What Sunday’s matchup means for the beginning of a new rivalry, and what it means for the future of quarterback dominance in the NFL.
Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocys Charles Robinson @CRob5769
Betway. The two photos above were taken about a month apart from each other just under two years ago. Joe Burrow, the LSU quarterback at the time, had just capped off what might be the best individual season in college football history by smashing Clemson 42-25 in the CFP title game (after embarrassing Oklahoma to the tune of 63-28 in the semifinal) to complete a perfect 15-0 season where he brought home a National Championship and Heisman Trophy. 27 players from that team would find themselves in the NFL over the course of the next two seasons, including Burrow’s now Bengals teammate and 2021 first round pick Ja’Marr Chase, Minnesota Vikings 202 first round pick wide receiver Justin Jefferson, Baltimore Ravens 2020 first round pick middle linebacker Patrick Queen, Jacksonville Jaguars 2020 first round pick outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson, and Kansas City Chiefs 2020 first round pick running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Burrow, of course, was the top overall pick in the 2020 draft. Headed back to Ohio, where he grew up and attended Ohio State before transferring to LSU to finish off his college career with a dream team and a dream season. From 15 wins with a team filled with 6 first round draft picks, to a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season in 5 years, coming off of a 2-14 campaign.
And of course, to the left, is Patrick Mahomes. We are all very familiar with Mr. Mahomes. A month or so after Joe Burrow led LSU to the promised land in college football, Mahomes led the Chiefs to a thrilling come from behind victory in Super Bowl 54 that lit Kansas City on fire. He was the hero that Kansas City had been longing for since Lenny the Cool was the Chiefs signal caller. Coming off of a MVP season in 2018 and a heartbreaking overtime loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium (the first in the history of the building), Mahomes and the Chiefs had revenge on the mind going into 2019. Through a roller coaster season that started out with Mahomes on fire, to the superstar QB missing 2.5 games in the middle of the year with a knee cap dislocation, to finishing the regular season on a 6 game winning streak, completing a 24 point comeback in a 51-31 whitewashing of the Houston Texans in the AFC divisional playoffs, and a 10 point comeback against the visiting Tennessee Titans in the second AFC Championship game played at Arrowhead Stadium – the Chiefs had reached the biggest stage in football. But even after overcoming all of that, the team had to overcome another 10 point deficit in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 54. The rest is history.
When these two iconic runs were in the process, and even in the immediate aftermath, no one in Baton Rouge, Cincinnati, or Kansas City would have guessed that we would be where we are today – under 24 hours away from one of the most anticipated quarterback matchups of the year. Burrow and his ahead of schedule Bengals are sitting atop the AFC North at 9-6, and Mahomes and the Chiefs, yet again, find themselves with the AFC West clinched at 11-4 with time to spare, and the potential of a fourth straight AFC Championship game being played at Arrowhead Stadium if they can clinch the 1 seed once more and take care of business in the postseason. Burrow and Mahomes, at 24 and 26 years of age respectively, are about to embark on the maiden voyage of what is sure to be one of the next great quarterback rivalries in the NFL.
If you’ve turned on your TV on to any sports network for even 5 minutes this week, you’ve heard all of the talking debating the matchup. Who has the quarterback advantage? Which young QB has the brightest future? If you were starting a franchise right now – which would you take? Hypotheticals are always fun. And when you have stats like these two have put up this year to compare head to head, it makes the conversation even more fun. Some opinions, of course, are incorrect. I’ll let you guess which one I’m talking about there, and I will get in the mud a little bit on this in my actual game preview, but for now let’s sit back and do something we don’t do very often as sports fan. Enjoy the fact that we’re staring down the barrel of a brand new rival.
But what’s really new for KC fans? Over the course of the past four seasons, with Mahomes emergence and domination in that span, have come several new “rivals” that have been appointed as enemies to Mahomes throne as the best quarterback in the NFL. Lamar Jackson. Josh Allen. Justin Herbert. Baker Mayfield. Mac Jones, while not having faced Mahomes yet, is on a collision course with the Chiefs at some point, one would have to imagine. And now, Joe Burrow. I’ll tie this up into the nice little bow that you’re expecting at the end here, but going through all of these names, matchups, and future matchups in my head got me thinking – the AFC is about to have the scales tipped heavily in its favor when it comes to quarterback play.
Only 5 of the top 10 passers in the NFL right now reside in the AFC. But those 5 are all in the top 7, and the average age of the 5 from the NFC is 35.2 years old. Tom Brady (44), Matt Stafford (33), Kirk Cousins (33), Dak Prescott (28), and Aaron Rodgers (38) are numbers 1, 4, 8, 9, and 10 in the rankings respectively. On the other side, you have an average age almost a full decade younger (average 25.6) with Justin Herbert (23), Derek Carr (30), Patrick Mahomes (26), Joe Burrow (24), and Josh Allen (25) at numbers 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7. A lot of this obviously has to do with the talent around each player – whether it’s receiving options, studs out of the backfield, or elite offensive lines up front. But, at this level, and with these players, most of these guys have the luxury of all 3. And while it is undoubtedly impressive what guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are doing at their current age, it’s also clear that most of those names in the NFC, sans Dak Prescott, are closer to the end of their careers than they are the beginning. Remember Tom Brady is the exception, not the rule. Matthew Stafford is having a great year for the Rams, but let’s not forget all of the damage he took from injuries as a member of the Lions. Kirk Cousins will likely land on his feet as a starter somewhere when his days in Minnesota are done (which is more than likely soon), but you would have to imagine it wouldn’t be on a contender. Aaron Rodgers is so aloof to football it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him walk away at any moment.
Coming in behind this crop of NFC pack leaders are guys like Matt Ryan (36 years old), Jimmy Garoppolo (his replacement is already drafted, and he’ll likely face a similar future to Kirk Cousins soon), Kyler Murray – who along with Prescott, is a nice young player for the NFC the hang its hat in the coming years. After that…yikes. Taylor Heinecke, Jared Goff, and Jalen Hurts. Russell Wilson is also in the picture, and would undoubtedly be in that top 10 had it not been for a hand injury that kept him out of 4 games mid year, but even he’s 33, with an injury past that could catch up to him at some point. Outside of Prescott and Murray, the NFC QB pool will be pretty lean pretty quickly.
The AFC quarterbacks, on the other hand, aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Of course I’d be an idiot no to think that, at some point, there’s a pretty high chance that one of these guys, on either side of the conversation, ends up in the opposing conference. Trades and free agency make everything interesting in the NFL, but the trend has been recently if you have your guy, you try to keep your guy by any means necessary. We’ll find out shortly if the Browns intend to do so with Baker Mayfield, and Russell Wilson looks like he wants out of Seattle pretty badly, after being vocal about it last offseason and the end appearing to be near for the current Seattle regime as a whole, the timing would be right. Those two moves, along with Rodgers contract with Green Bay coming to an end and change seeming likely in his uniform color, could shift the balance of power in each conference individually and the entirety of the NFL. We haven’t even mentioned Deshaun Watson yet, and what might happen with his situation.
The Saints have a ready made roster, Denver is pretty talented everywhere but under center, as are Las Vegas and the Washington Football Team. It’s too early to tell with guys like Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence, and Zach Wilson because the rosters they’ve been drafted to are so bad, they didn’t get the luxury of an easy rebuild. In Lawrence’s case, he didn’t even get the luxury of having an actual head coach for most of his rookie campaign. And Trey Lance is still a project in San Francisco post-Jimmy G, but the roster lends well to him seeing pretty immediate success if he can manage a game at the very least. But for right now, the AFC appears to be in pretty good hands with the young quarterback talent leading them into the heart and to the end of the 2020’s.
So, yeah, Burrow vs. Mahomes on Sunday is a big game. But it’s bigger than one game. It’s another rival, another young gun coming for the badge, for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to match up with every single year. While Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert have all gotten the best of Mahomes one time each, he has gotten them when it matters the most. Allen won a week 5 matchup at Arrowhead this year, but Mahomes beat him last year in Buffalo, and again last year in Kansas City for the AFC Championship. He’s beaten Baker Mayfield both times he’s played them, including in the playoffs. Lamar Jackson is a career 1-3 vs Mahomes and the Chiefs, and is a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble away from being 0-4. Herbert is 1-2, and won one earlier this season before having his heart ripped out and the AFC West ripped from his grasps in a Thursday Night thriller in LA 2 weeks ago. Against Jackson, Mayfield, Allen, and Herbert – and throw in Derek Carr for the hell of it – Mahomes is 14-4 in his career. Joe Burrow brings another interesting challenge, but if history tells us anything – it’s that in a conference full of young guns, there’s only room for one Sheriff. And he wears number 15.