As we approach the Divisional Round of the playoffs, my mind is drafting toward the teams' respective quarterbacks. It makes sense. The NFL is a passing league, and it's becoming more and more of one with each passing year. It's no accident that the eight teams left in the playoffs all sport a top-10 pass offense (Packers, Chiefs, Bills, Browns), pass defense (Saints, Rams, Ravens), or both (Buccaneers), according to Football Outsiders' DVOA.
What makes the quarterbacks whose teams are still standing so interesting, though, is their age. Specifically, that the quarterbacks left in the AFC are so much younger than the quarterbacks from the NFC. The AFC has Josh Allen (24), Lamar Jackson (24), Baker Mayfield (25), and Patrick Mahomes (25). Meanwhile, the NFC has Aaron Rodgers (37), Drew Brees (41), Tom Brady (43), and Jared Goff (26).
In other words, every single NFC quarterback whose team is still in the playoffs is older than the oldest AFC quarterback whose team is left in the playoffs. And it's not like that's an accident. The quarterbacks in the AFC are almost universally younger than their NFC counterparts. Consider the table below, which lists each team's presumptive starting quarterback for the 2021 season, along with their age.
(Note: The quarterbacks whose teams remain in the playoffs are denoted with italics and an asterisk. The teams whose quarterback situation for next season is uncertain are denoted with a question mark.)
|AFC Team||QB||Age||NFC Team||QB||Age|
|BUF||Josh Allen*||24||DAL||Dak Prescott||27|
|MIA||Tua Tagovailoa (?)||22||NYG||Daniel Jones||23|
|NE||Cam Newton (?)||31||PHI||Carson Wentz/Jalen Hurts||28/22|
|NYJ||Sam Darnold (?)||23||WAS||Alex Smith (?)||36|
|BAL||Lamar Jackson*||24||CHI||Mitchell Trubisky (?)||26|
|CIN||Joe Burrow||24||DET||Matthew Stafford||32|
|CLE||Baker Mayfield*||25||GB||Aaron Rodgers*||37|
|PIT||Ben Roethlisberger||38||MIN||Kirk Cousins||32|
|HOU||Deshaun Watson||25||ATL||Matt Ryan||35|
|IND||Philip Rivers||39||CAR||Teddy Bridgewater||28|
|JAX||Trevor Lawrence (?)||21||NO||Drew Brees* (?)||41|
|TEN||Ryan Tannehill||32||TB||Tom Brady*||43|
|DEN||Drew Lock||24||ARI||Kyler Murray||23|
|KC||Patrick Mahomes*||25||LAR||Jared Goff*||26|
|LAC||Justin Herbert||22||SEA||Russell Wilson||32|
|LV||Derek Carr||29||SF||Jimmy Garoppolo||29|
The average age of the expected starting quarterbacks in the AFC is 26.75 years old, and it could end up being even younger than that. The 39-year-old Philip Rivers may choose to retire. AFC teams own the Nos. 2 (Jets) and 3 (Dolphins) picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, which means Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, or both could end up in the AFC as well. There's also a chance the Patriots could move on from 31-year-old Cam Newton and the Raiders could replace 29-year-old Derek Carr (though the latter seems less likely than it did in the recent past).
Meanwhile, the average age of the expected NFC starting quarterbacks for next season is 31.13 years old. (It drops to 30.67 years old if you remove Brees, who is expected to retire at the end of the season.) It seems likely that the Football Team will move on from Alex Smith, but less so that the Bears will replace Mitchell Trubisky under center. The NFC could wind up with Fields, Wilson, Mac Jones, Kyle Trask, and/or Trey Lance, of course, but the AFC will get the first crack at all of them.
Of the players who seem relatively assured to be their team's starting quarterback for the 2021 season, there are just four in the NFC that are under 28 years old: Dak Prescott, Daniel Jones, Kyler Murray, and Jared Goff. (If you include Trubisky, there are five. Jalen Hurts is a possibility, but seems like much less of one after Doug Pederson's ouster.) But in the AFC, there are at least nine (Allen, Jackson, Mayfield, Mahomes, Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson, Drew Lock, and Justin Herbert) and as many as 11 (if you include Sam Darnold and/or Tua Tagovailoa).
It's also not like there's a wave of young quarterbacks coming into the NFC any time soon. The only assured starters under 25 are Jones and Murray, and only one of those two players has shown the ability to be a quality NFL starter. It's incredibly likely that Washington, Green Bay (the Packers did trade up for Jordan Love just last year, remember), Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay, at minimum, will either be looking for new starters or transitioning to a new era at some point within the next few years. The same could also be true of the Giants, Bears, Lions, Vikings, Panthers, and 49ers, not to mention the Rams and Eagles.
Is there a single NFC quarterback on whom you would wager your yearly salary that he will still be that team's starter in 2022, beyond Murray, Russell Wilson, and possibly Prescott? (The uncertainty surrounding Dak's contract has to be enough to make you pause, doesn't it?) Again, there are at least nine quarterbacks in the NFC where just due to their contract status, it seems wildly likely that they'll still be with their current team at that point.
And it's not just that these AFC starters are young. It's that, for the most part, they're really good. Mahomes is the best player in football. Jackson looked like he was in that conversation just last year, and has been recapturing his magic of late. Allen blossomed into a superstar this season. Watson is a slam-dunk top-five quarterback. Herbert had one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory. Burrow was looking like a future star before he got injured. Mayfield showed great improvement over the second half of the season. Lawrence is one of the most decorated quarterback prospects in years.
There's simply nothing like that in the NFC, where the star-powered youth at the position consists of Murray, Prescott, and that's it -- and Prescott is at least two years older than every AFC player mentioned in this paragraph. The disparity between the two conferences is wild.