"You come at the king, you best not miss."
The most famous line delivered by one of the greatest TV characters of all time -- Omar Little from "The Wire" -- feels quite applicable to the NFL's G.O.A.T.
Tom Brady would never come out and use such words. His public statements are painstakingly measured. But he's always had a hyper-competitive edge to him, with an intense hatred for not only losing, but failing to perform to his own lofty expectations.
And reflecting the team he spent the better part of 20 years elevating, Brady always managed to find motivation through adversity in New England, from being a lowly sixth-round pick, to going a full decade between titles, to weathering the Spygate and Deflategate scandals, to beating back Father Time and a slew of challengers, including former Patriots draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo.
Think about how many quarterbacks and franchises tried to dethrone Brady and the Patriots during their epic run? A cadre of first-round picks, all with an eye on TB12's crown. Some came close: Philip Rivers repeatedly provided a challenge, Mark Sanchez once knocked Brady out of the playoffs, and Blake Bortles actually had TB12 on the ropes during an AFC Championship Game. Plenty of others got crushed like little plebes: J.P. Losman, Tim Tebow, Andrew Luck and Sam Darnold, we're looking at you.
"He broke a lot of people's hearts," Tampa Bay assistant coach Tom Moore said on Monday.
Moore would know. He was Peyton Manning's offensive coordinator for more than a decade in Indianapolis, with the two men going 4-8 (including 1-2 in the playoffs) against Brady. Of course, Peyton's brother, Eli, nabbed a pair of Super Bowl wins over Brady, putting him in the rarest of air. Getting the best of Brady -- especially on the biggest stages -- is a Herculean task. Just ask the six-time Super Bowl champion's quarterbacking counterpart this coming Sunday, Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes took the NFL by storm in his MVP season of 2018, posting video game numbers (50 touchdowns and 5,000-plus yards through the air) in his first year as a starter while leading the Chiefs to the AFC's No. 1 overall seed. Inherently, when Kansas City and second-seeded New England both advanced to the AFC Championship Game, the teams met in the Chiefs' house, a jam-packed (and well-lubricated) Arrowhead Stadium. It was an incredibly cold midwestern night, the kind of cold that makes you wonder why in the world you don't live where there are palm trees and piña coladas. But Mahomes was unfazed as he assessed the field pregame. No additional layers needed. Meanwhile, his opposite number, an aging Brady, wore a scuba diving shirt in an effort to maintain warmth. Advantage youth? Not so fast.
The Patriots led 14-0 at the half and 17-7 late in the third quarter. Mahomes hadn't found a rhythm against that Brian Flores-coached defense. But true to form, the then-23-year-old caught fire, leading TD drives on three of four possessions, vaulting K.C. into the lead, 28-24, with just a hair over two minutes to play in the game. It appeared Mahomes was about to make the first of many Super Bowl trips.
But Brady and the Pats answered, marching 65 yards for a touchdown in a minute and 24 seconds, pushing the Pats back in front, 31-28. Yes, they got some help -- Dee Ford lining up offsides negated a game-clinching interception -- but then Brady found Rob Gronkowski for 25 yards to set up the go-ahead TD, leaving Arrowhead in a daze.
How could this be? How could Brady and this erratic offense -- dead and buried after back-to-back losses in December for the first time in eons -- be headed back to the Super Bowl?
Mahomes, of course, still had some magic left in him. He uncorked 21- and 27-yard completions to set up a Harrison Butker field goal in the closing seconds and force overtime. But the Pats won the coin toss and won the game, with Brady converting three third-and-10s along the way to a game-ending touchdown run by Rex Burkhead.
"I felt pretty good about our chances," Patriots special teams maven Matthew Slater told reporters after the game. "Because we have Tom Brady as a teammate. I always feel good about my chances."
"I thought if we got the chance," Mahomes said following the crushing loss, "we'd score."
But Brady and the Patriots wouldn't allow it, with the QB earning a ninth trip to the Super Bowl (where the Pats would go on to beat the Rams).
Greatness, though, recognizes its own kind. Which is why Brady made his way to Kansas City's locker room after that 2018 AFC Championship Game to share some words of advice and encouragement for Mahomes. And one year later, following the Chiefs' AFC title game win over the Titans, Mahomes recalled what Brady had told him in the losing locker room on that frigid Kansas City night.
"The biggest thing that Tom said to me was just to stay with the process and keep being who I am," Mahomes said after punching his ticket to his first Super Bowl, where the Chiefs would defeat the 49ers to secure the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy in a half-century. "That's something that's important, as a guy who's had so much success every single year he's been in the NFL, is that he goes out there every single day and he treats it like it's the most important day. And so that's something that I'll try to do for my entire career."
Fast-forward to the here and now, where -- once again -- Mahomes is on the precipice of something great: a second straight Super Bowl title. But there's a 43-year-old on the opposite sideline, one who won't need a scuba suit to keep warm Sunday in Tampa, and one who simply refuses to relinquish the crown.