FOXBOROUGH — Well that was fun.
What a magnificently entertaining night of football the Patriots and Chiefs gave us Sunday night, an end-to-end track meet of big plays and bigger guts, a rare sports gift when pregame hype that seemed impossible to live up to proved instead to be undersold. This was a night for the Monday Morning storytellers and diehard ‘I-was-there-when-it-happened’ boasters, all of whom will forever remember the game when one old heavyweight took every punch his young contender had and managed to be the one still upright, arms raised in triumph, when the final whistle blew.
Tom Brady, running into the end zone for one late touchdown, cocking his arm to throw for one more, and ultimately, directing his offense into position for a final, game-winning field goal as time expired, stiff-armed football’s quarterback youth movement one more time, this time outdueling his baby-faced counterpart Patrick Mahomes in a wild 43-40 Patriots win.
Toe-to-toe and arm-to-arm they went, and if the 23-year-old Mahomes earned some football stripes for hanging in so long against the man who made his first NFL start two weeks after Mahomes celebrated his sixth birthday, the 41-year-old Brady made sure it was the guy with the five Super Bowl rings (not the one with the five career NFL victories) we were talking about when it was all done. Together they scored 30 fourth-quarter points, lighting up the Gillette Stadium scoreboard with deep bombs and short completions, with throws across their bodies and others on the run, escaping pressure and finding teammates with equal ease.
With stat lines that ended up amazingly similar, Brady’s numbers exploding over a dominant first half (and finishing with 340 yards on 24-of-35 passing for a 109.2 rating) and Mahomes catching up over an explosive second (finishing with 352 yards on 23-of-36 passing but with two interceptions for a 110.0 QB rating), it was the veteran who found himself in position to use his hard-earned experience and poise to lock it down at the end, taking the ball with 3:03 remaining and setting up Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard, game-winning kick.
“He’s poised,” is how receiver Josh Gordon described that intense, final possession when Brady took control of his huddle. “There’s a calmness to him in a high pressure situation. Not everyone has that. When he displays that, other guys feel better about what they’re supposed to do. He’s consistent and does his job.”
But Mahomes was doing his too, casting himself as a viable candidate to be on the receiving end of the eventual passing of the quarterback torch. He’d done all he could to surpass Brady, even grabbing the lead for a fourth-quarter eyeblink, leading another game-tying drive before it was all over. But Brady matched him every time, and with last licks on his side, topped him in the end.
This crazy game ended in regulation because Gostkowski’s kick erased a 75-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill that had tied the game at 40, which erased a 50-yard Gostkowski kick that had given the Pats a 40-33 lead, which followed a 4-yard run by Brady for a 37-33 lead, which erased a 1-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Hill that made it 33-30 Kansas City, which erased a 39-yard Gostkowski kick that gave the Pats to 30-26 lead.
And that was only the fourth quarter.
“When Tyreek was running to score, I said, ‘good, score quick,’” Brady would say later, all the admission you needed to know we had witnessed a rare night indeed. Players couldn’t wait to get their hands on the ball. Defensive purists had to close their eyes, but for lovers of offense? This was as good as it gets. There was Brady musing on the fireworks, posing a question to the reporters questioning him.
“I don’t know if we punted tonight,” he said. “We didn’t? No punts.”
No punts. No penalties either. About as high-flying as a game can get, except there was Brady again, saying, “I still think we missed some opportunities out there. . . . I don’t think we’ve seen our best. I think we can play a lot better.”
If history has taught us anything about nearly two decades of these Brady-led Patriots, it’s that they tend to improve over time, warming up across September, finding an identity throughout October, hitting a stride into November, turning the heat up in December, and booking a Super Bowl ticket by January. But we also know that journey gets infinitely more difficult when it doesn’t forge a path through Foxborough. And a loss to the previously unbeaten Chiefs would have put the AFC’s top seed and the accompanying home field advantage in serious jeopardy, forcing the Patriots to play catch up in a race they are so accustomed to sitting the pole. Brady had no interest in conceding that ground, not for his team, and not for himself.
It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate all the young talent around him — he’d mused this week about the way he used to watch Brett Favre as a kid and was thrilled to end up sharing a field with him as a pro, knowing that kids like Mahomes revel in the same opportunity to do the same with him. He praised the likes of Mahomes and the NFL’s other young guns he represents (Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, DeShaun Watson, et al) as the future of the game, keeping it in exciting, talented hands. He heaped praise on Mahomes after Sunday’s game too, saying in earnest, “He made some big plays, a lot of big ones, the one at the end to Tyreek was a great throw, and he made some other great throws.”
But the smile he wore wasn’t for the kid. It was for himself, and for his team, and for being on the right end of a wild night of football.
“I’m glad we had our last shot and I’m glad we took advantage of it,” he said.
In other words, that was fun.