yards.
Hill produced the third-most yards (642) on downfield throws this season, and Kelce led all tight ends on such passes (347).
Hill and Kelce on downfield throws are -- understandably -- game-changers, and it's especially true this week. I mentioned in passing that Mahomes is more league-average that we'd probably expect at letting it fly downfield, but the Bucs are just 25th in Passing NEP per attempt allowed on downfield throws. They're 29th in touchdowns-per-attempt (10.2%), as well.
They'll have to shift priorities to keep the lid on the KC offense.
Special teams often gets overlooked through the regular season, but the magnifying glass comes out for the Super Bowl. Here's how each unit fared in Special Teams NEP on the season.
|Kansas City||55.25 (4)||64.65 (29)||-9.41 (20)|
|Tampa Bay||42.91 (13)||39.97 (17)||2.94 (16)|
Both teams are about NFL average overall, but while the Buccaneers are balanced, the Chiefs are much more volatile. Their return game is a top-four unit, but they can also get torched on the bring-back. The Chiefs averaged 25.8 yards per kickoff return this season, ranking them fifth in the NFL. The Bucs led the league in kickoff average (64.3 yards) and touchback rate (84.2%), so they could potentially mitigate that area of success for Kansas City.
Is there any significant separation with the kickers?
|Kicker Comparison||Field Goal
|Field Goal NEP
Not necessarily. Harrison Butker ranked 9th in Field Goal NEP per attempt among 29 kickers with at least 20 attempts; Ryan Succop ranked 14th, so the edge goes to the Chiefs here, but kicking isn't a specific weakness on either side of the ball.
Analytically Comparable Teams
At numberFire, we can dig into our database (back to 2000) and see which historical teams are most similar to current teams. Here are each team's top-five comparable squads and their results.
|2013 Saints||Lost Divisional Round||2002 Raiders||Lost Super Bowl|
|2004 Eagles||Lost Super Bowl||2001 Rams||Lost Super Bowl|
|2010 Colts||Lost Wild Card Round||2008 Eagles||Lost Conference Finals|
|2011 Packers||Lost Divisional Round||2014 Broncos||Lost Divisional Round|
|2005 Bengals||Lost Wild Card Round||2009 Packers||Lost Wild Card Round|
There's no shortage of irony here. The two most comparable teams to the 2020 Buccaneers -- the 2002 Oakland Raiders and the 2001 St. Louis Rams -- lost the Super Bowl to the Buccaneers and the Brady-led New England Patriots, respectively. The 2004 Philadelphia Eagles, the second-most similar team to this year's Chiefs, also lost to Brady's Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Not only that, but the most similar game to this matchup is represented by a 2004 game between the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, a season-opener. Brady's Buccaneers were represented by a 2004 team led by himself, and he threw for 335 yards and 3 touchdowns in that game. Peyton Manning was kept in check: 256 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 attempts for a quarterback rating of 93.5.
You can check out each of the 25 strongest comparable games on our in-depth games projection page to uncover betting trends and fantasy angles.
The betting trends are pretty heavy on the Chiefs. oddsFire shows that 71% of the tickets and 83% of the money are on the Chiefs to cover the 3.0-point spread, and 45% of the bets and 55% of the money is on the Chiefs' moneyline.
Fireworks are expected, as well, as just shy of 80% of the betting action is backing the over.
numberFire's projections show a 53.3% chance that the Chiefs win this game, and the median projected score is a 27.4-26.5 win for Kansas City.
My betting model is predicting a close game as well, projecting a final score of 30.1 to 28.6 in favor of the Chiefs, who won 53.6% of the simulated games in my model.
Although everyone seems to be on the Chiefs, the data says it might be anyone's game.