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Patrick Mahomes took three knees, then turned to the faithful who were trying to make 17,000 voices — less the couple thousand Buffalo invaders, anyway — sound like 170,000. He waved them louder, louder still, so maybe they could hear them all the way in Tampa. And the faithful complied. They always do.
They waited a lot of years — a lot of decades — in Kansas City to get the kind of team they got last year, the Chiefs who ended a half-century of frustration and added a bookend Lombardi Trophy to the won they won 50 years earlier in Super Bowl IV.
Now they have this. They are the Midwestern football version of the Red Sox, a franchise that seemed forever destined to be strangled by ill fate and hog-tied by destiny only to receive, after an extended wait, a team not only good enough to win a title, but several of them.
“We’re going to Tampa to run it back!” Kansas City owner Clark Hunt roared when this 38-24 masterpiece of an AFC title game was over, clutching the conference championship trophy that is named after his father, Lamar, founder of both the Chiefs and the old AFL.
And, of course, they have the quarterback. They have Patrick Mahomes. They have Superman who wears a “C” on his chest instead of an “S,” who plays the position with an imagination and a creativity that is almost impossible to fully understand. Perhaps you aren’t ready to say he plays quarterback better than anyone who’s come before. But he sure seems to have more fun than anyone who’s come before. And he makes the NFL as much fun to watch as is permissible by law.
“We believe in each other,” Mahomes said after turning in a tidy 29-for-38 passing performance, good for 325 yards and three touchdowns, a week after he’d jammed both his toe and his head, after a seven-day interlude when it was questionable whether he’d play at all. “The job isn’t finished. I trust my guys over anybody and we’re going out there to be ourselves, to be who we are.”
Right now, and for at least another 14 days, who they are is the reigning Super Bowl champion, and who they will be is a substantial favorite to become the first team since the 2004 Patriots to repeat as NFL champs. They are a good team, a deep team, playmakers everywhere you look. With one play-master who towers over the rest.
“This guy seems to amaze me a little bit more every game,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “And it never goes to his head. He just keeps working harder, just keeps getting better.”
The story that will dominate every hour between now and just past 6:30 p.m. Feb. 7, in Tampa, when Super Bowl 2021 kicks off will be Mahomes squaring off with Tom Brady, the G.O.A.T. facing his heir apparent. It is an irresistible story, the king and the crown prince, the game taking place in Brady’s new Tampa fiefdom.
It will be Brady’s 10th appearance in the Super Bowl. It will be the first time since his debut, 19 years ago, that the box next to his name when listing the pregame matchups will not be checked. Back then, it was Kurt Warner who was still engineering the Greatest Show on Turf, the league’s MVP. Brady was still a virtual unknown, and some thought a fluke. The Rams had the edge that day. Or so many thought.
Nobody ever made that mistake again as he paired off against Jake Delhomme and Donovan McNabb, against Eli Manning (twice) and Russell Wilson, against Matt Ryan and Nick Foles and Jared Goff. Brady was better than all of them, even Our Guy Eli, even if he didn’t always outplay the other guy.
Not this time.
It’s Mahomes’ time.
Now, that isn’t to say that the Buccaneers can’t polish off a Cinderella sporting year for Tampa-St. Pete, and join the NHL’s Lightning in winner’s circle (having already clinched a final story at least as improbable as MLB’s Rays). And while Brady was leaking oil by the minute in Green Bay Sunday, in the NFC Championship game, throwing three second-half picks … well, he is still Tom Brady, and this will still be the Super Bowl, and nobody has ever seemed so comfortable working that terrain as Brady has, and surely will.
But it’s Mahomes who has the bigger game, who is 18 years younger, who has the more powerful weapons at his disposal. It’s Mahomes — 2-2 lifetime against Brady, 0-1 in championship games having lost the ’19 AFC title game in OT — who is the sport’s most vivid star. The checkmark will be in the box next to his name.
“I think,” Reid said, “it’s going to be a heck of a football game.”
He smiled as he said this, the smile of a man who knows he’ll have the best player in that game on his side of the field.
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