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The NFL Playoffs Are Showcasing the AFC Quarterback Arms Race

It’s been a post-Brady conference for a while. Now it’s one packed with star passers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I would like to list for you the AFC champion quarterbacks from 2003 to 2018.

  • 2003: Tom Brady
  • 2004: Brady
  • 2005: Ben Roethlisberger
  • 2006: Peyton Manning
  • 2007: Brady
  • 2008: Roethlisberger
  • 2009: Manning
  • 2010: Roethlisberger
  • 2011: Brady
  • 2012: Joe Flacco
  • 2013: Manning
  • 2014: Brady
  • 2015: Manning
  • 2016: Brady
  • 2017: Brady
  • 2018: Brady

Everything about that list is incredible, right down to Joe Flacco sneaking into the middle of it. Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, and Andrew Luck were all around—none of them made a dent. For 16 consecutive years of football, the AFC was represented by four quarterbacks in the Super Bowl; save for one season, it was represented by only three. And for half of those years, the AFC champion was Tom Brady.

To say that the AFC went through Foxborough is no exaggeration. From 2003 to 2019, the Patriots won the AFC East in every single season that Brady played; they were the top seed in the conference seven times. Their streak of eight consecutive seasons with a playoff win, from 2011 to 2018, is the longest in NFL history. Only one other team has a streak longer than five.

The dominance of the Brady-Belichick dynasty does not need any further lionizing, rehashing, or autopsying. There will be time for that when Belichick and Brady finally retire and rest on their laurels, and they haven’t done that yet. But what they have done is split up, breaking the powerhouse that long quashed the hopes of every AFC team beneath them. This isn’t so much a story about the Brady-Belichick Patriots as it is about the New York Jets, who cycled through four head coaches and eight starting quarterbacks while Brady dominated; the Dolphins, who went through seven head coaches and countless more quarterbacks over the same stretch; the Bills, who did the same. This is a story about the teams who were stuck under Brady and only recently got out.

The real start of the story is somewhere in the early 2010s. At this time, Brady is in his mid-30s—you know, the age of Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford now. The age at which a quarterback’s body begins to betray him. There isn’t yet a sense that Brady is playing any worse or thinking about retirement, of course, but Aaron Rodgers has replaced Brett Favre. Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III are changing the position. Peyton missed a whole season and is getting long in the tooth as well. It doesn’t seem like the end is near for Brady, of course—but the times, they are a-changin’.

The AFC East has been anticipating this, the gradual decline of Brady, the slight cracking of the window. The Jets already tried their hand with a first-round quarterback in 2009 by picking USC’s Mark Sanchez and got close—two AFC championship games, two losses. In 2013, they’ll take a second-round quarterback named Geno Smith, ending his fall through the first round. He is the second quarterback taken in the 2013 draft; before him went EJ Manuel at 16 overall to the division rival Buffalo Bills. And just one year previous, the Dolphins took Ryan Tannehill with the eighth pick in the 2012 draft.

It sounds exciting, but we all know what will happen next. Manuel will lose his job in just one season, and Smith in two seasons; Tannehill will hold it down for five years. As we will later discover, both Tannehill and Smith will go on to play better elsewhere. This serves as a stark reminder: It’s hard to develop young quarterbacks in typical circumstances. In a division where they have to play Tom Brady twice and beat him often enough to go to the postseason, the stakes are perilously high.

But still, the waiting and the wondering and the wishing continued. The Patriots selected Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft and Jacoby Brissett in the third round in 2016—perhaps preparing for a future without Tom? Then Brady won the 2016 season’s Super Bowl with a record-setting 25-point comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. Would that be the high note his career ended on? Rumors swirled during the 2017 offseason. He won another MVP—his final one?—at 40 years old. The next season, he won another Super Bowl—his final one?!—at 41 years old. During training camp before the 2019 season, Brady and the Patriots brass danced around on a contract extension before finally inking a deal that kept Brady in New England … for the 2019 season and no further.

He was 42. He had set records in just about everything there was to set records in. And now, for perhaps the first time ever, there was an actual end in sight. Brady might finally no longer be a Patriot. Manning was already out of the league; Roethlisberger was on his last legs in Pittsburgh. The AFC might finally, finally, be open for the taking.

Look at the AFC playoff picture right now. It’s as star-studded and competitive at quarterback as a playoff field has ever been. If you include both Lamar Jackson and Tua Tagovailoa, who seem like they will miss this weekend’s games with injuries, there are seven first-round quarterbacks on the seven AFC playoff teams. Six of those quarterbacks were drafted with top-10 picks. All of them were drafted between 2017 and 2021; Patrick Mahomes is the oldest at 27 years old.

AFC Playoff QBs

Seed Team QB Draft Year Pick
Seed Team QB Draft Year Pick
1 Chiefs Patrick Mahomes 2017 10
2 Bills Josh Allen 2018 7
3 Bengals Joe Burrow 2020 1
4 Jaguars Trevor Lawrence 2021 1
5 Chargers Justin Herbert 2020 6
6 Ravens Lamar Jackson 2018 32
7 Dolphins Tua Tagovailoa 2020 5

This is a changing of the seasons, an ousting of the old guard. AFC teams anticipated the final chapter of the Brady era by drafting quarterbacks, just as AFC East teams did in the early 2010s, if only a bit early. From 2017 to 2022, 12 of the 16 AFC teams drafted a quarterback in the first round—the Jets even did it twice. Brady’s departure created a vacuum—suddenly, the guy who was always atop the conference, wasn’t. Into that vacuum rushed every AFC team with a first-round pick and a general manager willing to trade a couple more.

Look again at the AFC. The top seven seeds all have first-round picks at quarterback; just outside the playoff picture are the 9-8 Steelers, with a first-round quarterback in Kenny Pickett, and the 8-9 Patriots, with their Brady replacement in Mac Jones. And dwelling in the cellar are the Texans, who traded former first-round pick Deshaun Watson, as well as the Colts, Broncos, and Raiders, all of whom tried (and failed) to ride veteran quarterbacks in a young man’s conference. (Denver, to its credit, tried a first-rounder in the 2016 draft. To its detriment, it selected Paxton Lynch.)

We don’t see this phenomenon in the NFC for two reasons. The first is volume. Eighteen teams selected a first-round quarterback in the last six drafts—and only six of those teams were from the NFC. Twice as many top-five picks have been spent on quarterbacks by the AFC than the NFC. While the AFC has shown urgency at the position, NFC teams have been content to sit with the playoff quarterbacks they stumbled upon outside the first round—Jalen Hurts, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott—and the upper class of veterans who had enjoyed long tenures playing in a conference not plagued by Brady—Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson (the latter two of whom were not first-round picks either).

If the first reason is pure trying, the second is actual success. The eight first-round quarterbacks selected by the NFC in the past six years are listed here:

NFC First-Round QBs Since 2017

Year Round Pick Name Team
Year Round Pick Name Team
2021 1 3 Trey Lance 49ers
2021 1 11 Justin Fields Bears
2020 1 26 Jordan Love Packers
2019 1 1 Kyler Murray Cardinals
2019 1 6 Daniel Jones Giants
2019 1 15 Dwayne Haskins Washington
2018 1 10 Josh Rosen Cardinals
2017 1 2 Mitchell Trubisky Bears

You’ll immediately notice the issue: This isn’t a list of great quarterbacks. Mitchell Trubisky and Kyler Murray are the only ones to have started a playoff game; Daniel Jones is about to become the third. Lance’s 49ers are in the playoffs, but he isn’t playing; Jordan Love’s Packers have been to the playoffs, but he didn’t play, either. Even if you expand the window to include the 2016 draft (Jared Goff and Carson Wentz) and 2015 draft (Jameis Winston), you find three players who are no longer on the teams that drafted them.

That the NFC has been less lucky in drafting rookie quarterbacks is almost certainly the result of randomness. Evaluating college quarterbacks is hard, after all. But as a conference, it is important to note how few swings at the plate the NFC has had relative to the AFC. Here is the same list, but for the AFC.

AFC First-Round QBs Since 2017

Year Round Pick Name Team
Year Round Pick Name Team
2022 1 20 Kenny Pickett Steelers
2021 1 1 Trevor Lawrence Jaguars
2021 1 2 Zach Wilson Jets
2021 1 15 Mac Jones Patriots
2020 1 1 Joe Burrow Bengals
2020 1 5 Tua Tagovailoa Dolphins
2020 1 6 Justin Herbert Chargers
2018 1 1 Baker Mayfield Browns
2018 1 3 Sam Darnold Jets
2018 1 7 Josh Allen Bills
2018 1 32 Lamar Jackson Ravens
2017 1 10 Patrick Mahomes Chiefs
2017 1 12 Deshaun Watson Texans

Remember: This isn’t a story about Brady and his Patriots. It’s a story about the Jets and the Dolphins and the Bills—about the teams stuck under his thumb that finally got out. Those three teams serve as perfect examples of how the post-Brady AFC has emerged. At the bottom of the pile are the Jets, almost a playoff team but not quite, simply because they’ve taken two recent cracks at drafting a quarterback early and missed on both swings. Next up are the Dolphins, who may have the guy, and are a fringe playoff team accordingly. And finally, there are the Bills, who unquestionably have their guy, and now sit atop the AFC East, finally heralding a new dawn in the division.

But that list is more than just a collection of efforts, failed and successful, to build a contending team around a rookie quarterback. It’s the future of the league. Mahomes has the best chance of anyone at establishing a Brady-esque run of conference dominance—he’s made it to at least the AFC championship game in each of the past three seasons. He is surrounded by contenders: Josh Allen, the Bills’ great risk, the most successful project quarterback ever selected; Lamar Jackson, the best dual-threat quarterback since Michael Vick; Justin Herbert, the intradivisional thorn in Mahomes’s side that Brady never had to endure; and Burrow, who has had Mahomes’s number each time they’ve played in the last two seasons. And what about the golden child Trevor Lawrence? Or the offense built for Tua Tagovailoa in Miami?

Make no mistake about it: The AFC geared up for this, exactly this. And now we have a playoff field full of young, star quarterbacks, selected in droves after the departure of Brady and the rest of his generation. This was the arms race, the mad dash for greatness once the ubiquitous yoke of the all-time greatest was finally lifted. Brady is gone, and the AFC crown is up for grabs. All that’s left is to crown another champion and add another name to a new list—a list that hopefully looks nothing like the first, but instead reflects the quality and intensity of this new era of AFC football.