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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Tom Brady was done with the trophy presentation, done with the locker room celebration, done with his news conference where he was peppered with questions about the four second-half and overtime touchdown drives, the ninth Super Bowl appearance and the 41 years of age he continues to defy.
He wore a New England Patriots AFC championship T-shirt, a face that was still a bit burnt from the brutally cold wind and a smile of satisfaction that these epic victories – the latest, 37-31 in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs – never cease to produce.
Brady was now free to find his family or his friends or his teammates. He was now free to revel in another triumph. He was now free to soak in a moment that he even wasn’t so sure was possible this season, with this team.
But first Brady wanted to find someone. So he asked officials to take him to the one person who might be most in need of a moment of his time, because he’d most certainly earned his full admiration.
He told them to take him to Patrick Mahomes.
“I just wanted to say hello,” Brady said. “I didn’t get to see him on the field.”
After this rollicking and roller-coaster playoff duel, with the Pats and Chiefs combining for four touchdowns and one field goal in the final seven minutes, 45 seconds of the fourth quarter, with a Super Bowl appearance baying in the winter wind, there was no way Brady was leaving Arrowhead Stadium without a word with Mahomes.
So Brady followed NFL and Chiefs security through a back door of the Chiefs’ locker room, until they found the 23-year-old likely MVP who had pushed and pushed and pushed the great Tom Brady to the limits.
The meeting wasn’t long. A few positive words and some elder praise for the next generation. The gesture was what mattered. The respect shown was what counted.
“He’s a great player,” Brady said. “He played a great game.”
The league could one day belong to Mahomes to run. Many thought it already was. He’s electrified the NFL with no-look passes and scrambling cross-field prayers. Yet as many unearthly plays as the kid can make, on this night he found himself like so many others before him, running into the most immovable force in football.
Tom Brady, who sure as hell isn’t done yet.
Brady threw for 348 yards here Sunday, quarterbacking six scores with a patchwork offense that many left for dead at multiple times this season (after a listless loss in Detroit, after a bad effort in Pittsburgh, after a failed drug sample by Josh Gordon). The Patriots dominated the stat sheet – 524 yards to 290, 36 first downs to 18, 43 minutes, 59 seconds time of possession to 20:53, 94 plays to 47.
They needed every last yard and play and tick of the clock to first figure out and then wear down the Chiefs’ defense, all while leaving Mahomes harmlessly shivering on the sideline under an oversized winter coat.
And even then that was almost not enough. That’s how tough an out Patrick Mahomes was.
New England scored a touchdown with 3:32 remaining to take the lead, 24-21. Mahomes responded and regained it, 28-24, with 2:02 left. Back to Brady, who led a surgical effort for another go-ahead touchdown, 31-28, with 39 seconds remaining.
It looked over. It wasn’t. The Patriots had left too much time on the clock, because Mahomes needed just two completions, four plays and 31 seconds to set up the game-tying, overtime-forcing field goal.
New England won the coin flip, though, took possession and then marched down the field like an unstoppable avalanche, converting three times on third and 10. Finally, on that 94th and final offensive snap, Rex Burkhead plunged through a worn down defensive line for the game winner, silencing 70,000-something Chiefs fans screaming from above.
The Patriots celebrated. The Chiefs collapsed.
There is honor in the fight, though. Brady has won a lot of them. He’s lost them, too. Brady has played in 308 NFL games, including 39 in the playoffs. Mahomes has been in 19 games total, two of them, counting Sunday, in the postseason. He was 6 when Brady won his first Super Bowl.
Across all those years, Brady knows both the thrill of victory and the devastation of defeat. He knows how the disappointment never really leaves. He knows how every little mistake, every missed opportunity, every failure will run through the mind not just for the next couple nights or months, but likely forever.
“It hurts,” Mahomes said.
Brady knows that he was far from perfect, two picks, including one in the end zone. He knows all those third and longs are low-probability plays. He knows the margin between churning guts and forever glory is the smallest of margins.
“A play here, a play there,” Brady said. “But that’s football.”
That is football. The wins are so sweet because everything else is so damn bitter.
“You have to take in the hurt,” Mahomes said, philosophically. “You have to accept that this hurts. It’s supposed to hurt.”
Brady knows that lesson. So maybe it wouldn’t count for much, but he felt going out of his way to offer a word or two would mean something. He knew the natural storyline here was a passing of the guard, the young overtaking the old. Tom keeps defeating time, though, so this time, when the future of the league and the past of the league battled over the present of the league, the old guy won.
One day, perhaps, Mahomes might find his way to make that one more play, the way Brady has done all these years in all these playoffs. One day, perhaps, Mahomes might hold the ball last and never let his rival see the field. One day, perhaps, winning overtime drives and advancing to Super Bowls will all seem so normal, yet so precious at the exact same time.
“I just talked to my wife, I talked to my kids and I just talked to my parents,” Brady said. “And they all had heart attacks. Almost.”
Tom Brady was off to another Super Bowl.
Just not before he made sure to be led into the Chiefs’ locker room and get a word with a young, hurting Patrick Mahomes.
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