FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady had to make it back to Kansas City with his job very much intact, didn't he? If his football obituary was not written at Arrowhead Stadium in the fall of 2014, critics did at least start warming up that obit in the bullpen.
Brady was 37 back then, and he was so dreadful in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs that coach Bill Belichick pulled him after he threw a pick-six in the fourth quarter. Jimmy Garoppolo, hot-shot rookie, immediately drove the New England Patriots down the field and hit Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown pass. Belichick was famously asked if his starting quarterback's status would be evaluated during the on-to-Cincinnati week, and privately, Brady was telling people he was concerned about his standing with a head coach who already seemed to be falling hard for his second-round draft pick.
Everyone knows what went down between then and now. Brady won two more Super Bowls, appeared in a third and, after his 41-28 beatdown of the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, advanced to five consecutive AFC Championship Games to extend his streak to eight and to increase his total AFC title game appearances to 13 in 17 healthy seasons under center.
Oh, and Brady also compelled Belichick to trade Prince Jimmy last year and clear the way for the incumbent to play another three or four seasons, if Brady so desires.
So this was no time to fret about New England's chances in Kansas City, where the Patriots now will face a 23-year-old whiz kid in Patrick Mahomes who is blessed with Aaron Rodgers' talent and Brady's poise. This was a time to celebrate Brady's amazing journey back to Arrowhead, at 41, somehow still capable of winning the whole damn thing.
Before he left Gillette Stadium field on Sunday, Brady made it clear he was tired of the Patriots being portrayed as has-beens, as dynasty-makers in decline. Tired of hearing that his team had no speed, no playmakers and no chance to seize a sixth Super Bowl ring.
Tired of hearing that the starting quarterback had been reduced to a shadow of his former self.
"Everyone thinks we suck," Brady told CBS. "You know, we can't win any games. So, we'll see. It'll be fun."
But even if this upcoming business trip to Kansas City turns out to be no fun at all, Sunday was a day for Brady, Belichick and everyone who cares about the Patriots to savor. We will never see another run like this in the NFL. Never, ever, ever. What New England has accomplished in a league set up to prevent sustained dominance qualifies it as the greatest dynasty in American sports -- college or pro.
Alabama coach Nick Saban can sign up the nation's best players year after year after year, while his buddy Belichick is forever picking from the bottom of the bin. That's why Belichick has to turn a Kent State quarterback drafted in the seventh round, Julian Edelman, into one of the most prolific receivers in postseason history. That's why Belichick has to mold a Michigan quarterback drafted in the sixth round, Brady, into the finest football player of all time.
"This team has a lot in front of it," the coach maintained. His quarterback was willing to second that.
When he was through with Philip Rivers and the Chargers, Brady was asked how he felt about proving the doubters wrong, about delivering a forceful response to those who spoke of the quarterback and his Patriots in the past tense.
"I just like winning," Brady said.
"I just like winning," he repeated.
Brady has made that painfully obvious since 2001. Los Angeles had taken road games at Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, at Kansas City and at Seattle this season. These were not your father's sun-and-fun Chargers or your older brother's sun-and-fun Chargers. This was a West Coast team with an East Coast mentality, and even though Brady took the field with a 7-0 lifetime record against Rivers, the Patriots took Los Angeles as seriously as they've taken any divisional-round opponent from the past.
But Brady led the Patriots to touchdowns on their first four possessions, and on five of their first six, and Old Man Rivers never stood a chance. Brady threw for 233 of his 343 total yards in the first half and led his team to a 35-7 lead. In the final seconds of that half, hunting for more points like the insatiable predator he has always been, Brady berated an official for refusing to rule New England wide receiver Phillip Dorsett out of bounds -- costing the Patriots one last crack at the end zone.
He never stops. He never settles. When Brady returned from his 2016 Deflategate suspension at Cleveland, he spent his pre-kickoff time working himself into a full sweat -- running wind sprints in the hallway outside his locker room while working against the grain of a resistance band being held by a team staffer. This was against the Browns. In Week 5. At age 39.
On Sunday, Brady arrived at Gillette Stadium nearly a full five hours before kickoff. During the pregame, he performed his traditionally spirited jog down the sidelines and traditionally spirited fist pump to the fans. Brady wasn't ready for football season to end. The Chargers could've gone with 11 defensive backs instead of seven and it wouldn't have mattered. There's a reason why this matchup of golden oldies had Brady walking into the building with 27 postseason victories, and Rivers walking in with five.
Brady is Brady. And Rivers is a tough, talented and tempestuous competitor who, when pressured, never sees the field as cleanly and as calmly as Brady does -- and never had the benefit of playing for Belichick.
In the end, Patriots running back Sony Michel contributed 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns, Edelman contributed nine catches for 151 yards and James White contributed 15 catches for 97 yards. The New England defense, led by de facto coordinator and soon-to-be Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores, throttled the Chargers when it mattered most.
"We got plays from everybody," Belichick said.
The Patriots won at home this season for the ninth time in nine tries, and though they defeated Kansas City in a wild shootout in October, they've proved to be a much more vulnerable team on the road. The Patriots have been installed as three-point underdogs in their latest AFC Championship Game, breaking their streak of a dozen consecutive postseason games in the role of favorites. To upset the Chiefs, Brady will have to outduel Mahomes, whose father, a former major leaguer, was still pitching when the Patriots' quarterback had started chasing his second Super Bowl ring.
Brady will have to play a whole lot better in Kansas City than he did on his last visit in 2014.
"That was a pretty crappy loss that night," Brady said Sunday, "but we've had some other ones. We show a lot of perseverance, a lot of toughness. This team is showing it. We've had some tough losses this year too, but you just keep fighting. That's what football is all about. It's a season; it's not one game or four games or eight games. It's 16 games, and you get a chance to be in this position.
"It's going to be a lot of fun to go back there and play in the champ game and try to advance."
Truth is, Tom Brady will stand victorious the moment he shows up at Arrowhead. He left there last time a diminished three-time Super Bowl champ who hadn't won the big one in nine years and who was expected to get replaced sooner rather than later by Garoppolo. At 41, Brady returns a five-time Super Bowl champ who has chased off his successor and who has every intention of navigating a path to his ninth Super Bowl.
The GOAT still roars like a lion. Kansas City, here he comes.