TAMPA ― Shortly after the Bucs beat the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 following the 2020 season, Tom Brady met Patrick Mahomes at midfield for a postgame handshake.
“Hey, you’re a legend, man,” Mahomes said to the then-43-year-old quarterback after Brady had won his seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Brady has retired — this time for good, he said — taking his hardware with him.
But Mahomes still is trying to chase the NFL legend. With a victory over the 49ers Sunday in Super Bowl 58, he could join Brady and Troy Aikman as the only quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls before their 30th birthday.
At 28, Mahomes is two years younger than Brady was when he played in his fourth Super Bowl. But it’s important to remember that Brady won his last two championships at age 41 and 43.
Not surprisingly, Mahomes has been blitzed by questions this week in Las Vegas about his high-stakes pursuit of Brady.
“I’m not even close to halfway, so I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” Mahomes said during Monday’s Super Bowl Opening Night media session. “I mean, your goal is to be the best player you can be. I know I’m blessed to be around a lot of great players around me. And so right now, it’s doing whatever I can to beat a great 49ers team and try to get that third ring.
“If you ask me that question in, like, 15 years, I’ll see if I can get close to seven, but seven seems like a long ways away still.”
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Mahomes certainly has established his greatness with four Super Bowl appearances in the past five years. But some have suggested that even without Brady’s titles Mahomes already is the best quarterback to ever play. They reference his live arm, ability to throw the football accurately from odd angles and make or extend plays athletically with his feet.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this,” Fox radio show host Colin Cowherd said recently on his program. “Peyton Manning, as good as he was, was a teeth-clencher. (John) Elway had some really bad big games. Brady was mostly an early game-manager. I can say it now: Mahomes is the greatest quarterback I’ve ever seen. I can say it, and I’ve watched (Dan) Marino and Elway, and you know I love Brady.
“Now, Brady is more productive. But what we’re watching here is a player (Mahomes) that against the best defenses, in the highest-leverage moments, the biggest audience, the most pressure, is significantly better. Not better. Significantly better than he is in the regular season. His playoff numbers, they don’t make sense.”
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Mahomes does save his best for the postseason. He’s won 14 of 17 playoff games, passing for 4,802 yards and 39 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
But Cowherd and others may be guilty of recency bias. It’s always difficult to compare players from different eras, because the playing fields are not level.
Brady began his career in an era when quarterbacks were not protected by a narrow strike zone where defenders can hit them. Nor do Mahomes’ receivers fear being struck while defenseless making a catch over the middle of the field.
The impressive thing about Mahomes is that, unlike early in his career when he could launch bombs to receivers like Tyreek Hill, the current Kansas City offense is among the least-talented he’s ever played on. The Chiefs started 6-1 but then went 2-6, losing to teams like the Raiders and Broncos.
But Mahomes has evolved from merely a gunslinger to a quarterback who will play to the strength of his defense, protect the football and grind out wins on the road.
Aside from tight end Travis Kelce and perhaps running back Isiah Pacheco, Mahomes’ other weapons are inconsistent receivers such as former Buc Justin Watson, Rashee Rice and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
“He’s the reason why we’re here and why we’re able to keep coming back,” Kelce told reporters in Las Vegas. “He just gives his team a certain sense of urgency and confidence that we can go and get it. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player, man. And when you put that guy on a team, he makes everybody better.”
Brady has been in Mahomes’ cleats. He remembers the comparisons to his hometown idol, Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls along with the Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw.
“I think that there’s nothing that Patrick can do, in my opinion, that takes away from what I tried to accomplish in my career, and there’s nothing that I did that can take away from what he’s trying to accomplish,” Brady said this week on the “Pat McAfee Show.” “I feel like all I tried to be was the best I could be, and even though I had sporting idols, like I said, I could never be Steve Young. I could never be Joe Montana. Those are the guys I could never be, Dan Marino or John Elway.”
If Mahomes or anyone else is able to match his seven Super Bowl wins, Brady said he will have nothing but respect for him.
“I understand how difficult it is,” he said. “I will congratulate them and I’m going to, you know, give whoever it is a big hug. I texted my friend who plays with Pat after the game and I just said, ‘Tell him congrats.’ I mean, it’s just awesome to watch him play, and I love watching him lead his team. And of all the things I love, I love leadership and I love people that are selfless.”
Mahomes said he is more motivated by the fear of losing the Super Bowl than the joy of winning it.
That handshake with Brady left an imprint.
“I’ve lost the Super Bowl, and I know how bad that hurts,” Mahomes said. “You want to make sure you stay away from that feeling. So, I think even more than hoisting that trophy, when you lose and you’re in that locker room and you feel like you were that close and you didn’t get it, I’m going to look more even to stay away from that feeling than I am hoisting the trophy.”
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