The changing of the guard at quarterback is official, and its headquarters are in the AFC as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence will start this weekend with their seasons on the line. If you could pick an all-chalk final four version of AFC quarterbacks, this would be it. It'll be the first time every starting quarterback in a conference's divisional round is a top-10 draft pick and under 30 years old.
Remember this list below? When Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger had combined to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl 16 times in a span of 18 years? It was a remarkable run, but those glory days are long gone and a new era of AFC quarterback greatness is well upon us as Mahomes and Burrow have combined to make the last three Super Bowls. I wouldn't be surprised to see the four quarterbacks this weekend combine on a similar run in the next 15 years.
AFC QBs to start a Super Bowl since 2001 season
- 2001: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2002: Rich Gannon (Raiders)
- 2003: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2004: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2005: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers)
- 2006: Peyton Manning (Colts)
- 2007: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2008: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers)
- 2009: Peyton Manning (Colts)
- 2010: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers)
- 2011: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2012: Joe Flacco (Ravens)
- 2013: Peyton Manning (Broncos)
- 2014: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2015: Peyton Manning (Broncos)
- 2016: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2017: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2018: Tom Brady (Patriots)
- 2019: Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)
- 2020: Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)
- 2021: Joe Burrow (Bengals)
AFC is an embarrassment of QB riches
The AFC quarterback landscape has undergone a major facelift in the last few years with Tom Brady leaving the conference, along with Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger retiring. AFC teams have drafted 13 quarterbacks in the first round since 2017, the most ever by a conference in a span of six drafts (the NFC has drafted eight over this span).
The success of this group so far is staggering.
- I would consider 10 of those picks to be at least borderline franchise QBs
- Kenny Pickett, Zach Wilson and Sam Darnold are the only ones who haven't led their teams to the playoffs since being drafted.
- Only Deshaun Watson, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are not on their original teams.
- Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Watson have inked contract extensions worth just under a combined $1 billion, and Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow may not be far behind.
|AFC QBs Drafted in First Round Since 2017||Year||Pick|
Kenny Pickett (Steelers)
Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars)
Zach Wilson (Jets)
Mac Jones (Patriots)
Joe Burrow (Bengals)
Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins)
Justin Herbert (Chargers)
Baker Mayfield (Browns)
Sam Darnold (Jets)
Josh Allen (Bills)
Lamar Jackson (Ravens)
Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)
Deshaun Watson (Texans)
What's at stake this postseason
Out of the group above, you couldn't ask for a better final four to battle it out for a spot in the Super Bowl. Saying this is a treat is an understatement.
All four can make big strides in building their legacies.
Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow both won national championships in college and are no strangers to the big stage. Burrow has already reached a Super Bowl and Lawrence just authored one of the most impressive in-game turnarounds in league history, throwing four straight touchdowns following four straight picks in the Jaguars' historic comeback win. He can follow in Burrow's footsteps, joining him as the only quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall to reach a conference championship game within their first two seasons in the league.
Both are knocking on the door of more hardware, too. Only two quarterbacks have ever won a national championship and a Super Bowl: Joe Namath and Joe Montana. With the numbers each has put up between the College Football Playoffs and NFL postseason, don't rule out a Lombardi Trophy at some point.
|Careers in College Football Playoffs and NFL Postseason||Burrow||Lawrence|
Josh Allen has his own championship in his sights. He is trying to deliver the Bills their first Super Bowl title after they lost in four straight from the 1990-93 seasons. After how last season ended (and many others for Buffalo), you can't help but root for Bills Mafia to finally get over the hump.
And all three are trying to step out of the shadow of Patrick Mahomes, who is the elder statesman in the group at age 27. He is aiming for his fifth conference championship appearance in five seasons as the Chiefs' starting quarterback. No signal-caller has started that many conference title games before turning 30, and only Tom Brady and Ken Stabler have ever started five in a row, at any age. With a win on Saturday, Mahomes would have as many conference championship trips in his career as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre (five each).
It's championship-or-bust, though, for Mahomes, who is a virtual lock to win his second NFL MVP this year. He's seeking to become the fifth QB all time with multiple championships (as a starting quarterback) and MVPs, along with a Mount Rushmore of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas.
Closing the gap on Mahomes
Mahomes is undoubtedly the alpha dog in the conference after leading the Chiefs to the top seed with a record-breaking season -- after they traded Tyreek Hill. A 5,000-yard season and an expected second MVP reminded us that he's the king of the conference. That's the stuff of an absolute legend. You could also say he's mostly owned the new generation of NFL quarterbacks. He's faced 18 quarterbacks drafted since 2017, which coincides with the year he entered the league. He has a winning record against all of them with the exception of one: Joe Burrow.
Mahomes' career record vs. QBs drafted since 2017
- Drew Lock (4-0)
- Justin Herbert (4-1)
- Josh Allen (3-2)
- Baker Mayfield (3-0)
- Lamar Jackson (3-1)
- Deshaun Watson (2-1)
- Sam Darnold (1-0)
- Tua Tagovailoa (1-0)
- Trevor Lawrence (1-0)
- Mitch Trubisky (1-0)
- Josh Rosen (1-0)
- Jordan Love (1-0)
- Jalen Hurts (1-0)
- Daniel Jones (1-0)
- Kyler Murray (1-0)
- Jarrett Stidham (1-0)
- Malik Willis (1-0)
- Joe Burrow (0-3)
The gap is closing, though. If you look specifically at the new group of AFC quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2017, Mahomes had a 12-1 record against them, from 2017-20. Yet he has a losing record against them in the last two seasons (6-7), with Herbert, Jackson, Allen and Burrow, among others, proving to be worthy adversaries.
Plus, Mahomes has already lost to Allen's Bills and Burrow's Bengals this season -- two teams that also played the Chiefs in playoff thrillers last year. Don't rule out an upset by Lawrence's Jaguars this weekend either. Jacksonville is a better team than the one that lost by 10 in Kansas City in Week 10. The Jags are 7-1 since, and winners of six in a row.
When Tom Brady left the conference in 2019, the stage looked set for Mahomes to reach literally every Super Bowl, while crushing the championship dreams of the other all-time greats in his era. Brady showed him the way after all. Peyton Manning (two), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Eli Manning (two), Aaron Rodgers (one), Drew Brees (one), Philip Rivers (none) and Matt Ryan (none) were left vying for the championships Brady didn't win. Mahomes even looked positioned to do what Michael Jordan did to all the superstars around him. He notably helped stand in the way of Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller ever winning a championship.
Part of me wonders if a decade from now we'll see a similar trend with Mahomes and the other superstar quarterbacks in the AFC. For now we're at a fork in the road. Will it be a Mahomes dynasty or an embarrassment of championship riches for the entire AFC kingdom of quarterbacks? The way it's trending I think it'll be the latter, with Mahomes slightly leading the way, but it's anyone's best guess. All I know is I can't wait to sit back and watch four superstar quarterbacks go to work this weekend and see where the chips fall.