KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They are back where they started, the Patriots facing the Rams in the Super Bowl again, 17 years after the first time. It is a neat bookend for the greatest dynasty the NFL has known. If, in fact, you believe this is the end for New England.
How could you believe that now, after the Pats defeated this season's darlings, the Chiefs, 37-31, in overtime? The torch was not passed, the next generation has not yet seized its moment, the greatest coach and quarterback ever are not yet ready to entertain successors. Instead, they will go to their third Super Bowl in a row and their fourth in the last five years.
Tom Brady went to pay his respects to Patrick Mahomes later, spending a few quiet moments with him. Given how Mahomes kept fighting back Sunday night, it seems inevitable that eventually he will be the game's greatest talent. But that moment is not quite yet.
Late on Sunday -- after the running game bled the clock and a revived Rob Gronkowski made two critical receptions and Julian Edelman recovered from a terrible mistake and the defense (which occasionally used a two-down-linemen look from the Belichick-era Giants) erased Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and 38 points were scored in the fourth quarter and New England ran 94 plays to double up the Chiefs -- the Patriots admitted that even they didn't feel great about how this season went. Until those last four games -- throttlings of the Billsand Jets, and the playoff victories over the Chargersand Chiefs.
"The odds were stacked against us," Brady said.
A sentiment which would be laughable unless you'd seen the struggles he, among others, had this season.
"It hasn't been that way for us for a while," he continued. "It was this year. We started so slow."
It's going to be hard to take two weeks of the Patriots-as-underdogs storylines -- have they ever really been an underdog since they beat that old St. Louis vintage Rams team, after the 2001 season and a baby-faced Brady clutched his head in disbelief? Still, the raw emotion this victory elicited was plain to see. When Rex Burkhead ran up the middle for the final touchdown, Brady whirled around and started prancing up the field, clutching anybody he could.
It is tempting to think that a ninth -- ninth -- Super Bowl trip in 17 healthy Brady seasons would make this feel routine for the quarterback and Bill Belichick. But there wasn't much about this season that was routine and neither was the reaction. The year began with Edelman suspended and a conga line of receivers trying to latch on -- remember the failed Eric Decker training camp experiment? -- and the fallout of the offseason absences of Gronkowski and Brady. Josh Gordon came and went. Brady got hurt and then recovered. Gronkowski faded badly and then, in these last two weeks, drank from the fountain of youth.
While the NFL blew up with new stars and new scoring records around them, it often felt like the Patriots were held together by scotch tape, hanging on by their fingernails. Devin McCourty thought they played okay in "flashes," he said, but rarely with much consistency -- excruciating for a franchise whose consistency has exploded the model for parity on which the league is based. At 9-5 after back-to-back December losses, the vulnerability had been laid bare. By the time the Buffalo game came around, McCourty said, they knew they were running out of time to elevate their game. And then, as they have so many other times, they did.
"I thought we played well a lot of points of the season," Belichick said, when informed of his players' analysis of the season. "Green Bay, Minnesota, Chicago, Kansas City. It's tough to win in this league. Whenever you get one, you feel good about it."
What happens, of course, is the Patriots adjust and fix their problems and then, only in the most oblique ways, acknowledge that they ever existed at all. On Sunday, they looked, mostly, like a run-first team, and keeping Mahomes and his explosiveness off the field was part of the plan. The Patriots held the ball for nearly 44 minutes, more than twice the Chiefs' time of possession. But at the end, after Mahomes had driven the Chiefs to the tying field goal, Brady, who has been bedeviled this season by occasional spates of inaccuracy, converted on three straight third-and-10 passes in overtime. Mahomes never touched the ball in the extra period, another pretender to the throne sent packing until training camp.
"There's a clutch gene," Edelman said of Brady. "He's got it."
He always has, and it has powered the Patriots from beginning to ... whatever this is they are approaching. Consider this remarkable statistic. Of the 44 men listed as starters from Super Bowl XXXVI, 43 are out of the game. The one who remains is the one who led the game-winning drive then as a 24-year old, the one who guided the Patriots through four lead changes in the fourth quarter Sunday night. The one who, at age 41, stole a peek at the game stats as he left the podium and got ready for the spot he has made his own. Someday, Mahomes may go to the Super Bowl. But the AFC -- indeed the entire NFL -- is the same as it ever was, running through Brady for a championship.
"It's hard," Brady said, "to imagine it."