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Matchup decided: Bucs first to play Super Bowl at home, vs defending champs Chiefs

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ road magic have them heading home for the Super Bowl with a matchup against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Credit: AP
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes runs onto the field before the AFC championship NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

It took the Kansas City Chiefs five frustrating decades to make their second Super Bowl appearance.

Now, the defending champs are headed there for the second straight year.

Showing no lingering effects from a concussion, Patrick Mahomes sliced up Buffalo's secondary with ruthless efficiency as the Chiefs rolled to a 38-24 victory over Josh Allen and the Bills in the AFC championship game Sunday night. Mahomes threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns, with most of it to favorite targets Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill,

The Chiefs will face a familiar foe — Tom Brady — and the NFC champ Buccaneers in two weeks in Tampa, Florida.

Brady has a new team, in a new town. The destination is the same: another Super Bowl.

At home, too.

The man with six NFL titles will become the first quarterback to play a Super Bowl on his team’s home field. He owes the Tampa Bay defense that sacked Aaron Rodgers five times, and a curious late call on fourth-and-goal by the Packers as Brady and the Bucs beat top-seeded Green Bay 31-26 for the NFC title Sunday.

“It’s great to get another road win and now we got a home game, and who would have ever thought a home Super Bowl for us,” Brady said. "But we did it.

“I thought the defense was spectacular. They’ve done that all year.”

RELATED: Old (Brady) vs. young (Mahomes), a different Super Bowl 55 awaits

The Bucs (14-5) will face the Kansas City Chiefs (16-2) at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7. No, a host team in the Super Bowl has never happened in 54 previous games.

NFC championship recap:

“We’re coming home,” said Bucs coach Bruce Arians, whose first NFL coaching job was as an assistant in 1989 with Kansas City, and won two league Coach of the Year awards, with Indianapolis in 2012, Arizona in 2014. He will make his first trip to the Super Bowl as a head coach. “We’re coming home to win.”

Brady is back in his first year at Tampa Bay after reaching this stage nine times with the New England Patriots. He went 20 of 36 for 286 yards and three touchdowns, but also threw three interceptions as Tampa Bay squandered most of an 18-point lead. Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for five sacks to help the Bucs hang on for their franchise-record eighth consecutive road victory.

It’s quite a step up for a team that had one winning record in the last nine seasons.

Credit: AP
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady reacts after winning the NFC championship NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. The Buccaneers defeated the Packers 31-26 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

“Tom is the GOAT (greatest of all time),” said Bucs receiver Scotty Miller, who caught a 39-yard touchdown pass with 1 second left until halftime. “Last year, we ended 7-9. This year, we’re going to the Super Bowl. He’s the biggest reason.”

The Bucs snapped Green Bay’s seven-game winning streak. They were aided by a strange decision from Packers coach Matt LaFleur with just over two minutes remaining in a 31-23 game.

After three straight incompletions had the Packers facing fourth-and-goal from the 8, the Packers elected to kick a field goal to get within five.

Credit: AP
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers passes during the first half of the NFC championship NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

“Anytime it doesn’t work out you always regret it, right?” LaFleur said. “It was just circumstance of having three shots and coming away with no yards. And knowing that you not only need the touchdown but you’d need the 2-point. The way I was looking at it is we essentially had four timeouts with the 2-minute warning, we knew we needed to get a stop.”

Tampa Bay then ran out the clock on the Packers (14-4).

“I understand the thinking — above two minutes with all of our timeouts — but it wasn’t my decision,” Rodgers said.

The Packers lost in the NFC championship game for the fourth time in the last seven seasons. Green Bay hasn’t reached the Super Bowl since its 2010 championship season.

Rodgers went 33 of 48 for 346 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, but fell to 1-4 in conference championship games as a starting quarterback. The Packers had the NFL's best red-zone offense this season, but they twice settled for field goals after having a first-and-goal Sunday.

“I’m just pretty gutted,” Rodgers said. “It’s a long season. You put so much into it to get to this point. We had our chances.”

Tampa Bay took command in the middle portion of the game.

After Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted a Rodgers pass and Tampa Bay converted a fourth-and-4, the Bucs were at Green Bay’s 39 while leading 14-10 with 8 seconds remaining in the second quarter The Bucs passed up a long field-goal attempt, and Brady found Miller down the left sideline for a 39-yard touchdown with just 1 second remaining.

“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,” Arians said. “Love the play we had. Got a great matchup and got a TD. That was huge.”

The Packers got the ball to start the second half, and Aaron Jones caught a short third-down pass. He took a huge hit from Jordan Whitehead that knocked the ball loose. Devin White recovered and ran 21 yards to the Green Bay 8.

One play later, Brady found a wide-open Cameron Brate to extend Tampa Bay’s lead to 28-10.

The Packers rallied as Brady threw interceptions on three straight drives for just the second time in his career. Green Bay cut the lead to 28-23 late in the third quarter on Rodgers’ touchdown passes to Robert Tonyan and Davante Adams.

Twice in the fourth quarter, the Packers got the ball with a chance to take the lead after Jaire Alexander picked off Brady passes deep in Green Bay territory. Both times, the Packers went three-and-out.

“I felt like we had plenty of opportunities tonight to take advantage of and get the job done,” LaFleur said. “We didn’t do it, and that falls on me and that’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re responsible for everybody in this organization to make sure that you’re on your `A' game, and I don’t feel like I was tonight. I’m just pretty disappointed that (I) let a lot of people down.”

It’s been quite a ride for Brady and the Bucs. Brady moved to Tampa as a free agent and brought star tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to join him. But with limited practice time with his new teammates because of coronavirus protocols, the Bucs didn’t get rolling until after their bye week.

Now look where they are.

“It’s been a great journey this far,” Brady said.

And it’s taking them right back home.

SUCCESS DURING A PANDEMIC

The Buccaneers are the third Tampa team to play for a championship during the pandemic. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2020, and the Rays lost to the Dodgers in the World Series.

More on AFC Championship: 

Kelce finished with 13 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, and Hill added nine catches for 172 yards, becoming the first duo in NFL history with consecutive games of at least 100 yards receiving each in a single postseason.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams added short TD runs for the Chiefs, who will try to become the eighth franchise and first team since the Brady-led New England Patriots in 2003 and '04 to defend the Lombardi Trophy.

Allen, who had his worst game of the season in a Week 6 loss to the Chiefs, again struggled against the blitzing Kansas City defense. He finished with 287 yards passing with two touchdowns and an interception, but a big chunk of his numbers came as the Bills tried to rally from a 38-15 deficit in the final minutes.

Their frustration boiled over with 3:19 to go, when Allen was getting sacked by Tanoh Kpassagnon. Alex Okafor finished off the tackle, and Allen pitched the ball in his face in resentment. Offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Dion Dawkins rushed in and leveled Okafor, resulting in a flood of offsetting personal foul penalties.

It capped a bitter loss for the Bills, who had reached their first AFC title game since beating Kansas City at home on Jan. 1, 1994. They had won 11 of 12 since their loss to the Chiefs earlier this season — in fact, they hadn’t trailed in the second half since Week 8 — and were riding a wave of confidence that this might finally be their championship year.

Credit: AP
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) fumbles a punt in front of Buffalo Bills cornerback Siran Neal (33) during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. Buffalo recovered the fumble. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Instead, after finally conquering the Patriots in the AFC East, the Bills have a new roadblock to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs actually spotted the Bills a 9-0 lead, thanks in large part to Mecole Hardman's muffed punt inside their 5 that gifted Buffalo a touchdown. But the reigning champs were hardly rattled; the Chiefs, after all, rallied from double-digits in each of their postseason wins last season, including their Super Bowl triumph over San Francisco.

Mahomes and Kelce soon found their groove. And the rest of the Chiefs offense followed suit.

They surgically took apart Buffalo's defense on a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a short TD throw to Hardman — no hard feelings over that fumble. Then, the Chiefs cruised 82 yards in just five plays, the big one Hardman's 50-yard end-around that set up Williams' touchdown tumble. Finally, they made it three TDs in three possessions when Edwards-Helaire — in his first game back from an ankle injury — capped a 77-yard drive with a short plunge.

The only answer from Buffalo was Tyler Bass's chip-shot field goal that made it 21-12 at the break.

You don't beat Kansas City by kicking field goals from the 3-yard line, though. Or from the 9, where the Bills settled for another one to close within 24-15 late in the third quarter.

That became painfully clear on the ensuing drive. Mahomes hit Hill in stride and the All-Pro wide receiver promptly made the Bills secondary look downright foolish. Weaving in and out of woebegone defenders, Hill was finally caught inside the 5-yard line after a 71-yard gain, ultimately setting up Kelce's short TD catch a few plays later.

Any hopes the Bills had of a comeback were dashed when Rashad Fenton picked off a tipped pass deep in Kansas City territory. The Chiefs breezily marched the other direction, and Mahomes and Kelce kicked off the celebration of another trip to the Super Bowl when they connected for their second score of the game.

INJURIES

Chiefs RG Andrew Wylie hurt his knee early in the second half and LT Eric Fisher limped off in the fourth quarter with an injury to his Achilles' tendon. ... CB L'Jarius Sneed and SS Armani Watts were evaluated for concussions.

Jones hurt his chest and Whitehead injured his shoulder on the third-quarter play that resulted in a Jones fumble. Packers defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster (ankle) and linebacker Krys Barnes (thumb) left in the second half.

The Bucs played the entire game without wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle).

UP NEXT

The Chiefs and Buccaneers have only played 13 times, and Kansas City had lost five straight before a 27-24 win in Tampa on Nov. 29 — a game that wasn't as close as the final score. Brady is 5-5 in his career against against the Chiefs, including an overtime victory with the Patriots in the AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium two years ago.

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