The NFL essentially hand picked its dream matchup for the 800th episode of Monday Night Football, and who could really blame them? Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs square off against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens for the third time in their careers, a marquee showdown between the NFL’s two best teams and its two best quarterbacks, both of whom are on the GOAT trajectory even if only one of them will ever eventually be considered the greatest.
This isn’t meant to read like an ESPN press release, but as September games go, this is as important as it gets. Robbed of this dream AFC Championship Game by Derrick Henry and the upstart Tennessee Titans last season, Mahomes and Jackson now square off in the first game between two MVP quarterbacks under the age of 25, pitting two hyper-powered offenses that are diametrically different in structure against each other.
Kansas City has designed arguably the most dangerous vertical passing game ever with Mahomes at the forefront, while offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy (who absolutely should have a head coaching job by now and is atop my list of 2021 candidates) and Andy Reid have a full cadre of speedsters to keep defenses off guard. Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman are among the fastest players in the league, Travis Kelce is the NFL’s best pass-catching tight end, Sammy Watkins is finally approximating his No. 4 overall draft billing while 2020 first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who was championed by Mahomes during the draft, has looked nothing like a rookie thus far.
Prior to the draft, many scouts felt that Mahomes’ improvisational ability and propensity to launch the ball downfield wouldn’t hold up in the NFL. This has been long proven to be ridiculous, as the Chiefs built a Super Bowl winning offense surrounding Mahomes’ downfield passing ability and aggressiveness. The fact that he can also throw breaking balls that would impress Gerrit Cole is inspiring a new generation of quarterbacks who don’t fit the prototypical pocket passer archetype.
Baltimore also realized the importance of tailoring its offense around a generational talent in Jackson and it has paid dividends. The fact that scouts dismissed Jackson’s arm, with some executives suggesting he move to wide receiver, was racially coded nonsense and with a unanimous MVP in tow, Jackson’s preference to dice up opposing defenses in the short-to-intermediate range shouldn’t be a surprise. The Ravens zigged when the rest of the league zagged — not all too dissimilar from Jackson’s ankle-breaking runs in the open field — and set a NFL record for rushing yards in a single season in 2019.
Make all the jokes you want about the Ravens going back to the 1970s — they did eclipse the 1978 Patriots after all — but they’ve understood that rigidity isn’t congruous with success in the modern NFL, and its horizontal style works extremely well, with Mark Andrews emerging as one of the NFL’s best tight ends, Marquise Brown continuing to improve as a genuine downfield threat and a deep array of running backs who can suffocate opponents.
It’s tempting to draw inspiration from the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry as a point of comparison, but Mahomes and Jackson are further ahead than their predecessors were at this stage of their careers. In fact, Brady, then 24, made his first start of his career against Manning’s Colts on Sept. 30, 2001, a 44-13 Patriots victory where both quarterbacks were sub-par (Brady didn’t throw a touchdown, while Manning tossed up three interceptions, including a pick-six that was returned 78 yards by Otis Smith). While Manning was arguably the most hyped prospect of his generation, neither player had developed into the caliber of player that would define the AFC for the next 15 years.
Kansas City is the reigning Super Bowl champion, while Baltimore is frothing for another chance after its 14-2 season culminated in a shocking exit. This is a full-fledged, ready-made rivalry in its infancy and there is no historical precedent for it during the modern era.
During their first encounter in December 2018, Mahomes was well on his way to becoming one of the defining stars of the NFL, putting the final touches on his 50-touchdown MVP campaign. Kansas City edged Baltimore 27-24 in overtime, Mahomes went 35-of-53 for 377 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, boasting the statistical profile of the future face of the league.
Jackson, meanwhile, was making the fourth start of his career, and though he showed glimpses of what was to come next, the Ravens’ personnel looked nothing like the unit he commanded the following season. This was his lone loss as a starter during his rookie season.
Both Mahomes and Jackson have the potential to become the GOAT, with the former arguably boasting a Hall of Fame resume during his fourth season. Jackson’s detractors will point to his lack of playoff success and that’s entirely valid, although until this postseason comes, all he can do is stack upon his brilliant 2019, to go along with his Heisman Trophy.
Mahomes and Jackson embody a new wave of quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to use their platform beyond sports. As the face of the league, Mahomes partnered with non-partisan group RISE to Vote, Jackson has continued to advocate for Black lives and both players have taken active leadership roles in advocating for their humanity after the police killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor among others this year.
We’re still in the early stages of what could become the NFL’s answer to Federer-Nadal, or a more evolved version of Brady-Manning, or maybe we’d do well to avoid comparisons at all. Mahomes and Jackson have shattered the mold of what we’ve come to expect in the past, both on and off the field. Monday night will be a reflection of the league’s present and its future.
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