By Jack Herr, Staff Writer
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, the sports world, like many other aspects of life, ceased to operate for several months due to both governmental regulations and a general concern over how to contain transmission of the virus in high-contact play.
The NBA was the first league to spur a successful return to sports, creating the well-known “bubble” in Orlando, FL, utilizing Disney World resources. Through daily testing and tight restrictions on players and staff, the NBA was able to complete the 2019-2020 season smoothly.
The MLB was next to attempt a return to somewhat normal play. After experiencing notable outbreaks of the virus early in the season, the league was able to get back on track, even allowing a small number of fans to attend certain postseason games. However, the early season virus scares in baseball made it evident that the NFL would experience similar, potentially worse outbreaks: football is a much higher-contact sport than baseball, and the number of COVID-19 cases was significantly rising across the country entering autumn.
Nonetheless, here we are, having watched Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay, FL, where the hometown Buccaneers dominated the powerhouse Kansas City Chiefs 31-9. Before we breakdown the championship game, though, let us review the tumultuous season that led up to it.
Recapping this season would feel incomplete without mentioning the league-wide push for the NFL, specifically its commissioner Roger Goodell, to recognize and condemn systemic racism against Black Americans. After this summer’s nationwide rise in Black Lives Matter protests, players wanted to continue the conversation with social justice initiatives of their own. Many wore “End Racism” tags on the backs of their helmets, often highlighted during the games as the cameras looked in on the huddle, and teams painted similar messages behind their end zones, furthering the need to address institutional racism in our country.
On the field, the league was decimated with a multitude of injuries throughout the course of the season, with many attributing these unprecedented numbers to limited training camp and zero preseason games.
Some of the brightest stars in the NFL had their seasons abruptly ended: Saquon Barkley, star running back for the New York Giants, tore his ACL in the first quarter of their week two game against the Chicago Bears, ending his season. Dak Prescott, quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, suffered a gruesome ankle injury in their week five matchup against the New York Giants, prematurely terminating what could have been his best season to date. Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers’ elite defensive end, suffered the same ACL tear as Saquon Barkley in their week two game against the New York Jets, putting a detrimental hole in the Niners’ defense.
Unfortunately, this is only a small sample of the players who suffered severe injuries this season, but teams will look forward to getting their stars back next year with a greater emphasis on safety.
In spite of these injuries, some good news came to fruition this season with the return of Washington quarterback Alex Smith. The veteran quarterback suffered one of the most devastating injuries in recent history on November 18, 2018, when he broke his right tibia and fibula during a sack by Houston Texans’ defenseman JJ Watt.
Family, friends, and fans all feared for his life as he endured seventeen different operations to remove an infection from his leg, almost resulting in an amputation. Smith never lost his fortitude, though, and battled the injury for two years, making his comeback this season on October 11, 2020 against the Los Angeles Rams. While the Washington Football Team ended up losing the game, Smith’s return is undoubtedly the best thing to happen to the sport of football in 2020. The NFL awarded Smith with the Comeback Player of the Year Award for his trailblazing achievement.
As predicted, COVID-19 did not pull any punches when it came to interfering with the 2020 NFL season. Fan capacity was either nonexistent or extremely limited around the league, nullifying home field advantage in many cases and completely augmenting the atmosphere for the players, who could hear almost every word spoken on the field.
This was the first season in NFL history that had a game played on every day of the week, not by design. COVID-19 outbreaks on various teams often forced the league into unprecedented logistical problems, compelling some teams to play on Tuesday and Wednesday, certainly not traditional game days. Players, when tested positive, had to go through commonly practiced health and safety protocols, often jeopardizing their ability to play. In spite of these formidable obstacles, the NFL, somehow, completed each and every scheduled regular season game, leading us into the playoffs.
This year, the NFL added two extra postseason teams into the mix via wildcard spots. The two teams benefitting from this addition were the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) in the AFC and the Chicago Bears (8-8) in the NFC, each snagging the seventh seed in their respective conferences. Only the top seed from each conference earned a bye.
The top six teams for the AFC were, in seeding order, the Kansas City Chiefs (14-2), last year’s Super Bowl champions, the Buffalo Bills (13-3) led by rising star QB Josh Allen, the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) who after starting 11-0 suffered crucial losses late in the season that put their legitimacy into question, the Tennessee Titans (11-5) carried by their elite RB Derrick Henry, the Baltimore Ravens (11-5) looking to go deeper in the playoffs than the previous year, and finally the Cleveland Browns (11-5) who achieved their first postseason berth since 2002, ending a seventeen-year drought.
The top 6 teams for the NFC were the Green Bay Packers (13-3) led by MVP QB Aaron Rodgers, the New Orleans Saints (12-4) headed by veteran QB Drew Brees coming off an injury, the Seattle Seahawks (12-4) winning the NFC West, one of the toughest divisions in football, the Washington Football Team (7-9) the only team in the playoffs with a losing record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) steered by the greatest football player of all time in Tom Brady and a commendable defense, and finally the Los Angeles Rams (10-6) led on the defense by Aaron Donald, winner of three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
The wildcard round of the playoffs exhibited lots of excitement. The Cleveland Browns (6) beat their division rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers (3) 48-37, with QB Baker Mayfield throwing for three touchdowns and giving the Browns their first postseason win in close to two decades.
The Baltimore Ravens (5) upset the Tennessee Titans (4) 20-13, with QB Lamar Jackson earning 136 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The Buffalo Bills (2) were able to edge out the Indianapolis Colts (7) 27-24, and the New Orleans Saints (2) handled the Chicago Bears (7) 21-9. The Los Angeles Rams (6) upset the Seattle Seahawks (3) 30-20 off a two-sack performance from Aaron Donald. Finally, the eventual champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5) held off the threatening Washington Football Team (4) 31-23.
The divisional round was equally as thrilling. The Chiefs won a nail biter against the Browns 22-17, sealing the deal with a crucial first down from backup QB Chad Henne to star WR Tyreek Hill. The Bills dominated the Ravens 17-3, with WR Stefon Diggs eclipsing 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. The Packers thwarted the Rams 32-18, with QB Aaron Rodgers connecting with six different receivers for 296 yards. Lastly, the Buccaneers defeated the Saints 30-20, avenging both their regular season losses and getting QB Tom Brady closer to that coveted seventh ring.
The AFC Championship saw the Chiefs beat the Bills 38-24. Patrick Mahomes, last year’s Super Bowl MVP, threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns. His top receivers were Tyreek Hill with a whopping 172 yards and the dependable TE Travis Kelce with 118 yards and two touchdowns. The NFC Championship exhibited two of the best quarterbacks in recent history, Tom Brady of the Buccaneers vs. Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. A strong first half performance from the Buccaneers led the way to their victory, with Tom Brady throwing three interceptions but countering that with three critical touchdowns. Aaron Rodgers put up an exceptional 346 yards with three touchdowns of his own, but key mistakes in the Packers’ secondary allowed the Bucs to enter the Super Bowl.
The night before the Super Bowl saw the NFL Honors awards presentation, where the best athletes of the 2020-21 season were recognized. Los Angeles Chargers’ rookie QB Justin Herbert electrified this season and was awarded the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. The Defensive Rookie of the Year Award was given to former Ohio State Buckeye Chase Young, the highlight of Washington’s strong defensive line. Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry (King Henry) secured his crown and won Offensive Player of the Year, while the aforementioned Rams’ DE Aaron Donald won his third Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2021 was additionally announced at this ceremony, featuring legendary players such as Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning, and Charles Woodson cementing their legacies among history’s best players. Alex Smith won Comeback Player of the Year as previously mentioned, courageously defying the odds. Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski won Coach of the Year for ending the city’s seventeen-year playoff drought. Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was given the highest honor in the NFL with the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Finally, the Most Valuable Player Award was given to Aaron Rodgers for his stellar season, leading Green Bay to the one seed in the NFC.
February 7, 2021 was Super Bowl 55, a matchup between the best of the new generation of quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes, and the potential G.O.A.T. Tom Brady, at the ripe age of 43 looking for his seventh ring, a feat that would give him more Super Bowl championships than any NFLfranchise. The game was played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, FL, giving the Buccaneers a rare Super Bowl home advantage with the moderately-sized crowd of 25,000 first responders.
The Chiefs won the coin toss and deferred, giving the Buccaneers the ball. Three punts in a row hinted at a defensive game ahead, but the Chiefs scored the first points in the form of a field goal on their second drive. The Buccaneers responded and took a 7-3 lead with a touchdown from Brady to TE Rob Gronkowski, a familiar connection.
In the second quarter, the Buccaneers got within inches of another touchdown but were stuffed at the goal line on all four downs by Kansas City’s defense. Not being able to capitalize on the turnover, the Chiefs handed it right back to the Bucs, who after some questionable penalties compounded their lead with another Brady to Gronkowski touchdown, going up 14-3. Kansas City scored another field goal to make it 14-6, but Brady ended the half with another touchdown, this time to WR Antonio Brown.
After a fantastic halftime performance from artist The Weeknd, the Chiefs looked to decrease the Bucs’ 21-6 lead. However, on the first drive of the third quarter, they were only able to score a field goal to make it 21-9. The Bucs aggressive defense, led by Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, and Lavonte David, was putting constant pressure on Patrick Mahomes and his offensive line, forcing errant throws from the usually accurate quarterback.
The Buccaneers continued to pile on the scoring, with RB Leaonard Fournette racing to the endzone for a twenty yard touchdown, putting the Buccaneers up 28-9. Patrick Mahomes threw his first interception of the game on the next drive, and the Buccaneers added three more with a 52-yard field goal by kicker Ryan Succop.
The fourth quarter was more of the same story with less scoring. The Buccaneers continued to wreak havoc on the Chiefs’ offensive line, relentlessly getting to Mahomes and forcing some spectacular incompletions. Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowels’s schemes were clearly effective in stifling the Chiefs’ usually red-hot offense. After two more turnovers by Kansas City, the Bucs were able to drain the clock and secure their second Super Bowl in franchise history, winning the most-watched event in America with a score of 31-9. Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians became the oldest coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl at 68 years old.
The Super Bowl MVP was given to none other than Tom Brady, who threw for 201 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Brady was able to add his seventh total championship and became one of the few quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl on multiple teams. His greatness is undeniable at this point, and there are no signs that he plans to retire any time soon. It is commonly held that this year’s Super Bowl reflected the two best teams in football, and early predictions have them seeing each other again in 2022.
The Buccaneers plan on securing as many of the team’s eventual free agents as possible this offseason, and the Chiefs will have to work around Patrick Mahomes’ massive contract in order to bring back a team of similar strength.
The 2020-21 NFL season was an eventful ride. Unprecedented times led to many things fans had never seen before. Records were broken, droughts were ended, hopes were shattered, and dreams were fulfilled. Players and fans alike look forward to next season, where hopefully fan attendance will increase and the routine intensity of football will resume. For now, let us appreciate the NFL for finishing this wild yet enjoyable season.