Hold The Back Page Super Bowl Special
Tonight's Super Bowl sees the greatest player in American Football history take on his possible heir. Tom Brady is not just unrivalled in his own field, he's one of the finest performers the sporting world has ever seen. Patrick Mahomes is currently performing at a level rarely witnessed in any game. These are extraordinary men.
Brady's achievement this season has no real equivalent in sporting history. It's not just that he's returned to the Super Bowl at the age of 43, it's that he's done so after starting again from scratch. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation that "there are no second acts in American lives," doesn't apply to his fellow Irish-American.
When the New England Patriots exited last season's play-offs at the first hurdle after the second worst post-season performance of Brady's career, it felt like the end of an era. It seemed unlikely Patriots coach Bill Belichick would have let Brady go had he felt the quarterback could still make a major contribution.
Brady's move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was intriguing but few imagined it would end with a Super Bowl appearance. Absent from the play-offs since 2007, Tampa had enjoyed a winning record in just one of the previous nine seasons. When the Bucs were well beaten by division favourites New Orleans Saints in their first game and Brady suffered the heaviest defeat of his career at the hands of the same opposition in week nine, they looked nothing like potential champions.
Yet he has led them not just to the play-offs but to three subsequent wins on the road, the last two against Saints and Green Bay Packers teams hotly fancied to end the fairy tale. He has done so by producing one of the finest seasons of his career.
Brady's regular season total of 40 touchdown passes was his second highest ever, his passing yards were the fifth highest, his quarterback rating and completion percentage sixth highest.
This is astounding stuff for a man closer to pension age than his teenage years. When Brady won his first Super Bowl 19 years ago, Lionel Messi was just about to debut for Barcelona schoolboys, Usain Bolt was in high school, Roger Federer hadn't won his first Grand Slam title, Jim Gavin was still playing for Dublin and Paul O'Connell had made his international debut earlier that day.
Brady's unparalleled longevity is just one more thing which makes him unique among footballers. He has won more Super Bowls than any other player and more play-off games than any coach. Four years ago against the Atlanta Falcons he brought the Patriots from 28-3 down midway through the third quarter for perhaps the finest comeback victory in any sport.
The following year's Super Bowl may have been the greatest of all time. The Philadelphia Eagles shocked the Patriots in that one but Brady still threw for a record breaking 505 yards. The man for all seasons is unrivalled as a man for the big occasion.
Yet chances are that even Brady's Super Bowl nous won't be enough tonight. That's because his opposite number is someone whose ability also seems to defy logic. No quarterback has ever been quite as good as Patrick Mahomes is right now. He has got to 10,000 passing yards and 100 touchdown passes quicker than anyone in history, while his career quarterback rating is the highest ever.
In three NFL seasons, nobody has worked out how to stop Mahomes. When two seasons ago the Chiefs lost to the Patriots in the AFC title game, the then MVP still managed to throw three touchdown passes.
In last season's Super Bowl the San Francisco 49ers looked to have solved the riddle when they led 20-10 with under nine minutes remaining, having intercepted Mahomes twice and prevented him from passing for a touchdown. Then he cut loose, orchestrating drives of 62 and 65 yards which culminated in his throwing two touchdown passes to win the MVP award.
This season he led the Chiefs to the league's best regular season award, losing just one game, and two weeks ago in the NFC Championship game against the Buffalo Bills he threw for 325 yards with three touchdown passes while making his job look one of the easiest in the world.
The invincible aura surrounding Mahomes has been increased by an almost superhuman ability to recover from injury. Last season a dislocated kneecap only put him out for a fortnight. His tour de force against the Bills came just a week after being forced off during the victory over the Cleveland Browns with an apparent concussion.
Mahomes is calm, intelligent and mobile but the key to his game is an arm the like of which the game has never seen. He gave a sneak preview of what was to come when producing the joint fastest throw in pre-draft trial history. Since then he's made the football look like the baseball his father Pat threw for over a decade with the Minnesota Twins and New York Mets among others. Whether he's on the run, off balance or with a couple of men hanging off him, the arm always delivers for Mahomes. The velocity and accuracy of his sidearm throws alone can seem a miracle of nature.
His two key receivers could hardly be more different. For most of NFL history tight ends have been the unglamorous face of the receiving corps, big slowish workmanlike supporting actors to the talented speedsters out wide.
Brady's partnership with Rob Gronkowski at the Patriots was instrumental in changing that. When in 2011 the latter became the first tight end to lead the league in receiving touchdowns it signalled a redefinition of the position. Gronkowski came out of retirement to join Brady at the Bucs this season but his status as the greatest ever tight end is currently being challenged by Travis Kelce of the Chiefs.
Kelce is big but also surprisingly quick for a six foot five 18 and a half stone man. This term he's set a regular season record for receiving yards by a tight end and contributed 14 touchdowns while often looking unplayable.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill provides a different kind of challenge. The NFL has always recruited world class sprinting talent, from 1964 Olympic 100m champion Bob Hayes to Ron Brown, who finished fourth behind Carl Lewis in the 1984 games, to Willie Gault who was part of a world record breaking 4x100m relay team in 1980.
Hill could have enjoyed a similar track career had he gone that route. The 20.19 he ran for 200m at the age of 18 in 2012 was just a hundredth of a second off the US High School record. A year later he ran a wind-assisted 9.98 for 100m.
Many sprinters haven't been able to turn raw speed into football success and Hill entered the league five years ago as an unheralded punt returner. But in the last three seasons his link-up with Mahomes has seen him become one of the league's most dangerous wide receivers.
This season he's already scored a career best 17 touchdowns and it may be significant that his best performance came in the 27-24 victory over tonight's opposition when he logged 269 receiving yards and three touchdowns. The sight of Hill making some very athletic defenders look like couch potatoes as he sprints away from them has been one of the abiding images of the season. There's a good chance we'll see it again tonight.
Brady too has some fine receivers with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin among the best wide outs in the game. Tampa also have stronger running backs and there might be a big game in Leonard Fournette who looked a potential great in his rookie season of 2017, has been largely disappointing since but has scored a touchdown in each play-off game so far.
But this game won't be won on the ground. Both teams will put the ball and their fate in the hands of the quarterback. Like some District Court dispute over a rural right of way, this will boil down to a battle between Patrick and Tom.
Two years ago in the AFC title game a titanic battle ended with the master seeing off the apprentice. "Stay with the process," Brady told Mahomes afterwards, "Be who you are." Mahomes has done just that and it seems likely he'll come out on top this time. If he does, don't be too quick with the elegies for Tom Brady who on Wednesday predicted, "Next year is going to be a lot better than this year. I'm going to train a lot better, physically next year I'll be in a better place."
There has never been a quarterback match-up like this in the biggest game of all. Brady's career has been all about exceeding expectations, ever since he won that first Super Bowl just one season after being the number 199 pick in the draft. But he's never faced an opponent like the one who awaits him in the Raymond James Stadium.
Tonight looks like Paddy's Night.