Should star quarterbacks now avoid the talent-packed AFC?

<span>Photograph: Matt Ludtke/AP</span>
Photograph: Matt Ludtke/AP

Last Sunday’s epic between the Chiefs and Bills was about more than an individual game. It redefined what is possible in a playoff game, and what is now expected for a team to compete at the top of the AFC.

Twenty-five points in the final two minutes. One haymaker after another. The Mahomes-Allen Show made one thing clear: Having a great quarterback used to be the league’s greatest advantage in making a deep playoff run. Now it is a prerequisite.

The AFC is Mahomes’ conference for now, but Josh Allen is right there. Over the past fortnight, Allen has delivered one of the most impressive postseasons runs in modern history. No quarterback can do much better than lead his team to a touchdown on 75% of his drives against a Bill Belichick-led defense (the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL) and a feisty Chiefs defense that has been No 1 in scoring defense since week six. And still, it wasn’t enough: Allen and the Bills were dumped from proceedings before they could reach a championship game thanks to the flip of a coin and some Mahomes magic.

This is the state of the AFC, then. The race is on to find a quarterback who can pilot an offense that can keep pace with Mahomes and Allen, the Chiefs and the Bills.

But it’s not just that pair. The league’s top, young quarterbacks are concentrated in the same conference. True, the AFC runs through Mahomes and Allen. But it also runs through Joe Burrow and the Bengals. It runs through Justin Herbert and the Chargers, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. All are former MVPs or current MVP contenders. All typify the changing nature of the sport. They are no longer the game’s future generation, but its current stars.

The median age of that group: 25.

That’s meaningful. If all five play until they’re 38 – the current age of Aaron Rodgers, the reigning MVP – that’s another 13 seasons on average. Thirteen seasons of slogging through an AFC playoff picture featuring the kind of all-world matchups we saw on Sunday in Kansas City. It means, more than likely, going through Arrowhead each and every year, with trips to Cincinnati, Baltimore, Buffalo or Los Angeles along the way.

What does that do to the calculations of the disgruntled quarterback of your choice? The upcoming quarterback carousel will feature some of the game’s biggest names. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson have all teased (or demanded) trades. Denver? Cleveland? Pittsburgh? Tennessee? All have either historical relevance, a championship backbone to the roster, smart personnel czars, or high-level, proven coaches. All have been linked to taking a big swing for a veteran quarterback to try to play catchup in the QB Arms Race this offseason.

Yet each of those teams is stuck in the AFC. Would Rodgers or Wilson really trade in Green Bay or Seattle to join Denver and do battle with Mahomes and Herbert in the AFC West for the next five years?

Over in the NFC, the picture is clearer. There are seven quarterbacks in the NFC who have been the league MVP or have, at some point, been a frontrunner for the award. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford.

The median age of that group: 33.

There is a dearth of superstar-caliber quarterbacks in the prime of their careers in the NFC. Already, Brady is musing about retiring. The end may soon come for Wilson (33) or Ryan (soon to be 37). Both may be trade targets for the maybe-nearly bunch in the AFC, too.

Rodgers represents the most interesting case of the lot.

Denver has always felt like the right choice. The culture. The current roster. The cap space. The assets. The chance for Rodgers to bring a coach of his choice along for the ride. The Broncos have the means (picks and cap space) to try to pull off a Rodgers-Davante Adams double swoop, and on Thursday news emerged they are set to appoint Green Bay’s offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, as their new head coach.

But moving to Denver would not merely mean setting up a potential postseason run against five upper-tier quarterbacks all moving into the prime of their careers, but jumping into a division with both Mahomes and Herbert. And not only that, but jumping into that division instead of sticking in one with the retooling Bears, the resetting Vikings, and the Fighting Dan Campbells – loveable upstarts still a ways away from competing for the division crown.

That’s … less than ideal.

We may soon be looking at an AFC-NFC quarterback swap that has one or two of Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, or Matt Ryan plying their trade in Cleveland or Tennessee or Denver, while Teddy Bridgewater, Baker Mayfield, or Rookie Quarterback X take up spots in Seattle or Minnesota or Carolina.

Really? That’s the conference that Rodgers would be happy to leave to go to try to fight through the Mahomesification of the AFC for the final 24 months or whatever of his career? What if Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson (don’t laugh) or Mac Jones live up to their billing over the next two seasons?

Moving within the NFC would make more sense for Rodgers as he nears 40 – if the Packers are willing to sanction a move within the conference.

The Saints were a logical fit before the announcement that Sean Payton was stepping away on Tuesday. Could Tampa become the quarterback outpost, the place the veterans go to win one more Lombardi before they retire? If Brady walks away, few teams will have a better overall situation to offer veteran quarterbacks, even as they lose some of the essential pieces from the championship team. What the Bucs will lose in talent with Brady stepping away, perhaps they will make up for in the cache of their all-in, let’s-please-the-legend moves. Other legends will take note.

If not there, where? Would Rodgers want to walk into the Anchorman stand-off that is the NFC West? Does Washington or Philadelphia or the dregs of a Giants organization really inspire a burning in the football loins? And do any of those spots represent a tangible on-field upgrade over whatever semblance of a core the Packers are able to keep together this offseason?

It’s doubtful. You can make the same case for Wilson in Seattle, or Ryan in Atlanta.

Mahomes, Allen, Herbert, Burrow, and Jackson have changed the game. If the final stage of his career is to be about winning championships, Rodgers should steer clear of the AFC’s young pups, try to orchestrate a move within the NFC, or patch things up in Green Bay.