The future of AFC quarterback play is bright thanks to the trio poised to take over for years to come

If Deshaun Watson wanted to be slightly hyperbolic Sunday night, he had earned it. His Houston Texans' 28-23 win against Tom Brady's Patriots in Week 13 is likely the biggest victory of his young career, and he knew it moments after the game.

"As far as big wins, honestly, it's pretty big. Really just because it's Brady," Watson said. "I was 0-2 against Brady. Who knows when he's going to hang it up? That's my role model, a guy that's been doing it forever, over 20 years. I'm only alive for 20 years. It's pretty awesome to finally get one."

Watson actually turned 24 earlier this season. And if you take Brady at his word that he'll play for three more years at least—and considering both teams are in the AFC—it's likely these two will see each other a few more times in the future.

But twice already this season we have seen this younger generation of quarterbacks get the best of Brady and the Pats, and there's a decent shot it happens a third time next week in Foxboro. MVP frontrunner Lamar Jackson got the first win against Brady this season. Then Watson got his figurative trophy in Week 13. And up next is Patrick Mahomes looking for a small measure of revenge from January's AFC title game in Kansas City.

The American Football Conference has been dominated by three men for the better part of two decades. Now it seems poised to have a new triumvirate in Jackson, Watson, and Mahomes for years to come.

Since the 2001 season, Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger has been in the AFC Championship Game in all but one year (2002). On six occasions, two of those three men captained their teams to the conference title game in the same year. For nearly two decades you could set your clock to hearing Jim Nantz call one of their names in that cold Sunday game in late January.

Of course, Manning retired following the 2015 season. Roethlisberger, who has publicly flirted with the idea of retirement for years now, is on the shelf this season with an elbow injury but should return next season. And Brady is having one of his most trying seasons on the field ever.

(None of this is to say, by the way, that Brady and the Patriots are cooked. "The end of the dynasty" or "torch being passed" won't be found here. Columnists have written that time and again these past four or so years and been proven wrong, and I don't intend to wind up in that graveyard.)

But now more than ever, it seems like we have reached the stage where the AFC will be alright without those titans of the game at quarterback. Mahomes, the reigning MVP, is still on an elite perch despite his team's 8-4 record and his two-game absence with a knee injury. Watson has his team in the third slot of the AFC playoffs today with a one-game lead in the AFC South. And Jackson is coming off another huge win for this special season for the Charm City team.

For his part, Brady has always been complimentary and congratulatory of these three quarterbacks in particular. But in a recent interview with Fox's Erin Andrews, Brady did point out differences he saw in the way the position is played today than when he entered the league.

"I think the game's changed a little bit from when I started. I think it's a little more of a skills competition than necessarily a football game," Brady said.

"For a quarterback, I should be responsible for protecting my receivers. I shouldn't throw the ball in certain places if I know they're going to get hit. I think a lot of quarterbacks now, they just throw it."

I don't view that as shade so much as Brady taking note of the seven-on-seven-ization of the game and how football coaches are finally leaning into their quarterback's skill sets more. After all, if it were easy to defend, perhaps the greatest football coach in America wouldn't have given up a combined 58 points to Jackson and Watson this season.

Injuries could derail this trio just as it did, temporarily, to the three men before it. Mahomes suffered a dislocated knee this season. Watson has torn his ACL twice. Jackson has avoided major injury throughout his career but has taken his fair share of licks this season as he stands 63 yards from breaking Michael Vick's single-season rushing record for a quarterback with a quarter of the season left.

Of the three, Mahomes is the best at avoiding a big hit. Jackson has Robert Griffin III in his meeting rooms every day to remind him about the toll hits can take on a slender quarterback's body. And Watson, whose 62 sacks last season were fifth-most in NFL history, has been better this season about avoiding the hits that he can.

"He's aware that his value to the franchise is him being on the field and he's been able to do that and be more selective and picking his spots," Quincy Avery, Watson's personal coach, told me recently. "Do we need this right here? I'll do a little extra. And now you'll see him throw the ball away a few more times than he did previously. As he gets older and matures more, he'll understand this is a critical spot and moment. I need to get this here or I need to get the ball out of my hands."

We've been here before. Andrew Luck teased us earlier this decade with one AFC title game trip before hanging it up this season. Joe Flacco is the only quarterback outside the original group of three to make it to the Super Bowl from the AFC since 2003.

And even if the Brady has to go on the road to face Jackson, Mahomes or Watson, it's going to be tough to bet against the Patriots in the second duels with any of those teams.

But whether the future is now or next year or the next, the future is secured. And the AFC is going to be just fine.

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