In as much as sports is about the physical – pitching and hitting, throwing and catching, passing and scoring, blocking and dunking etc. – the best of sports usually revolves around narrative. So much of why fans love sports is about the stories we tell.
Sports and athletes generate stories that you would talk about with your friends at school the next day (old school) or jump on a twitter thread to discuss for hours after a game or play. They generate a myriad of stories that often start with “I remember exactly where I was when…” – and you can fill in that blank with thousands if not millions of stories.
This is why at the end of every football season especially, most of the discussions I’m involved with around the playoffs are about which game gives the best potential narrative. This season the most obvious narrative that would come out of the Super Bowl was young QB vs veteran QB. We all knew this because on one side of the bracket we had QBs like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield, while on the other side we had Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and hell even Russell Wilson is now more vet than youngin’ at 32 with 9 seasons under his belt. So it was almost a given that a matchup like Mahomes v Brady would be the major narrative of this year’s Super Bowl.
While there is one particular narrative that I don’t think people are considering (more on that later) here are a few of the long term narratives that will be discussed and perhaps define this year’s game.
Old vs Young
This one is the easy and obvious, the low hanging fruit narrative if you will.
Patrick Mahomes. 25 years old. 4 seasons. 1 MVP. 2 Super Bowl appearance (including this year). 1 Super Bowl win.
Tom Brady. 43 years old. 20 seasons. 3 MVPs. 10 Super bowl appearances (including this year). 6 Super Bowl wins.
This is the largest age gap between two starting QBs in Super Bowl history at 18 years. Oddly enough, Brady is in three of the top 5 age gap matchups in Super Bowl history.
This will include all of the typical subplots – can the old guy get it done one more time? Does age and wisdom beat youth and athleticism (don’t worry, I know Mahomes is also a great thinking man’s QB)? Will the cast of veterans vying for one of precious few remaining opportunities be hungrier than the young team looking at dynasty potential?
One thing we do know is that this is no ordinary young vs old QB matchup, we are looking at a matchup between the current GOAT and the potential future GOAT.
The GOAT vs The Kid
Nothing was going to prevent me from using this picture in this article.
So this isn’t a young vs old matchup in the way that Brady vs Foles was, or Manning vs Wilson or Manning vs Cam. While those other three matchups mostly had great QBs (sorry Nick), none of them were considered a matchup between the universally recognized GOAT and the biggest threat to his goat-hood(?). Yea, goat-hood.
While Brady and Mahomes both won their first Super Bowls in their second year in the league, their paths to superstardom were far different. Brady wasn’t on anyone’s radar even going into his second season in New England. He was the backup to a very popular and effective QB in Drew Bledsoe. By the time Mahomes started Game 1 of his second season in KC the chatter around his potential was undeniable. You can say that teams are supposed to feel like they have something special with a highly drafted young QB, but what the Chiefs were saying about their yet unproven QB hinted at an understanding that their was indeed “something special”.
Let’s not forget, the Chiefs traded away Alex Smith after two consecutive AFC West titles and three consecutive playoff appearances BEFORE Patrick Mahomes had started a single game in the NFL. Let that sink in. Oh, and the year that they came second in the West, Peyton Manning, Von Miller, and the No Fly Zone defense was leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl title, so no harm, no foul. (Yes that was a shameless plug for my team, get over it.) Given all that, it was clear Kansas City had an idea of the potential greatness (goat-ness) that rested with their young gun.
And… if it wasn’t for Brady and the Pats in 2018, Patrick Mahomes might be starting in his third straight Super Bowl and looking for his third straight ring. Which leads to the next point…
Brady the Blocker
Let’s expand on that last part a bit more. In a slightly alternate universe, Patrick Mahomes could legitimately be sitting on two straight SB wins and contending for a potential third. The only thing that stood in his way and is still standing in his way is Thomas f’n Brady.
Let’s rewind to 2018. Mahomes had just completed his soon to be MVP awarded second season in KC – his first as a starter. Mahomes was a revelation. Much ink, paper, keystrokes and screen time was dedicated to writing about the NFL’s new kid on the block. The Chiefs secured the top spot in the AFC West but landed at number 2 in the AFC overall behind Brady and the Pats meaning that the AFC would run through Foxboro instead of Arrowhead. A significant point.
The Chiefs had a bye for the first round of the playoffs. In the Divisional Round they faced Phil Rivers and the Chargers and handled their division rivals 31-13. Then came the AFC Championship in Foxboro. Before we get into the game itself, let’s remember that many pundits coming out of this game said that had it been played in KC the Chiefs would have probably won. More important though was the fact that this game came down to overtime.
On the final drive of regulation, Mahomes led the Chiefs on a game-tying drive that went 4 plays and 48-yards in 31 seconds. He put his team in position to tie up the AFC Championship against the vaunted Belichick coached Patriots. Mission accomplished. They got the game to overtime. Unfortunately, Mahomes and the KC offense never touched the ball again. New England won the coin toss, took the ball on offense, drove down the field with a near 5 minute drive that ended with a Rex Burkhead walk-off 2-yard TD run.
Ok, so maybe it wasn’t as much Brady as the roadblock as it was the unfortunate NFL OT rules that kept KC from even having a chance to possess the ball. Nonetheless, a Tom Brady led team is the only thing that has stood in the way of a potential three-peat and stands in the way now of a potential repeat.
This is not quite the same as the Manning having to overcome Brady narrative, but when the QB on the other side of the matchup in two of your three playoff runs is the GOAT, it’s kind of a big deal. Also, if Brady wins this matchup it can also be said that Mahomes hasn’t won a title when he’s had to face Brady in the playoffs. A reminder that Brady wet the bed on his last game as a Patriot that ended with a pick six. That’s undeniable. That is also what leads to another narrative.
Brady vs Belichick
Before you start, I know that Belichick is not coaching in the Super Bowl. However, one of the larger over-arching stories since Brady announced his departure from the Pats last year was the question of who was more responsible for the Patriots success over the past 20 years. For a long time it looked like that would be a question fans wouldn’t even have an opportunity to get answers to.
To be honest, the answer to that question is most likely unknowable. What we do know for the 2020-2021 season is that Brady found himself in a better situation than Belichick. He selected the Bucs because he thought he could have say in Arians’ offensive scheme. He was right. He selected the Bucs because he thought their weapons were superior. Have you seen Chris Godwin and Mike Evans? He selected the Bucs because he thought he could sway personnel decisions. Gronk. Check! AB. Check! This Buccaneers season is turning out exactly how Brady wanted it. He selected what he saw as the path of least resistance – and he was right.
In much the opposite fashion, this Patriots season was hampered by roadblock after roadblock. The Cam Newton experiment was one and done. Marcus Canon, Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung – perhaps the three best players on this Pats defense – all decided to sit out amidst COVID concerns. We like to imagine that Belichick can win with one arm tied behind his back but this season proved that with no cap flexibility, defensive stars sitting out and an uncertain situation at QB (lest we forget Cam tested positive for COVID) even the league’s best coach has limits to his powers.
So while you are right that saying this Super Bowl matchup isn’t Brady vs Belichick, it will still be a LARGE part of the discussion of this game – especially if Brady and the Bucs pull it off. You would also be correct in saying that the Bucs appearance in the Super Bowl while the Pats didn’t make the playoffs already marks this season as a win for Tom in the Brady vs Belichick matchup, a Super Bowl win for Tom would be the icing on the cake.
In many ways, this is probably the most important Super Bowl for Brady since he lost to the Giants and the Pats lost their perfect season. He gets the chance to get one without Bill but he also plays an important role in where Mahomes’ position on the love/hate scale lands after this season.
Mahomes and the Love/Hate Spectrum of Sports
In thinking about this year’s Super Bowl matchup I have come to realize that there are moments, games, seasons, championships that move players or teams from one end of the love/hate spectrum to the other. Most times it’s when that moment or that game or season or championship pushes the individual or team into a place of seeming inevitability.
We’ve seen it countless times. Look at recent history. LeBron James’ decision turned him, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh into comic book level villains overnight. I bet you remember the moment that this happened too.
We saw how fans turned on The Warriors and KD after they decided to join forces.
It’s not all doom and gloom. In much the same way, we saw the pivot for LeBron.
It’s funny, even now Steph Curry is on the road back to the love side of the spectrum. He currently sits in the space in the middle where the hate from the KD-paired run is fading into questioning of his own value (apathy) which will likely move to the sympathy phase after two lost seasons without his longtime running mate and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson (who coincidentally is further along in the process due to being the one who suffered the injuries) and end most likely back on the love side of the coin. For Steph and Klay this is also because they seem like genuinely decent people. This is in case you were wondering why the pendulum isn’t swinging for Brady. Brady is an ass hole, makes himself so easy to hate. There is no redemption to be found for him (in my eyes). He is forever hated. But, truth be told, it wasn’t always this way.
To be clear, before the Randy Moss, 16-0 year, Brady and the Pats were probably still on the love side of the spectrum. They won their first title four months after 9/11. They beat the Panthers who, truth be told, didn’t really belong in the Super Bowl. Come on Jake Delhomme, a Super Bowl winning QB? Now, their defeat of the Eagles with Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens might have been the precursor to the swing. Andy Reid had kept his Eagles knocking on the door of the Super Bowl and kept falling just short. They finally made the big one and then lost to Brady. Two years later the Pats fleeced the Raiders for Randy Moss and almost clinched a perfect season all while dealing with Spygate. Essentially that 16-0 was a well-timed and well-aimed F-U to the league and a lot of fans. That combination of events swung the pendulum to hate.
In any event, Mahomes is quite possibly sitting on the love side of the pendulum and about to be far-flung into the hate side of the spectrum. And the direction of where he goes from here is almost entirely hinging on this game. Here are a few ways Mahomes could swing deeper into the love side of the spectrum and how he could live long enough to see himself become the villain on the side of sports hatred.
A Close Kansas City Loss – More Love
If KC loses in a close, hard-fought game. It could continue Mahomes’ stay on the love side. He can remain a sympathetic figure and remain the underdog in the GOAT race who saw two potential Super Bowl winning campaigns thwarted by Brady, the ultimate NFL QB villain. He would align himself further with the Peyton Manning’s and Phil Rivers’ of the NFL who kept falling at Thanos’ Brady’s hands.
A Kansas City Blowout Loss – Hate
Ask Lamar Jackson how it feels to suffer playoff losses in today’s NFL – especially in instances where you are favored or expected to win. If Mahomes comes out of this Super Bowl having laid an egg, he could suffer from some of the post Mavs loss Heat kind of hate. The kind that says “who crowned you king?” A bad loss to Brady and the Bucs could lead to a more immediate swing onto the hate side of the spectrum. This is mostly because the Mahomes Hype Train has been rolling for three seasons now, despite the AFC championship loss to Brady two years ago. If there is one thing that sports fan love after they have built someone up is to watch them fall – especially if it’s flat on their face. It’s another reason why we love Brady’s playoff failures.
A Close Kansas City Win – Toss Up
This outcome could go either way in terms of the love/hate spectrum and much of it will depend on the media and their reaction. Mahomes could get the heroic “slaying the dragon” treatment for knocking off Brady and denying him another championship. This works towards the love side if Mahomes has a career-defning/game-winning drive with an iconic play like “The Catch” or John Elway’s “Helicopter” play etc. However, if the media moves too far and lotions Mahomes too much, fans could turn on him and swing the pendulum to hate. Once the discussion turns to the feeling of inevitability, the hate will bloom – and swiftly.
A Kansas City Blowout Win – Toss Up
Much like a close win, this outcome could go either way. In this instance it will likely depend more on the fans’ reaction. So if fans’ general hatred of Brady is as strong as it seems, then an embarrassment of Brady may actually cement Mahomes standing on the love spectrum for a bit longer. If fans hatred is more likely to turn to reverence as Brady eventually moves on, then it is possible that an embarrassing loss could actually act as a double-turn for Mahomes and Brady.
This is my least favorite potential outcome of this Super Bowl, well outside of Brady winning of course. Brady ought to forever exist in the hated space of sports fandom. Imagining a world where Brady is universally revered and loved is a scary place.
Ultimately sports, like much of life, goes in seasons and cycles. Teams whose success ends up feeling inevitable end up hated more often than not. If Mahomes and Co. tack on another one or two championships in the next few years, it will be hard to not consider the dynasty potential. Once the word dynasty comes up in football the, Brady and the Pats will always be a part of the conversation. As long as that is the point of comparison, hate will never be far behind.
As for Mahomes, we will see where the pendulum stops after the Super Bowl. It won’t be the only thing that could push the pendulum the other way – one too many commercials, a scandal, a bad attitude – any one of those things could assist in the reversal of favor. But if Mahomes and the Chiefs develop a sense of inevitability and start to rack up championships like Brady and the Pats did, the warm glow of love from the common fan will shift and Mahomes may become the new Brady in more ways than one. The baby goat indeed.