Joe Burrow is undefeated against Patrick Mahomes — except perhaps in the court of public opinion. Few outside of Cincinnati would say that Burrow is a better quarterback than Mahomes. I won’t say it. But Burrow is 3-0 against Mahomes, and the Bengals have a good shot to upset the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
And in the process, Burrow can continue to build his résumé toward earning the label as QB1 in the NFL. This isn’t just the Michael Jordan effect, where people get tired of Mahomes so they start looking for another contender. Mahomes has been the top quarterback in the NFL for quite some time, but he’s not so good and so successful that the topic isn’t open for debate.
Mahomes has been to five consecutive AFC title games. That’s great. But he has only one Super Bowl ring. And while it once seemed like Mahomes could match Tom Brady’s pace for Lombardi’s, that hasn’t materialized. Not yet.
So, yes, Mahomes remains the player every team would build their franchise around. He has a rare blend of arm talent, mobility, intellect, work ethic and leadership. He sees opportunities to throw no-look passes — and he takes them. My metrics suggest he averages 4.3 how-did-he-do-that plays per game.
He isn’t just flash, though. Mahomes is a methodical quarterback who has proven he can stay in the pocket and beat defenses through dissection and calculation.
But if Mahomes is the best QB in the world, then why does Burrow keep beating him? It’s an overly simplistic and singular argument. But bear with me because, of course, there’s more depth to it.
Doesn’t the picture get more complicated if Burrow wins a championship?Doesn’t it get more complicated if Burrow wins his fourth head-to-head matchup against Mahomes on the way to tying Mahomes’ Super Bowl total?
I’m not a believer in quarterback wins, necessarily. So I don’t want to harp too heavily upon the head-to-head matchups, which are as much a product of the quarterbacks’ supporting cast as the quarterbacks themselves. But I am a believer in Super Bowl wins.
When looking back at the rivalry between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, their head-to-head matchups aren’t the tiebreaker when we compare them. It’s all about their championships. So while Manning was, for a long time, considered the superior quarterback (and, like Mahomes, the player every team would build their franchise around), Brady eventually became the unquestioned GOAT with his seven Super Bowl victories.
There’s a reason why everyone so often compares Burrow to Brady. But it’s an unfair comparison. Burrow has no championships. He doesn’t drop jaws like Mahomes or Josh Allen, another player contending to unseat Mahomes as QB1. Burrow has precise ball placement that makes his receivers look good. But, in turn, he doesn’t get enough of the credit. Burrow doesn’t generate many yards by running (though he did rush for five TDs this year), and he doesn’t get creative by extending plays. He’s a ruthless operator in the pocket and a strategic game manager, controlling the game to get wins.
If Mahomes is a stealth fighter, Burrow is a battleship.Burrow’s fastest path — and maybe his only path — to NFL greatness will be on the way to the Super Bowl. So that means that, as long as Mahomes and Burrow remain in the AFC together, they can’t define their careers on matchups against one another. Instead, they have to define their careers with what they do after beating the other on the path to the Super Bowl.
So maybe Mahomes is dealing with an ankle injury. And maybe that cheapens the amount of clout that Burrow can get out of this AFC championship. A high ankle sprain tends to keep players out for weeks. But it would be foolish to think that the AFC championship really decides who is the greater quarterback.
That’s what Super Bowls are for. For the truly great ones, that’s what many Super Bowls are for.
And so in the years to come, these two quarterbacks are likely to jockey for the path to greatness, much like Manning and Brady did for so many years. And only one will end up playing on Super Bowl Sunday.
Once they beat each other, the real work begins. The question is: With Allen and Lamar Jackson also in the AFC, who is Phillip Rivers? Who is Ben Roethlisberger? Who is the “Next Great QB” who wins one Super Bowl and never returns — or wins none?
Because that’s the other thing Burrow and Mahomes have to avoid. Not only are they chasing greatness, but they need to sidestep a mediocre legacy. There have been plenty of quarterbacks to put up videogame numbers in their careers.
Burrow couldn’t possibly end up like Rivers. Could he? Or even like Jim Kelly?Mahomes couldn’t end up like Aaron Rodgers (with unlimited talent but just one Super Bowl win). Could he?
NFL history is weird like that. Stars rise and fall — quickly. And that’s what is at stake between these two quarterbacks.
It’s about their legacy. It’s about the Hall of Fame. It’s about how they’re remembered.It’s about 20 years from now when fans are talking about this generation of quarterbacks. Who will be at the top of the list?