Trust me, the title sounds way more ambitious than what the post is actually going to be. I’m settling into this new role of writing more on this blog during the season, but it’s going to come in the form of quick data dumps of interest rather than epic-length projects like the 43,000 words I wrote in a week on my top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century.
Today’s topic is quarterback rivalries. These often drive the league’s intrigue, though we haven’t always seen a lot of great quarterbacks meet numerous times in the past with the way schedules used to work. For example, Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted to the AFC in 1983, both active through 1998, both on a lot of winning teams, yet they only met a total of three times and two of those happened in 1998 when they were old. That’s just stunning. We’re about to see Round 4 of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson Sunday night, and Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Allen in Week 5.
But it’s not a real rivalry until the other side starts to win too, and that’s where we are stuck waiting right now.
The AFC: Patrick Mahomes vs. ?
I keep stressing that this is a transition period in the NFL, and perhaps the biggest story in the whole league is the reshaping of the AFC. We need to find the best challengers to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as the best QB and team in the conference. He just beat Baker Mayfield and Cleveland again. He has yet to lose to Josh Allen/Buffalo and Lamar Jackson/Ravens. He also will have his second meeting with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who took him to overtime last year after Herbert got the surprise start following a team doctor’s incompetence.
Someone has to step up here, or Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to have an easy run to the Super Bowl year after year a la what we’ve seen recently with Tom Brady and LeBron James in the NBA. But even Brady needed his rival in Peyton Manning, who stopped him from getting to the Super Bowl more often than the other way around, and LeBron had the Golden State Warriors as a super team to deny him Michael Jordan’s ring count. Even Magic Johnson had a Larry Bird to deal with in the 80s. You need that rival or else it’s one-sided and the results are too predictable. It gets boring, even if watching Mahomes operate is anything but boring right now.
Oddly enough, Brady and his teams have been the biggest Mahomes stoppers so far, taking away a potential three-peat in 2018-20 for the Chiefs. These teams very well could meet again in February.
The NFC: The Future Is What Exactly?
Brady’s run is unlikely to go on forever, though his quack trainer Alex Guerrero has done a magnificent job of keeping the Lazarus Pit running for him. As for Aaron Rodgers, I swear he looked like he aged five years this weekend and I don’t even mean by the way he played, which was terrible in the first 35-point loss of his career. I mean when I saw the teaser for his FOX interview, he looked like a 44-year-old quarterback in the NFC. Maybe he just got out of practice and skipped makeup and a shower, but he just looked haggard to me.
With Brees tapped out and those two probably not far behind, it will soon look different in the NFC. But is it too soon to predict a Matthew Stafford vs. Russell Wilson showdown now that they’re in the same division? Or are we headed for a Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields run where Wilson still doesn’t get MVP votes and Stafford still can’t beat teams with winning records? It’s probably going to have to be those two rookies as the future unless Kyler Murray is ready to take that next step or Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You know I love Dak too, but that coaching combo of Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn is bound to fail.
Not only has the AFC taken Mahomes, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, and 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen, but the AFC has drafted Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow with the last two No. 1 picks. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 in 2018 and even if you’re not sold on him yet, he’s really not that bad of a quarterback. The AFC also recently drafted Tua, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Herbert, and would have another stud in Deshaun Watson if he wasn’t an alleged sexual predator.
With respect to Dak possibly throwing for 6,000 yards this year to make up for his defense, there’s just not a lot of intrigue built into the NFC yet. We have to see how Winston and Stafford continue to do with their upgraded coaching and team situations. It’s only been one week.
The Sweet Sixteen to Meet a Dozen Times
Finally, the data dump. From 2001 to 2020, there were 16 quarterback matchups that had at least a dozen meetings when you include playoff games. I gathered the stats on win% and ANY/A (so I can account for sacks) for each quarterback in the matchup, so this chart has 32 points on it.
I have some good news for fans of the Falcons and Giants. Brees vs. Ryan and Romo vs. Eli are the only two matchups where the winning QB (Brees and Romo) had a lower ANY/A than the losing QB. No two quarterbacks were closer in ANY/A than Eli and Romo (0.14), though Manning-Brady (0.22) was a close second on the list. Considering this doesn’t adjust for the quality of the defense faced, that looks very good for the Manning brothers.
No matchup was more lopsided than Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler. Rodgers was 11-2 and +3.37 in ANY/A over Cutler, the biggest gap on the list. Rodgers vs. Stafford was also the second-biggest difference in ANY/A at +2.46 for Rodgers. We’ll see if Stafford can close that a little this year. The closest matchup by record was Philip Rivers going 7-6 vs. Derek Carr in the AFC West despite a difference of 1.27 ANY/A in Rivers’ favor. That speaks to the Chargers blowing games late while Carr inexplicably wins a lot of those games.
How many of these 16 matchups are still possible in the future? Brady-Fitzpatrick, Rodgers-Stafford, Ben-Brady, Ben-Dalton are about the only four realistic ones. Maybe something with Cam Newton if he ever gets another job and plays Matt Ryan again. Stafford vs. Rodgers is scheduled for Week 12 this year. The Bears are in Pittsburgh in Week 9, but Fields has to take over for Dalton by then, right? Fitzpatrick could face Brady in Week 10 if he doesn’t already lose the job to Taylor Heinicke by then. Hey, Brady could get a second win over Heinicke in that case.
But this was a great era with a lot of memorable and important games in that chart. New rivalries will emerge, but nothing is certain in this league. If you thought Mahomes-Watson in 2019 would be the first of several playoff meetings between the two, no rational person would have disagreed at the time. Now? Oof.
And if you’re a disappointed Ravens fan not looking forward to the Chiefs this week, then just remember that Manning’s Colts lost six straight to Brady’s Patriots in 2001-04 before turning that one around. For it to be a real rivalry, the other side has to start winning at some point. Maybe Sunday night is that turnaround moment for the Ravens.