BALTIMORE — Toward the end of the 2018 NFL season — when Patrick Mahomes was launching bomb after bomb and Lamar Jackson was just starting to make his meme-making runs — a high-ranking Baltimore Ravens official stood on the practice field and made this keen observation:
The Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs landed the NFL’s most feared players because they showed no fear in drafting them.
Baltimore and Kansas City had the opportunity to play it safe a few years ago by sticking with winning, albeit not scintillating, quarterbacks. The Chiefs had a three-time Pro Bowl performer in Alex Smith, and the Ravens had a former Super Bowl MVP in Joe Flacco.
Instead, in the 2017 and 2018 drafts, these teams shocked the football world by aggressively trading up in the first round for two prospects who were deemed risks. Mahomes and Jackson went from being passed over for the likes of Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Rosen to being the past two NFL MVPs.
As the Ravens play host to the Chiefs under the national spotlight of Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), the question is no longer whether Mahomes and Jackson can make it as NFL quarterbacks. It’s whether everyone is witnessing the early stages of the league’s next great quarterback rivalry.
“These two are the future,” said retired All-Pro safety Eric Weddle, who has played against both Mahomes and Jackson. “You are not a smart individual if you didn’t put some money on these two having some amazing games over the next six to 10 years. It’s going to be Brady-Manning all over again.”
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning battled for AFC supremacy 17 times from 2001 to 2016. They combined for eight Super Bowl titles and eight NFL MVP awards. Their head-to-head clashes defined an entire era.
Scott Pioli, an NFL Network analyst who was a personnel executive for the Patriots from 2000 to 2008 and Chiefs from 2009 to ’12, cautions that it’s too early to compare Mahomes-Jackson — a budding rivalry heading into its third meeting — to the league’s all-time best quarterback duel. He believes it’s unfair to anyone to debate generations of football because today’s game is different from the one played in the 2000s.
“To me, it’s one of those things: Leave the comparisons behind and just enjoy it for what it is,” Pioli said. “Unintentionally, those comparisons cause people to have discussions and conversations that become disrespectful to other people’s greatness.”
Brady and Manning represent the old guard of pocket passers who stood in the face of blitzes and beat defenses purely with their arms and awareness. The way they dissected defenses proved to be methodical and surgical.
Mahomes and Jackson lead the new wave of quarterbacking, flush with imagination, mobility and unpredictability. When Mahomes and Jackson go on the run, defenses don’t know when Mahomes’ next no-look pass or Jackson’s dizzying spin move will get unleashed and immortalized on social media.
Beyond the way they play the game, what differentiates Brady-Manning from Mahomes-Jackson is when they played their games. Brady and Manning collided five times in the postseason, including four AFC Championship Games.
Mahomes and Jackson have delivered two entertaining meetings in the regular season — a combined 112 points and 1,718 yards — but they have yet to tangle when it matters the most. Jackson and the Ravens would’ve advanced to face the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game last season, but Baltimore was upset by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.
“I would like to see them match up in a championship game before I proclaim that we’re going to see this year in and year out,” said Damien Woody, an ESPN analyst and former New England offensive lineman from 1999 to 2003. “When I played with the Patriots, it seemed like we were meeting the Colts almost every year in the AFC Championship Game. So, do I think [Mahomes and Jackson] have the potential to do that? Absolutely.”
A playoff meeting seems like an inevitable next chapter for two quarterbacks who’ve quickly rewritten the NFL history books:
By the age of 24, Mahomes became the youngest quarterback to win an NFL MVP award and Super Bowl ring. At the age of 22, Jackson became the youngest to win NFL MVP.
In 2018, Mahomes became the second player ever to throw 50 touchdown passes and for 5,000 yards passing in the same season, joining Manning, who did it in 2013. In 2019, Jackson became the first player to produce more than 30 touchdown passes and 1,000 yards rushing.
Mahomes (26-7) and Jackson (21-3) have a combined win percentage of .825, which is the best entering a matchup for two quarterbacks who’ve started at least 20 games in their careers, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
While Jackson has downplayed his matchup with Mahomes because they’re never on the field at the same time, he acknowledged this rivalry can be special.
“It’s really cool,” Jackson said. “I’m going against a great talent like him — a guy who can throw the ball anywhere he wants on the field and make things happen each and every game. It’s very exciting.”
Just like Brady and Manning, there is a mutual respect, or envy in some regard, between Mahomes and Jackson.
Jackson first crossed paths with Mahomes at a quarterback camp in the spring of 2018, when Jackson had just finished his final season at Louisville and Mahomes had wrapped up his NFL rookie season. After watching Mahomes fling the ball around, Jackson wondered: “He’s awesome. How is he a backup?”
Mahomes and Jackson have followed a similar trajectory. Both began their rookie seasons as backups and then won NFL MVP in their first full seasons as starters.
After Mahomes followed up his MVP award with a Super Bowl title, Jackson said, “I’ve got to win the Super Bowl. I’ve got to get where he’s at.”
Some say Brady and Manning drove each other to greatness. Could the same be said of Mahomes and Jackson?
“It’s something that comes with the competitiveness of it,” Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “Is it something I’ve heard Lamar talk about? No. Is it something you’ll probably hear Patrick Mahomes talk about? No. I think it’s only natural in this profession that you kind of feel and understand.”
Mahomes and Jackson have gotten to know each other through similar endorsement deals, and they’ve shown how much they appreciate each other’s games over the past year.
In a 23-3 win over the Denver Broncos last December, Mahomes sidestepped a defender to throw a pass to convert a 2-point conversion. A miked-up Mahomes said on the sideline: “Did I look like Lamar with that juke? That’s as close as I can get right there.”
Mahomes emulating Jackson? pic.twitter.com/3l4mU7x
— ESPN SportsCenter (@Sportscenter) Sept. 27
A few months later, Jackson repaid the compliment when asked what would be one aspect of Mahomes’ game that he would take.
“I want that cannon,” Jackson told Bleacher Report. “He’s got a cannon arm.”
The styles of Jackson and Mahomes are more similar than many like to admit. Mahomes is an underrated runner who leads the NFL in scramble yards (325) since returning from a knee injury in Week 10 of last season (Jackson has 271 scramble yards over that span). Jackson is an underrated passer with a league-best 82.4 QBR from within the pocket since the start of last season (Mahomes is fifth with 77.0).
The true common ground between Mahomes and Jackson is the end result. Jackson (winner of 13 straight) and Mahomes (eight in a row) hold the two longest active win streaks in the regular season. Heading into Monday night, it will have been 323 days since either lost a regular-season start.
Just like Brady and Manning, the success of Mahomes and Jackson will continually be measured against the other.
“When Brady’s going up against Payton Manning and basically you guys are on the same level,” Woody said. “They don’t want to lose to the other one. They know how important it is to their legacy, so I can definitely foresee the same type of thing happening here.”
The future of the rivalry
It can be argued that Mahomes and Jackson can’t officially have a rivalry until Jackson beats him.
In the NFL’s greatest quarterback battle, Brady dominated by winning the first six meetings with Manning and finished with an 11-6 edge. This shaped the careers of Brady, who became known for racking up the rings, and Manning, who became known for racking up the records.
If Jackson loses for a third straight time to Mahomes, would he be considered the “Manning” in this matchup?
“Yeah, I think that could be a fair kind of attachment to each player,” said Dan Orlovsky, an ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback. “It would become a fair point and/or criticism as well.”
Since taking over as the Ravens’ starting quarterback in the middle of 2018, Jackson is 0-2 against the Chiefs and 21-1 against the rest of the NFL in the regular season.
Mahomes knows Jackson’s motivation level on Monday night. In 2018, Mahomes went 13-5 as a starter (including postseason), but two of his losses came to Brady.
“I understand he’s going to be driven,” Mahomes said. “Whenever you play another team that is of his caliber and our team coming off a Super Bowl win, it’s going to be a great game. You want to go out there and find a way to win. That goes every single week, but especially this one because you know you’re probably going to play this team in the playoffs.”
In a reminder that the league is cyclical, Orlovsky was outspoken this offseason that Brady go to the NFC to have a better shot at getting to the Super Bowl again. Brady went from competing in the NFL’s best quarterback rivalry to being advised to go elsewhere because of Mahomes and Jackson.
“This is the next big quarterback rivalry,” Orlovsky said. “There’s no question about it, because if you look at the rivalry between Tom and Peyton, it wasn’t just the quarterback. They were remarkable, but it was the coaching staffs that both had. It was the front office and organizations they both had. That really sets those guys up for the long term, sustained success, and they both have that.”
In five to 10 years, who will come out on top of this rivalry? Nearly all of the experts pointed at Mahomes.
It’s based on a concern about Jackson’s running and how that will affect his durability for the long term. “When I think about Lamar, I wouldn’t change anything with the way he’s playing,” said Jeff Saturday, an ESPN NFL analyst who played Manning’s center for 12 seasons. “But sustainability, does it shorten his career? History would say probably. You wonder how long. I would just ride it until you can’t do it anymore.”
Monday night marks another step in the rivalry between Mahomes and Jackson. It’s the first time they will play each other in front of a national television audience.
Mahomes and Jackson have thrived as prime-time players. When playing under the lights, Jackson has averaged 36.5 points and Mahomes has scored 31.7 points per game. That’s the two highest totals by starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era.
“The whole world is watching you,” Jackson said. “It’s just time to put on a show.”
It’s Mahomes-Jackson, Round 3.