Sunday’s Super Bowl will be another opportunity for Patrick Mahomes to get the G.O.A.T.’s goat. Win or lose, Tom Brady still will be regarded by most as the Greatest Of All-Time. But a victory by the 25-year-old Mahomes versus the 43-year-old Brady in this game for the ages — and the aged — would strengthen the wunderkind’s case of taking away Tom Terrific’s lofty designation down the road.
This generational duel between new and old gunslingers is what makes this matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Bucs as delectable as the Super Bowl chips and dip. This is a legacy matchup we usually can only fantasize about. A real-life Michael vs. LeBron. Mays vs. Trout. Jack vs. Tiger.
With an NFL Most Valuable Player award, a Super Bowl MVP and title, three Pro Bowl invites, and a slew of passing records in just three seasons as a starter, Mahomes is far ahead of any quarterback of a similar age. He is the best player in football. Maybe in any sport, for that matter. And, amazingly, the Kansas City signal-caller is just getting started. If he stays healthy, humble and hungry, he might very well throw for 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns in a season.
But as disclaimers warn, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Brady has played in 345 games across 21 seasons. He’s displayed a Hank Aaron-like string of excellence over time. Mahomes is a neophyte in comparison, with only 53 games on his resume. He has miles to go before he sleeps.
Still, here we are, the current and former faces of football going head-to-head for the fifth time after splitting their previous meetings, including a 27-24 victory by the Chiefs in Tampa two months ago. Mahomes is in the Big Game a second time. Three-time MVP Brady is about to play in his 10th Super Bowl — a championship feat unequalled in football annals, and one that conjures comparisons to other Lords of the Rings. Should he add a seventh Lombardi Trophy, he’ll break a tie with Michael Jordan (six NBA championships; five MVPs), and join Mickey Mantle (7 World Series titles, three MVPs) for fourth place on the list of North American athletes with at least seven championships and three league MVPs. That exclusive club is topped by Bill Russell (11 NBA titles; five MVPs), Yogi Berra (10 World Series titles; three MVPs) and Joe DiMaggio (nine Series titles; three MVPs). To put Brady’s football dominance into perspective, he will have started five more Super Bowls than runner-up John Elway. And what makes the reign even more remarkable is that five of Brady’s appearances have come after age 37.
His fine-wine fermentation was apparent this season. Despite having to adjust to a new team without much preseason prep because of COVID safety precautions, the former New England Patriot threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns. Mahomes finished with 4,740 yards, 38 TD passes and six interceptions, but those stats would have been even better had he and most of Kansas City’s other starters not sat out the regular-season finale after winning 14 of 15 to clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. He possibly would have surpassed 5,000 yards a second time, making him just the second QB in NFL history with two such seasons. (Drew Brees has done it five times.)
But, like Brady, Mahomes’ most cherished stats are victories, and he’s racked up plenty so far, leading the Chiefs to a 44-9 record as a starter, including a 6-1 mark in the postseason. He thrives on the big stage, as evidenced by his 17 touchdown passes, six rushing TDs and just two picks in playoff and Super Bowl competition.
Few are more stoked about this matchup than CBS analyst Tony Romo, who likens it to a mythical meeting of Jordan and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Romo, who will work the telecast alongside Jim Nantz, believes there is more at stake for Mahomes than Brady. “This is the biggest game Patrick Mahomes will ever play in for the rest of his career,’’ Romo said on a conference call last week. “It’s the only way to catch Tom Brady’s career. He has to win this game. If he loses this game, he cannot catch Tom Brady, in my opinion.”
Now, I like Romo as an analyst, though his verbosity can be off-putting at times. I believe the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and certified football fanatic is genuinely geeked to see this QB duel, and isn’t merely hyping a game that’s always over-hyped. And while I agree there is more pressure on Mahomes, and that Brady is playing with house money at this point of his illustrious career, I don’t believe the debate is settled once and for all with a Brady win. What if Mahomes were to go on to win a few more Super Bowls and/or throw for 100,000 yards and 800 touchdowns in his career?
A quarterback’s ring collection is a factor in assessing his legacy, but it’s just one factor. Are you going to tell me that Jeff Hostetler was a better quarterback than Jim Kelly? Or that Trent Dilfer was better than Dan Marino? Puh-lease.
I realize that, unlike Michael vs. LeBron, Brady and Mahomes won’t be guarding one another. Still, they play the most impactful position, so they will have the greatest say in who wins. If their previous matchups are any indication, expect a close game. In head-to-heads, Brady has completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 300 passing yards and has six touchdown passes and five interceptions, while Mahomes has completed 65 percent, averaged 348 yards and thrown for 11 TDs, while being picked off three times. Mahomes’ teams have outscored Brady’s, 121-120. That’s how tight it’s been.
In their last meeting, Mahomes threw for 462 yards, with jitterbug quick receiver Tyreek Hill accounting for 269 of them. The Bucs’ young secondary has improved dramatically since then, and Tampa Bay has a pass rush that can make things uncomfortable. But Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy haven’t revealed all their tricks. And in Mahomes, they have a big-armed, quick-footed, fast-processing, cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow magician doing things we’ve never witnessed before.
Youth won’t be wasted on the young in this game. The G.O.A.T-In-Training will prevail. Call it Chiefs, 33-23, and let the great debate continue.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.