KANSAS CITY, Mo. - If, a year ago, you had to make a Mt. Rushmore of the greatest active champions in football, there would have been four obvious names: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban and Patrick Mahomes.
Then this week changed everything. Saban retired, Belichick and the Patriots broke up, and the NFL playoffs started without a healthy Brady for the first time in 21 years. Mahomes now stands alone at the pinnacle of the sport. No one else in the game today has had his level of success, and few others can realistically dream of even trying to ascend to such heights - though there will always be challengers, notably this year Lamar Jackson and Jim Harbaugh.
Look at how the Kansas City Chiefs mugged the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night to begin their title defense. The most notable thing about the game was the historic cold. Otherwise, it was for Mahomes just another January win in a young career already full of them, another small step toward the lodestar of Brady's seven rings.
Mahomes is taking sole possession of the throne at a time when his team's supremacy seems the shakiest. This year's Chiefs are not as dominant as those that came before. His unit isn't the team's strongest. For the first time in Mahomes's six seasons as the Chiefs' starting quarterback, Kansas City didn't secure one of the top two seeds in the AFC, meaning it may have to travel (to Buffalo) for the divisional round.
But because his rival champions are gone or faded, and because he lacks proper peers, football belongs to Mahomes - though he seems totally unconcerned with anything other than propelling the Chiefs through another playoff run. This time, he's adapting his play to complement the strong defense.
"I learned that this year," he said Saturday night. "I have that mentality where I want to score every single time. I played in the Big 12 [college conference]; I want to score every single time. But when your defense is playing like that, you have to find the best way to win the football game - and if that's punting the ball, flipping the field, letting them get the stop for us and then scoring the next drive, that's what you got to do."
It was easy to forget the Chiefs' offensive struggles in the regular season on Saturday night. The line held up well against pressure. Maestro Mahomes looked vintage beating blitzes. The dominance papered over their problems, such as finishing in the red zone (2-for-6).
Questions linger, especially on offense. Can the Chiefs dominate a better team in a warmer game? Can the line hold up against a less depleted pass rush? Can the pass catchers . . . keep catching? (Kansas City led the NFL in drops this year, according to Pro Football Focus.)
But the Chiefs still have Mahomes.
"Pat had a nice day just right from the get-go," Coach Andy Reid said. "I don't think [the Dolphins] were anticipating us throwing the ball quite as much as we did. But we were able to come out and sling it. A lot of quarterbacks can't do it, what he did, in that type of weather."
Over the past week, it's been hard not to reflect on everything it takes to remain elite in football for two decades. Talent, luck, extreme support. During the game, it was impossible not to wonder if Mahomes could really keep this up for another 10 or 15 years - and even if he can, can the Chiefs organization?
Kansas City will have to replicate the endless conveyor belt of talent that was the lifeblood of the other dynasties. Mahomes probably won't have as long with Reid - who, at 65, is for now the oldest coach in the NFL - as Brady did with Belichick. And on the same night receiver Tyreek Hill returned to Kansas City for the first time, Mahomes was elevating a passing game that ran nearly exclusively through 34-year-old tight end Travis Kelce and rookie receiver Rashee Rice.
"I'm not sure," he said. "He's an elite quarterback, and I love playing with him. I'm not sure."
"They love the game so much," he added. "They prepare so hard."
In the locker room after the game, Mahomes blew on his hands, still warming up from the frigid field. He joked that it never got like this back home in Texas. He pulled on a black Louis Vuitton crew neck sweater and two glittering black necklaces. He is 28, seemingly in the middle of his prime, already with two MVPs and two Super Bowl trophies - accolades as good or better than some Hall of Famers.
His goals seem to be grander. It's five more Super Bowls to catch Brady, six to pass him. But Mahomes seems locked in on the present, on winning the next game that's a small steppingstone to the next championship.
On Saturday night, it was so cold that, when Mahomes got hit in the head, a chunk of his plastic helmet broke off. Seemingly no one could remember that ever happening before. Mahomes refused to come off the field, and the team replaced his helmet. After the game, Reid described the play with the words that are key to this whole thing.
"His will to win is ridiculous," Reid said. "He's a great competitor."