Is this the NFL’s best championship weekend ever coming up?
If Tom Brady desires company as the subject of too many premature career obituaries, look no further than the league that employs him. The NFL has been written off everywhere from the Oval Office to the office water cooler. Missteps involving domestic violence, ignorance regarding concussion and CTE awareness, controversy over kneeling during the national anthem, and pearl-clutching over excessive celebrations represent but a taste of the menu the sport’s strongest critics get to pick from.
But much like Brady, the NFL always prevails.
Just listen to the conversations this week. Just look at the story lines for next weekend. Forget about losing steam, the league is gaining more traction than ever. Thanks to a conference championship weekend involving the regular season’s four best teams, thanks to threads of old glory and new blood, of postseason coaching genius vs. postseason coaching ignominy, of one incoming coaching savant taking on one already a champion, of high-octane offenses and high-volume stadiums, we have to ask the question: Is this the best championship weekend ever?
It already features the best quarterback ever, so how about we start in Kansas City?
Forgive Brady for his momentary postgame memory lapse Sunday, when the 41-year-old couldn’t remember whether his regular-season game against the Chiefs happened in October or November. More important than recalling the date (it was Oct. 14), however, he definitely remembered the game. Who doesn’t?
What a barn-burner it was. Falling on a Sunday night smack in the middle of the Red Sox World Series run, Brady and his baby-faced counterpart Patrick Mahomes did their best to steal the spotlight, going toe-to-toe and throw-for-throw.
The thrilling game of “last licks wins” went New England’s way when Brady directed one final drive (featuring a crucial throw to Rob Gronkowski) and Stephen Gostkowski’s last-second field goal secured the 43-40 decision.
It was clear that night that Brady wasn’t interested in passing the metaphorical torch to Mahomes. And that was a regular-season game in Week 6. How do you think the five-time Super Bowl champion feels about the possibility of surrendering it in the AFC Championship? About the same as he felt about silencing doubters with Sunday’s convincing divisional-round win over the Chargers. Fired up.
“Everyone thinks we suck,” a heat-of-the-moment Brady told CBS immediately after the win. “You know, we can’t win any games. So, we’ll see. It’ll be fun.”
The Patriots played the insult card but hard Sunday, feasting on the notion that their incredible decades-long run of dominance is over. One convincing reversal later, Brady & Co. head into Arrowhead Stadium facing similar doubts, officially the Vegas underdogs.
That’s only fair, considering the Chiefs had a better regular-season record, are the No. 1 AFC seed, and are playing at a raucous home stadium, but it’s unexpected nonetheless.
For a locker room looking for motivation, for a franchise that has redefined NFL dominance in an era when parity is supposed to be king, this perceived insult will no doubt spice up the week.
Brady-Mahomes II should be great. But just as interesting is the Bill Belichick-Andy Reid battle of the coaching minds. Belichick may not have sprouted as many branches on his coaching tree as Reid (last year’s champion Doug Pederson, for example), but he has built himself a much bigger trophy case, winning five Super Bowls while Reid searches for a first.
Reid has memorably gotten the better of Belichick more than once (anyone remember that ugly 2017 regular-season opener?), but with stakes this high, it’s hard to bet against Bill.
As rematches go, it’s fascinating. The same is true in the NFC, where the veteran duo of coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints will take on the boy wonder duo of Sean McVay and Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams. That they also revisit a regular-season matchup adds another layer of intrigue.
It was the Saints who handed the Rams their first regular-season loss, a 45-35 Week 9 decision that included Michael Thomas’s cellphone-celebrating 72-yard touchdown catch and 346 passing yards from an approaching 40-year-old Brees.
If Brady is out to prove he still has it, Brees is fighting the same perception war, and both of them have to stave off a young gun to prove they’re still right.
And if Payton is looking to prove himself a worthy contemporary/heir to Belichick, he has to fight off a young gun, too. Between McVay’s boyish good looks, eidetic memory for previous games, and now, a first career playoff win, he is no doubt the game’s most popular young coaching star, the inspiration for nearly every new hire made in this past coaching recycle.
As we said, no shortage of stories.
Two quarterbacks from California (Brady and Goff) and two from Texas (Brees and Mahomes), two on the career back nine (Brady and Brees) and two barely teeing off (Mahomes and Goff), the top four offenses in the NFL intersecting in the penultimate games of the season — all of it adds up to one great weekend.
“I think, for us, we were going to prepare and be ready to go, whether you pick us or you don’t pick us,” Patriots veteran Devin McCourty said this past weekend. “But, we see it. We see our quarterback’s too old, we’re not good enough on defense, the skill players aren’t good. We see it, but it doesn’t affect how we prepare.
“We love practicing, and we love playing with each other, preparing. We’re going to take advantage of that and come out ready to go, no matter what. So, like I said earlier, we have a team of great character, a lot of guys in there with really good character that are going to keep fighting and have already been counted out multiple times. That never affects us.”