In a matter of two weeks, the entire AFC quarterback hierarchy has been flipped on its head by one player. In the process, one guy has restored faith to an organization that’s been wandering in the NFL playoff desert for over three decades.
Now, Ohio native Joe Burrow is one win away from taking the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years and cementing his legacy forever.
Patrick Mahomes is the pied piper of the next generation of NFL quarterbacks. He’s an MVP and a Super Bowl champion playing in his fourth consecutive conference championship. He’s literally the ring leader of a wave of young, potentially elite signal-callers in the AFC.
Josh Allen is nipping at his heels — playing the role of Peyton Manning to Mahomes’ Brady. His Bills are obviously close — say, 13 seconds — to toppling Kansas City and breaking through for the first time since the early ‘90s.
They are the two best quarterbacks on the two best teams in the AFC right now. But the list of challengers to Mahomes is growing rapidly, and Burrow, in just two weeks, has jumped to the top of the list.
Lamar Jackson is an NFL MVP whose talent is unquestioned. He’s 37-12 as a starter but has only one playoff win in four years to show for it.
The Chargers’ Justin Herbert was a fantasy football darling the second he became the starter in 2020, throwing for almost 10,000 yards and accounting for almost 80 total touchdowns in less than two seasons. But the Chargers have failed to make the playoffs each time and changed coaches.
For all his faults, Baker Mayfield is still a former No. 1 overall pick who gave the Browns their first playoff win in over a quarter-century. Now his very short tenure in Cleveland may already be coming to an end.
Deshaun Watson led the NFL in passing two years ago and was arguably the most talented young quarterback in the league until personal decisions derailed a promising career.
The savior of Jacksonville, Trevor Lawrence, might be more physically gifted than all of them but was unfortunately selected by a franchise entrusted Urban Meyer and makes the Texans look like a well-oiled machine.
Mac Jones seems like a quality long-term solution in New England but Bill Belichick is clearly not yet comfortable unleashing him as a pure passer. Tua Tagovailoa is a winner but has been so underwhelming that the Dolphins have been initiating trade offers since the day he was drafted (albeit unfairly). And while Zach Wilson did little to create excitement for Jets fans in his first season, the former No. 2 pick remains talented.
Unquestionably, the AFC is littered with high draft picks and tons of exciting upside at the quarterback position. But none of those names are four quarters away from the Super Bowl like Joe Burrow.
And, frankly, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Burrow, from a small town in Ohio, was a big-time recruit and big-time winner in high school who signed to play at powerhouse Ohio State. He transferred to LSU and, one year later, orchestrated the greatest offense in college football history en route to a national championship, the Heisman Trophy, and No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft.
So why should anyone be surprised that Burrow has calmly led his team to the AFC Championship despite being sacked nine times by the Tennessee Titans? Why is it a surprise that in just his second year, his team leapfrogged more established players and championship-caliber organizations in the AFC North for a division championship?
Why would anyone be surprised if Joe Cool beat Mahomes and the Chiefs, a heavy favorite in NFL betting, on Sunday?
The future of the quarterback position in the AFC is extraordinarily bright in so many places. Mahomes and Allen lead the way and gave us the best football game of the season last weekend. And fans can expect years of duels from the likes of Jackson, Herbert, Jones, Lawrence, and others.
But, for now, every one of those young players is looking up at Burrow as he tries to dethrone Mahomes.
Just like he unthinkably dethroned Alabama and Clemson in college, don’t be surprised if he’s the guy who changes the landscape of the AFC for the next decade.