KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It has become an annual ritual in the NFL to ask the question, “Is this the end of the Patriots dynasty?”
When they lost to the Jets in the playoffs in 2010, it looked like the end. When the Chiefs hammered them on a Monday night in 2014, it looked like the end. When Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season, it looked like the end. And this year, after back-to-back losses in December, it looked like the end.
But the Patriots always seem to find a way to stay alive when people want to pronounce them dead. On Sunday, they are playing in their eighth straight AFC Championship, a remarkable streak.
But it may be their opponents in that game who finally give Patriots haters a reason to believe the dynasty is coming to an end. The Chiefs look like a legitimate, long-term threat to the Patriots in the AFC — which they have not had in this decade.
The talk this week has been of Brady passing the torch to Patrick Mahomes, but the Patriots as a team may be passing the torch to the Chiefs as the top team in the AFC.
Now, questioning the Patriots is always a dicey proposition. They are like a villain in a horror movie — just when you think they are dead, they pop out from around the corner with a machete. They have won five Super Bowls during the Brady-Belichick era, which began in 2001, when most of the players on the Chiefs were in grade school.
This is more about the Chiefs, though, than the Patriots. The elements are in place for them to make a long run. It starts with Mahomes. At 23, his career is just getting started. If you look at the teams that have challenged the Patriots from the AFC in recent years, only the Colts have had a quarterback this young and this good.
Not even Joe Flacco’s biggest fans in 2012, when he and the Ravens beat the Patriots, believed he was going to be a star to the level that Mahomes is expected to be. That Ravens team was led by a defense whose best players — Ed Reed and Ray Lewis — were at the end of their careers.
The Broncos gave the Patriots fits in 2013 and 2015, beating them in the AFC title game in both years. But Peyton Manning was clearly at the end of the line and posed no long-term threat.
The Colts looked like they would be a potential threat when they made it to the 2014 AFC title game, but Luck’s supporting cast was not close to what the Chiefs have and Chuck Pagano was not the coach that Andy Reid is.
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Mahomes, who is coming off a 50-touchdown season, should be great for at least the next decade. He has Tyreek Hill, who is only 24, as a top target. Travis Kelce is 29 but has not shown signs of slowing down.
Reid has been a head coach for 20 years now, but at 60, still should be around for several more years.
Even if the Patriots are able to sustain their dominance in the weak AFC East for one or two more years, the end feels like it is near. Brady, 41, can’t play forever. Gronkowski is the same age as Kelce at 29, but there is already talk that he may retire after this season. Julian Edelman is 32. Bill Belichick will turn 67 in April and has to be close to retirement.
Reid spoke of his respect for the Patriots this week.
“We know the Patriots,” Reid said. “They are very well-coached, and they have good players. This isn’t their first rodeo here. They have done this a few times. Arguably, if not the, one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the game.”
The Chiefs may just be the team to end that dynasty.