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.