The Kansas City Chiefs are once again competing in a Super Bowl in Florida. That is about the only thing the backdrop of this game has in common with the circumstances of last year.
Football fans around the country are trying to figure out how to celebrate the Super Bowl amid a pandemic. Some, like Jeremiah Coleman, a Chiefs fan from Wichita, Kan., flew to Tampa and paid almost $7,000 for a ticket to watch the game in person.
Others, like Christian Mollon, spent the week trying to unload Super Bowl tickets. Mollon, a Buffalo Bills fan who now lives in Kansas City, bought the tickets before the A.F.C. championship game, hoping his team would advance to the Super Bowl. It did not.
Since he already has more Super Bowl victories (six) than any other quarterback and more Super Bowl appearances (nine) than any N.F.L. team except the New England Patriots, it’s a stretch to say that Tom Brady needs a victory in this Super Bowl to enhance his football legacy.
But there is a school of thought that a Tampa Bay victory Sunday night would boost Brady’s standing in pro football history because it would simultaneously stall the Super Bowl-winning momentum of the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, a potential Brady heir apparent in conversations about all-time great quarterbacks.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who will broadcast Sunday’s game for CBS, called the contest “a legacy game” — Brady’s legacy against Mahomes’s.
“The fact that Mahomes is somehow in this discussion shows you how amazing this guy is,” Romo told reporters. “There’s a chance for Patrick Mahomes playing this game to climb the ladder. If Mahomes wins, he keeps that door open. If Brady wins, I don’t know how anyone can top him.”
Romo compared their matchup to a hypothetical matchup between two of the all-time N.B.A. greats, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
“This is what you talk about with your friends,” Romo said. “Could you imagine if Michael Jordan got his team to the finals against LeBron — who is becoming the face of the league? We’re getting that in this Super Bowl.”
The 55th Super Bowl will feature a first: Two women will be coaching in the game.
Lori Locust, a defensive line assistant, and Maral Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, are both on the staff of Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians.
Before 2015, the N.F.L. had never had a female coach. But this season there were eight, by far the most ever. They include Jennifer King, whose recent promotion by the Washington Football Team made her the first Black woman to coach full-time in the league.
Advocates of women in sports are cautiously optimistic that the number of women coaching in the N.F.L. will continue to grow. But they look with caution at the number of minority head coaches in the league, and the stop-and-start progress of the league’s Rooney Rule. There were eight minority head coaches in 2017; currently there are just three.
Sunday’s game will include another first for women. When Javadifar and Locust go to shake the referees hands, they’ll shake the hand of down judge Sarah Thomas.
She’s the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl.
The Chiefs’ offense would prefer to avoid third downs altogether. But since that’s impractical, at least they have Patrick Mahomes. Among the many things he erases on a football field — deficits, defenses, opposing fans’ hope — is the difficulty of converting on third-and-long, defined here as at least 7 yards.
On the 80 such instances Mahomes dropped back to pass in that situation, he earned a first down a staggering 40 percent of the time, gaining 8.4 yards per play, according to Football Outsiders and Sports Info Solutions.
“Sometimes I’ve got to pinch myself and be like, ‘This doesn’t happen all the time,’” Chiefs center Austin Reiter said.
No, it doesn’t. The league average is 28 percent, and Tom Brady converted just 20 percent of his third-and-long dropbacks while averaging 6.9 yards per play. Brady, though, offset that lower rate with touchdowns (four) and big plays, tending to gain more yards than needed for the first down.
Unlike Mahomes, who scrambled to convert a pivotal third-and-20 against the Chargers in Week 2, Brady isn’t a threat to run. At least not now.
“I’m going to work on my speed this off-season, try to get my speed up a little bit,” Brady said. “I see all these guys running around. I’ve got to make a few of those plays.”
Common sense dictates that bringing together 25,000 people during a pandemic could lead to more coronavirus infections, and the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., is no exception. But trying to pin down how many infections could stem from this event has frustrated scientists because contact tracing is often spotty, even more so when fans after Sunday’s game return to their homes in all corners of the country.
Donald Burke, an epidemiologist who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, is trying to develop a way to estimate the potential spread of the virus using cellphone tracking data, statistics on the transmission of viruses and other information. He hopes that models created by his company, Epistemix, can be used by public health officials and event operators to decide if it is safe enough to host large gatherings, including football games with fans.
“The question is, what is the impact of a given event,” Burke said. “Every institution is trying to figure out what’s the relative effect.”
The models, however, only track people attending a specific event, not the many other events that happen nearby. The N.F.L. may impose restrictions on behavior in its facilities, but events like the Super Bowl attract tens of thousands of other people, as has happened in Tampa, where there have been reports of large gatherings of people without masks.
And while fans might wear masks inside stadiums, they often tailgate or visit pubs and restaurants before and after games. In November, health officials in Texas said that eight residents who tested positive told contact tracers that they had recently attended Dallas Cowboys home games. It is unclear whether they were infected before, during or after the games.
There will be about 25,000 fans at the Super Bowl, but 7,500 of them will vaccinated health care workers. Other fans will sit in small groups separated from others. The league is not requiring that fans be tested or vaccinated before entering the stadium, but some fans may have received one or both. The N.F.L. is giving every fan a KN95 mask and hand sanitizer, and fans must wear masks except when eating or drinking.
One variable will be the choices of fans after the game. Some may get tested when they get home or proactively self-quarantine to avoid potentially infecting others. Others may wait to see if they begin feeling symptoms, by which point they will have likely been transmitting the virus for day.
“Modeling the virus is the easy part,” Burke said. “Modeling the humans is the hard part.”
He doesn’t think the N.F.L. should be too worried about widespread infections from the game because it has taken measures to protect fans. But Burke’s models could be improved with data on where fans come from, what portion wear masks and other information.
“This is the kind of science that we should be doing,” he said.
The Super Bowl commercial breaks are usually a stage for extravagant filmmaking, where celebrity-packed casts frolic through fantastical sets with production costs that rival the multi-million-dollar price tags attached to their broadcast slots.
This year, a 30-second game-time placement cost roughly $5.5 million. But if Sunday’s crop of commercials seem pared down, the pandemic is to blame.
After months of Covid-19 scares freezing major productions such as “Batman” and “Jurassic World: Dominion,” Super Bowl advertisers largely avoided concepts involving big crowds and exposed locations.
The e-commerce marketplace Mercari said it cast actors who already lived together. A commercial for the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s mostly features the comedian Brad Garrett in scenes by himself (a spokeswoman said that the company wanted to observe pandemic safety guidelines and “be sensitive in portraying anything that would be perceived as out of sync with consumers’ eyes in 2021”).
Rachel Ferdinando, the chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America, said that roughly 90 percent of the staffing on its Super Bowl commercials was virtual. The ads will feature brands such as Doritos, mostly featuring Matthew McConaughey by himself or in small groups, and Cheetos, with the married duo Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher and their house guest Shaggy).
“It wasn’t an easy feat,” Ferdinando said.
Frito-Lay began planning its Super Bowl campaigns in the spring but did not commit to run ads during CBS’s broadcast until December, Ferdinando said. The company will not host events in Tampa this weekend, as it would in a normal year.
“We were just working with longer lead times, and really planning as much as possible to ensure that we could mitigate risk,” she said. “But we weren’t sure if the season would go as planned, and weren’t sure how it would shake out during the course of the year.”
Huggies, a diaper brand that decided late last year to make its Super Bowl debut, will not finish making its ad until Sunday — the company plans to pad its already filmed material with images, captured and transmitted virtually by families, of infants born earlier that day.
“We’re not shooting anything — we’re not going to be in the hospitals,” said Rebecca Dunphey, president of the personal care division at Huggies’ parent company, Kimberly-Clark North America. “100 percent we’re doing this because of safety, because we want to make sure that we are not creating any more stress on these parents.”