KANSAS CITY, Missouri — The winning locker room is strangely subdued. There's celebration, to be sure, but nothing extravagant. Nothing triumphant. The New England Patriots do not transform a visitors' locker room into their own personal club like other teams have this postseason.
After their epic 37-31 win at Arrowhead, there's no music playing. None on any speakers. None on anyone's cell phone. No one's dancing, either. The most action in the room is equipment managers methodically taking stools with the "KC" logo on them and setting them upside down on top of lockers. The red carpet below is scattered with debris: half-full Gatorade bottles, rolls of tape, socks, loose hangers, trash.
In one back corner, behind makeshift curtains that were used for the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy earlier, is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, with hardly any space to change. He's in pain. Grimacing after a long night of shutting down Travis Kelce. "Everything" hurts, he says. Then, he smiles. Gilmore assures his body will feel much better tomorrow.
Around the corner, receiver Phillip Dorsett calls Julian Edelman a "warrior." Four times. Then, Edelman himself appears. He looks the part but doesn't sound it. There are red marks covering his arms from yet another playoff beating. With a fist held up to his lumberjack beard, he coughs a deep, scratchy cough from the back of his throat twice. He doesn't say much to anyone, ties his shoes single-knotted and struts out. Right when the valiant underdog himself struts in.
Tom Brady. He takes a moment to relax on one of the remaining stools after aw-shucks-ing through another press conference.
Brady is responsible for all of this—for creating this alternate universe. The one where winning an AFC championship gets treated like a satisfying preseason win, because they're not done yet. The one where nothing's taken for granted, ever. The one where everyone you talk to seems to feel doubted, slighted, dismissed. Insists they're an underdog.
Of course, nobody outside this locker room is buying the charade. To us, the notion of the Patriots as underdogs sounds ridiculous. Because it is ridiculous. We all crowned Bill Belichick and Brady the greatest ever long ago.
But in here, the narrative isn't just something out of a bad Hallmark movie. In here, it's the reason these Patriots are in a ninth Super Bowl in 18 years.
Look at Brady. The man who declared himself "the baddest motherf--ker on the planet" in a meeting days before the AFC title game. The man who smirked alongside Gronk to "Bad Boy For Life" on his way out of Arrowhead. The man who told Chris Hogan after the game on the field, "I'm too old. You're too slow. We've got no skill players. We've got no defense. We've got nothing."
More underdog mumbo jumbo.
More footage that made everyone outside of Boston gag.
More proof of how this team finds a way to hold itself in the absolute highest regard and yet also believes everyone is counting it out.
And, frankly, what they think is all that actually matters, because this feeling of being slighted—even if it's, say, 15 percent real and 85 percent perceived—has served as the electroshock the 2018-19 Patriots absolutely needed.
Finding motivation can be an impossible task for any team, let alone one forever gunning for more Super Bowls. So this is how these Patriots keep the dynasty fresh. This mentality injected by Brady, spread by Edelman (he of "Bet against us" infamy) and carried out by all helped the Patriots slay the likely MVP, Patrick Mahomes, and the top-seeded Chiefs.
And it could start a ring collection on Brady's other hand.
The Patriots have come full circle, surly and prickly as ever, as if they're just as much an underdog this year as they were in 2002, when the Greatest Show on Turf was a 14-point favorite.
"Because it's true!" wide receiver Phillip Dorsett says. "I don't care what anybody says. If you watch … you see how everything was during the season. It was a whole bunch of different stuff. 'This isn't the same team.' This and that, this and that. Once we started embracing it, people started to say, ‘Oh, you're crazy.' So it's like, 'Oh, y'all going to flip the script? Y'all were just saying we weren't this, we weren't that.' Now, we embrace it. Now, we're crazy.
"But none of that matters right now. We're going to the Super Bowl. Respect is earned. It's not given. We went on the road in a hostile environment against a great team and pulled it out."
Center David Andrews doesn't have any time for anyone who thinks this team simply hit "Simulate to Super Bowl" on the controller.
"Did you watch this season?" he asks. "There was a lot we overcame."
He's not wrong. There were injuries. Edelman's suspension. The embarrassing 26-10 loss to the Lions, the blowout loss to the Titans. The three hours in Pittsburgh suggesting that Brady and Gronk were both in desperate need of Life Alert. The beyond-demoralizing Miami Miracle that could've destroyed this dynasty for good.
Hello, Josh Gordon. Goodbye, Josh Gordon.
And there was the one factor that seemed most likely to bury the Patriots eventually: the meteoric rise of Mahomes. As the Patriots limped through December, Mahomes dotted the i's on his MVP resume. He was the quarterback with 5,000-plus yards and 50 touchdowns. He had the home-field advantage.
"Everybody thought we were going to lose," Andrews says. "It drives you to win. We were just playing for one another. Man, it was a hell of a team win."
And Brady was at his Michael Myers best yet again, escaping sure death repeatedly.
Of course he made the Chiefs pay after Dee Ford's offsides gaffe cancelled out an interception with one minute left. The very next play, he rainbowed a 3rd-and-5 beauty to Rob Gronkowski. Of course he didn't allow Mahomes to touch the ball in overtime when New England won the toss, twisting the knife into the soul of Chiefs fans with three straight 3rd-and-10 darts.
As the man who Brady replaced all those years ago put it in B/R's "Does Tom Brady Still Have It?" roundtable a month ago, Brady's raw joy for the game is central to his unprecedented success at this age. The man absolutely loves playing the game now as much as he did as a rookie. So as Drew Bledsoe said: Why stop? This has nothing to do with legacy, in his eyes.
Brady still has that joy for the grind of his profession. He said so himself again Sunday night.
His game isn't fading like Peyton Manning's did. His passion isn't flickering like Favre's did.
Proving everyone wrong—again, be their skepticism real or perceived—is re-re-re-fueling that joy. None of this is tiresome. He, somehow, found a new reason to get up in the morning after earning every accolade imaginable.
"You see the same intensity the whole game. You never see it waver," Dorsett says. "He never believes that he's out, and I think that's what's so great about him. He always feels he can win—no matter what, no matter the score. He's always focused. He's always locked in.
"When we see our leader like that, it makes us lock in, too."
Of course, it's taken more than an enlarged, manufactured chip on the shoulder. The Patriots are coming full circle schematically, too. Forever a thrift-shopper at running back, prompting so many other GMs to do the same, Belichick inexplicably drafted one 31st overall last year: Sony Michel. And right when skepticism was peaking in late November, right when it looked like Brady and Brady alone would not be enough to overcome Mahomes...Michel heated up.
With the world blinded by Mahomes, Drew Brees, Sean McVay and an offensive revolution sure to stick, the Patriots zigged where everyone else zagged. They committed to the run.
So there was Belichick in the first half at Arrowhead playing a cruel game of keepaway. Michel had 19 carries to Mahomes' four completions.
The firefight most feared would doom New England and Brady didn't even start until the fourth quarter.
Nobody should lump Michel into their underdog criticism because, hell, he wasn't around for all the rings, or the crowning and re-crowning of GOATs. He's only been around long enough to hear people writing this team off, and then quietly did something about it.
It also doesn't hurt when the blockers in front of you are mauling bodies.
“We're there for each other," Michel says.
Fullback James Develin calls offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia one of the best of all time and all of his linemen "a bunch of dogs." They've embodied the ethos of this team, exactly what Brady wants. They're playing like pissed-off underdogs.
There was no special meeting after that loss at Pittsburgh, Develin notes. Rather, everyone just decided to start kicking ass, and they haven't stopped since.
"We've been counted out plenty of times this year," Develin says. "We just kept on battling and it speaks to our toughness as a team."
So the echoes reverberate wherever you look on this team.
Gilmore says this team and season are special. "Mentally tough," he says. Then, making eye contact, again: "Mentally tough."
"A lot of people doubted us, but we always believed in each other," he adds. "We have a tough team—mentally and physically tough. I love these guys. We fight to the end. No matter what happens, good or bad, we keep fighting."
Over to Andrews: "The resolve, we've had it all year. This is a tough football team. I'm proud just to be a part of it and to call these guys teammates."
To Brady, who was pressed if he really—really—believes everyone thinks his team does "suck" or if this is just a motivational ploy.
Clutching the podium, he just shrugs.