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Is Burrow-Mahomes a Fitting Sequel to Manning-Brady?

There are many things to look forward to on Championship Sunday, and another installment of Joe Burrow vs. Patrick Mahomes is at the top of the list. 

It is such an attractive part of Sunday’s lineup that it’s being paid a week-long compliment: comparisons to the best quarterback rivalry we’ve ever seen, complete with musings about whether it belongs in the same category. Is Burrow vs. Mahomes the next Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady?

It is a fun question to kick around and see where the mind goes. The similarities are not hard to detect, but the differences are significant. The latter doesn’t reflect negatively upon the game’s significance or the quarterbacks’ talents. No, it deals more with the storylines attached to these quarterbacks and the subplots that have been part of each game. They were so compelling for Manning and Brady. What they added to the gravity and mystique of their matchups can’t be ignored.

The roads Manning and Brady traveled before they arrived at the starting line of their epic NFL rivalry are not only a good place to start, they’re the foundation of what made the rivalry feel different in the first place. 

Manning was supposed to be elite.

He was taken first overall in the 1998 NFL Draft with the expectation he would lead the Indianapolis Colts to a title. Adding to the pressure that came with that pick and that last name was the fact college football’s ultimate prizes had eluded him. He was expected to win a national title at Tennessee, but it never happened. He came close to claiming the Heisman Trophy, but — rightly or wrongly — never won it. 

The first Manning-Brady AFC Championship matchup didn’t come until Manning’s sixth NFL season. By the time it arrived, there was a healthy amount of “Is this ever going to happen for this guy?” beginning to build. Brady already had led the Patriots to a Super Bowl title after the 2001 season. 

Brady, of course, wasn’t supposed to be there.

He was (in)famously taken with the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL draft as an afterthought. He was supposed to be one of the many late-round, project-type picks that rarely pan out. The fact he played well when Drew Bledsoe got injured in 2001 was a success story in itself, as just filling in admirably for a stretch of games would have justified the sixth-round selection.

One can’t ignore the Bill Belichick factor in this. He brought a dynamic to the Manning-Brady rivalry that isn’t part of the Burrow-Mahomes series. 

That element he added was a villain-esque one. It’s extreme to equate it to Darth Vader running the Death Star, but you get the point. His stalking of the sidelines and scheming against Manning were delicious parts of the script and made great theater even greater.

The role got off to a perfect start in January 2004 during the first of four AFC title games between Manning and Brady. Remember, it was snowing in Foxborough, which made it all the more dramatic and memorable in the NFL Films slow-motion retells of the day. Belichick’s defense forced Manning into four interceptions, which was the key in New England’s 24-14 victory. Two weeks later, the Patriots won the second of their three Super Bowl titles in four seasons.

From that point on, in addition to the star power Manning and Brady brought to each rendition, you had the Belichick-against-Manning chess match to enjoy as well. The quarterback known as the one you couldn’t fool vs. the defense-minded coach capable of fooling any QB. It was beautiful. 

In the Burrow vs. Mahomes version, the most visible coach is Andy Reid. Reid plays a major part of this as the primary offensive schemer for and with Mahomes, which is a key element in these games. But two differences come through:

>> Reid is so well liked, the villain potential goes out the window.

>> His expertise doesn’t pit him against the other quarterback in the way Belichick’s defensive prowess put him directly conspiring against Manning.

Like Belichick, Reid is a future Hall of Fame coach, but his role and his personality don’t allow him to be seen as a replacement for the part Belichick played. Peyton Manning was trying to best Tom Brady while matching wits with Bill Belichick, and that was perfection.

As much as those are integral and fun parts of the comparison, they’re on the periphery of it. The money portion of “Is Patrick Mahomes vs. Joe Burrow the next Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady?” comes down to whether you see Mahomes and Burrow as the clear-cut, top two quarterbacks in the NFL. That’s what the Brady-Manning games had going for them during the majority of the AFC title games they opposed each other. That’s what made their rivalry grand, and where the real discussion — and possible arguments — begin.

Mahomes is the easy part of this. Any list of top QBs in the league that doesn’t have him as No. 1 or No. 2 is hard to take seriously. If he’s not the league MVP, he’s the runner-up. There's no chance he’s the third-best quarterback in the NFL right now.

The Joe Cool of this exercise is not a layup. Is Burrow the NFL’s best, or second-best, quarterback? 

It may come down to how you feel about the quarterback he and the Bengals defeated last weekend in Buffalo: Are you more likely to pair the Bills’ Josh Allen or Burrow with Mahomes as the NFL’s best? My knee-jerk reaction is to say Allen, but my more thoughtful and drawn-out one takes me to Burrow.

Allen has more talent, a bigger bag of tricks, and a wider range of productivity. However, he recently has been more prone to occasional stretches of questionable play than Burrow. That is partially because he’s asked to do so much for the Buffalo offense, and he doesn’t have the supporting cast of playmakers Burrow does. 

Burrow’s level of play has been locked between steady and spectacular, producing a dizzying number of correct decisions and good-throw sequences. He seems even more dialed in on the biggest stages. See the back-to-back double-digit comeback wins he’s produced against Mahomes, and the way Burrow played in the win at snowy  Buffalo last weekend.

The difference is razor thin, and it could change multiple times during the next decade. Right now, I give the edge to Burrow.

Burrow vs. Mahomes

Burrow Mahomes
Date Stakes Winner Yds-TD-INT Yds-TD-INT
1/2/2022 Reg. season CIN, 34-31 446-4-0 259-2-0
1/30/2022 AFC Champ CIN, 27-24 250-2-1 275-3-2
12/4/2022 Reg. season CIN, 27-24 286-2-0 223-1-0

The difficulty of deciding if Mahomes vs. Burrow features the top two quarterbacks in the league, combined with the fun of sorting through the elements that made Manning against Brady so special, made the process of writing this article as enjoyable as any I’ve had this season. 

So, is Mahomes vs. Burrow the new Manning vs. Brady? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, just an interesting road of critical thinking to get to whatever conclusion feels best to you. I believe the AFC Championship will feature the two quarterbacks most on top of their games, even if Mahomes is dealing with a high-ankle sprain, but I also feel the Manning vs. Brady era came with subplots and stories that might not be equaled. 

The important part is we have a hell of a QB matchup to anticipate Sunday, and ideally, for many Championship Sundays to come. 

Paul Burmeister, a former starting quarterback at Iowa, is a studio host with NBC Sports and the radio voice of Notre Dame Football. For a decade he worked as a studio host at NFL Network. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulWBurmeister.

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