Follow live coverage of Super Bowl LVIII between San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs
LAS VEGAS — Amid the alcohol and elation, Tedy Bruschi sat there and let it soak in. It was too soon to look ahead, so he went back, spending the three-hour flight replaying the season in his mind.
It was February 2004, the day after the Super Bowl. The plane was a party. The Patriots were flying back from Houston after their second title, a 32-29 win over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. An embarrassing 31-0 Week 1 loss preceded an improbable run of dominance: just one defeat over the next four months. New England had shown its stunning run two winters prior wasn’t a fluke: this championship, after a 14-2 regular season, cemented the Patriots as the top team of the new century.
Bruschi, a middle linebacker and team captain, hadn’t had a chance to think about the next day, let alone the next season. Then Roman Phifer walked up and left him no choice.
“If we go back-to-back, that’s three of four,” the fellow linebacker told him. “That means they gotta call us a dynasty.”
Bruschi laughs, reliving the moment two decades later. For him, that’s when the Patriots’ pursuit became about more than mere championships. This was about becoming one of the greatest teams that ever played. “Not even a full day had passed since we walked off the field in Houston and we’re talking about the next one,” Bruschi said. “Already, it’s, ‘What does it mean if we do it again? Where does that put us?’
“Right now, that’s exactly what the Chiefs are playing for.”
The personalities are different. The schemes. The style. But the similarities — above all, sustained success in a league designed to promote parity — are becoming more striking with each year, impossible to ignore as the Chiefs vie for their third title in five seasons Sunday against the 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. New England reigned over the league for the better part of two decades. Kansas City has since assumed the mantle, and with it, the icy feel of inevitability once the playoffs begin.
The great teams — the iconic teams — simply refuse to go away. And with every title, the target becomes more pronounced.
“You hear people say we’re everybody’s Super Bowl,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “Everybody wants to knock off the top dog. We understand that.”
“That’s what makes it that much sweeter when you beat them,” Bruschi said.
Five years ago, Tom Brady strolled out of Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium alongside tight end Rob Gronkowski after beating the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. It was a dying dynasty’s last great run. The Patriots would win their sixth and last Super Bowl 14 days later. Brady posted a video on Instagram showing him and Gronkowski shrugging and smiling, Diddy’s lyrics bumping in the background. It was a message for anyone hoping the Patriots were finished.
We ain’t … goin nowhere …
Two weeks ago, during the most unlikely playoff run of his career — a fourth Super Bowl berth clinched after a sloppy regular season and a pair of gutsy playoff wins on the road as the betting underdog — Patrick Mahomes posted four photos from the Chiefs’ AFC title game win in Baltimore. The song playing in the background was familiar.
Among Travis Kelce’s favorite podcasts — aside from his own chart-topping show — is Julian Edelman’s “Games with Names.” The Chiefs tight end listens for what he calls “golden nuggets” from the former Patriots receiver and three-time Super Bowl champ, the stories and scenes that defined New England’s second run of titles in the 2010s.
Kelce wants to know about the moments that built the Patriots’ championship DNA, the ones few hear about and even fewer were there to witness. Some are reassuring, others invigorating, not merely windows into greatness but reminders of the cost of sustaining it. “I’m still learning stuff from those Patriots days,” Kelce said. “It’s awesome to hear it from their point of view.”
He’s not ready for the comparisons — “(that) was the best football that we’ve ever really seen in the NFL” — but he knows what it’s like when every team wants to dethrone you, when every season ends with either a championship or a flurry of questions about why you came up short.
“The years we haven’t won it since we first won it have felt like the biggest losses of my life,” Kelce says.
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It came up recently in a conversation between Kelce and his quarterback. The more the Chiefs win, Mahomes said, the more he’s grown to appreciate what the Patriots did before them. “To come back, be in this many Super Bowls, and to continue to get every team’s best shot and continue to get better and better and win more, it’s tough,” Mahomes said. “It’s hard.”
Which is why Kelce, 11 years into his career, Hall of Fame gold jacket assured, has decided a win Sunday would mean more than the previous two. It’s the same reason Roman Phifer pointed out to Bruschi on the Patriots’ plane 20 years ago. This championship would move the Chiefs into a different conversation.
He knows it’s been two full decades since a Super Bowl champ successfully defended its title. He also knows who that team was.
“I want this one more than I’ve ever wanted a Super Bowl in my life,” Kelce admitted this week. “Because that tier of teams that have done it twice (in a row) have gone down in history as some of the greats.”
“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself,” Joe Thuney said.
The offensive lineman spent the first five years of his career with Brady in New England, winning two Super Bowl rings. He signed with the Chiefs in free agency after the 2020 season and added another ring last winter.
Just as the Patriots’ run ended, the Chiefs’ began. Thuney says players in New England could feel it, especially after an epic conference championship game in 2019. Kansas City was coming, and once they arrived, the Chiefs weren’t likely to stumble back to mediocrity. Not with Mahomes at quarterback and Andy Reid at head coach.
“It starts at the top, with great leadership like Coach Reid and players like Patrick who are truly about the team,” Thuney said. “There’s no magic drills or practices. It’s the boring details we pay attention to.”
Both teams came to define the eras in which they dominated. At their best, the Patriots were a reflection of inscrutable head coach Bill Belichick — rigid, unrelenting and stunningly consistent. Their success almost became boring. For 20 years, they were the AFC’s immovable object. So many promising seasons in Indianapolis, Baltimore and Pittsburgh died in Foxboro.
Really, there were two separate Patriots dynasties linked by Belichick’s brilliance and Brady’s dependability, Bruschi said, each netting three titles within a five-year window. The run in the early 2000s was anchored by an all-time defense, a unit that allowed Brady time to grow into one of the game’s greats for the second spate of championships.
“Tom was responsible for one touchdown with his arm in the 2001 playoffs,” Bruschi notes. “We were sort of bringing him along. He had to take care of the football and manage the game. The moment I noticed something special in him was the second half of the Panthers Super Bowl (two years later). From that point, we were off and running.
“Mahomes is sort of going backward. It’s the reverse of what we did. He won the MVP his first year as the starter. He’s been carrying that team on his back like Tom did later in his career in New England.”
Bruschi’s right. The Chiefs were sparked by their franchise QB’s immediate ascent. In the age of wildly gifted, mobile passers, no one does it better than Mahomes. Paired with Reid, among the most innovative play-callers in league history, they’ve formed a tandem the rest of the NFL has come to envy.
Brady’s Patriots vs. Mahomes’ Chiefs
Regular-season record (win percentage)
Playoff record (win percentage)
AFC Championship Game appearances
Super Bowl appearances
Super Bowl wins
*Brady played in just one game during his rookie season in 2000 and missed the 2008 season due to injury.
Both franchises fought the forces that derail potential dynasties: injuries, ego, the weight of increased expectations, the pillaging of talented assistants, the mental toll of advancing deep in the playoffs year after year, plus a salary cap constructed to limit great teams from continuing to pay all their great players.
Both had to make cold, calculated decisions along the way. Belichick famously cut starting safety Lawyer Milloy after training camp in 2003, a surprise move that foreshadowed a flurry of high-profile exits during his tenure — defensive lineman Richard Seymour, linebacker Willie McGinest and receiver Wes Welker among them. Two years ago, the Chiefs traded away the best receiver in football, Tyreek Hill, and used the capital they received in return to build up what’s become a punishing defense.
“There’s a tendency to have a letdown after you’ve won a championship, after you’ve chased something for a long time,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said after Kansas City’s first Super Bowl win in 2020. “That will be our challenge.”
They’ve met it, reaching the game three times in the four years since and adding another Lombardi Trophy to their collection last winter. And in one major difference from the Patriots, the Chiefs have done so unstained by on-field scandals. Spygate cost New England a first-round pick and a $250,000 fine (Belichick was also personally fined a league-maximum $500,000). Less than a decade later, Deflategate cost Brady a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season.
The Patriots grew into the NFL’s leading villains, loathed by fans across the league. Belichick’s biting news conferences and ominous sideline presence — signature grey hoodie pulled tight, never a smile in sight — didn’t help. The Chiefs have been a departure, buoyed by Mahomes’ childlike energy, Kelce’s frat bro likability and Reid’s amiable leadership.
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As the spotlight expanded, headlines have come off the field, too. Brady and Gisele Bundchen dated and married during the Patriots’ dynasty; New England kept winning.
This season, the Chiefs have experienced an entirely different crush of attention. Asked this week about the added scrutiny that comes with dating the most famous woman in the world, Kelce smiled.
“I feel like it’s only given me more energy,” he said.
Bruschi said his Patriots teams never wore down late in the season because that’s all they knew. The payoff came in the little moments under the bright lights.
He saw the same thing in last month’s AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens were the conference’s top seed, 4.5-point favorites and playing at home, anxious to unseat the champs. Then they melted down.
“One team looked like it had been there before,” Bruschi said. “That was the Chiefs.”
By game’s end, Baltimore committed eight penalties to Kansas City’s three. In one telling moment, Ravens linebacker Kyle Van Noy — a former Patriot no less — headbutted Kelce, who’d been yapping all game. A flag flew. Kelce laughed.
“That’s when I was like, ‘This is done,’” Bruschi said. “These (Ravens) guys, these veterans, were acting out of their minds. Sometimes teams just lose it in big games.”
Standing on the sideline that day, Blaine Gabbert, Mahomes’ backup, saw the Chiefs take a page out of Brady’s old playbook. Gabbert sat behind Brady in Tampa Bay late in Brady’s career and remembers his message to the Bucs before playoff games: “If you take it to them, the inexperienced teams will break.”
“You saw that very clearly last week in Baltimore, not only in the way they played but the way the fans reacted,” Gabbert said. “It was a hostile environment and we just smiled as we walked off. We took it to them in their own house. They asked for something, they got it, and that’s the way it goes.”
Bruschi, like so many others, had his doubts about the Chiefs as their lackluster regular season came to a close. Then their playoff run reminded him of something.
“Here’s the secret: When winning championships is in your blood, you just don’t panic, no matter what’s going on,” he said. “If your character’s being questioned, if your teammates are struggling, if somebody’s not getting it right, if Travis Kelce’s dropping the football — nothing makes you panic.
“You just let the other teams do that.”
In February 2005, a year after they won that Super Bowl in Houston, the Patriots defended their title, beating the Eagles 24-21. They remain the last group to go back-to-back. After the celebration, a handful of players, including Brady and Bruschi, flew to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.
Before the game, the AFC spaced out player introductions by team. Those who didn’t make the playoffs went first, then came those bounced in the wild-card round. Then the divisional round. Then the conference championship. Finally, it was the Patriots’ turn. The players looked around. The locker room was almost empty. Six of them remained. Brady huddled the group together.
“You know what guys?” he told them. “No one’s ever won three in a row.”
“I still had confetti on the bottom of my cleats from the Super Bowl, but that’s how that team thought,” Bruschi said. “And I guarantee you if the Chiefs get this one on Sunday, they’ll start thinking about the exact same thing.”
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(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Katelyn Mulcahy, Tom Pennington, Cooper Neill, Ronald Martinez, Jamie Squire / Getty Images)