Tom Brady had just completed an unlikely win over the favored Packers at Lambeau Field, and the celebration was about to begin — 2021 style.
As Brady and his Bucs teammates and coaches basked in the glow of a 31-26 victory on the venerable stadium’s "Frozen Tundra," the team’s equipment staff handed out the usual assortment of postgame spoils. There were NFC Championship T-shirts with the Bucs’ logo that players slipped over their jerseys. And red and gray championship baseball caps.
And face masks.
No, not the ones affixed to their helmets — the ones covering their mouths and noses that provided the latest reminder that this is a most unusual football season.
The most unusual in the NFL’s 101-year history, in fact.
Pro football somehow found a way to complete a full regular season and three playoff weekends during a pandemic. All that’s left is next Sunday’s Super Bowl LV in Tampa, where the smallest crowd in the game’s history — just 22,000 — will gather at Raymond James Stadium in a socially distanced environment to watch the game’s biggest spectacle.
Ordinarily, at a moment like this, we’d say "Welcome to Super Bowl hype week." The hype will be noticeably absent, though.
Tampa will not be the usual beehive of fan activity in the days leading up to the showdown between Brady’s Bucs and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City, led by Patrick Mahomes. Unlike all other Super Bowls, which annually attract hundreds of thousands of fans— not all of whom can get into the game but certainly enjoy the atmosphere — there will be a far more muted run-up to the game.
The only reason Brady and the Bucs will be in town for the week is because they play there. They’re the first team in Super Bowl history to play the game in its home stadium.
Mahomes and the rest of the Kansas City organization won’t arrive until Saturday, as teams were notified several weeks ago that the Super Bowl participants would practice in their home environments as a safeguard against COVID-19 transmission.
Ordinarily, the week kicks off with "Super Bowl Media Night" in a prime-time setting at a local arena or stadium, with thousands of media and fans in attendance. This time it will be Zoom calls for both teams — on Monday afternoon.
Essentially, the teams will be cocooned in their practice facilities, with as little social interaction with their communities as possible. Just as it has been throughout a season that, quite frankly, went off remarkably smoothly, all things considered.
Had you asked in March whether we’d be here today, with all 256 regular-season games having been played and only a handful of schedule adjustments needed because of infections within a few teams, the answer would have been a resounding no.
With infection rates climbing throughout the country and the NFL opting not to replicate the NBA and NHL playoff "bubbles," pulling this off was a herculean task no matter how optimistic the league may have been. But through daily testing, contact tracing and COVID-19 protocols that became increasingly stringent as the season wore on, the NFL pulled it off.
Even in the home stretch, there are reminders of the difficulties making it to the finish line. Brady invited criticism last Sunday when he declined to wear a face covering in the postgame celebration — a clear violation of the league’s policy. When asked Sunday if Brady will face any repercussions, a league source said, "We have reinforced with both clubs the importance of adhering to all the protocols that have made the season a success to date, including face coverings."
Then there’s this: Even with the biggest game of the season looming, the NFL will make no exceptions with players or coaches who test positive or are considered a close contact of another person who has tested positive for the coronavirus. If any player or coach — prominent or otherwise — has to enter the COVID-19 protocol, he will be ruled out of the game. A league source said it’s "1,000%" that a player or coach in that situation won’t be able to participate and that the game will go on as scheduled Sunday.
Let’s hope that situation doesn’t arise, because after all the ups and downs of a season that seemed as if it might never come off or would at least be severely curtailed, we have ourselves a magnificent matchup that will provide a wonderful respite from one of the most trying years in American history.
Brady-Mahomes. The greatest quarterback of all time against the greatest young quarterback in the game, a player who someday might assume the mantle from Brady as the game’s biggest star.
It is a long way from here to there for Mahomes, who has five fewer Super Bowl victories than Brady and would need to continue a sustained run of excellence that might never be repeated. What Brady and Bill Belichick did in New England was the longest reign of supremacy in pro sports history, and even a player with Mahomes’ wondrous talents likely won’t duplicate that alongside Andy Reid.
Even so, we may never get a more enticing matchup than this. Brady may not be what he once was, but at 43, he has taken a perennially underachieving Bucs team to the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly two decades. And he has done so with a new team despite a pandemic that wiped out the offseason, eliminated preseason games and created unprecedented challenges.
And Mahomes, the first quarterback 25 years or younger to play in two Super Bowls, has become not only the greatest quarterback of his time but a game-day showman whose confidence and jaw-dropping ability make him one of the most enjoyable players to watch.
In this or any other era.
Yes, his athletic magnetism is that powerful.
Brady-Mahomes, a matchup like no other.
What better way to end a season like no other.