The benefit of the AFC being loaded with elite, young quarterbacks is that their careers are forced to intertwine. Patrick Mahomes already has budding rivalries with Josh Allen and Joe Burrow, but his biggest foe within the conference is someone he hasn’t played since Week 2 of the 2021 season: Lamar Jackson.
As Jackson closes in on his second MVP award, it’s clear that these two quarterbacks are the cream of the crop in the AFC, if not the entire NFL. They still have a ways to go to catch some of the titans from the previous generation in terms of longevity, like Tom Brady's and Peyton Manning’s rivalry, but this could be the newest quarterback duel that runs the conference.
Jackson called the QB matchup a "heavyweight fight" in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
"I don't like competing against him at all," Jackson said, which drew laughs from the audience. "But yes, he's a great quarterback. [He's] definitely a Hall of Famer. It's a no-brainer, he's definitely a Hall of Famer."
Jackson and Mahomes are fresh off games that show why they’re held in such high regard by just about everyone who follows the sport. Jackson used a second-half explosion to score three touchdowns against the Houston Texans on Saturday, clinching the Ravens' first home AFC championship game.
A year after his eventful offseason landed him a colossal contract to be the Ravens’ long-term quarterback, he has made the Ravens look brilliant for locking him in as he’s a near-lock to win the MVP award in a couple of weeks. This is what Jackson can do when he has a little more space to operate in a spread-style attack like the one offensive coordinator Todd Monken has installed for him. He’s as talented as any quarterback to come into the NFL and now has a scheme that allows him to be the best version of himself.
"He’s going to be the MVP for a reason," Mahomes told reporters Wednesday in a media conference. "He goes out there, leads his team. He scores, he runs, he throws. He does whatever it takes to win and that’s what the great greats do."
No slouch himself, Mahomes showed Sunday why he has been the best quarterback in the sport since he became the starter for the Chiefs in 2018. Even though the Chiefs' offense was incredibly inconsistent throughout the season, Kansas City locked in at the perfect time to torch the Bills’ defense in a 27-24 win that easily could've been 34-24 if Mecole Hardman hadn't fumbled the ball through the end zone. Engineering that level of efficiency will be difficult against the stalwart Ravens defense, but it’s impossible to count Mahomes out of any situation at this point. Six straight AFC title game appearances is something that’s impossible to be discounted.
Mahomes has a leg up in terms of postseason success, with two Super Bowl titles to Jackson's zero, but that doesn’t mean Jackson isn’t capable of reaching those same heights. In that way, this resembles the situation between Brady and Manning. Jackson has all the skills and requisite supporting talent to win a Super Bowl; he just needs to get it done in spots where Mahomes has proven himself to be unstoppable already.
That’s part of what makes this game so captivating. Even with the youth of Mahomes, who entered the league one season before Jackson, the QB is already an established figure in NFL lore and history with his postseason success. On the flip side, this is the last remaining hole on Jackson’s own sterling résumé as an NFL player.
Only time will tell if these players eventually reach the heights of what Brady and Manning accomplished in terms of on-field success, but players who find themselves constantly competing in legacy-defining moments automatically become the faces of the sport. By the time this season is over, Mahomes and Jackson will have won four MVP awards combined since the start of the 2018 season. That alone makes them two of the most dominant players of this era of football — and now they’re facing off with a shot at the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
Mahomes has had his face-offs with Allen and Burrow, but Jackson is the only player who has come close to him in terms of accolades. When they take the field Sunday, it’ll be clear that this is the new-age quarterback rivalry that’s going to define the next several years of the NFL. Mahomes vs. Jackson. Brady vs. Manning. A new age is here.