Not long after Patrick Mahomes won his first Super Bowl, he stood at a podium inside a tent adjacent to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, wearing a gray “champions” T-shirt over his shoulder pads. “Do you see yourself as the new face of the NFL?” the new Super Bowl MVP was asked. In demurring this label, he quickly brought up other quarterbacks—one in particular.
“There’s several guys that can be the face of the NFL,” Mahomes said on that night, almost eight months ago. “I mean, Lamar was the unanimous MVP last night and he had one of the best seasons of all time at the quarterback position.”
By now, you’ve certainly seen that pithy factoid from the Elias Sports Bureau: When Mahomes’s Chiefs and Lamar Jackson’s Ravens play each other tonight in Baltimore, it will be the first NFL game between two league MVPs who are 25 or younger. There are myriad reasons why it’s these two players, now: Their unique abilities, the likes of which the NFL has rarely seen. Their being drafted by teams that committed to building offenses that would harness, in full, those unique abilities. The innovation of NFL offenses to give quarterbacks more answers to the tests, allowing green signal callers to play—and play well—early in their careers.
The fruits of all of these factors are what we will have the pleasure of watching tonight: A rivalry that has all the makings of one for the ages, that continues to bend our perceptions of what NFL offenses look like and what NFL quarterbacks can do, and that we know to appreciate as it is happening in front of us.
Rivalry isn’t quite the right word—these are quarterbacks with mutual appreciation, who aren’t driven by the idea of being deemed better than the other. Their teams, though, are each other’s roadblocks en route to where they want to go. And so you have, as we enjoyed for the first 15 years of this century, another confluence of two quarterbacks, drafted a year apart, playing in the same conference for two clubs that are perennial playoff contenders.
Last year didn’t bring the playoff showdown we anticipated between Jackson’s No. 1-seeded Ravens and Mahomes’ No. 2-seeded Chiefs, but tonight’s game will already be the third between the pair. The Chiefs won both, and it’s fair to say that neither of the previous matchups was one of Jackson’s best NFL games. The first, in December 2018, was just his fourth start in the NFL, even before he was officially named the Ravens’ starter (that happened the following week). Mahomes sent that game into overtime with that ridiculous fourth-and-9 conversion, achieved by his rolling to the right sideline and then heaving a downfield throw across his body to Tyreek Hill, who was covered by two Baltimore defenders and had two more closing in. In last year’s meeting, also in Kansas City, the Chiefs built a double-digit lead before halftime, and the Ravens couldn’t catch up despite a fourth-quarter rally.
Nowadays, when we are constantly grasping for meaning in everything, we’re probably more at risk of incorrectly deeming something The Next Great Rivalry than missing out on one that is unfolding. Back in 2001, on the other hand, the matchup that encapsulated a decade-and-a-half of NFL history began in relative obscurity. That was in part because no one expected a sixth-round pick making his first career start to be a permanent thing in New England. The morning after Tom Brady’s Patriots surprised Peyton Manning’s Colts with a 44-13 win in Week 3 of that season, the Boston Globe story still led with the turmoil that had been felt in New England after an 0-2 start: “The comment heard most often last week was, ‘Why did Bob Kraft hire Bill Belichick?’”
But then Brady and the Patriots won that game, and another against Indy three weeks later (that was the last year the Colts were still in the AFC East) … and you know the rest. He and Manning played each other 17 times, as they jostled for home-field advantage during the regular season and to be the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl in the playoffs. They normalized the concept of a quarterback duel that spans the length of a career, similar to how the Patriots made accruing six rings seem almost expected rather than extraordinary, which it of course is.
If that has added to our real-time appreciation of what is burgeoning between Jackson and Mahomes, then we are all here for it. But we should also appreciate—as was done so fully with Brady and Manning—all of the things that make them and their games different. “They’re special in their own way,” Doug Williams, Super Bowl XXII MVP, said at the end of last season, and it’s a point that bears repeating. It’s fun to use their careers as a foil for each other, but only if they are also appreciated individually. There isn’t one, homogenous “new NFL offense” they represent, and tonight should be a beautiful illustration of that.
Andy Reid spent years updating his West Coast system with college-style spread concepts using space and speed, preparing for a quarterback like Mahomes years before his team ever identified and drafted him. The Ravens built a new offense specifically for Lamar Jackson, centering rather than minimizing his ability as a runner, and recognizing how that ability could also in tandem create space in the passing game. And, neither was assumed to be a finished product the day he was drafted: Mahomes could learn to take snaps from under center (imagine that!), and Jackson could (gasp!) continue to get better as a passer. Jackson’s completion percentage has steadily risen, from 58.2 as a rookie, to 66.1 in 2019, to 77.6 so far this year; deep passing was an offseason focus, and he’s in the top 5 in average completed air yards (7.9).
Both have challenged norms of the position, forcing NFL evaluators to take stock of how they’re scouting players and coaches to consider how they’re developing them. Each has done so in his own, distinct way, admiring but not seeking to copy the other, even as Jackson’s trajectory has thus far closely tailed Mahomes.
“They’re always going to compare him to Patrick Mahomes, but if you listen to Lamar, he’s just humble and saying, ‘I have not done it yet,’” Van Warren, Jackson’s first throwing coach while he was growing up in Florida, said earlier this year. “‘Thankful that they selected me for the MVP, but I haven't done anything. I haven’t won a championship.’ That’s his goal, but being humble in the process of trying to reach his goal.”
The third time Brady and Manning played each other was also another regular-season game—then, two months later, they met again for the AFC championship. There’s no script, of course, for Jackson-Mahomes, no telling how many times they’ll meet and under what circumstances. We do know, though, the circumstances for tonight: Two of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the game will be on the same NFL field for the third time, and the possibilities feel endless.