KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s so refreshing to see the underdogs finally catch a break.
Dissed and dismissed by seemingly everyone, the New England Patriots proved all the doubters wrong Sunday, reaching the Super Bowl for the — checks notes — third year in a row, fourth time in five years and ninth time in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Era. In two weeks, the team no one gave a chance will go for its — checks notes again — sixth Super Bowl title in 18 years.
On a night when the NFL was in flames over a blatant no-call on pass interference that helped the Los Angeles Rams stun the New Orleans Saints, the Patriots restored some sense of order, doing what they always do. What everyone expects them to do, regardless of whatever kind of faux motivation Brady and Co. tried to gin up.
“The odds were stacked against us,” Brady said after the 37-31 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs. “It hasn’t been that way for us for a while. It certainly was this year.”
Almost every athlete at this level is as driven as he is gifted. But the greatest can conjure additional motivation out of practically nothing, even manufacturing it if need be. Michael Jordan was the king of this, using his failure to make the varsity team as a sophomore in high school even as he was running out of fingers for his NBA rings. Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind, still nursing grudges against all those college coaches who overlooked him and NFL teams who passed on him.
Brady proved every bit their equal last week, saying after New England’s rout of the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round that “Everybody thinks we suck.”
It wasn’t even close to being true, of course. But that didn’t stop Brady and the Patriots from taking that chip on their shoulders and turning it into a chasm. Julian Edelman even sold “Bet Against Us” T-shirts on his website.
Yet here they are, AFC Champions again after getting the ball first in overtime and executing a surgical drive that ended with Rex Burkhead’s 2-yard scoring run.
Asked afterward if he truly believed the Patriots were being overlooked or if that was just another motivational ploy, Brady smirked.
“Yeah,” he said, letting the answer hang there.
Then he smirked again.
More: Patriots sink Chiefs in overtime, return to Super Bowl for third consecutive year
More: Rams stun Saints in overtime after controversial no-call, advance to Super Bowl LIII as NFC champs
The truth is, nobody thinks the Patriots “suck,” and Brady and the whole New England locker room knows it. Everybody outside of New England might hate them, tired of Belichick’s arrogance, Brady’s smugness and all that winning. But think New England sucks? Only if they haven’t been paying attention the last two decades.
“You’re always comfortable with Tom,” Rob Gronkowski said. “He’s always prepared, he’s always ready for these moments. That’s why he’s the greatest quarterback, just hands down.”
And that is why rumors of the demise of the Patriots’ dynasty were greatly exaggerated.
Yes, this was a “down” year for the Patriots. They were in danger of not getting their birthright first-round bye — the horrors! — until late December, and their 11-5 record was their worst since 2009. With Gronkowski diminished this season and the Patriots having to face the soon-to-be-named MVP Patrick Mahomes in the AFC title game, it was fair to wonder if New England were finally showing its age.
The Patriots didn’t help matters with uncharacteristic, and completely boneheaded, mistakes against the Chiefs. Brady’s end zone interception at the start of the second quarter. Burkhead’s inability to pick up a yard on fourth-and-1 in the fourth.
Brady’s really bad throw to Julian Edelman that was tipped — yes, that one Edelman did get a hand on — and picked off by Daniel Sorensen, leading to the touchdown that would give Kansas City its first lead of the day. J.C. Jackson’s pass interference call — his second of the day, for those keeping score — on the Chiefs’ second go-ahead drive.
But when it came down to it, when it really mattered, Brady and his plucky underdogs did what they always do.
Win. While grinding their opponent into submission in the process.
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Even when the Chiefs tied it up on a field goal with 8 seconds left, there was a feeling of disquieting familiarity. When New England won the coin toss, all but the most optimistic of Chiefs fans knew the Patriots were on to Atlanta.
“You saw me, I ran off,” veteran Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “I saw this before.”
Haven’t we all. Far from sucking, New England’s dynasty remains intact.
Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.