As one half of the broadcast duo that will call Sunday’s game for CBS, Romo has a vested interest in hyping the matchup, but he’s not alone in suggesting Mahomes vs. Brady will be the greatest QB showdown in Super Bowl history. At the very least, it’s in the conversation.
“With all due respect to [John] Elway and [Joe] Montana, this is the best,” Pablo Torre said last week on ESPN’s “Around the Horn.”
“It’s tough to beat this one, just because of the stakes and the story lines,” NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt said on the “Rich Eisen Show.”
“This is the best quarterback matchup in Super Bowl history,” Mike Greenberg said on ESPN’s “Get Up,” and co-hosts Dan Graziano, Domonique Foxworth and Ryan Clark all concurred.
Recency bias? Perhaps. But Sunday marks the first time the winning quarterbacks from the previous two Super Bowls have squared off. Furthermore, it features a matchup between the greatest quarterback of all-time in the 43-year-old Brady and the only player who could conceivably challenge him for that title if — and it’s a colossal if — the 25-year-old Mahomes continues at his current career trajectory.
On the other hand, this matchup might one day look different with the benefit of hindsight. Mahomes and Brady weren’t even the top two passers in their respective conferences this season, with Mahomes ranking second in the AFC in passer rating behind Deshaun Watson and Brady fifth in the NFC. Brady is a few years removed from his prime and there’s no Chiefs-Bucs rivalry to speak of, all factors that play into any subjective ranking of the best Super Bowl quarterback duels.
One of the NFL’s foremost historians, Joe Horrigan, is careful not to discount the quarterbacks of yesteryear despite the greater emphasis on the position today.
“The game has evolved from 1966 to the present in unimaginable ways,” Horrigan, who retired from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019 after a 42-year career, said in a phone interview. “In the Dolphins’ undefeated  season, Bob Griese threw the ball 11 times in the Super Bowl. He was considered the greatest field general of his day, so it’s kind of hard to put values on that. … We’ve seen quarterbacks throw for 300 yards and lose, which used to be unheard of. It is a different game. The historian in me, I never want to lose the appreciation for those who threw for 120 yards and won a game.”
John Turney, the NFL historian behind Pro Football Journal, said Mahomes vs. Brady would probably rank among his top 10 Super Bowl quarterback matchups, but he rattled off several others that rate higher in his mind, at least before this game’s kickoff.
“The first Super Bowl was pretty compelling with Bart Starr and Len Dawson,” Turney said in a phone interview. “They were both the MVPs of their respective leagues and led their respective leagues in passing. No one knew they would be Hall of Famers, but they had both won championships before and were the faces of their leagues. That was a pretty marquee matchup.”
Also worth considering, according to Turney: Super Bowl VI after the 1971 season, a showdown between Griese and the Dallas Cowboys’ Roger Staubach, the top two quarterbacks in the league; and the rematch between Staubach and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw after the 1978 season, which is still the only Super Bowl matchup featuring two quarterbacks who had won multiple championships.
“They had met before and it was a close game,” Turney said of Staubach and Bradshaw. “There was a great rivalry. That’s definitely way, way up there, and I think ahead of Mahomes and Brady. But Montana and Marino might still be No. 1. Here’s a guy [in Marino], in his second year, setting all the passing records vs. Montana, who had already won a Super Bowl and was only in his fifth year” as a starter.
Horrigan also ranks Marino vs. Montana and Bradshaw vs. Staubach among the most compelling Super Bowl quarterback matchups. He sees some Montana-like swagger in Mahomes and compared Brady to a modern-day Otto Graham, who won seven titles in 10 seasons with the Cleveland Browns.
“It’s always an interesting debate, and it’s very difficult to compare them,” Horrigan said.
We tried anyway. Our methodology, which is inspired by how Bill James determined the greatest baseball pitching duels of all time, relies on three elements: one to assess the quality of the two quarterbacks’ careers, one to assess how well they played in the season leading up to their Super Bowl meeting and one to measure their performance in the championship game itself. (See below for a more detailed explanation.)
The full list is skewed heavily toward more recent matchups, with seven of the top 10 games taking place this century, though the top 25 features at least one Super Bowl from every decade. Mahomes’s and Brady’s games scores for this season were calculated through the conference championship round. (Mahomes hasn’t played enough seasons to qualify for the Hall of Fame monitor, so we took the liberty of assuming that he will have at least as good a chance of being enshrined as the recently retired Philip Rivers by the end of his career.)
The bottom 10 includes some expected names, including Trent Dilfer vs. Kerry Collins, Joe Flacco vs. Colin Kaepernick and Tony Eason vs. Jim McMahon. But this particular methodology, with no regard for narratives or one’s visceral reaction to Matt Ryan, seems to underrate classic matchups such as the rematches between Staubach and Bradshaw (No. 15) and Jim Kelly and Troy Aikman (No. 30).
The numbers also suggest Brady vs. Mahomes will rank among the classics and could even move higher if Mahomes goes on to have a spectacular career and both quarterbacks play well Sunday. But check back in 20, 30, 40, 50 years to see how this list — and Romo’s prediction — holds up.
1. Super Bowl XLIV: Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning (2010)
Two future Hall of Famers in the prime of their careers met in a game sealed by, of all things, an interception return for a touchdown by the Saints. Brees was the NFL’s top-rated quarterback during the regular season, completing 71 percent of his passes for 4,338 yards, 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Manning was no slouch, passing for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading the Colts to an NFL-best 14-2 record and earning his fourth MVP award.
2. Super Bowl LI: Tom Brady vs. Matt Ryan (2017)
Yes, we were surprised to see Ryan’s name here, too, but this game marked only the fifth time in Super Bowl history that the league’s two highest-rated passers squared off. Ryan had an outstanding season, winning the MVP award after throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. Brady boasted a 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio during the regular season and then helped the Patriots overcome a 28-3 deficit to capture his fifth title.
3. Super Bowl LV: Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes (2021)
Brady threw for 40 touchdowns, his most since 2007, in his first season with Tampa Bay and is eyeing his seventh ring in his 10th Super Bowl appearance. Mahomes earned his third straight Pro Bowl nod after throwing for 4,740 yards and 38 touchdowns and will become the first quarterback to start two Super Bowls at age 25 or younger. A Chiefs win would leave him only four Lombardi Trophies shy of Brady.
4. Super Bowl XIX: Dan Marino vs. Joe Montana (1985)
For one of the first times in Super Bowl history, the focus was primarily on the quarterbacks when the 15-1 49ers and 14-2 Dolphins met at Stanford Stadium. Marino broke numerous single-season passing records in his second year, including touchdowns (48) and yards (5,084). But Montana outdueled Marino on the biggest stage, passing for 331 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-16 win. Marino never made it back to the Super Bowl.
5. Super Bowl XLVI: Tom Brady vs. Eli Manning (2012)
Four years after Manning and the Giants spoiled the Patriots’ bid for a perfect season, he and Brady met in a Super Bowl rematch. Brady threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns in the regular season, while Manning had a career year, throwing for a franchise record 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns. Manning’s Giants got the best of Brady in the Super Bowl again, with running back Ahmad Bradshaw scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute.
6. Super Bowl XXXII: John Elway vs. Brett Favre (1998)
The 28-year-old Favre won his third consecutive MVP award after throwing an NFL-high 35 touchdown passes and leading the defending champion Packers to a 13-3 record. Elway was in the twilight of his career, but the 37-year-old earned a Pro Bowl nod after throwing for 3,635 yards and 27 touchdowns. Elway passed for only 123 yards in the Super Bowl, but he set up a Terrell Davis touchdown run with a memorable third-down scramble in the third quarter and won his first title in four tries.
7. Super Bowl XLIX: Tom Brady vs. Russell Wilson (2015)
After leading the Seahawks to a championship in his second season, Wilson took them back to the Super Bowl the following year. Brady guided the Patriots to a 12-4 mark and was named to his 10th Pro Bowl after passing for 4,109 yards and 33 touchdowns. The game was a back-and-forth classic, with Malcolm Butler’s interception of a Wilson pass at the goal line in the final minute preserving the Patriots’ 28-24 win.
8. Super Bowl XXIV: John Elway vs. Joe Montana (1990)
The game was a dud, with Montana’s 49ers cruising to a 55-10 rout, but the quarterback matchup was among the best ever. Elway had a subpar regular season, throwing 18 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions, but he still made his third Super Bowl appearance before the age of 30. Montana posted the highest single-season quarterback rating in NFL history and earned MVP honors before throwing for a then-Super Bowl record five touchdowns to claim his fourth and final title in as many appearances.
9. Super Bowl XLV: Aaron Rodgers vs. Ben Roethlisberger (2011)
Roethlisberger, who already had two Super Bowl titles to his name, threw for 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns after being suspended for the first four games. In his third year as the starter in Green Bay, Rodgers threw for 3,922 yards and 28 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions. The Super Bowl was a thriller, with Rodgers throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-25 Packers win.
10. Super Bowl XXXVI: Tom Brady vs. Kurt Warner (2002)
The Patriots were 14-point underdogs to the Rams in Brady’s first Super Bowl appearance, which receives a boost in these rankings for everything he has accomplished since as well as his Hall of Fame counterpart. With a Super Bowl title already under his belt, Warner had another strong season for the “Greatest Show on Turf.” He won his second MVP award after throwing for 4,830 yards and 36 touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions in the Super Bowl, which New England won on a field goal by Adam Vinatieri as time expired.
11. Super Bowl XLVIII: Peyton Manning vs. Russell Wilson (2014)
12. Super Bowl XLII: Tom Brady vs. Eli Manning (2008)
13. Super Bowl XVI: Ken Anderson vs. Joe Montana (1982)
14. Super Bowl XXXIX: Tom Brady vs. Donovan McNabb (2005)
15. Super Bowl XIII: Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach (1979)
16. Super Bowl XLIII: Ben Roethlisberger vs. Kurt Warner (2009)
17. Super Bowl XI: Ken Stabler vs. Fran Tarkenton (1977)
18. Super Bowl 50: Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton (2016)
19. Super Bowl X: Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach (1976)
20. Super Bowl XXIII: Boomer Esiason vs. Joe Montana (1989)
21. Super Bowl XXXI: Drew Bledsoe vs. Brett Favre (1997)
22. Super Bowl XXI: John Elway vs. Phil Simms (1987)
23. Super Bowl I: Len Dawson vs. Bart Starr (1967)
24. Super Bowl VIII: Bob Griese vs. Fran Tarkenton (1974)
25. Super Bowl IX: Terry Bradshaw vs. Fran Tarkenton (1975)
26. Super Bowl XXXIV: Steve McNair vs. Kurt Warner (2000)
27. Super Bowl VI: Bob Griese vs. Roger Staubach (1972)
28. Super Bowl XXVII: Troy Aikman vs. Jim Kelly (1993)
29. Super Bowl II: Daryle Lamonica vs. Bart Starr (1968)
30. Super Bowl XXVIII: Troy Aikman vs. Jim Kelly (1994)
31. Super Bowl XXXIII: Chris Chandler vs. John Elway (1999)
32. Super Bowl XL: Matt Hasselbeck vs. Ben Roethlisberger (2006)
33. Super Bowl XVIII: Jim Plunkett vs. Joe Theismann (1984)
34. Super Bowl V: Craig Morton vs. Johnny Unitas (1971)
35. Super Bowl III: Earl Morrall vs. Joe Namath (1969)
36. Super Bowl XXXVII: Rich Gannon vs. Brad Johnson (2003)
37. Super Bowl XXII: John Elway vs. Doug Williams (1988)
38. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Tom Brady vs. Jake Delhomme (2004)
39. Super Bowl LIV: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Patrick Mahomes (2020)
40. Super Bowl XII: Craig Morton vs. Roger Staubach (1978)
41. Super Bowl XV: Ron Jaworski vs. Jim Plunkett (1981)
42. Super Bowl XXVI: Jim Kelly vs. Mark Rypien (1992)
43. Super Bowl LII: Tom Brady vs. Nick Foles (2018)
44. Super Bowl LIII: Tom Brady vs. Jared Goff (2019)
45. Super Bowl VII: Bob Griese vs. Billy Kilmer (1973)
46. Super Bowl XXX: Troy Aikman vs. Neil O’Donnell (1996)
47. Super Bowl XXIX: Stan Humphries vs. Steve Young (1995)
48. Super Bowl XXV: Jeff Hostetler vs. Jim Kelly (1991)
49. Super Bowl XXXV: Kerry Collins vs. Trent Dilfer (2001)
50. Super Bowl XLVII: Joe Flacco vs. Colin Kaepernick (2013)
51. Super Bowl XIV: Terry Bradshaw vs. Vince Ferragamo (1980)
52. Super Bowl XVII: Joe Theismann vs. David Woodley (1983)
53. Super Bowl XX: Tony Eason vs. Jim McMahon (1986)
54. Super Bowl IV: Len Dawson vs. Joe Kapp (1970)
55. Super Bowl XLI: Rex Grossman vs. Peyton Manning (2007)
To assess the quality of the starting quarterbacks, we converted Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor — a metric designed to estimate a player’s chances of making the Pro Football Hall of Fame using Doug Drinen’s approximate value, Pro Bowls, all-pros, championships and various numerical milestones — to a scale of 0 to 100. The higher the number, the better the starting quarterback. To gauge the performance of those quarterbacks in the season leading up to and including the Super Bowl we turned to Richie Wohlers’s quarterback game score, another modification to a James formula used for pitchers.
Once we had those three numbers for each of the starting Super Bowl quarterbacks, we averaged them together using the harmonic mean rather than a simple average. This method prioritizes Super Bowl matchups of two quality passers over games featuring one dominating quarterback who propped up an inferior foe. This is perhaps best illustrated by our worst-rated matchup: Peyton Manning vs. Rex Grossman in 2007. While Manning had a terrific season and was in the prime of his career, Grossman was the league’s 24th-rated passer that year and didn’t have much individual success before or after his only Super Bowl appearance.