Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the highest-paid player in NFL history and could go down as the best player in league annals by the time all is said and done. He already has won a regular-season MVP Award and a Super Bowl MVP – and is favored to win another Super Bowl MVP on Sunday in Super Bowl 55 vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Chiefs are 3-point favorites on the NFL odds to repeat as champions.
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Yet on Monday, Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski – a future Hall of Famer – said that tight end Travis Kelce (also on a Hall of Fame track) is the best player on the Kansas City offense, not Mahomes. Perhaps Gronk is simply backing his fellow tight end because no one really thinks Kelce is better, although he is having the best season by a tight end in league history.
In 15 games, Kelce caught 105 passes for 1,416 yards, setting the single-season record for a tight end, and added eight touchdowns. He exceeded the receiving yardage marks of every receiver not named Stefon Diggs. It was Kelce’s fifth consecutive 1,000-plus-yard receiving season, giving him the most such seasons for any tight end in NFL history. Kelce was named to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl and his fifth straight All-Pro team.
He has been just as dominant in the playoffs. Kelce caught 8-of-11 targets for 109 yards and a touchdown in the Chiefs’ Divisional Round win over the Browns and then caught 13-of-15 targets for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the Chiefs’ AFC Championship win over the Bills. Kelce was targeted on 39.5% of Mahomes’ 38 attempts and caught the quarterback’s second and third scores of the night, producing one- and five-yard touchdowns.
Needless to say, slowing Kelce will be crucial to the Bucs’ upset chances. Mahomes is skilled enough to thread passes through the eye of a needle, but he rarely needs to. Just 11.4 percent of Mahomes’s intended receivers were within 1 yard of a defender this season. That was the third-lowest number among all qualified quarterbacks.
“One thing that’s very intriguing about Travis Kelce, and I’ve never really seen this with any other player in the NFL ever before, is that Kelce gets better every single year that I’ve seen him play in the NFL,” Gronkowski said.
Kelce occupies the middle of the field in ways that is only now becoming a leading approach to utilizing the tight end position. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Kelce is the league’s biggest slot receiver. Guarding him one-on-one in man coverage is impossible. He’s too big for most cornerbacks and safeties, and too fast for linebackers.
“We’re going to try everything,” linebacker Devin White said.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Mahomes and other players are always looking for new plays to spice up the offense.
“I have a whiteboard in my office, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s get that on the whiteboard. We’ll see what we’ve got here,’ ” Reid said. “Everybody’s had a piece of the pie. Sometimes, what we do is blend. Like, ‘Ah, that looks good. But if we do this, that’ll make this better.’ We do that. But we take it from all comers.”
The Bucs do have one of the NFL’s best defensive coordinators in Todd Bowles and led the NFL in run defense. Bowles, the former Jets head coach, got a few interviews for head coaching opportunities since the end of the regular season but like Bieniemy was passed over.
Bowles’ defense has emerged as one of the most aggressive in the NFL. The Buccaneers’ 25 takeaways tied for fourth-most in the NFL. Only four teams had more sacks than their 48 during the regular season, and none have more than their seven in the postseason.
Head coach Bruce Arians said the Bucs’ defense is “light years” ahead of where the unit was when Bowles took over, and he praised Bowles for developing the young secondary and getting the most out of a talented front seven. Even with both starting safeties injured in the NFC Championship Game, Bowles’ defense held the Packers to back-to-back three-and-outs in the fourth quarter.
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