There have been 19 consecutive playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change. Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are here to help. Sunday will be their second playoff matchup in as many years, and it’s the closest point spread in a game played at Arrowhead Stadium since Mahomes became a starter four years ago. These two quarterbacks are perfect foils, each with ideal supporting casts and coaching staffs, leading teams that were built for this moment. That’s what makes this the perfect quarterback rivalry. Mahomes is better, but Allen can often play as well as anyone on the planet. They are fascinating because they each seem unbeatable at their peaks. If they both have one of those games at the same time, we’ll get to find out which one truly is.
The number of false alarms in quarterback rivalries is astounding. Search for “the next Peyton Manning–Tom Brady,” and you’ll get a whole bucket of freezing takes, often through no fault of the take-maker. The Sporting News once wondered if it was Jameis Winston–Marcus Mariota. In 2019, Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson were thrown in the mix. Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott got some momentum after their 2016 entry into the league. There was a push for Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Johnny Manziel’s name came up. An ESPN analyst wondered over the summer if that Manning-Brady successor would be Trey Lance and Justin Fields. The reason these takes aged horribly is not that these folks didn’t know anything about football—I’ve made all sorts of terrible guesses when it comes to young quarterbacks (and so have many NFL teams)—but because there is no next Manning-Brady. It can’t happen. The league has changed too much, and the quarterback position has changed too much. It’s easier than ever to be a good quarterback due to a confluence of rule changes, offensive scheme shifts, new practice rules, and a dozen other variables. And it’s harder than ever to build a good team, which is the byproduct of a rising salary cap and aggressive teams that stack talent by going all in, among other reasons. Because of this, the idea that two quarterbacks, no matter how good they are, will play a massive game every season for 15 years is unrealistic, at best.
What we will have instead are mini-runs. (I would compare it to the ebbs and flows of boxing divisions, but that would entail great boxers ever fighting each other.) There will be four- to five-year periods when coaching staffs, roster talent, contract situations, and the quarterback all align to create superteams with great quarterbacks. Imagine hearing, after the Malcolm Butler interception game in Super Bowl XLIX, that the Russell Wilson–led Seahawks wouldn’t have made it back to a conference title game by 2022. Aaron Rodgers has not made a Super Bowl in the decade-plus since he won one. Winning reliably is hard to do for more than five or six years, and lining up with another quarterback on the same cycle is even harder. The first and only rule of a current quarterback rivalry is to appreciate it while it’s happening.
The closest thing we have to a sustainable quarterback rivalry will happen on Sunday night for the second time in as many playoffs. It’s been more than a decade since the two highest-paid players in football met in a playoff game. This is the first playoff game ever in which both quarterbacks are coming off five-touchdown games. Allen’s performance against New England in the wild-card round, which we’ll get to, was one of the best in history; he was in the MVP discussion last season and had a great season in 2021. Mahomes has been one of the most valuable players in football since he became a starter. NBC analyst Chris Simms thinks Allen has played better than Mahomes through the past two years and Sunday is the chance to prove it.
This week, Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson made the case that the Allen we saw last week against New England was unstoppable. He used the baseline of Allen’s “90” grade as evidence of his great performance, but made this point about Allen: “[He] has surpassed that figure four times this season, including the Patriots win. He hit that mark twice a season ago, with four more grades of 87.0 or better. In the game immediately following a 90.0-plus grade, his average PFF grade was 66.6, and none of those games earned a mark above 80.0.” PFF grades are not perfect, but they do provide a snapshot of a player’s performance—Allen has never had have back-to-back incredible games.
Reading the tea leaves of the past 12 months, I believe the Buffalo Bills have spent a lot of nights thinking about beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs. Bills general manager Brandon Beane, when explaining to me why he took two pass rushers with his first two picks in last year’s draft said:
The biggest thing that maybe haunted us at times in the [AFC championship game versus the Chiefs] was we didn’t get enough pressure with our front four. Where can we do that? Free agency wasn’t really the right place for us. If there would have been this great trade option maybe we would have looked at that, but we didn’t see that route. And we knew all fall in the college process that there were going to be some pass rushers. So we tried to get everything else other than pass rusher prior to the draft.
Last year’s loss to the Chiefs hurt the Bills. After the game, ESPN’s Dianna Russini posted a video of Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs watching the AFC championship ceremony.
Stefon Diggs is the only Bills player left on the field. He’s watching the Chiefs ceremony. pic.twitter.com/IzTuXuQ0oT— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) January 25, 2021
Both teams have had similar seasons. Their defenses needed to make huge adjustments over the course of the season. The Chiefs looked bad for stretches until defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo got into his bag (read my colleague Ben Solak’s thoughtful piece from last month). The Bills lost starting cornerback Tre’Davious White in November. According to ESPN, since White’s injury, Buffalo’s defense leads the NFL in lowest completion percentage allowed and third-down conversions allowed. It also led the NFL in passing yards per game allowed through the last six weeks of the season.
These teams are generally evenly matched, which makes Sunday’s game so brilliant: it will almost certainly come down to the quarterbacks. I know quarterback wins are not a stat, and I know that Allen and Mahomes will not face each other directly on the field—on the other hand, shut up and watch Allen vs. Mahomes.
Let’s back up a second. There are a few decisions that, in hindsight, created this postseason. The first is Tom Brady choosing Tampa Bay in 2020 over his only other contract offer, the Los Angeles Chargers (think about that butterfly effect). The second happened at the 2017 combine, when then-Chiefs general manager John Dorsey sought out then-Bills general manager Doug Whaley and said, “Hey, keep us in mind if you want to move down.” According to The Athletic, this was the first step toward the Chiefs and Bills swapping picks in that year’s draft, which kept Mahomes out of any number of other places. Saints coach Sean Payton, picking 11th, loved him. So, too, did Bills owner Terry Pegula. But the trade allowed the Bills to kick their quarterback problem down the road and allowed Kansas City to trade up 17 spots to no. 10 (the Bills eventually took future Pro Bowl selection Tre’Davious White with the pick they received from the Chiefs in 2017, and in 2018 picked Allen and Tremaine Edmunds in the first round).
You can play out this scenario with almost anything: Would these playoffs be different, for instance, if Andrew Luck had left Stanford a year earlier and played for the Panthers? Is there anything in this generation with as many tentacles as John Lynch sacking Drew Brees in December 2005, causing Brees to tear his labrum and subsequently fail his physical with the Dolphins, which eventually led Nick Saban back to the college ranks to build a dynasty at Alabama and started the Saints on a run of NFC success? Let’s not get too deep down the rabbit hole. The point here is that the stories of Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes will always be linked. The Bills’ pick gave Kansas City its franchise savior, and the extra year allowed the Bills to build a culture (and make the playoffs!) before getting Allen in the draft the following year. Both franchises ended up exactly where they belong.
The reason these decisions were such a big inflection point is that you simply cannot imagine Mahomes or Allen in any other spot. You need Mahomes with Andy Reid, throwing to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill behind a much-improved line that keeps him healthy. You need Allen in Buffalo, with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s help and with a good line and weapons to utilize. Most importantly, you need Bills Mafia to be online to defend Allen when he has a misstep (this is a good thing!). You cannot imagine either player without those things and thank goodness we don’t have to try. Both were drafted by teams who deeply believed in them and built an apparatus that is perfect for them to thrive in. The end result is what should be an AFC epic.
There’s a legendary rugby manager named Eddie Jones whose interviews I happened upon during the offseason. He said his ultimate aim—what keeps him going—is the perfect game. Now, the thing about the perfect game in rugby, as in football, is that there’s not exactly a standard definition. This isn’t baseball. Instead, it’s controlling everything—making all the right moves at all the right times. “Imagine going out there and you’re impossible to play against—impossible,” Jones told the High Performance podcast, in one such interview.
That’s a bit of a moving target, but that’s probably the definition in football too. This thought popped into my head watching the Bills-Patriots game last week when the Bills, statistically, played what seemed to be the perfect game. No team in the history of football had ever gone an entire game without punting, kicking a field goal, or having a turnover. There are problems with the idea that it was perfect. The Bills didn’t hold the Patriots scoreless, but when you consider that Bill Belichick is the best coach of all time and that the Patriots were a genuinely good team with a lot of defensive talent, then, yes, it seemed perfect. Add in a wild Buffalo crowd in near-zero temperatures and this was a football party. Allen completed all 10 of his attempts that went 10-plus yards downfield.
I’ve been thinking about this because the only other quarterback capable of such a thing left in the AFC is probably Mahomes. And although I don’t think either quarterback will be perfect exactly, I do think both can get close to it. What happens if they do it at the same time? OK, forget everything I said, that would be Manning-Brady stuff.