They have won Super Bowl rings.
They’re considered among the greatest ever at their positions.
They’ll be on the field Sunday in Super Bowl LV, and their impact on the game will be profound - maybe even determine who wins.
Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes?
Well, yeah … but in this case, we’re talking about Steve Spagnuolo and Todd Bowles, the respective defensive coordinators of Kansas City and Tampa Bay. The game of X’s and O’s these two men play against the legendary quarterbacks will go a long way toward deciding whether Brady extends his record to seven Super Bowl rings or Patrick Mahomes becomes the first quarterback since Brady in 2003-04 to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
Yes, what’s inside the heads of these two men will have a profound impact on the game, specifically on how well both quarterbacks play. Spagnuolo has already conquered Brady once as the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2007, when the team upset the previously unbeaten Patriots in one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. Spagnuolo earned another Super Bowl ring last year after Kansas City got the best of San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV.
But don’t underestimate Bowles, the former Jets head coach who won a Super Bowl with Washington after the 1987 season and has done an extraordinary job with the Buccaneers this season.
How these two men scheme against the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks that face one another will invariably help decide who wins.
It was Spagnuolo who first solved the Brady dilemma in Super Bowl XLII, as he relied on defensive linemen Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora to provide pressure. By not blitzing but still getting pressure, Spagnuolo’s defense made Brady uncomfortable in the pocket and forced him to hurry his throws. The Giants applied relentless pressure and sacked him five times, with Tuck getting two, in a 17-14 upset victory at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
Spagnuolo eventually became head coach of the St. Louis Rams in what turned out to be a disappointing three-year run and a 10-38 record. But he remains one of the game’s brilliant defensive minds, and his arrival in Kansas City before the 2019 season proved to be a major factor in the team’s first Super Bowl victory in 50 years.
And now it’s a rematch against Brady, all these years later.
"(Brady) is always a step ahead of everybody," Spagnuolo said. "That’s always the challenge when you go against a cerebral quarterback. We’re going to have to be really good on the back end (in the secondary) not to show him things."
Spagnuolo has an expression he uses with his defensive backs when facing a quarterback as smart as Brady, who can detect the smallest nuance and turn it into a game-changing pass.
"As we say, ‘Don’t let him read our mail,’" Spagnuolo said, addressing his team’s need not to show pre-snap movement that might tip off Brady about the coverage. "If he can read our mail, he knows exactly what to do."
Kansas City beat the Bucs, 27-24, on Nov. 29 in Tampa, but not before Brady staged a furious fourth-quarter rally that fell just short. The Bucs haven’t lost since, reeling off four straight wins to end the regular season and winning three straight playoff games to reach Super Bowl LV.
"We’re going against one of the best," Spagnuolo said. "We have to hope to make a few more plays than they do. You’ve got the best quarterback in NFL history, and it just snowballs. I see a unit that’s clicking, great chemistry with a great leader."
Bowles has his own challenges in dealing with Mahomes, and how he calls the game will be a huge element in how the game unfolds. Bowles loves to blitz opponents, and Tampa Bay’s aggressiveness has been instrumental in its defensive success. But with that strategy comes risk, because Mahomes can read defenses instantaneously, and if he gets enough time, he’ll almost always find the open receiver. And if Bowles opts to play it safe, then Mahomes is content to go underneath and dink-and-dunk his way down the field.
Pick your poison, coach.
"They play fast, but they understand football," Bowles said of the Kansas City offense. "They’re not just a track team out there. They can beat you vertically or horizontally. They can keep you off-balance a lot."
Bowles will undoubtedly be tempted to blitz Mahomes, especially Kansas City will be without starting tackles Eric Fisher, who suffered an Achilles injury last week, and Mitchell Schwartz, who hasn’t played since October because of a back injury.
Bowles takes nothing for granted, however, especially on third downs, where Kansas City has converted 55 percent of its opportunities in the playoffs.
"It looks very comfortable for them, they convert a lot of them," Bowles said. "Whether Pat (Mahomes) does it with his arm or his legs, they’ve got a slew of weapons."
Brady vs. Mahomes is certainly the matchup to watch - the one we will all watch.
But which team wins on Sunday might very well come down to Bowles vs. Spagnuolo.