NFL Analysis


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Ranking NFL's Best Duos Since 2000, Where Does Mahomes-Kelce Land?

Feb 12, 2023; Glendale, Arizona, US; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates with tight end Travis Kelce (87) after winning Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The turn of the century brought about a new kind of football. Starting with the Greatest Show on Turf in 1999, the sport continued to evolve into more of a passing league. The rise of Peyton Manning and others contributed to that, as did the change in pass interference rules in the early 2000s to give wide receivers a little more freedom. 

Every year since, the league has become more obsessed with throwing the ball and finding every little advantage to do it better. 

That's why we’re going to rank and discuss the best passing duos since that boom began just more than two decades ago. 

The criteria are fairly simple. There's no real points system or calculation to it. However, longevity, production, accolades and general dominance are core factors when deciding who slots where. 

Some duos have it all. Some get by with excellence in one or two, and others make up for lacking elsewhere. 

Let's get into it. 

NFL's Top-10 Passing Duos Since 2000

Sept. 11, 2005; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end #97 Simeon Rice hits Minnesota Vikings quarterback #11 Daunte Culpepper. (Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports Copyright).

10. Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss

Almost every other duo on here is placed because of their longevity, general high level of play or accolades. Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss break the rules. 

They don't have the longevity or team success others on this list do, but they have another important, unique factor: being cool. 

At the peak of their powers, Culpepper and Moss were physically dominant players. 

Culpepper was a 6-foot-4, 255-pound passer with a booming arm and a penchant for letting defenses know about it. He could run, scramble and create outside the pocket. Culpepper was a completely overwhelming athlete at a position that hadn't seen many of them yet. Culpepper was Cam Newton before there was a Cam Newton. 

Moss needs less of an introduction. His 6-foot-4, 194-pound frame and 34-inch arms made for an unfair size advantage for someone with 4.38 speed. Moss was a singular force at wide receiver; a terrifying deep threat who commanded coverage like no player before or after him. 

The two were a match made in heaven. Culpepper was creative and aggressive, and Moss was the perfect receiver to enable that to its fullest. No other duo's highlights were as cool as Culpepper and Moss. That's not the same as Super Bowls or MVPs, but if you're telling the story of the league, it counts for something. 

Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown high five
Sep 12, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7). (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

9. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown met Ben Roethlisberger at the perfect point in his career. Young Roethlisberger was plenty willing to go under center, lean on his run game and hang in the pocket for an eternity. He was one of many quarterbacks like that from the early-to-mid 2000s era. 

By the 2010s, Roethlisberger was done with that. He wanted to be exclusively in the shotgun and throw the hell out of the ball. None of that under-center, sequenced play-calling nonsense — Roethlisberger just wanted to grip it and rip it. 

Brown was the perfect match for that. After a slow rookie season, Brown quickly became the NFL's sharpest route-runner and a stunning contested catch-winner for a player of modest build. Brown was quick as a wink with the ball in his hands, too. 

Brown had every skill you could want in a star wide receiver, which made him great for an offense that had zero interest in hiding its intention to throw the ball. You knew Roethlisberger would throw the ball to Brown, and there was little you could do about it. 

Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams low five
Jan 22, 2022; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) and wide receiver Davante Adams (17) in action against the San Francisco 49ers. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

8. Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams

Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams never won the big one together. Rodgers' lone Super Bowl win preceded Adams showing up in Green Bay. 

No other receiver connected with Rodgers the way Adams did, though, which is saying something given all the talented receivers Rodgers played with. 

Rodgers and Adams played with what felt like telepathy. No matter the situation, the coverage or how late in the play it was, the two just found ways to connect. There's no duo on this list who ran and threw a better back-shoulder ball. 

A lot of the telepathy started pre-snap, too. Once Adams blossomed into a star player, Rodgers constantly had quick-hitting smoke screens attached to a good chunk of the Packers' run concepts. If Rodgers didn't like the box count, he'd flip it out to Adams, who always made the most of it. 

Rodgers and Adams played like two people who knew a secret nobody else knew. There was an automatic understanding between the two that you just rarely see.

Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates celebrate a touchdown
Sep 17, 2017; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (85) celebrates with quarterback Philip Rivers (17). (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

7. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates

Seeing as they played for the San Diego / Los Angeles Chargers, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates obviously have none of the major accolades most of the others on this list do. 

Rivers and Gates were undeniably productive for more than a decade, though. They were a staple in offensive football, a pairing you could set your watch to for more than 10 years. 

Gates finished his career third in receiving yards among all tight ends. All but one year in his career was spent with Rivers at quarterback. Even if you remove the 349 yards Gates had without, Gates would still be third all-time in receiving yards. 

What's fascinating is the two grew and changed together, particularly once they aged. In their earlier years and into their prime, Rivers could sling it anywhere, and Gates was a force in the intermediate area. 

As they aged, Rivers became a quick passing savant, and Gates became near unguardable in the 1-10 yard area. Gates was an automatic third-and-6 conversion for a five-year stretch toward the end. 

Rivers and Gates were models of consistency and longevity in a sport where that's hard to come by.

6. Tom Brady and Julian Edelman

Accolades do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Tom Brady and Julian Edelman pairing. 

Edelman was a serious receiver for Brady's Patriots for about seven years, which isn't short but isn't overwhelming compared to some of the other duos. Edelman's stats with Brady weren't eye-popping either. 

From Edelman's 2013-2019 peak, he finished 16th in receiving yards, just behind Jarvis Landry, and 34th in touchdowns. 

The two won three Super Bowls together, though. Some of those wins were the strongest of Brady's career, including the 28-3 comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. Edelman was a constant, reliable force throughout all of those runs, even if not as dominant as Rob Gronkowski. 

Edelman is unequivocally the "worst" pass-catcher on this list. Still, there's something to him being so reliable in the playoffs. He helped Brady over the finish line so many times during the Patriots' second dynasty era.

Nov 30, 2008; Cleveland, OH, USA; Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne (87) talks with quarterback Peyton Manning (18) during a timeout against the Cleveland Browns. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

5. Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne

Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne aren't the best in any one category. Other duos played together longer, won more championships and were overall more dominant and productive. Manning and Wayne were exceptionally consistent, though, even once Marvin Harrison fell off a cliff in 2007. 

From 2004 to 2010, Wayne had at least 1,000 yards in each season. He ranked third in targets, first in yards and fifth in touchdowns during that span. Manning led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns and cashed in three MVPs. The two also won the 2006 Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears. 

If not for Manning's career-altering neck injury in 2011, Manning and Wayne could have tacked on a few more quality years in Indianapolis. Wayne played at a high level in 2011 and 2012 and continued to be useful until his final year in 2014. 

Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Isaac Bruce pose for Hall of Fame picture.
Aug 7, 2021; Canton, Ohio, USA; Kurt Warner, left to right, Orlando Pace, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk pose during the induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Ron Schwane/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

4. Kurt Warner and Torry Holt/Isaac Bruce

Yes, I'm cheating here. I'm including Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. It is difficult to choose between the two and separate them. Both players were critical to the Greatest Show on Turf. 

With that in mind, longevity is the only knock against Kurt Warner and Holt/Bruce The height of The Greatest Show on Turf only lasted from 1999 to 2001, and Warner left the team after the 2003 season. The brightest candles burn the fastest, and none shone brighter than the turn-of-the-century Rams. 

For that brief period, Warner and his two star receivers were automatic. Bruce and Holt ranked first and second, respectively, in yards per target during that three-year span. 

Holt ranked fifth in yards; Bruce ranked sixth. Bruce's 59.2 percent success rate during that span ranked third in the league, behind New England's Troy Brown and, funny enough, St. Louis' Ricky Proehl. 

Warner won two MVPs in that span, bookended around the 2000 season, and led the team to a Super Bowl win in 1999. Neither Bruce nor Holt made All-Pro during that span, but that's honestly because they were "hurting" each other's volume stats too much by being incredibly good. Plus, Marshall Faulk was stealing away plenty in the passing game. 

Regardless, for a short period, Warner and Holt/Bruce were unstoppable.

Jan 28, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (R) celebrate on the stage before the trophy presentation after the AFC Championship game at M&T Bank Stadium. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

3. Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce

Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce embody modern football. 

As recently as 15 years ago, so much of the sport was defined by rigidity. Pass catchers were expected to get to exact landmarks at a specific time, and the quarterback was expected to operate with perfect timing and execution to get them the ball. 

The NFL has since moved away from that in favor of leaving more room for creativity and interpretation. 

That's what Mahomes and Kelce have dominated with. They can do all the simple, on-time stuff, but Mahomes and Kelce are special because of the plays they make when the chalkboard stuff goes awry. Mahomes is as free a scrambler as the league has ever seen, and Kelce has admitted countless times he will freestyle on routes. 

Somehow, Kelce always gets open when Mahomes scrambles, just the same as Mahomes understands what Kelce wants when he's freestyling on a route. There's a weird, chaotic mindmeld those two that doesn't feel like anything else on this list. 

And oh yeah, they win. A lot.

>> READ MORE: How Mahomes Is Building His Legacy

Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison speak before start of play.
Jan. 13, 2007; Baltimore, MD, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback (18) Peyton Manning and wide receiver (88) Marvin Harrison talk during the Colts 15-6 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports Copyright © 2007 Geoff Burke)

2. Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison

Manning and Harrison only won a single championship together, which hurts their case compared to our No. 1 duo. They pass every other test with flying colors, though. 

Harrison — great as he was — didn't have a 1,000-yard season until Manning blossomed in his second season in 1999. The duo went on to dominate the sport for the next seven or eight years. 

Harrison earned at least second-team All-Pro every year until 2006; Manning won two MVPs during that stretch. Harrison led the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns from 1999-2006, while Manning led the NFL in passing yards and threw nearly 50 more touchdowns than anyone else during the same span. 

What made Manning and Harrison so great was the confluence of perfection and aggression. Harrison was one of the league’s nastiest route-runners and could find his way to the right landmark in his sleep if he needed to. 

Manning, in perfect harmony, was as timely and accurate a quarterback as there's ever been when it comes to fitting aggressive windows to the intermediate range. 

Manning and Harrison were a match made in heaven.

1. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski

Brady and Gronkowski had it all. Longevity, production, dominance, accolades — not only do they check every box, but they stand alone at the top in most categories. They define what it means to be an elite duo. 

Brady and Gronk played together for 11 seasons, two of which came in Tampa Bay for their second act. Gronkowski's 9,286 yards led tight ends during that span, and his whopping 92 touchdowns led all players. 

Gronkowski made four All-Pros; Brady was constantly in the running for MVPs and secured one in 2017. The two combined for four Super Bowl wins, three in New England and one in Tampa Bay. 

More than all the numbers and awards, watching Brady and Gronkowski operating was overwhelming. There was an inevitability to it all. 

At some point, Gronkowski would get open between the numbers at about 15 yards, and Brady would thread a perfect pass to him. Gronkowski was tough, athletic, and unbelievably dominant at the catch point, and Brady never wavered in his ability to get him the ball, no matter what.