The greatest quarterback in NFL history isn't ready to cede the reins to the league's next big thing.
Instead, MVP front-runner Patrick Mahomes must wait his turn, because the Kansas City Chiefs couldn't dethrone the dynastic New England Patriots led by the 41-year-old Tom Brady.
Brady threw for 348 yards during Sunday's 37-31 overtime victory at Arrowhead Stadium. With the victory, the three-time NFL MVP will appear in his ninth Super Bowl—more than any other franchise.
Not surprisingly, the outcome seemed inevitable. The moment the Patriots took the field with two minutes, three seconds remaining and down by four points, the game's momentum seemed to swing in New England's favor.
"I just knew," backup quarterback Brian Hoyer said of another Brady fourth-quarter comeback, according to ESPN.com's Mike Reiss. "He had that look."
Mahomes responded with a pair of clutch throws to Spencer Ware and Demarcus Robinson to set up kicker Harrison Butker for the game-tying 39-yard field goal and force overtime. However, the Patriots never let the Chiefs offense touch the ball during the extra period. Brady connected on three 3rd-and-long situations to extend the Patriots' game-winning drive before running back Rex Burkhead found paydirt to secure yet another Super Bowl appearance.
"It's in his DNA," wide receiver Julian Edelman said, per Reiss. "He has a clutch gene."
Brady isn't the same player today as he once was, and no one should expect him to be at an advanced playing age. Statistically, his 4,355 passing yards were the lowest output over a 16-game slate since 2014. Brady also threw for fewer than 30 touchdowns for only the third time in the last nine seasons. According to Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar, the veteran signal-caller had the third-highest percentage of off-target throws during the regular season behind a pair of rookies, the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen and New York Jets' Sam Darnold.
Even if the 14-time Pro Bowl selection's natural gifts are fading, he consistently places his offense in a position to succeed on a down-by-down basis with his football IQ.
For example, the Patriots faced 4th-and-1 at the Kansas City 10-yard line in the fourth quarter while trailing 21-17. The Chiefs expected a Brady sneak to cover the short distance. Instead, the veteran signal-caller read the defense and audibled to an outside run—the perfect call for the situation as running back Sony Michel waltzed into the end zone.
The aging star does benefit from an outstanding supporting cast.
Early in the contest, the Patriots leaned on a ground-and-pound approach to keep Kansas City's sack-happy defense on its heels and Mahomes off the field. Michel carried the ball 29 times for 113 yards and a pair of scores. Burkhead added two more touchdowns. The Patriots even deviated from the norm by handing off to James White six times after not running him once the previous weekend against the Los Angeles Chargers.
New England's offensive front has been nothing short of spectacular the last two weeks. Brady has yet to be sacked in the playoffs with the quintet of Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon creating a cozy pocket for him to operate. Those five, along with fullback James Develin, also created massive running lanes.
Brady's quick release makes everyone's lives easier, per NFL Next Gen Stats:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Tom Brady's quick-passing style (2.51 seconds) led to a low pressure rate against (19.6%) despite throwing all 46 passes from inside the pocket. Relative to expectation, Brady was at his best on 3rd down (+24.4%) and when targeting the intermediate (+10.7%). #NEvsKC | #GoPats https://t.co/Ha1QQ8Sb1H
The keep-away approach only worked for so long, though. Once crunch time came, the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft morphed into his superhero identity.
"He's been doing it for 100 years, man," Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said of Brady, per NFL Network's James Palmer.
The performance proved to be just enough, but Mahomes is ready, willing and able to take the reins once Brady cedes the crown. Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz described what makes his quarterback special, per Palmer:
Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs offense can only be held down for so long. After trailing 14-0 at halftime, Kansas City exploded for 31 points. The second-year signal-caller threw three touchdowns and didn't have a turnover. His postseason performance mirrored his regular-season emergence: Flashes of brilliance kept the Chiefs alive when they had no right to be.
The types of throws Mahomes continued to make wouldn't be believable in a video game, let alone real life. Yet, he tops himself on a weekly basis. The latest came at a critical point in the third quarter, courtesy of the NFL:
Obviously, the throw itself is noteworthy because of its almost submarine-like release around a defender. The quarterback stared down the gun barrel before releasing his sidearm. Perfect ball placement on a crucial third down allowed the Chiefs to convert when trailing by two scores.
What Mahomes can do is simply ridiculous. No other quarterback can do what he does. His 53 touchdown passes (including the postseason) attest to this fact. Everything seems set up for Mahomes to eventually take over as the NFL's next top quarterback.
However, there are no guarantees this will happen. Dan Marino once thought he would have numerous opportunities to play in the Super Bowl. He never reached another after his second campaign.
Right now, the NFL is flush with talented young quarterbacks rising through the ranks to knock Brady off the mountaintop.
Allen and Darnold are champing at the bit to usurp the Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East. The Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson helped his team make the postseason during his debut campaign. The Cleveland Browns' Baker Mayfield broke a rookie record with 27 touchdown passes. The Houston Texans offense can be explosive with Deshaun Watson leading the way if the organization finds a competent front five. The Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck and Oakland Raiders' Derek Carr have yet to turn 30 as well. And this particular group is from the AFC alone.
All of them aren't just coming for Brady; Mahomes is in their crosshairs as well. Yet, they'll all be watching Super Bowl LIII as the G.O.A.T. continues to set the standard for all to follow.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.