Sports What will be the NFL's next great quarterback rivalry?
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With every NFL team at least halfway through its regular-season schedule, it's time to take stock of the first few months of the 2021 campaign.Every club has at least two losses, yet 19 check in at .500 or better, and just five are more than 1½ games removed from holding a playoff spot – only the Lions completely out of the running in the NFC. And the field is compressing, division-leading teams suffering eight losses over the past two weeks to opponents that did not have winning records.
This weekend's meeting between the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals shapes up as not only a showdown with heavy playoff implications, but one of the best games between two rising standout quarterbacks in Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow.
Of course, Herbert and Burrow are far from alone in their positioning. With the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray and more having joined the league in the last five years, the NFL features a robust collection of emerging star signal-callers.
Yet the league is still a long way off from having another Tom Brady-Peyton Manning dynamic on its hands. There are, however, several candidates to emerge as nemeses to one another.
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With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports' NFL writers, editors and columnists:
What's the NFL's next great quarterback rivalry?
Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson. While Jackson was finally able to get the best of the Chiefs in their last meeting with a big comeback in Week 2, it's quite possible that another matchup featuring this pair of former NFL MVPs looms in the coming weeks with much more on the line in the AFC playoffs.
Of course, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow are in the mix, too. Allen led the Bills to a victory against Jackson and the Ravens during last season's playoffs before losing to Mahomes in the AFC title game at Kansas City. And Burrow, who scorched the Ravens in Week 7, could stand in the way of Baltimore winning the AFC North crown.
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But a Mahomes-Jackson rivalry comes with some extra sauce, given the off-script X-heroics that come with their playmaking packages. In other words, they are so fun to watch. And they are young enough – Mahomes is 26, Jackson is 24 – for us to anticipate years of matchups that could swing the AFC power grid. Great rivalries, though, are not only developed over time. Like TB12 vs. P-Money (Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning), they need playoff stakes to rise to a special status. After losing his first three games against Kansas City, Jackson needs to dethrone Mahomes and the two-time defending AFC champions to add fuel to this projected rivalry -- while Allen and Burrow stand in the wings with the skill to create special rivalries of their own.
To start, let’s consider what makes a great quarterback rivalry. Talent, sure. Teams with the capability to succeed that allow the quarterback to cap off a winning victory (think: not Matthew Stafford in Detroit). And semi-regular matchups, be it in playoff faceoffs or regular season. So though I’d love Patriots rookie stud Mac Jones to engineer a rivalry with ageless New England-turned-Tampa hero Tom Brady, the frequency of competition between their AFC and NFC teams doesn’t suffice for my criteria.
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That led me to two top choices among division rivals with minimum two head-to-heads per season: Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson vs. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes vs. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. What I like about each pairing is their youth—the AFC North contingent is each 24 years old (until December 10, when Burrow turns 25), the AFC West pairing 26 and 23. Their teams have also proven exciting, the AFC North race led by 8-3 Baltimore vs. 7-4 Cincinnati while 7-4 Kansas City’s recent improvement has boosted the Chiefs ahead of the 6-5 Chargers. Where perhaps they most diverge is how similar their style of play is. While Mahomes and Herbert have nearly identical season statistics, Burrow’s pocket passing differs greatly from Jackson’s uber-mobile dual-threat ability. The beauty of this decision: Save breaking the rules of this exercise, both matchups can be the next great quarterback rivalries of the league. NFL fans can delight in the spectacular throws Mahomes and Herbert will continue to make, marveling over innovation cultivated through unique blends of rare arm strength and innovative playmaking. Up north, contests between Cincinnati and Baltimore will test Jackson and Burrow’s ability to evolve, outplay respected defenses and develop young weapons. And come playoff time, the quartet will be among those duking out in a talented AFC that also dangles Mac Jones vs. Josh Allen in the east. Buckle in, fans.
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I’m sorry if this is a gutless answer but I feel like the answer isn’t a neat one. It’s complicated and I believe it involves three players: the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, New England’s Mac Jones and Buffalo’s Josh Allen.
It’s easy to say that Allen is significantly better than Tagovailoa and Jones and for the moment that’s true. But I don’t believe it will stay that way. The improvement Tagovailoa has made in the past month or so has been remarkable, and Jones will also improve on what has been a terrific rookie season. Allen will also be great like he is now.
We could see them beat each other in what might become the toughest division in football because the quarterbacks in it are so good, and constantly knock each other off.
This is tough. There are a lot of promising quarterbacks on the rise, but we haven’t seen a lot of shootouts between them yet. I feel like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen or Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have a chance to develop into one of those types of rivalries. But, it’s still early. Last year Mahomes outdueled Allen to win the AFC championship, and they’re 1-1 in regular-season matchups. So, is this the beginning of a Brady-Manning type rivalry? If not, Jackson-Mahomes has great potential. Mahomes won the first three meetings of these passers’ careers. Then this year, Jackson led an impressive comeback for a 36-35 win, and they haven’t faced in the postseason yet. A true rivalry has to feature numerous high-stakes shootouts, and these three teams seem to have good long-term prospects for postseason contention. And so, whether it’s Mahomes and Allen or Mahomes and Jackson, it seems like we should see a number of conference championship showdowns for years to come, and maybe that great rivalry will spring from here.
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Familiarity breeds contempt, so let's go with a divisional showdown. Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert might never grow to hate one another, but the two AFC West foes look poised to give us years of scintillating clashes. Of course, Kansas City stands in the lead for what would be their sixth consecutive division crown, so Herbert's arrival as a true rival might be measured by when he can truly topple Mahomes over the course of a season. But the second-year passer's four-touchdown performance in a win over the Chiefs earlier this year put Andy Reid's crew on notice. In the offseason, a fan at a charity golf event told Mahomes, "Watch out for Herbert," to which the former MVP indicated he would believe it when he saw it. Well, time to start believing.
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