ST. PAUL, MINN. — Well here we go, the long, overcooked leadup to Super Bowl LII, or as I'll refer to it from this point forward, Super Bowl 52.
Fifty-two Super Bowls, like playing cards in a deck. Pick a game, any game. The Bowl is back in the Twin Cities for the first time since No. 26, the year Thurman Thomas misplaced his helmet. That's half a lifetime ago in Super Bowl years, 26 years since the Bills lost the second of their four in a row to Washington.
That makes me feel old. The Bowl is younger than me, of course. I remember the first two, when it was still known as the NFL-AFL championship and the Packers went back-to-back under Vince Lombardi. But my personal favorite is No. 3, the year the Jets shocked the Baltimore Colts and set the stage for the AFL-NFL merger.
I was 13 at the time, cocky and barely in my teens. We all loved Joe Willie Namath back then, with his white shoes and his panty hose ads and braggadocio. My dad was old school, a Unitas guy. He laughed when I told him the team from the AFL could win. I bet him a buck, without taking the 16 points, and bought eight comic books with my winnings.
Namath never won another playoff game after Super Bowl 3. No athlete ever earned such glory and acclaim for winning a single game. On one afternoon in early 1969, he created the mold for the Super Bowl-winning quarterback as the ultimate sports icon.
As you might have guessed, this is a roundabout way of getting around to the Patriots' Tom Brady. Joe Willie won the big one once. Next Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, Brady will play in his eighth Super Bowl and try to win his sixth – in a span of 17 seasons.
That's amazing in its own right, that there are 15 years separating Brady's first and fifth Super Bowl championships, by far the largest span of any NFL quarterback. Joe Montana won his four in a nine-year span. Peyton Manning won his two nine years apart. Terry Bradshaw won four titles in six years, Troy Aikman three in four.
Brady is in rare territory for any professional sport. Babe Ruth won World Series 17 years apart. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Henri Richard won NBA and Stanley Cup championships, respectively, with 17 years in between.
From what I gather, a lot of people are beginning to find it boring. Maybe it's because the Pats have been in the Super Bowl eight times in 17 seasons. It's understandable if Bills fans are suffering Brady fatigue after watching him torture their team for nearly two decades, until the age of 40.
But was it boring when Michael Jordan won six NBA titles in eight years, or when the Steelers won four Bowls in six seasons, or when the Yankees and Montreal Canadiens won championships five years running in the mid-1900s?
Brady certainly doesn't find it boring. If anything, he's gained a heightened regard for this moment over the 17 years.
"I could never have imagined being in this position eight times," he said in Monday night's televised media scrum on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center. "Being in it one time is a dream come true, and to be here eight times is unbelievable. I think I've appreciated it as I've gotten older.
"Early on, it just went so fast. I think I've really relished these experiences and opportunities and tried to make the best of them."
Maybe it's tedious for fans who appreciate more variety in their champions. Still, there's something to be said for repeat greatness. It certainly wasn't dull when Brady led the Pats over the Seahawks in the greatest fourth-quarter Super Bowl comeback three years ago, then one-upped himself against Atlanta last year.
Brady told close friends that last year's title was the most satisfying, coming after he served a four-game suspension for DeflateGate. It also came during a year when his mother, Galynn, was being treated for cancer and was only cleared to travel to last year's Bowl in Houston at the last minute. Brady said Monday that his mother is doing well.
Last year's comeback from a 28-3 deficit won over many of the skeptics who were reluctant to grant Brady the status of greatest quarterback of all time. Now, you hear talk of him being the best football player ever. Jerry Rice said he always thought it was Jimmy Brown, but he was wavering after last year.
I've long considered Jimmy Brown the best football player ever. But I've reconsidered, too. The QB is the most important position in sports. Watching the Bills struggle has pounded that fact home for me. Brady has a strong case for best ever, and he's not done making it.
The popular notion says the era of Brady and Bill Belichick is nearing its natural end. It's a reasonable assumption with Brady now 40. But he's been saying for years he can play until he's 45. Considering that his stats over the last three years are better than his career numbers, who can doubt him?
By beating the Eagles on Sunday, Brady can become the oldest quarterback ever to win the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning won it at 39 years, 320 days two years ago. But the Broncos won despite a broken-down Manning, not because of him.
Let's cut the deck to Supe 39. That was early 2005, when Brady and the Pats won their third title in four years, against Philadelphia. Now, after a 10-year gap, they're trying to win three in four years again, against the same Eagles.
The Patriots lost top assistants Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel after that '05 title. They're going to lose OC Josh McDaniels and DC Matt Patricia to head jobs after this one, win or lose. That's another reason for the belief that the Brady-Belichick era might be finally drawing to an end.
Brady can't defy time forever. This could be his last chance to win it all. Maybe he'll stop after six, as Michael Jordan did 20 years ago. Bills fans can only hope. But boring? Please. A true football fan should enjoy him while he's here, because the game isn't likely to see anyone like him ever again.
"I never want to be a detriment to the team," Brady said when asked how long he expects to play. "So as long as I'm playing at a high level and I make the commitment to take care of myself year-round, then I'll continue to play. Things change quickly. I mean, anything can happen.
"But obviously, I want to keep playing. I love playing. I just love playing for the Patriots."