KANSAS CITY — Shortly before the AFC championship kicked off late Sunday, the two football-shaped video screens standing sentry above the end zones showed Tom Brady being, well, Tom Brady. For anyone just waking up from a two-decade slumber, he’s the NFL quarterback who ages in reverse, getting younger, slimmer and more birthday-immune by the year.
While Brady secured his 10th Super Bowl berth, one longtime fan jogged onto the field at Arrowhead Stadium. That fan, who long ago began studying Brady’s game film, was aware that when the G.O.A.T. won his first championship back in 2002, that he, the fan, had not yet completed kindergarten. The fan, of course, would embark on his own career, becoming the starting quarterback in Kansas City, leading a franchise steeped in tragedy, playoff losses and misfortune to its first title in half a century. And, at that moment, just before kickoff, Patrick Mahomes knew: should he topple the Bills, could he return to the Super Bowl, he would not only again meet one of his favorite athletes but he would be favored to beat him, too.
As Chiefs fans chopped and fireworks exploded and smoke wafted and flags flew, a Super Bowl with a certain poetic symmetry began to take shape. Just as the NFL’s latest—and greatest—dynasty came to an end when Brady left New England and the Patriots missed the playoffs, so too did the next dynasty—and the obvious successor for the face of America’s most popular and profitable sport—become clearer. That would be the Chiefs, of course, and Mahomes, of course, who can make Super Bowl LV into less of a coronation and more of a handoff. This, after his 38–24 victory on Sunday night. “We’ve got the Lamar Hunt Trophy back in Kansas City,” Coach Andy Reid said as confetti fluttered through the air and the limited amount of fans remained in their seats. “And now we’ve gotta go get the big one again.”
First, though, the Bills. The contest marked a rematch of the 1994 AFC championship. Buffalo won that one, 30–13, then dropped a fourth consecutive Super Bowl, that time to Dallas. The Chiefs went 22 seasons after that game without a playoff win despite many postseason appearances, most ending with what founder Lamar Hunt referred to as “buzzard’s luck.” The Bills, meanwhile, had not returned to the conference title stage since. Not until Sunday.
Buffalo traveled to barbecue country as one of the hottest teams in football with an emerging MVP candidate at quarterback in Josh Allen, one of the game’s top wideouts in Stefon Diggs and a general sense of the destiny involved in what had shaped into a special season. The Bills even took a 9–0 lead after a field goal and a punt return fumble recovery near the end zone that Allen turned into his first TD throw.
Bills Mafia, the NFL’s most fervent fanbase, had flown and driven and planes-trains-and-automobiled into town. They set up in a parking lot on Blue Ridge Cutoff and did what they do best: break, fall through and get thrown through tables. Meanwhile, Chiefs die-hards blasted music blared from car stereos, pulled racks of ribs from smokers, set up beer pong tables and put up tents with heaters and flat-screen televisions. This being the third straight AFC title game at Arrowhead, the Chiefs fans were in postseason form, COVID-19 restrictions notwithstanding. One wore a team-colors mask that read RUN IT BACK in all caps.
They just might.
GRAMLING: Conference Title Game Takeaways
Kansas City marched through the 2020 season, despite everything—the pandemic raging, the player opt-outs, the racial awakening, the national recession, the election, the insurrection. The world descended into chaos, but the Chiefs did not. They played as if simply continuing their 2019 title year. They won the league opener over the Texans, started 4–0, topped the Bills in Week 6 and went 14–1 before resting starters in the regular-season finale. Much was made of their seven straight wins by six or fewer points heading into Sunday, a number contrasted with the Bills' six straight and more dominant wins. But that initial victory over Buffalo proved more instructive Sunday. In that first meeting, the Bills didn’t blitz Mahomes. Not once. And Buffalo mostly did the same on Sunday, in the rematch, to even worse results.
Mahomes was clinical, efficient, not in any kind of rush. He answered the Bills' 9–0 lead with three straight touchdowns. He picked Buffalo apart with short passes, bubble screens and one (typically) ridiculous sidearm to tight end Travis Kelce to convert on third down in the second quarter. The Chiefs offense is funny like that, with so much of what they do grounded in disguise and misdirection and holy-s--- Mahomes moments, while still managing to be steady, even boring, in the best possible sense.
The explosive plays came naturally, as they often do for Reid, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Mahomes. Mecole Hardman atoned for the fumble on the punt return with a 50-yard run and a receiving score. Tyreek Hill turned a relatively simple second-half pass into a Madden highlight, hauling in a short catch in the middle of the field, cutting right, juking left and picking up 71 yards before the Bills pulled him down near the end zone.
The Kansas City defense flummoxed Allen, who scratched out 104 first-half passing yards, only 12 of which went to Diggs, who was limited to two receptions before the break. The Chiefs only expanded their lead from there, going ahead 38–15 before a series of skirmishes turned the fourth quarter ugly, before the celebration, the stage, the confetti and the trophy named after the team’s founder was secured, home for another year after 50 years spent somewhere else.
Mahomes, of course, did not look like an injured quarterback; a player who had left last week’s victory over Cleveland to enter the concussion protocol and been limited in practice all last week. He looked like the league MVP, an award he won two seasons ago but lost last year and likely this year when he easily could have nabbed all three. No quarterback has put together a first-three-seasons-as-a-starter resumé like Mahomes. NFL MVP. Super Bowl MVP. And now, on the precipice of a second and repeat championship. That’s no small feat. Since 1992, only five teams had won the Super Bowl and returned the next season: the Cowboys, Patriots, Seahawks, Packers and Broncos. And now: Chiefs.
When Reid stepped in front of the banner for his Zoom presser, he hadn’t had much time to consider the history involved. A red Chiefs mask hung around his neck. A gray conference champions hat rested atop his head. He played down the head injury for Mahomes but played up the grotesque nature of a “black-and-blue” toe that had healed in time for Sunday.
Reid also recalled another Brady-Mahomes matchup, the one from the 2018 playoffs that took place two years ago, when Brady launched the Patriots back into the Super Bowl (and won it). The quarterbacks met afterward, one on top, one headed there, and Mahomes spoke to Brady with the reverence of a fan. In the two seasons since, Mahomes has closed that gap. Other players speak with reverence to him, about him. “Listen, you guys are seeing him grow right in front of you,” Reid said, calling himself an “old guy” who has coached/watched “a couple pretty good quarterbacks.” And yet, Mahomes does something every game—every day—that amazes his head coach.
A good comparison? Brady. Always. His origin story is closer to fable at this point: sixth-round draft pick sits behind Drew Bledsoe, becomes the starter due to injury, wins three Super Bowls—of six, six!, total—in four seasons. Having run through longtime adversaries, topping Drew Brees in New Orleans and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Brady must now confront not a star from his generation but the future of the league he has long dominated. Football fans, those suffering from pandemic boredom, two franchises, even the quarterbacks themselves—they wouldn’t have it any other way. Mahomes called the matchup “special” and joked about playing TB12 in his “150th” Super Bowl appearance.
When one NFL dynasty ends, another begins. Maybe. Mahomes has watched enough of Brady to know what the old man is capable of, and it’ll be longtime greatness versus the emerging kind in Tampa in two weeks. “Our goal from the beginning of the season,” Mahomes said afterward, “was to win the Super Bowl, not to get to it.”