Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger. These names conjure up images of greatness, not just in the modern era, but in the annals NFL history. With a combined 10 Super Bowl victories, countless Pro Bowl seasons and elite statistics to boot, these three AFC quarterbacks all have a bust waiting for them in Canton in the not-too-distant future.
With that said, they are about to become a part of history once more in 2020, albeit passively. With Manning retired, Roethlisberger spending most of the year on injured reserve, and Brady’s New England Patriots suffering a shocking Wild Card loss, none of these men will represent the AFC as the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl.
AFC Quarterbacks Entering a New Era
In fact, Super Bowl LIV will stand as just the third time in the last 19 seasons where that statement can be made, as those three men have combined to start in 16 of the last 18 Super Bowls. The only others to accomplish this feat in that time frame were Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders (2003), and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens (2013).
That’s an unbelievable, yet often overlooked statistic and a clear exemplar of how sensational the careers of all three of those legends have truly been. In 2020, however, another man will make history and represent the AFC in the big game. There’s a changing of the guard taking place in the AFC quarterback landscape and four men are currently fighting for the chance to join this exclusive club.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (One-Seed)
Superlatives don’t seem to do Lamar Jackson justice. Indeed, the newly 23-year-old Ravens signal-caller is coming off one of the most incredible seasons in NFL history and should be a lock to win the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player award. The first-team All-Pro passer threw for 36 touchdowns against only six interceptions while rushing for 1,206 yards (most ever by a quarterback) in only 15 starts.
Arguably the most fun player to watch in the entire league, Jackson led the Ravens to a 14-2 record and the top seed in the conference, while tossing five touchdown passes in three separate starts. Jackson’s production as a runner has been transcendent but his dominance as a passer has been equally impressive. With an incredible nine percent touchdown rate and a dazzling 113.3 quarterback rating, he silenced even his most vocal critics en route to becoming one of the league’s most popular stars.
The Ravens are currently riding a 12-game winning streak and haven’t tasted defeat since September. If Jackson and his teammates can extend that streak to 15, they’ll be Super Bowl champions. Of course, this task is easier said than done, but the journey starts this weekend as a date with the emerging Tennessee Titans awaits.
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (Two-Seed)
From 2019’s likely MVP to 2018’s actual MVP, let’s talk a little about Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. Coming off one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, just about anything the former Texas Tech standout did for an encore was bound to feel like a bit of a letdown. Regression to the mean was coming. It had to be.
Indeed, Mahomes saw his numbers drop across the board as his passer rating, touchdown percentage, adjusted yards per pass attempt, and passing yards per game all saw decreases in 2019. But it says something special about a player when his numbers can fall and he still remains positively elite.
Mahomes only played in 14 games this season (although he missed most of one of his starts) due to a nasty-looking dislocated kneecap, but still produced 4,031 passing yards, 26 passing touchdowns, and only five interceptions. Those are numbers that many quarterbacks could never hope to reach in a full healthy season, and Mahomes achieved them in an abridged season where he was rarely playing at full speed. Incredible.
While his name isn’t on everyone’s lips the way it was a year ago (in large part due to the incredible play of Jackson), he remains one of the brightest young stars in the game and could be on the precipice of earning his first Lombardi trophy. In the Divisional Round, the Chiefs are set to host the Houston Texans, and if Mahomes wants to achieve his Super Bowl dreams, he will have to get past this next signal-caller to do so.
Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans (Four-Seed)
In spite of an amazing start to his NFL career, Deshaun Watson still feels like one of the league’s most underrated quarterbacks. The former National Champion and two-time Heisman finalist at Clemson has arguably been just as good as Jackson or Mahomes but receives far less hype and attention. Personally, I think this is largely due to the fact that his numbers, while consistently top-notch, have never spiked to the ridiculous levels that his two peers have reached at their apex.
While Watson may not have a 5,000-plus yard, 50 touchdown season or a 1,200 rushing-yard performance on his resume, there is little doubt that he has quickly become one of the game’s best at his position. At times, he absolutely carries his franchise on his back, facing constant pressure and taking big hits while willing his team to victory. In only 15 starts in 2019, he tied a career-high in touchdown passes (26), set a new watermark in rushing scores (seven), earned his second Pro Bowl berth, and led his team to a second consecutive AFC South divisional title.
When Watson and the Texans travel to face the Chiefs this weekend, they do so with memories of a thrilling 31-24 victory over their rivals at Arrowhead from back in October. It was one of the biggest wins of Watson’s young career, but can he replicate that success once more?
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans (Six-Seed)
Ryan Tannehill shocked the world during the 2019 NFL season. When the Titans acquired the former Miami Dolphins starter in an off-season trade, he was viewed as insurance for oft-injured starter Marcus Mariota. Tannehill’s experience made him a valuable backup, but he was never expected to challenge a healthy Mariota for the starting job.
However, plans changed in a hurry during a 16-0 Week Six loss to the Denver Broncos. The Titans benched Mariota during the third quarter and never looked back. Tannehill took over as the starter and looked the part a true franchise quarterback the rest of the way, tossing 22 touchdown passes against only six interceptions while leading the league with a sparkling 117.5 passer rating. With Tannehill under center, the Titans once-middling offense transformed into one the game’s best, and his 7-3 record as a starter was enough to earn the team a Wild Card slot.
The Titans then proceeded to shock the world, defeating the Patriots 20-13 in Foxborough and advancing to face the top-seeded Ravens in the Divisional Round. While Tannehill struggled versus New England (most quarterbacks did this year), he’s been a clear catalyst for his team’s success for much of the season. The Titans will be considerable underdogs when they make the trip to face the Ravens in Baltimore, but they’ve proven to be a formidable opponent for all challengers. Could Tannehill’s Cinderella season continue and send him to the AFC Championship game?
The times are clearly changing in the AFC and these new faces could be poised to usher in a new era of dominance. One of these four men will indeed enter the exclusive club of AFC Super Bowl quarterbacks that has essentially been a three-man show for almost two decades. But looking beyond this season, could this bunch become the new group of perennial championship contenders? It could happen.
Tannehill’s contract expires at the end of the season and while I’d expect the Titans to make a strong push to re-sign him, the future looks brighter and more certain for his peers. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that Jackson, Mahomes, and Watson, all 24 or younger, will remain the faces of their current franchises well into the future.
It’s not at all outside the realm of possibility that these three incredible young talents will emerge as the Brady, Manning, and Roethlisberger-like figures of the conference for a long time to come. Will one of them be the AFC’s starting quarterback in 16 of the next 18 Super Bowls? It would certainly be hard to replicate that feat, but these three are truly special players.
The NFL is very fortunate to be enjoying such an influx of high-end quarterback talent at a time when many of the greats are moving on, or are close to doing so. With these young stars emerging as the future of the position, the American Football Conference is a virtual lock to continue a long-standing tradition of quarterback excellence.