In Greek mythology, Cronus overthrew his father, Uranus, to become king of the Titans. But eventually Cronos’s son, Zeus, rebelled against him. The ensuing war was called the Battle of the Titans. The new gods defeated the old. Zeus became king of Olympus.
A thousand epochs later, we are getting our own Clash of Titans. Tom Brady will face Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl. OK, technically the Buccaneers will face the Chiefs, and both quarterbacks will face the opposing team’s defense. But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. In two weeks, we get to see the Greatest Quarterback of All Time vs. the Greatest Quarterback on the Planet. With men like this, we must turn to myths to contextualize the matchup.
In most NFL seasons, being crowned champion is enough. But this Super Bowl is about legacy. Who will end up on top of the pantheon? The sport’s biggest legend is about to face its biggest legend in the making. We can understand the stakes in real time.
This is football’s version of Michael Jordan playing LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Brady is the greatest quarterback ever. Mahomes is the only quarterback who could potentially vie for that distinction. At 25, he has had the best start to his career of any American athlete in a team sport since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But no matter what Mahomes accomplishes for the rest of his career—even if he wins five straight Super Bowls—he’ll likely never be considered the GOAT if he loses to Brady in this game. A seventh ring would put Brady one ahead of MJ, and would likely end Mahomes’s quest to be the GOAT before it ever begins. Like Cronus, Brady has a chance to swallow his children before they can challenge him.
From now until February 7, the sports world will break down the implications of this matchup. The fact it even is going to happen is mystical.
Tom Brady is going to his 10th Super Bowl. If that doesn’t make you smack your gob, nothing will. The next-closest quarterback in terms of career Super Bowl appearances is John Elway, with five. Brady has played in 14 conference championship games—double the total that his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, played in—and has 33 playoff wins. Montana is second on that list, with 16. Brady is ahead of everyone else in football history by 17 playoff wins. Another Super Bowl win would give Brady more championships than Montana and Elway combined. Brady’s accomplishments are so vast that it is difficult to even compare him to other players. He’s the Grand Canyon—a snapshot doesn’t do it justice.
The comparisons with his peers (well, if someone in his 21st season can really have “peers”) are even more astounding. Brady has been to four Super Bowls since Peyton Manning retired. He has won more conference championships (10) than Drew Brees has won playoff games (nine). The other top quarterbacks in Brady’s era are the 2004 first-rounders: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. Even if we combine that trio’s career achievements, Brady still has seven more playoff wins and two more Super Bowl victories. The only other modern quarterback who could plausibly be compared to Brady is Aaron Rodgers, and Brady’s Bucs just went into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers 31-26. Brady is one win away from winning more Super Bowls in his 40s than Rodgers has won in his career.
Tom Brady will play in his 10th Super Bowl in 19 seasons as a full-time starter.
Brady has been more likely to play in a Super Bowl (52.6 percent) than Michael Jordan was to hit a shot (49.7 percent).
— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) January 25, 2021
The only way to truly appreciate Brady is to compare him to teams instead of players. Brady is one win away from having more Super Bowl rings than any individual franchise. He has more Super Bowl appearances than the Bears, Titans, Jets, Chargers, Saints, Browns, Cardinals, Jaguars, Lions, and Ravens combined. In the Super Bowl era, Brady the team ranks fourth in playoff wins (nestled between the Cowboys and 49ers) and second in Super Bowl appearances (behind only the Patriots, which … you know). Including the playoffs, Brady has won 263 career NFL games. As a franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won 287. The Bucs have been playing since 1976, one year before Brady was born.
Entering this season, Brady had nothing left to prove—except for maybe that he could win without Bill Belichick. It didn’t take long for him to show that he could. Brady’s Patriots career ended on a pick-six in last season’s wild-card round; 10 months into his Bucs tenure, he is back in the Super Bowl. This Bucs season reinforces not only that Brady was right to leave the Patriots, but also that his timing was brilliant. The Pats have the league’s worst collection of wide receivers and worst group of tight ends, not to mention a defense full of question marks. The Bucs have an offense that features Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Scotty Miller, plus a defense with a ferocious pass rush and linebacking corps. It’s no wonder that Brady went to Tampa Bay. In retrospect, the most obvious conclusion from Brady’s departure was that the Bucs were in a far better position to contend for a Super Bowl than the Pats. It’s almost like Brady knows how to do this.
Few athletes age gracefully in any sport, but even fewer do in football. The game is too brutal. That makes Brady’s redefining of the aging curve all the more remarkable. What does prime even mean when Brady has more playoff wins after turning 35 than any other quarterback has in his whole career? Brady already has 55 wins in his 40s; if he plays at least two more seasons, he could finish with more than every other quarterback in their 40s combined. Brady’s arm strength is better than it was last season. He’s two years older than Brett Favre was in his ancient Vikings season. Brady’s desire to play until he was 45 years old once seemed silly. Now it seems inevitable.
The thought of anyone surpassing Brady atop the all-time quarterback pantheon is absurd. But the only person who could even entertain that notion is his opponent in this Super Bowl.
Patrick Mahomes is a long way from challenging for GOAT status, but if he wins this Super Bowl he would be on that path. A second Super Bowl win would put him in rarefied air. Only a dozen quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowls—an exclusive club, but not as exclusive as you might think.
- Tom Brady (6)
- Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw (4)
- Troy Aikman (3)
- Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, John Elway, Jim Plunkett, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, and Bart Starr (2)
If we whittle the group down to quarterbacks who reached the Super Bowl twice in their first three seasons as a starter, the list shrinks dramatically. It’s just Kurt Warner, Russell Wilson, and Mahomes. And if we look purely at age, then Mahomes is the youngest quarterback to ever make multiple trips to the Super Bowl. Brady and Roethlisberger played in their second Super Bowls at age 26. Peyton didn’t play in his second Super Bowl until he was 33.
This is just the quarterbacks who reached multiple Super Bowls at that age, mind you. If Mahomes wins two Super Bowls by 25, he would be the youngest ever to win two titles. Elway didn’t win a Super Bowl until his late 30s. Manning didn’t win his second Super Bowl until he was 39. Brees, Rodgers, and Favre have never won a second Super Bowl. That Mahomes could match so many legends at such a young age is nothing short of stunning. Mahomes isn’t even in his prime.
In his first year as an NFL starter, Mahomes became just the third player ever to throw for 50 touchdown passes in a season (after Brady and Manning), won MVP, and reached the AFC title game. In his second season, Mahomes dislocated his kneecap and then came back to win the Super Bowl. Now in his third season, he is likely to finish second in MVP voting and could win the Super Bowl again. Crucially, like Brady, Mahomes gets more clutch in big moments.
Brady’s legendary 25-point comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI cemented him as the greatest ever to play his position. But Mahomes came back from a 24-point deficit against the Texans in last season’s divisional round in 10 minutes of game time. He also erased a 10-point deficit against the Titans in last year’s AFC championship game, a 10-point deficit against the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, and a nine-point deficit against the Bills on Sunday. Mahomes comes back so frequently on such big stages that it’s become routine. Only Brady and Montana have recorded five or more fourth-quarter comebacks in their playoff careers. Mahomes is nowhere close to them because he erases his deficits by halftime. He is already one of the most clutch players in NFL history.
But GOAT debates, inevitably, are about rings. Even if Mahomes wins this Super Bowl, Brady will have six and Mahomes will have two. That gap seems insurmountable. But it may have been widened by a coin toss. In the AFC title game after the 2018 season, the Pats and Chiefs went to overtime after Mahomes led another stunning comeback, with Kansas City putting up 31 second-half points. Yet the Patriots won the coin flip in overtime, took the ball, and scored a touchdown to end the game without Mahomes getting a chance to respond. If the Chiefs had won that toss, an offense that scored touchdowns on four of its prior six possessions might’ve marched down the field and won. A coin flip may be the difference between Brady’s championship lead being 6-1 instead of 5-2 heading into this Super Bowl.
But we don’t have to write Chiefs fan fiction to anoint Mahomes as the challenger to Brady’s GOAT status. If Mahomes wins this Super Bowl, he will be the most accomplished active quarterback besides Brady, period. If rings are what matter most, the only quarterbacks with more than two are Brady, Montana, Terry Bradshaw, and Troy Aikman. And even Aikman and Bradshaw probably wouldn’t argue that they were better than Mahomes. If Mahomes gets his second title, he would be just one ring shy of surpassing the totals of all but four quarterbacks in NFL history. Again, he is 25.
Brady and Mahomes are so good that it’s easy to become bored with their greatness. But boredom has no place in stories this fantastical. Tom Brady, the NFL’s Titan, is going against Patrick Mahomes, the young challenger who throws lightning. This Super Bowl matchup is beyond legendary. It is mythical.