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Bengals vs Chiefs unveils a new historic rivalry

The AFC Conference Championship game is more than it appears as nothing less than a changing of the old guard in the NFL quarterback landscape

Jan 22, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) celebrates after the Bengals defeated the Tennessee Titans 19-16 in the AFC Divisional playoff football game at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewincke
Christopher HanewinckelUSA TODAY Sports

Cinderella stories are a hit with everyone, young and old. The little engine that could, David and Goliath, and now the 2022 NFL playoffs are all great stories about rising up to win against the odds. The NFC saw the unlikely playoff participant San Francisco 49ers defeat the frontrunners in the Green Bay Packers, while over in the AFC, the never-say-die Cincinnati Bengals topped the mighty Tennessee Titans.

While the NFC Conference Championship matchup is interesting for esoteric reasons, namely the almost witchcraft-like way that the Rams are seemingly owned by the 49ers, the AFC game provides the real interest. The Chiefs vs the Bengals, or more directly Mahomes vs Burrow, is a matchup that is nothing less than a changing of the guard. Comparing it to Brady vs Manning is not quite right. This has the makings of Elway vs Montana in its very early stages.

Polemic statement right off the bat, eh? “Are you sure you are not overstating, old boy?” No, I don’t believe that I am. In a raft of good quarterbacks, decent quarterbacks, and even exceptional quarterbacks who have come into the league over the past four or five years, nobody comes close to these two. As Super Bowl LIV’s MVP, Patrick Mahomes needs no qualifier for that statement. But perhaps you are not convinced that Burrow is the foil to his thrust.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Joe Burrow is the greatest quarterback that we have seen in a generation. If he can stay healthy, and mind you, with Cincinnati’s offensive line, that is a very big “if”, then he could become the greatest quarterback who ever played the game. I hear eyes rolling all over the country, and yes, before you say it, I do realize that it is only his second season in the league, but I am serious about this one. He has a composure and absolute unshakability that we haven’t seen since Joe Montana. And yes, like Montana, he may not have the quickest feet or the strongest arm, but a quarterback is more than that. He is a marshall, a general, getting the ball into the hands of the right people at the right time. What Burrow does lack in this Joe Montana comparison is a Bill Walsh figure. Zac Taylor is a solid coach, but revolutionary offensive genius is a hat that he simply doesn’t wear.

Back when Joe Burrow wanted to transfer from Ohio State, Alabama offered him the number three spot behind Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Burrow replied, “I guess you guys must not know about me yet.” He declined and transferred to LSU where he took the starting job, went undefeated, and picked up the Heisman Trophy on the way to a National Championship. “You guys must not know about me yet.” Sound familiar?

It is a dangerous thing to make predictions in the NFL, particularly when you are talking about careers. Remember how Vinny Testaverde was meant to take the league by the horns? What about Andre Ware? Or Danny Wuerffel? When we talk about long-term in the NFL there is always an enormous asterisk attached. So to say that Mahomes vs Burrow is something that will be around in ten years, or even five, seems reckless. But when you look at the road that both of these quarterbacks have taken to get here, the grit that they have shown under the greatest pressure in sports, and to come through as unruffled as they both remain, how can you not feel that we are witnessing the changing of the guard?

Whispers of Tom Brady’s retirement have gotten louder in recent weeks, Aaron Rodgers’ future is now less certain than ever at Green Bay and the winds of change are blowing across the NFL plains. But the future promises duels that will keep fans engaged and excited for years to come. The era of the two-minute shootout isn’t over. It looks to be preparing to ramp up a level, in fact.

Both Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes are known for their poise and late scoring drives. Granted, Burrow’s glory days have been primarily at the college level. But to lead perennial ugly ducklings Cincinnati to their first playoff win in 31 years in only his first non-injured season says something. In Baton Rouge he was known as Joe Cool. So far, nothing in the NFL has changed that moniker.

Mahomes’ college career was outstanding, but not as spectacular as Burrow. He set several records and was top passer in 2016, but in electing to enter the draft early, he staked his future on earning his bona-fides in the NFL. And earn them he did. He got the starting role in his second year and won the Super Bowl in his third. Other quarterbacks have done similar things. I mean, Russel Wilson won the Super Bowl in only his second year in the NFL. So what separates Patrick Mahomes from this pack? In a word, the same word that defines Joe Burrow, coolness. Mahomes is unshakable.

Both of these quarterbacks have a special something, an attitude, an air, a certain je ne sais quoi that sets them apart from the crowd. Neither will admit defeat until the very end, but even when they are defeated, they move resolutely on to the future. No moaning, no whining, no regrets. That in itself bodes well for a battle between giants. Perhaps history will prove me wrong. Perhaps something will happen to either of these quarterbacks that will make them throw in the towel. But I wouldn’t count on it.


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