Tomase: Patriots finishing dynastic run the way it started -- as underdogs proving everyone wrong

John Tomase
January 14, 2019 - 11:46 am

The smile on Tom Brady's face quickly gave way to a sneer, which frankly he had earned.

Speaking to CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson after shellacking the Chargers on Sunday, Brady was asked about the challenge posed by the Kansas City Chiefs in next Sunday's AFC title game.

"I know everyone thinks we suck and can't win any games, so we'll see," Brady said. "It will be fun."

Athletes playing the no-one-believes-in-us-card is a tale as old as Tom vs. Time (Time's losing, by the way). A five-time Super Bowl champion laying that one on the table in advance of his eighth straight conference championship would normally be cause for Alicia Silverstone eyerolls circa 1995.

But this time Brady might be right. The Chiefs are the shiny new thing, with an explosive offense and the best young quarterback in football. They'll be playing at home, and the Patriots have stunk away from Foxboro.

It feels like the brewing bookend to this entire run, which is going to end sooner than later, and started with the 2001 championship that included massive upsets of the Steelers in the AFC title game and of course the Rams in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots have everything to lose from an existential perspective, because any Sunday could mark Brady's final rodeo. But considering the extended run of greatness dating practically to the previous century, a case can be made that not since beating the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI has less been expected of the Patriots than this weekend.

They were supposed to wilt in the face of the vaunted Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers, who had hoped to ride a Dirk-Nowitzki-in-2011 vibe to late-career glory, but will instead probably have to settle for his place as the NFL's Tracy McGrady.

Meanwhile, Brady looked like himself for the first time in weeks, piloting the Pats to a 41-28 victory that wasn't remotely that close. That sets up a showdown with the upstart Chiefs, who rode young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes to 13 wins and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

To continue our NBA metaphor, if Pistol Pete Maravich played football, he'd play it like Mahomes, who's a threat to score from anywhere, at any time, against any defense -- and with either hand. This season he joined Brady and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to throw 50 touchdowns, and he did it in a style that makes the Patriots clear underdogs on Sunday.

They haven't been in this position since the 2013 AFC title game, when Manning and the Broncos beat them 26-16 as five-point favorites.

Those Patriots played without Rob Gronkowski, who tore his ACL in December. These Patriots are kind of playing without him, too, thanks to ankle and back (and God knows what else) injuries that have reduced him to wham blocker and made retirement a distinct possibility.

Those Patriots weren't built to withstand Denver's punishing defense, and these seemingly aren't meant to survive an offense like K.C.'s, except that they already have, of course.

The last time the Patriots played the Chiefs, the teams only stopped scoring because the NFL enforced its rule about games lasting four quarters.

By the end of that one, a 43-40 Patriots victory, it felt like the teams could've traded touchdowns until last call in Brooklyn. The squads will get a chance to pick up where they left off on Sunday, and for the first time in weeks, the Patriots might actually be able to keep pace.

After a season spent grimly dealing with everything from his left MCL to his unsatisfactory air yards to the Steadicam or whatever, Brady is right where he belongs, playing for everything. His counterpart, Mahomes, doesn't know what he doesn't know, which kind of makes him like the 2001 Brady.

The last time these teams met, the Patriots are lucky Mahomes came out a little too amped. He airmailed a pair of sure touchdowns in the first half before finding his rhythm in the second, when Kansas City exploded for 31 points.

Nerves should be an even bigger factor on Sunday, which of course is a point in Brady's favor. There's nothing he hasn't seen or overcome.

That much of the world will be picking against him only adds to the allure. The Patriots started their run as underdogs and perhaps they're going to end it the same way -- dogged, determined, and still capable of shocking us, right to the end.