If Tom Brady wants to fight COVID-19 with whatever is in his TB12 medicine bag, as he has hinted, then we might as well let him try. Because any man who can make a country temporarily forget a raging pandemic could be capable of ending it, too. As we witness the unprecedented in sports and life — the sight of a 43-year-old legend cold-cocking Father Time and reaching yet another Super Bowl — it’s safe to draw some historic conclusions.
He was not the product of Bill Belichick’s system in New England. He did not need deflated footballs to throw 47 touchdown passes in a season. And if his so-called principles for sustained peak performance remain oddballish, from the goji berries to the electrolyte-infused water to the Himalayan pink salt, count me among legions of Americans heading to his website to load up.
To call him the greatest quarterback of all time seems hollow now. The new distinction: Brady is the first human being who might be correct in thinking he won’t die until he’s 130, if ever. Stretching the boundaries of age, health and sensibility in preposterous ways, he is mastering the art of leadership and winning in 2021 just as he did 10 and 20 seasons ago, when he launched the longest enduring championship run in American sports. We winced when he left the Patriots and the oppressive Belichick regime to join the often-mocked Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team with the pirate ship in the end zone. But at a stage in life when he should be making appointments to check his colon and prostate, Brady instead has a date with his 10th Super Bowl Sunday — with the first team ever to play for an NFL championship in its home stadium.
Is this happening? It is.
And even more absurd: He will duel Patrick Mahomes, his antithesis in every way — age, playing style, diet, hair, commercials — in a time warp described aptly by Tony Romo in the CBS broadcast booth. “It’s like LeBron and Jordan, playing in the Finals,” he said.
Except we expected Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs to be here. Brady? The Buccaneers? By the pirate ship in a pandemic? With the Bucs practicing at home all week while the Chiefs fly in the day before kickoff? Somehow, it’s true, as 68-year-old coaching lifer Bruce Arians verified when asked what Brady has meant to what officially is known as Tompa Bay.
“This trophy! This trophy! The belief he gave everyone in this organization, that this could be done,” Arians said. “It only took one man. We’re coming home. And we’re coming home to win.”
As further confirmation this wasn’t a dream, there was Brady, pointing at the stands and grinning after the 31-26 victory over the Packers, asking a question of an usher at cold, barren Lambeau Field. “Can I say hi to my son?” he said. And coming down the stairs, with a hug, was his oldest son, 15-year-old Jack, who still was years from birth when Brady’s relationship with immortality began. When he said a few years ago that he wanted to play until age 45, it seemed ludicrous. Turned out we were the fools, not realizing how Belichick’s system had suppressed him and that he only needed weapons and a spirited defense to resume his own dynasty … while the one he left behind immediately slipped into non-playoff irrelevance.
The critics, the haters, Belichick — Brady has vanquished all of them, as usual, with three consecutive postseason road victories. This is a middle-aged man who could have been buried by the pandemic, by the hurried transition, by the uncertainty of it all. Instead, unlike other greats who switch uniforms in their twilight, he flourished under new circumstances.
“Well, this is the ultimate team sport,” Brady said of a decision that only burnishes his legacy. “I made a decision, and I love coming to work every day with this group of guys. We’ve had a lot of people work really hard over a long period of time to get to this point. To go on the road and win another road playoff game is just a great achievement.
“And now a home Super Bowl for the first time in NFL history, I think, puts a lot of cool things in perspective. Anytime you’re the first one doing something, that’s usually a pretty good thing. Now we’ve got to go have a great two weeks and be ready to go.”
He is not an old man. Rather, he is a vintage bottle of red who refuses to let go of the old school, a pocket passer continuing to prosper with savvy, brains, gumption and sweet deep throws when necessary. In that context, Super Bowl LV becomes an epic showdown of clashing styles — Brady the statue, clinging to his traditional paradigm, against Mahomes, the Next Gen magician with the $500 million contract. The new era of mobile playmakers already is in place, led by Mahomes, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson. And so much of the league’s quarterbacking landscape is disoriented — Watson and Matthew Stafford wanting to be traded, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers retiring, Carson Wentz in limbo, Ben Roethlisberger looking old, Trevor Lawrence and others arriving in the upcoming draft. How stirring to see Brady, in his 21st season, as the Jurassic World constant.
“I’m definitely older,” he said. “But I’m hanging in there.”
And now he has a chance to be the king of all kings, sealing his second act with a seventh championship. Does he have even one gray hair? All you need to know is that Brady vanquished the other quarterback who has defined the sport in recent times, Aaron Rodgers, who was done in Sunday by a coach who didn’t believe in him. Remember when the Packers drafted Jordan Love in the first round last spring? Remember when Rodgers used the snub as motivation for a sensational season and presumptive third league MVP award? That was forgotten when Matt LaFleur — facing 4th-and goal at the Tampa Bay 8, trailing 31-23 with 2:09 left in the fourth quarter — decided Rodgers wasn’t his best play. Meaning, LaFleur became Matt LeBlanc, as in shooting a blank. Armed with three timeouts, he chose to kick a field goal and rely on a defense that had made mistakes all afternoon, many by cornerback Kevin King, who wound up yanking the jersey of Bucs receiver Tyler Johnson for a pass-interference penalty that ended any chance of winning.
“Anytime it doesn’t work out, you always regret it, right?” LaFleur said. “It was just the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards and knowing that you not only need the touchdown, but you need the 2-point (conversion). The way I was looking at it was, we essentially had four timeouts with the two-minute warning. … We’re always going to be process-driven here, and the way our defense was battling, the way our defense was playing, it felt like it was the right decision to do. It just didn’t work out.”
Said Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett: “If he could take it back, I’m sure he wouldn’t do it the next time. But I appreciate it.”
Now 1-4 in NFC championship games, Rodgers looked ashen. The other day, he referred to his latest adventure, at 37, as “a beautiful mystery.” Did his best chance to win his second Super Bowl just vanish in the Wisconsin chill?
“Just pretty gutted,” he said, devastated beneath his beanie.
And LaFleur’s call? “It wasn’t my decision,” said Rodgers, straining for diplomacy. “I understand the thinking with the two minutes and all of our timeouts. But it wasn’t my decision.”
To hear Rodgers, the “beautiful mystery” might even take an ugly turn out of Green Bay. He is signed through 2023, but he wonders if the Packers will add him to the growing list of quarterbacks on the trading block. If it seems unthinkable, maybe that’s what he wants. Imagine him with … the 49ers, in his native northern California? “(The Packers have) a lot of guys’ futures that are uncertain — myself included,” said Rodgers, who threw 48 scoring passes and only five interceptions in the regular season. “That’s what’s sad about it most — getting this far. Obviously, it’s going to be an end at some point, whether we make it past this one or not, but just the uncertainty is tough and the finality of it all.” Now hear this: Allowing Rodgers to leave, while still in his career prime, would be dumber than kicking the field goal.
With his regrettable call, LaFleur also was betting against Brady. While he and his receivers lost their touch in the second half, with three interceptions on successive plays, you never send Rodgers to the bench and put Brady back on the field. Belichick probably enjoyed it as he watched on TV, thinking Brady might fail yet. If you don’t think there’s a grudge here, consider last week’s tweets by Belichick’s girlfriend, Linda Holliday, who shouldn’t have responded to a troll — “Too bad Bill let Tom go” — but did anyway after the Bucs’ tense divisional-round victory over New Orleans.
“And you have all the answers evidently? Holliday replied. “Tom didn’t score last night … not once! Defense won that game. Were you even watching? OTOH (on the other hand) — I’m happy for Tom’s career! Why can’t you be?”
If she was so happy for him, why did she credit defense for the victory? Brady did the same Sunday, knowing Barrett and the pass-rushers pressured Rodgers into five sacks. And no doubt the Bucs will need another supreme defensive performance against Mahomes and the Chiefs, who were allowed to rest during a bye week while the Bucs have played seven straight weekends. They’ll have a smattering of local fans — including 7,500 vaccinated health-care workers — among the 22,000 allowed in their 70,000-seat home. But Brady will be the underdog as the Chiefs try to become the first NFL team to repeat as champions since, well, Brady and the Patriots in 2004 and 2005 … when Jack Brady was born.
If the birth certificate says August 1977, the gut quotient suggests he’s 25. Witness the final eight seconds of the the first half, when Arians was going to punt from the Green Bay 39 until he realized who was huddling with him a few feet away. Brady found Scotty Miller, who had beaten King, for a touchdown dagger and a 21-10 lead. “We didn’t come here not to take chances to win the game,” Arians said. “Love the play we had. Got a great matchup and a TD. That was huge.”
“Tom’s the G.O.A.T.,” Miller said. “Last year, we ended 7-9 and now we’re headed to the Super Bowl. … Just his composure — he’s been here before, he’s been in these big moments, and we know he’s going to get it done. When it’s all on the line, he’s going to make the play.”
It also spoke volumes about the Brady-Arians relationship. If the grizzled, ruddy-faced character was critical of Brady’s deep-ball failures earlier this season, he now sees all-time greatness through his forehead-to-chin virus shield. “New England didn’t allow him to coach,” said Arians, taking a dig at Belichick. “I allow him to coach. I sit back and watch.”
We’re all watching. Just as we’re watching Mahomes, who played in the AFC championship game and beat the Buffalo Bills, 38-24, when any credible doctor would have urged him to stay home. He was concussed only a week earlier, knocked silly and sent stumbling toward the turf after taking a hard shot to the neck area. Not until Wednesday did the team acknowledge a concussion, with coach Andy Reid insisting irresponsibly that Mahomes was doing just fine. And the league wasn’t about to order its meal ticket and reigning marketing face to the sideline, not with television ratings and the Super Bowl at stake. It was NFL hypocrisy at its worst, enabled by a planted report that Mahomes had merely “choked out,” whatever that meant.
Like Brady, Mahomes survived and did more than enough to win, dazzling again with an underhanded touchdown pitch to Travis Kelce. And he will have two weeks to rest his weary head and the nagging turf toe on his left foot. The Tampa Bay defense will give him more problems than the Bills, especially with his offensive line weakened by injuries. But if the Bucs have a chance, Brady will have to be in shootout mode against an arsenal featuring unstoppable playmakers in Kelce and Tyreek Hill. That seems improbable when, in the scope of life, Brady is only seven years younger than Mahomes’ father, Pat, the former major-league pitcher.
“The job’s not finished. We’re going to Tampa and trying to run it back,” said Mahomes, who lost to Brady in the 2019 AFC title game. “We’ve just got to be ourselves. I trust my guys over anybody. Our goal coming into the season was to win the Super Bowl, not to get to it.”
And the Brady-Mahomes time warp? “Going up against one of the greatest, if not the greatest quarterback, in his 150th Super Bowl, is going to be a great experience for me,” he said. Seems like 150 Super Bowls, doesn’t it?
Nothing much is certain in America these days, except Tom Brady in winter. We’re starting to say the same about Patrick Mahomes. He was six years old when Brady, cap flipped backward, held his first Lombardi Trophy. Now it’s Mahomes who wears the defiant cap, speaking respectfully about the matchup but knowing, deep in his 25-year-old soul, that he can’t let this fossil beat him.
“It’s been a great journey thus far,” Brady said.
Imagine if he wins again. On a nearby bay, he can go walk on water.