By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - America's biggest sporting spectacle will play out in a mostly empty stadium in Tampa, Florida, on Sunday with more cardboard-cutout fans than real ones taking in the Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With COVID-19 restrictions limiting attendance to 25,000 living, breathing spectators sprinkled among 30,000 happy-faced cutouts, the atmosphere inside Raymond James Stadium - which has a capacity of 70,000 - will be largely manufactured.
But not even a pandemic, which will force those with tickets into protective masks and socially distanced seating, will detract from a contest that has the look of a genuine classic featuring perhaps the greatest Super Bowl quarterbacking matchup of all time.
Quarterbacks have been at the center of every Super Bowl going back to the first in 1967 when Bart Starr led the Green Bay Packers to victory over Len Dawson and the Chiefs.
But never before has there been a generational showdown of such quality as the one NFL fans around the world will devour on Sunday when the quarterback many consider the greatest of all time - the Buccaneers' ageless wonder, Tom Brady - goes against his heir apparent and the best there is in the game today, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes.
Underscoring that excellence, the game will mark just the second time that the winning quarterbacks of the two most recent Super Bowls will face each other in the championship game. It will be the first Super Bowl matchup between quarterbacks who have Most Valuable Player Awards for both the NFL and the Super Bowl in their trophy cases.
After 20 seasons, nine Super Bowl appearances and six rings with the New England Patriots, Brady decided not on retirement in Florida but a new challenge, signing with Tampa and taking a team that had not been to the playoffs in 13 years to the NFL championship game.
At 43 years old, Brady produced one of the greatest seasons of his Hall of Fame career, passing for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns. Among his other accomplishments, he will be the oldest player ever to take a snap in the Super Bowl.
If there is one player NFL fans and pundits are even more smitten with than Brady, it is the 25-year-old Mahomes, who possesses otherworldly athleticism and talent.
In just his third season as a starter, Mahomes has the Chiefs back in the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year, trying to become the first repeat champions since - guess who? - Brady and the Patriots in 2003 and 2004.
"If you’re a young athlete, and you’re playing any sport, and you don’t look up to guys like Tom Brady, you’re crazy,” said Mahomes. "He’s the type of greatness that you strive to be, to be like and to be towards as you grow up.
"As I continue in my career I'm still trying to do whatever I can to watch the tape on him because he's doing it the right way and you can tell by how many Super Bowl championships he has and the rings on his fingers."
They may be from two different eras and styles but both Mahomes and Brady mesmerize when at the controls of explosive offenses packed with weapons to showcase their abilities.
The Chiefs' arsenal includes a lightning-fast receiving corps led by speedsters Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, who would not look out of place on a U.S. Olympic sprint relay team.
But Mahomes' favorite target is Travis Kelce, who hauled in 105 passes for a tight-end record 1,416 yards.
Brady also has no shortage of-game breakers in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown along with his big tight-end Rob Gronkowski.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Matthew Lewis)