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Super Bowl LV X-factors
The performances of role players and less reliable starters will go a long way toward determining if the Chiefs can win back-to-back titles or if the Buccaneers can derail them on their home field. Here are the top X-factors from a game that will feature several famous X-factors.   Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports Brown has […]

The performances of role players and less reliable starters will go a long way toward determining if the Chiefs can win back-to-back titles or if the Buccaneers can derail them on their home field. Here are the top X-factors from a game that will feature several famous X-factors.   Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports Brown has rarely approached his Steelers level of dominance — getting there basically against the Falcons and no one else — but this is still one of the 21st century's best receivers. The 32-year-old former star only averaged 10.7 yards per catch, his lowest since becoming an NFL regular, and is battling a knee injury that may keep him out. But Brown still represents a tough cover for a WR3 if he suits up. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as Tampa Bay's clear Nos. 1-2 targets, Brown would have an interesting opportunity as a lower-level defensive priority should he play Sunday.   Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports Perhaps Sunday's definitive boom-or-bust player, Davis has fared well for stretches in his third season. He also submitted one of the worst games by an NFL cornerback in recent history, giving up three TDs to Tyreek Hill. Oddly forced into frequent one-on-one coverage against the league's scariest deep threat, Davis allowed nine Hill catches for 204 yards in Week 12. However, Davis more than held his own against the likes of Michael Thomas and Davante Adams in multiple games in a four-INT season. He also has ceded three playoff TDs. How this rollercoaster stops will have a big say in determining this season's champ.   Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports The two-week hiatus could be critical for the Chiefs' top running back. After returning for the AFC championship game, Edwards-Helaire is practicing in full and stands to be healthier for Super Bowl LV. That will surely mean more than seven touches (his Bills workload). The Chiefs ranked 16th in rushing, and CEH was rarely the centerpiece of any Kansas City game plan. But he totaled 1,100 scrimmage yards while missing two games. While the run-apathetic Chiefs will likely avoid over-challenging the Bucs' No. 1 DVOA run defense, a healthier version of the 5-foot-7 rookie only increases the AFC champions' options.   William Glasheen via Imagn Content Services, LLC In Week 12, Fournette touched the ball six times. Hill turning in a 10-6 first-round scorecard against Davis steered the Bucs into a pass-geared game. But in the playoffs, the ex-Jaguars starter has been a primary threat. Fournette is averaging five yards per touch on 62 postseason handles and looks fresh after his lowest-volume season (97 carries). Although the Chiefs have elite defensive tackle, Chris Jones, they rank 21st against the run. They have not ranked inside the top 20 in-ground deterrence since 2015, putting a spotlight on Fournette and Ronald Jones.   The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services LLC For name recognition, the Bucs probably have the most famous offense in Super Bowl history. While Gronkowski and Antonio Brown are in the WCW phases of their careers, the 30-somethings remain dangerous in spots. Set for his fifth Super Bowl, Gronk is this event's defining tight end. He dominated in the Patriots' loss to the Eagles, and his late diving grab sunk the Rams a year later. He scored seven regular-season TDs and posted a six-catch, 106-yard line against the Chiefs in November. Despite making just two playoff catches this year, Gronk should not be overlooked even if he is now an auxiliary piece.    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports It seems unfair a historically potent offense has one of the NFL's fastest players both operating as a part-time receiver, alongside an even faster wideout and representing a lethal return threat. Like they did in 2020 with Edwards-Helaire, the Chiefs opted to eschew defensive needs with their first pick in 2019. Hardman is not exactly reliable, as his fumble last week showed. But the former second-round pick is at best the No. 3 priority for defenses and can provide a boost in both kick and punt returns. The 2019 All-Pro breaking loose on a big play may be too much for the Bucs to handle.   Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports Overall, the Chiefs' Hitchens signing — for five years and $45 million in 2018 — has not worked out. The Chiefs have been shaky in run defense for years (though their offense's dominance has rendered this a niche issue), and Hitchens has delivered inconsistency at best. But Kansas City used him as its lone dime linebacker extensively against the Bills. He came through with seven solo tackles to help the Chiefs force ill-advised field goals. The Bucs have a better O-line and run game than the Bills, creating more important tasks for a linebacker who may be readying for his last game as a Chief.   Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports If Brown returns, Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich must find a way to have Miller on the field more often. Brown usurped Miller upon arrival, and the young deep threat played just 11% of Tampa Bay's offensive snaps in both the wild-card and divisional rounds. Miller averaged 15.2 yards per catch and is coming off a game in which he made arguably the biggest reception in Bucs history. Tom Brady has never been a great deep-ball thrower, but he has formed a rapport with the second-year wideout. Miller is one of Super Bowl LV's most fascinating players, with or without AB in uniform.   9 of 20 Sean Murphy-Bunting Mike De Sisti via Imagn Content Services, LLC After navigating an injury during the regular season, the second-year cornerback is on a tear entering the Bucs' home Super Bowl tilt. Murphy-Bunting intercepted passes in each of Tampa Bay's three NFC playoff games, with each of the thefts leading to touchdowns. The Central Michigan alum set up the second one on a 36-yard return. After a mediocre regular season that saw QBs complete 78% of their passes against him, Murphy-Bunting has fared better in the playoffs. This is obviously good news for a Bucs team needing all the help it can get against one of the best passing attacks ever.   Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports Statistically, the Chiefs did not boast a strong pass rush this season. Top sacker Frank Clark somehow made the Pro Bowl with five sacks before the team was announced, and starter Tanoh Kpassagnon finished a 16-game season with one. Okafor was injured for Super Bowl LIV, but the veteran has been more effective than Kpassagnon opposite Clark this season. Okafor recorded three sacks and 10 QB hits in the regular season. Non-blitz pressure is critical against Brady, but the Chiefs' edge rushers have strong opposition in tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs. They will need one of their supporting casters to help out.    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports Five years after his defining game, Remmers will have another shot. The Panthers left him alone against Von Miller too often in Super Bowl 50 , and Cam Newton's career took a sharp turn after Miller's two sack-strips. Remmers has bounced around since and signed with the Chiefs as a backup, but he has a redemption opportunity. After starting for Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle, Remmers moved to left tackle following Eric Fisher's Achilles tear. If Remmers is indeed the left tackle, he will primarily face Jason Pierre-Paul. This matchup will go a long way toward determining how live an underdog the Bucs will be.   Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports Extending Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Chris Jones in one offseason — and being the NFL's lone team with two $20 million-per-year D-linemen, in Jones and Clark — means the cost-cutting elsewhere. The Chiefs have skimped at cornerback for years but found a rookie-contract gem in Sneed. The 2020 fourth-round pick flashed in September before an IR stay and has been a difference-maker since returning. Sneed has delivered multifaceted performances down the stretch, registering a sack in four straight games while covering well in the slot. He will not be a pushover for the Bucs' high-profile receivers.   Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports A secondary glue player for most of the Andy Reid era in Kansas City, Sorensen is on tap for his 12th playoff game as a Chief. Sorensen made titanic plays in the past two divisional-round games, the most recent via his controversial goal-line strip of Rashard Higgins, and has played 100% of Kansas City's defensive snaps since Week 9. The 30-year-old has been critical to Spagnuolo's complex defense, intercepting three passes this season while affecting plays on blitzes. He will join Sneed in matching up with some famous opposition in Tampa.    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports The Chiefs have the less healthy offensive line going into Super Bowl LV, but the Bucs are missing a starter too. Right guard Alex Cappa's absence moved Stinnie into the starting lineup. Some of Tom Brady's big-stage failures featured inside pressure — from Steve Spagnuolo's 2007 Giants to the 2015 Broncos to Brandon Graham's sack-strip in Super Bowl LII — and Stinnie will be part of an interior line tasked with preventing Chris Jones from wrecking the game. The Chiefs employ one of the NFL's premier inside pass rushers and will likely look to get him some matchups against the new starter.   Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports A torn ACL kept Thornhill out of Super Bowl LIV, and the second-year safety spent much of this season as a part-timer trying to recapture his previous form. But Spagnuolo deployed Thornhill on 77% of Kansas City's defensive plays against Buffalo, and the former second-round pick came through with four passes defensed. Thornhill had the look of a longtime Chiefs starter alongside Tyrann Mathieu last season. With the Chiefs set to be in sub-packages for most of Super Bowl LV, Thornhill will have a chance to build momentum for the future. He will face difficult opposition in doing so.   Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports The top three Chiefs O-linemen from their Super Bowl LIV victory — Fisher, Schwartz, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif — are either out or not expected to play Sunday. This makeshift line must face a menacing front four. Ndamukong Suh has been one of this era's most physically imposing blocking assignments; he now has the larger Vea back flanking him. The 347-pound nose tackle returned from IR for the Packers game; despite playing only 33 defensive snaps, Vea disrupted Green Bay's attack. He is crucial to the Bucs' top-tier run defense and frees up his pass-rushing mates. More Vea work will create a problem for the Chiefs.   Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports Through a cost-effectiveness lens, the Chiefs missed on Watkins. The former top-five pick has been frequently hurt and did not post a 700-yard season in Kansas City. That said, Watkins has lived up to his contract in the playoffs. He was vital to the Chiefs' comeback in their last playoff outing against Brady — the 2018 AFC title game — and combined for 212 yards between last year's conference championship game and Super Bowl LIV. Watkins has cleared 60 yards in all five of his Chiefs playoff assignments but has not played in this postseason. If Watkins can overcome a calf injury and suit up, it could change the game.   Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC The Bucs exited last week with neither of their starting safeties — Winfield and Jordan Whitehead — practicing. Winfield has a better chance to suit up, in being deemed questionable. The Bucs missed the versatile rookie in Green Bay. Winfield has consistently made plays, with the most recent — stripping Jared Cook as the Saints were driving for a two-score lead — perhaps changing the complexion of the NFC playoffs. The second-generation NFLer (three sacks) also serves as part of Tampa Bay's oft-used blitz tactics. Having Winfield available will be crucial and perhaps necessary against this opponent.   Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports The Bucs' 2020 first-round pick has the look of a long-term starter at right tackle. It is not out of the question, however, the biggest game of his career occurs Sunday. Wirfs has delivered steady work protecting Brady. He allowed one regular-season sack, has not missed an offensive snap, and produced the second-best season by a rookie right tackle (per Pro Football Focus) in over 10 years. But the Chiefs will likely send Frank Clark over to his side frequently. With the Chiefs featuring a greater margin for error, Wirfs' work will help determine if the Bucs can maximize their chances.   Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports Had Shaq Barrett not intervened, the Packers are probably in Super Bowl LV. Beating right tackle Rick Wagner for three sacks, Barrett helped the Bucs stave off Green Bay's rally. He will have a less experienced adversary Sunday. The Chiefs' post-Eric Fisher-injury O-line configuration featured Wylie at right tackle. The third-year guard stands to be primarily matched up with Barrett, who has 30.5 sacks in two Tampa Bay seasons. With Mahomes boasting an NFL-best QBR against blitzes, Bucs DC Todd Bowles may limit his blitz-happy ways to protect his secondary. That will amplify the Barrett-Wylie matchup. Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.
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