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Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes: The backstory behind Super Bowl LV’s historic quarterback duel

(AP Photo / Jason Behnken)

As important as the end of a story is, the real fun comes in the journey to get there.

Yes, it’s easy to focus on an upcoming season finale of your favorite TV show, or look ahead to the last chapter of your favorite book. But, it’s what happens at the beginning and in the middle that really makes it all so impactful.

So, as Super Bowl LV approaches, it’s important to recognize and appreciate all of the twists and turns that led to arguably the greatest quarterback matchup in the game’s long history: Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes.

On one hand, you have Brady, the six-time Super Bowl winner who’s statistically more likely to reach the NFL’s final game of the year than Michael Jordan was to hit a shot in his NBA career.

Making his 10th Super Bowl appearance, he already holds Super Bowl records for career pass attempts, completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns, and will get the opportunity to expand on them all in his 21st year in the league.

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On the other hand, you have Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP who already has one ring and is looking to become the first quarterback to pull off a championship repeat since Brady did it with the New England Patriots in 2004.

While he will have just one-fifth of Brady’s Super Bowl appearances after this year’s rendition is completed, Mahomes has proven that he’s here to stay, evident by the fact that his Kansas City Chiefs have hosted three straight AFC Championship games.

With all of that information alone, Super Bowl LV seems like must-watch TV from a statistical standpoint. But, the more human elements are what shifts this game from good to truly great, and makes it such an important moment in the NFL’s history.

“I really think this game is a legacy game,” former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current CBS analyst Tony Romo said on a conference call ahead of Super Bowl LV. “This is going to be one of the great matchups in sports history. This is what you talk about with your friends. Could you imagine if Michael Jordan got his team to the Finals against LeBron [James] — who is becoming the face of the league? We’re getting that in this Super Bowl. It’s like Jack Nicklaus against Tiger Woods. There’s nothing else I could find.”

The debate about a league’s greatest of all time, or G.O.A.T., tends to run into snags for a variety of reasons, but mainly because players from a variety of generations are being evaluated as if they were playing one-on-one.

Michael Jordan and LeBron James are commonly compared by basketball fans, despite the fact that they were never in the league at the same time and never played against each other.

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are always viewed on the same level, despite their careers starting nearly 35 years apart.

But, Brady made things much easier for football fans. Despite being drafted in the 2000 NFL Draft, Brady’s career has lasted longer than anyone could have ever imagine when the Patriots selected him with the 199th overall pick.

That career led to nine Super Bowl appearances for Brady as the Patriots’ quarterback over the course of 20 seasons, along with a 9-4 record in AFC Championship games.

>>RELATED: End of an era: Breaking down Tom Brady’s 10 best games with the Patriots

Towards the tail end of his tenure in New England, Brady crossed paths with a rising star that was taking the league by storm in Kansas City: Mahomes.

The two superstars met twice throughout the course of the 2018 NFL season: once in a back-and-forth regular season battle in Foxborough, and once more in that year’s AFC Championship game. Brady came out on top on both occasions.

After that AFC Championship win, Brady made an effort to see Mahomes near the Chiefs locker room to give him some advice to the future of the league.

“He got the security to let him in, and he said, ‘Man, you had a heck of a season,’” Mahomes said on the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” “He knows what it’s like to win a lot of big games. He knows what it’s like to lose some big games — not many, but a few. So, he just said, ‘You have to keep grinding.’ He said he loved the way that I played.”

Little did Brady or Mahomes know at the time, that advice would come in the midst of what would turn into a best-of-five series between the two quarterbacks.

>>RELATED: What will the world look like when Patrick Mahomes’ 10-year extension with the Chiefs ends?

Brady’s Patriots would meet Mahomes’ Chiefs one year later during the 2019 season, with Mahomes getting the upper hand on Brady for the first time in his career on Brady’s home turf.

“You want to beat the best,” Mahomes said after the game. “You want to go out and play against the best and give your best effort. But it’s a team game, your team has to beat his team. That’s a really good football team, this is a really tough environment to play in and so for us to find a way to win a game – it wasn’t pretty the whole time, it was just a tough, hard-fought win.”

A few months later, Brady’s team and environment would change completely. He decided to take his talents down to Florida, joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as he prepared for his 21st season in the league.

As a result of the league’s scheduling formula, fans were guaranteed at least one more battle between Brady and Mahomes in 2020, with many wondering about the potential for a Super Bowl matchup a few months later in 2021.

Sure enough, everyone’s wishes came true. Mahomes’ Chiefs squeaked out the win against Brady’s Buccaneers in the midst of the 2020 regular season, evening their career series to two games apiece.

The Buccaneers utilized the loss to spark some momentum, going on a tear en route to playoff upsets against Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints and Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers. When the dust cleared on the NFC side of the 2020 postseason bracket, Brady advanced to the Super Bowl for the 10th time in his career.

Meanwhile, Mahomes’ Chiefs cruised through the AFC side of the bracket, advancing to the Super Bowl for the second year in a row. In Mahomes’ third year as a starter, he played in his third AFC Championship game, and advanced to his second Super Bowl.

In the process, he matched and exceeded the start to Brady’s career. He had advanced to his second Super Bowl in the same amount of time it took Brady to do so, while advancing to three AFC title games in one less season.

>>RELATED: Can the Chiefs repeat as Super Bowl champions? History isn’t in their favor

And, through it all, Mahomes increased his potential to become the league’s greatest quarterback of all time.

“The fact that Patrick Mahomes is somehow in this discussion shows you how amazing this guy is,” Romo said during the Super Bowl LV conference call. “There’s a chance for Patrick Mahomes playing this game, to climb the ladder. If Mahomes wins, he keeps that door open. “

“This is the only kid that is going to be in the discussion.”

But, as Mahomes looks to solidify his spot towards the top, Brady will look to make sure that there’s plenty of wiggle room for him to work with going forward.

He already has the most Super Bowl wins by any player in NFL history, but a seventh would make Brady an undisputed G.O.A.T., and make it that much harder for Mahomes to catch him in the future.

“If Brady wins, I don’t know how anyone can top him,” Romo said.

It’s a quarterback duel that sounds like something pulled straight from a movie script or novel, almost seeming too good to be true.

Mahomes, the upstart quarterback that has long looked like the next in line to the throne, is forced to try to take down Brady, the man that has sat on the throne for years.

A 43-year-old Brady, who has more Super Bowl wins than Mahomes even has seasons played in the NFL.

A 25-year-old Mahomes, who was just six years old when Brady won his first Super Bowl with the Patriots during the 2001 season.

>>RELATED: If you could only keep one, which of the Patriots’ six Super Bowl wins would you pick?

To top it all off, it’s the first Super Bowl to feature the previous two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in the league’s history.

“This is the matchup people will be talking about 25 to 50 years from now,” Romo said. “As a football fan, this is as good as it gets. This one is really special.”

Somehow, in a year full of so much uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like success is a guarantee when it comes to Brady and Mahomes.

So, it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to make a guarantee of our own: When Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes take the field for Super Bowl LV, fans will witness the greatest quarterback matchup in Super Bowl history, along with one of the biggest one-on-one battles in sports history.

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