In this season plagued by the coronavirus, the National Football League couldn’t have scripted its ultimate game any better.
Tom Brady leaves New England and signs a two-year, $50 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Long ago, the Super Bowl was slated to be played in 2021 at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs’ home field.
After vanquishing the Packers and Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, Brady, the seemingly ageless 43-year-old quarterback, in two weeks will be playing in the Super Bowl for the 10th time, and the home team will be hosting the big game for the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in the event’s 55-year history. He’ll take on the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs and Super Bowl 54 MVP Patrick Mahomes on Feb. 7. Mahomes’ squad defeated a Josh Allen-led Buffalo team 38-24 to win the AFC Championship.
“Oh, it’s been a great journey, thus far,” Brady said after the Bucs’ 31-26 win in the NFC Championship at Green Bay’s legendary Lambeau Field. “We put the work in and a lot of the guys just embraced everything. I just made the decision [to move to Tampa], and we worked very hard to get to this point.”
The closest a home team has come to hosting the Super Bowl was the Rams losing to the Steelers in Super Bowl 15 at the Rose Bowl in 1980, and the 49ers crushing the Dolphins in Super Bowl 19 at Stanford Stadium in 1985. At the time of those games, the Rams played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Niners at Candlestick Park.
“We’re so proud of this team,” Buccaneers owner Joel Glazer said as he was presented the Halas Trophy after the game in Green Bay. “Tampa, we’re coming home!!!”
Right now, the Tampa football stadium that seats 65,890 will be restricted because of health and safety protocols to a crowd for the big game of 22,000, 7,500 of those tickets being given free by the NFL to local vaccinated health care workers. The Buccaneers have been playing at about 25% of capacity since mid-October.
“As we all know, these front-line workers are true American heroes, and we owe them our ongoing gratitude,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday during a conference call with reporters. “We also know that we need to rely on them for months to come to distribute vaccines and continue to treat all of those that are ill from COVID and other illnesses.”
As of Sunday night after the NFC Championship, StubHub was listing a single seat for the Super Bowl game at Raymond James in the Upper Deck Section 308, Row A for $17,940. Suite ticket holders were seeking prices into the mid-six figures. The NFL handles ticket distribution for the event, and even under normal circumstances, Bucs season ticket holders wouldn’t hold any advantage just because their team happens to be hosting the game.
“Number one, two and three is doing it safely, and we do believe that,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events. “The fact that we’re able to honor and thank health-care workers and invite them as guests is something that we’re humbled and happy to do.”
It’s been a bittersweet sports year for the Tampa Bay teams that have executed a rare championship trifecta, but not to the enjoyment of most local fans. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup this past September sans fans, playing the entire postseason in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles. Equally, a month later, the Rays played almost the entire playoffs and ultimately lost the World Series in soft bubbles on the road in San Diego and Arlington, Tex. Even the opening Wild Card round was played without anyone attending games in the Tropicana Dome.
In addition, the coronavirus cost Tampa Bay two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament when the whole show was canceled, a golf tournament, and a Grand Prix auto race. When the Raptors of the National Basketball Association were forced out of Toronto to play this season at Tampa’s Amile Arena, they opened for home games in late December with about 4,000 fans in the building. Since then, the surging virus has ended that practice until at least Feb. 9. Thus, the Lightning were also forced to open the new NHL season this month without fans in the building.
Add it all together and the entire Tampa metropolitan area is facing a loss since this past March of sports-related economic impact in excess of $400 million.
Still, the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl.
“It’s been tough to get here,” Brady said. “To go on the road and win another road playoff game is just a great achievement. A home Super Bowl for the first time in NFL history I think puts a lot of cool things into perspective. Now we’ve just got to have a great two weeks, prepare and be ready to go.”
As far as Brady is concerned, he left the Patriots in the dust. His first nine Super Bowls were in a New England uniform and he won a record six of them. While Brady left and transformed the Buccaneers into a Super Bowl contender for the first time since they defeated the Raiders at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium in 2003, the Patriots missed the playoffs and had their streak of 11 consecutive AFC East titles come to an end.
Brady outdueled the 37-year-old Rodgers Sunday, completing 20-of-36 passes for three touchdowns, three interceptions and 280 yards. Next up is the 25-year-old Mahomes, who himself finished 29-of-38 for 325 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while leading the Chiefs at home in Arrowhead Stadium. Brady’s now 10-4 in Conference title games and his 33 postseason wins as a QB is more than twice the number of the runner up: Joe Montana with 12.
“This is all hard to envision,” Brady said. “This is a goal, but at the same time, it’s a week-to-week league. We were at 7-5 seven games ago and not feeling great. It felt like we needed to find our rhythm. We played four great games going down to the end of the season and after that it’s all been a bonus. Football is a team sport. It takes everybody and everybody plays a role.
“I’m so proud of this whole team and blessed to be a part of it.”