The contrast couldn’t be more distinct.
On one side, the old warhorses of the NFL – iconic quarterbacks who have dominated the stage for years. Decades, even.
On the other, the young bucks who represent a dazzling present and even more vibrant future.
Welcome to the divisional round of the playoffs, where the old guys of the NFC will do battle in New Orleans and Green Bay and the wunderkinds of the AFC will face off in Kansas City and Buffalo.
In a league dominated by quarterbacks, these playoffs will be defined by them in every way, shape and form this weekend.
It’s all good. No, it’s all great, in fact.
For now, anyway. As for the future … well, let’s save that not-so-great scenario for now. In the meantime, we present you with main events.
The old guys: Aaron Rodgers and the Packers hosting the Rams on Saturday, followed by Sunday’s prime-time battle between 43-year-old Tom Brady of the Buccaneers and 42-year-old Drew Brees of New Orleans at the Superdome.
The young’uns: Lamar Jackson of the Ravens against Josh Allen of the Bills in Buffalo on Saturday night and then Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield vs. reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.
The only quarterback who doesn’t quite fit the narrative: Jared Goff, the Rams’ 26-year-old quarterback who will try and conquer Rodgers at Lambeau Field in what would be a seismic upset.
"When Tom Brady signed with the Bucs, and I knew that he was coming to our division, I envisioned this game happening," Brees said. "I knew our aspirations as a team, to be in the playoffs and beyond, and I certainly knew what he was bringing to the Bucs and that talented roster. And so, I think this is probably where we all envisioned being at this point in the season."
Form held true indeed, as the 12-4 Saints won the NFC South by holding off Brady’s 11-5 Bucs and securing home field for the third matchup of the season between the teams. The Saints beat the Bucs in the opener (34-23) at the Superdome and then in the regular season rematch (38-3) in Tampa.
Barring an unexpected win by the Rams in Green Bay, next week’s NFC Championship Game would pit Rodgers, who is looking for his second Super Bowl title, against either Brady or Brees. Advantage Rodgers on the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field.
And more quarterback awesomeness in the NFC Championship Game. A football fan’s dream, if ever there was one.
The age differential takes a nosedive in the AFC, but the matchups are equally compelling.
Jackson broke through with his first playoff win in three tries with an excellent effort last weekend in Tennessee, where he avenged last year’s playoff loss at home to the Titans. And Allen flashed the kind of form that injected him into at least the conversation for MVP in a convincing win over the Colts – Buffalo’s first playoff win in a quarter century.
Jackson and Allen are two of the stars from a 2018 draft that provided five first-round quarterbacks. And while they offer different skillsets – Jackson’s video game speed and mobility vs. Allen’s pocket presence and his own share of running prowess – these are two quarterbacks who will likely be playing in January (and possibly February) for quite some time.
And Mahomes-Mayfield could be another classic, as last year’s Super Bowl MVP and 2018 regular season MVP takes on the former Heisman Trophy winner in Kansas City. The defending champs are certainly well-rested after earning the AFC’s only bye, and Andy Reid is almost unstoppable when he has extra time to prepare for an opponent.
Reid and Mahomes remain confident, but cautious.
"He’s matured on the field," Reid said of Mayfield. "I think he’s really fallen in love with this scheme and mastered it, so he’s doing very well."
Mahomes said he’s ready to "just take your intensity up a level. It’s still the same preparation, so you just maybe try to dive deeper into the film study, dive deeper into the breakdowns and the different ways you can go out there and have success against a defense. But just to take it to another level is the biggest thing."
Four compelling matchups featured some of the most compelling quarterback duels in recent memory.
But about that downside to all this? Well, as much as Brady and Brees have given to the game, there isn’t much time left to appreciate their splendor. Brees, in fact, may retire after the playoffs. And while Rodgers still may have several years left, he is 37.
With this greying of the NFC’s elite quarterbacks, the conference’s collective talent level doesn’t bode well for the longer-term future. With the exception of second-year quarterback Kyler Murray, the NFC is bereft of the deep talent pool at the most important position in pro sports.
And we could eventually see a period of AFC Super Bowl domination like the NFC owned the Lombardi Trophy back in the day. From 1981-95, the NFC won 14 of 15 Super Bowl titles before John Elway’s Broncos began the pendulum swing in the other direction.
We may therefore be nearing the day when the AFC owns the league thanks to the great quarterbacks we’re seeing this weekend. And still others who didn’t even make it to the playoffs – see: Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa.
Bottom line: Enjoy a weekend’s worth of dramatic quarterback play where the old guard meets the new generation.