Elway-Montana. Aikman-Favre. Brady-Manning.
Seemingly every generation of the N.F.L. is defined by classic matchups between the league’s best quarterbacks. Their teams are often in contention for championships, but their styles of play are also indicative of the strategies in vogue at the time, from gunslinging pocket passers to game managers in love with the audible.
On Monday night, fans will get to watch the latest installment of the league’s most compelling quarterback rivalry when Patrick Mahomes, 25, and the Kansas City Chiefs visit Baltimore to take on Lamar Jackson, 23, and the Ravens. It won’t look anything like those rivalries of the past, as these young quarterbacks are the archetype of athletic, run-and-gun improvisational stars who have supplanted the old pocket passers.
There is a lot at stake beyond bragging rights for the Chiefs, who have won the past two matchups with the Ravens and are defending a Super Bowl title, or the Ravens, who were bounced from the playoffs after finishing last season 14-2. Both teams are 2-0, and since Jackson became a starter in November 2018, these have perhaps been the N.F.L.’s most dominant teams.
And this year’s playoff format, in which only the top team in each conference gets a first-round bye, means that Monday’s game could become a tiebreaker if the Chiefs and the Ravens finish with identical records.
Image Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs is known for extending plays with his legs before uncorking passes with pinpoint precision, often with unconventional mechanics.Credit…Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
The pairing will not necessarily define the league’s future in strict opposition to each other, though. Mahomes and Jackson have been friends since college, and Ravens Coach John Harbaugh spent nine years as an assistant under Chiefs Coach Andy Reid when Reid was in charge of the Philadelphia Eagles.
This time, Mahomes versus Jackson is a matchup between back-to-back winners of the Most Valuable Player Award, the first such meeting of two award-winners younger than 26. It’s a notable contrast to this season’s other anticipated matchups, including a duel between Drew Brees and Tom Brady, that have fizzled.
Television ratings have dipped in some major markets, and the numbers for prime time games have lagged last year’s as the glut of sports is forcing football to compete for viewers’ attention. The quick rise and dynamism of Mahomes and Jackson have broader implications for the N.F.L.
“All these new quarterbacks in the league, these new kids, how great is that for the National Football League, and these two are among the best, and they’re good friends on top of that,” Reid said Thursday. “It’s really fun to watch them grow.”
In just his fourth season, Mahomes has one league M.V.P. award and added the Super Bowl M.V.P. last season. He is 26-7 as a starter in the regular season, and he threw for 5,000 yards in his second season. Mahomes’s star power has garnered him a bevy of endorsements, but this summer, he has grown more comfortable using it to draw attention to racial injustice. He joined other prominent players in a video that called on the N.F.L. to recognize Black Lives Matter and is among the athletes and artists involved in the More Than a Vote initiative to register voters and fight voter suppression.
Jackson, who entered the league a season after Mahomes, is nearly as accomplished, with his record-breaking running sometimes distracting from his rapid improvement as a passer. His record as a starter is 21-3, and last season he was named M.V.P. after throwing for 36 touchdowns and running for seven more, setting a quarterback record with 1,206 rushing yards while averaging an incredible 6.9 yards a carry. The Ravens have not lost a regular-season game in nearly a year.
Like Mahomes, Jackson extends plays by scrambling in and out of the pocket, and he is unafraid to use his strong arm to fire passes into traffic, rarely making a mistake.
“This is the modern-day N.F.L. right here, the athletic quarterback who can still sling it around, be off schedule and creative, and make something out of nothing,” said Doug Flutie, who had a reputation for improvising in his two decades in the N.F.L. and the Canadian Football League. “They’re everything I tried to be as a quarterback. It’s so much fun to watch them.”
The emerging rivalry between Mahomes and Jackson is also the most significant matchup between marquee Black quarterbacks, a position that had been historically off-limits to nonwhites, in league history. There have been other showdowns between Black quarterbacks, including Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb. But neither of them was voted most valuable player or had such extraordinary success so early in his career.
And while there were 10 Black starting quarterbacks in Week 1 this season, including Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys, who faced each other for the fourth time on Sunday in a 38-31 Seattle win, Mahomes and Jackson have become the faces of the N.F.L., both on and off the field.
“These two guys are at the top of the chain,” said Warren Moon, the most prominent Black quarterback of his generation. “These guys are not just quarterbacks for their teams, they are getting heavy endorsements and they’re lending their voices to social justice causes.”
Lamar Jackson is often celebrated for his running, but he led the N.F.L. in touchdown passes last season, and rarely makes mistakes.Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Mahomes has gotten the better of Jackson in their two matchups, both of which were played at Kansas City. In December 2018, Mahomes and the Chiefs beat the Ravens in overtime, 27-24. Last season, also in Week 3, the Chiefs won again, 33-28, as the Ravens fell short in their attempt to overcome a 17-point deficit.
This time, the teams will meet in Baltimore, but without fans, perhaps diminishing the home field advantage for the Ravens.
“I don’t know how it’s going to feel,” Jackson said. “But it’s going to be an exciting game. The whole world is watching.”
Given their youth and because they play in the same conference, Mahomes and Jackson are likely to face each other many more times, just as Brady and Peyton Manning did for a decade and a half. That duo met 17 times, with Brady winning 11 of the matchups, but Manning won three of the five times he played Brady in the playoffs.
Assuming Jackson and Mahomes stay healthy — a big question, given the danger they put themselves in by moving out of the pocket so often — they are likely to become a fixture of the N.F.L. calendar.
“These guys will be able to play the game the way they want to for 10 or 12 years,” Flutie said.