A majority of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks are in the AFC right now. That much, we know. It is not up for debate, it is simply a fact. Joe Burrow. Justin Herbert. Lamar Jackson. But two stand tall above the rest, and for good reason. Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are elite, bolted to their teams on long-term contracts, and thriving. They possess all the tools needed to succeed in the NFL and they have continuously worked on their weaknesses for the betterment of themselves and the teams they represent. Their journeys have been different, but the product these two put on the field is top-tier.
The Saga Begins
You all know story by now. Josh Allen received no college offers out of high school, and had to work his way to the NCAA in a way that most quarterback prospects don’t. He found himself in Wyoming, getting little national attention, aside from snipes from pundits. Whilst reasonable analysis was rare, there were a few true professionals who gave us insight into the process of a prospect like Allen.
“His numbers aren’t impressive, I know. But the NFL is all about projection, and he has a high ceiling. Coaches want to work with Allen because he has all of the tools.”– Mel Kiper, 2018, Mock DRaft 1.0
Mel Kiper had Allen as his top quarterback ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft, and he had solid reasoning, too. The NFL is all about projection, and a trend we’ve seen over the past few years has become hard to ignore. College production no longer translates to NFL production, and you could make the argument that it never did. You know what does translate? Traits. Much of the game is mental, but some things can’t be taught. Throwing mechanics and checks at the line of scrimmage can be taught. Reading a defense can be worked on. Huge swathes of the statistics and analytics that teams rely on when looking at young talent aren’t static. They can be changed. If most of what makes a quarterback ‘NFL ready’ can be established after they’re drafted, then why are teams so afraid of drafting toolsy projects?
King of Kansas City
Patrick Mahomes is a different, yet logically consistent, example of the same method. He was taken 10th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, with the Buffalo Bills’ own pick, interestingly enough. But how did this supposed ‘generational talent’ fall so far? How did the nine teams overlook him? For a lot of the same reasons. A head coach’s tenure with a team is generally short. After only one or two disappointing seasons, franchises will decide they need to move in a different direction. Very few general managers and coaches would dare take a swing on a player who could cost them one of the most lucrative jobs in sports; Andy Reid is that type of coach. An already powerful team in need of a successor to their quarterback? A year on the bench to learn behind a quality veteran? The stars aligned perfectly.
“This is an ideal spot for Mahomes, who has arguably the best physical skill set of any quarterback in the class but needs a lot of refining mechanically. Mahomes should be given time to sit and develop behind Alex Smith while getting tutored by Andy Reid, who has a long track record of developing quarterbacks.”– Kevin Weidl, 2017, Post-Draft analysis
These two players were taken for the same reasons, by coaches of similar backgrounds and tendencies. Still, the optics on them were drastically different, and that too can be explained. Partially, it was the fact that the Chiefs were already good. They didn’t have that history of collapse and the stench of repetitive failure that Buffalo had grown accustomed to. People expected dysfunction and poor planning from the Bills, and even those inside the fan base were wary of optimism. You see, the thing that set them apart from one another was their situation.
Patrick Mahomes walked into the perfect world, surrounded by talent that already fit, and some of the best skill position players in the business. His time behind Alex Smith was educational, and he strove to use what he’d learned and become one of the best in the league. It paid off. Meanwhile, as Pat soared to immediate stardom, a very different kind of rise was underway in Western New York. Mahomes had stepped into a glass slipper, Allen stepped into something unsavoury.
Surrounded by possibly the worst supporting cast in the NFL, minus a few notable names, Josh Allen began his rookie season as QB2 for two quarters of a game. He’d been gifted the chance to learn what not to do by backing up the legendary Nathan Peterman. Josh was throwing to a dilapidated Kelvin Benjamin, a disappointing Charles Clay, and his favourite receiver: Robert Foster. Behind a swiss cheese offensive line that couldn’t make a hole for an aging LeSean McCoy, he was just trying to survive.
The 2018 Season
That 2018 season had some Bills fans feeling regret. If they’d scored Mahomes in 2017 instead of trading the pick away, would they be the ones taking the NFL by storm? Probably not. After all, how could we know how these two turn out in opposite situations? Still, despite Mahomes storming towards an MVP title as Buffalo scraped together six wins, many Western New Yorkers saw something brewing. For those who were paying attention, they could see the makings of a legend. His rookie season was plagued with mistakes, but he showed us time and time again what he was capable of. National media would take about two seasons to catch up, but they had a fair distraction in the AFC West.
Patrick Mahomes became a bonafide star, putting together one of the most riveting and enthralling seasons of any one player in NFL history. To say otherwise would be dishonest. He deservedly topped the league, and won an MVP in his first season as a starter. Falling short to a familiar foe in the AFC Championship, the overtime coin toss, Mahomes’ Chiefs had to watch the Patriots sneak past them for one last Super Bowl appearance.
Growth and Greatness
Then, 2019 rolled around, and a blank slate was laid out. Both QBs stepped up. The leap from Josh Allen was significant. Armed with new weapons by the names of John Brown and Cole Beasley, as well as a rookie tight end named Dawson Knox and a rookie running back named Devin Singletary, the offense began to take shape. There were growing pains, sure, but he stepped into his problems and faced them head on.
He refined his game not just season-by-season, but week-to-week. From one stretch of the season to the next, he took strides. Securing a playoff berth on Sunday Night Football in Pittsburgh was a special moment and, though Buffalo’s postseason run was cut short, they had proven themselves to be far more than the Bills of yesteryear. Allen’s impressive skillset was being polished, and he was a proven NFL starter.
At the same time, Patrick Mahomes took a minor backseat to the streaking MVP Lamar Jackson. Mahomes’ season was stellar but, as Allen would learn the next year, sometimes the other guy was just that small percentage more incredible. But they got the last laugh as his Chiefs stormed their way to a Super Bowl.
Three consecutive playoff games where they dug themselves out of double-digit deficits is unheard of, but they pulled it off. Toppling the San Francisco 49ers for their first Super Bowl title since 1969 was a dream come true, and Pat was the league’s consensus best passer. Things were as good as they could be in K.C., and they owed a lot of it to the man under center.
Buffalo Steps To The Plate
On March 16th, 2020, the Bills traded their first-round pick, as well as a bevy of later picks, for Stefon Diggs and a seventh rounder. This moment marked, for many Bills fans, a new era of Buffalo football. You could argue it was the Josh Allen pick that changed that attitude, but you’d be lying. This trade proved that the team was committed to Allen long-term, even if the fanbase wasn’t.
You can credit the Diggs trade for a lot of things, but Allen’s growth that offseason was his own. He took one of the largest season-to-season leaps of any player in NFL history. They called it unprecedented, impossible, unsustainable, and more. In reality, it was evidence of that long-pondered theory we raised. Buffalo had invested draft picks, resources, cap space, and more into their freak prospect and it paid off.
But the most important thing? They gave him their patience. As raw a prospect as he was, Allen hadn’t mastered any part of the game by the time he was taken seventh overall, and they put the effort in to remedy that over a two-year span. His work ethic was never challenged and his growth, impossible as it was, gave every other franchise hope that they too can follow Buffalo’s blueprint to succeed.
Josh Allen blew the 2020 NFL season out of the water. The Bills surged to their first AFC East title in 25 years, secured a home playoff game, and made it all the way to the AFC Championship on the back of Allen’s arm. His team developed well around him and, though the offensive line cost them their one shot at greatness, Buffalo was winning games in a way indicative of long-term success. Many thought it was a flash in the pan, but that was not to be so.
Allen broke just about every record in team history for his position, and the offense crushed the greatest marks set before them by past Bills. At the forefront of the MVP chatter for most of the season, Josh finished second to Aaron Rodgers. Though they ultimately fell short in their final playoff game against those same Chiefs, it wasn’t due to a lack of skill at quarterback.
For the Chiefs, the only direction left to go was down. They didn’t exactly fall very far though. The two-time consecutive AFC Champions lost badly in the Super Bowl against the Buccaneers, and it was because of the same reason they’d beaten Buffalo. Surprisingly, Allen and Mahomes had both done exceedingly well under pressure throughout their careers. Unsurprisingly, they could only hold out for so long against the onslaught some of the opposing defenses threw at them. Patrick Mahomes was beaten to a pulp, as his offensive line was eviscerated on the sport’s biggest stage.
The postseason always teaches us something every season. In 2020, it told us that getting pressure on the QB isn’t the same as finishing. Several of the NFL’s best pressure teams failed to succeed against mobile QBs, but the ones that were able to make contact consistently made a huge impact on the offense. Josh Allen was brutalized in the AFC Championship, and Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl. Both learned lessons better than any of us. They’d carry that with them to 2021.
This might sound controversial to some, but Josh Allen was better than Patrick Mahomes in 2021. Mahomes may have had more yards, but more than half of all his passing yards came after the catch this season. He threw 21.3% of his passes behind the line of scrimmage this season, second-most in the league. His average depth of target was 34th amongst qualifying QBs, and he gained nearly as many yards on passes behind the line of scrimmage (1,040) as on passes 20+ yards downfield (1,177), per Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports. Of all the players launching passes this year, Mahomes may have benefitted the most from his surrounding talent.
He had two teammates in the top 10 in YAC (Yards After Catch) this season, and another in the top 20. He had a fourth teammate at 21st. Stefon Diggs, the Buffalo Bills’ team leader in YAC, placed 52nd in the league with just over 300 yards. The former MVP was incredible, yes, but the quality and consistency of his supporting cast cannot be overstated. For the record, Buffalo was near the bottom of the pack league-wide in the same statistic.
Ultimately, on any given Sunday, anything can happen. Both QBs missed out on the Super Bowl. However, only one of the quarterbacks could plausibly shoulder the blame for their unceremonious exit. Allen was flawless in the postseason. Mahomes was close, but not better.
|2021 Playoffs||Allen (2 Games)||Mahomes (3 Games)|
|TDs Per Game||4.5||4.0|
To say otherwise would be dishonest. Josh Allen was pulling off one of the single greatest postseason runs of any player in league history before the team and coaches failed him. He had a larger share of his team’s yards than anyone in the regular or postseason, and he routinely made the impossible possible. From unbelievable poise in the face of pressure, to evading sacks on fourth down and scooting downfield for the pylon, Allen was a machine.
It’s wrong to say that it wasn’t enough. It was. Perfection from Allen couldn’t negate the failings of our defense. Patrick Mahomes was awarded an opportunity to win the game on a coin toss and Allen got left on the bench, waiting for a chance that never came.
The Kansas City Chiefs got to host the AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals, seemingly a slam dunk for a third-straight Super Bowl appearance. They were also given the opportunity to win again in overtime after an epic second-half collapse. Instead, Mahomes made a fatal error, launching the ball into double-coverage and getting picked off a mere 13 seconds into overtime. Mahomes’ team was out, and it was all on him when it mattered most.
The Future of the AFC
So where does that leave us? Two living legends, unsatisfied, angry, and surrounded by talent. These teams are fiery and determined, fueled by their errors and ready to compete again. Even in a stacked AFC, featuring more QB talent than we may have ever seen in a single conference, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes stand head and shoulders above the rest.
This is what we can expect for the next five or more seasons, AFC fans. As these two giants battle it out, the rest of the AFC has to hope they meet each other early in the postseason. With Allen’s unique playstyle and durability lining up against Mahomes’ elite passing, these two will be finding themselves going head-to-head a lot more than they may like. As fans, we couldn’t love it any more. NFC beware: The AFC is going to run the Super Bowl for the foreseeable future.