The divisional weekend of the NFL playoffs is here, and Tom Brady is home after what may have been the final playoff game of his career. Aaron Rodgers didn’t appear in these playoffs, and who knows whether he has played his last game in Green Bay — or last game, period? Peyton and Eli Manning spent the season goofing on “Monday Night Football,” providing a mixture of insight and folly that seems perfect for two players who have settled comfortably and lucratively into retirement.
The playoffs now belong to Josh Allen and Joe Burrow, to Patrick Mahomes and Trevor Lawrence, to Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott and Daniel Jones and, yes, to Brock Purdy, too. The oldest starting quarterback who remains is 29 (Prescott). The players were drafted in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, two in 2020, 2021 and 2022. The baton has been passed. The next generation of NFL quarterbacks is here.
The reason to mention the whereabouts of the four aging — or flat-out old — quarterbacks is because their presence in this round of the playoffs has been darn near constant for the better part of two decades. Since 2003, one or more of Brady, Rodgers and the Mannings has appeared in the NFL’s second playoff weekend every single year. No breaks.
Indeed, of the 76 playoff games held in this round over those 19 seasons, 35 involved one or more of them. Twenty of the 38 conference championship games involved at least one, and seven times they beat each other at that stage. And a Super Bowl without Brady, Rodgers or a Manning in that span? Just four of 19.
The bottom line: If you turned on a divisional playoff game since 2003, there was a better chance you would have been watching Brady, Rodgers and/or a Manning than not. That’s a constant cast of characters with which the nation became intimately familiar. Their departure from the stage would seem a blow to the league. For television, the NFL is a ratings guarantee. But what’s “Seinfeld” without George or “Ted Lasso” without Ted?
Turns out the spinoff is going to be just fine — or better.
The matchups, beginning Saturday afternoon: Mahomes, already an MVP and a Super Bowl champion at age 27, and his Kansas City Chiefs against Lawrence, the first overall pick in 2021 who took a major leap forward in his sophomore campaign, and his Jacksonville Jaguars.
Hurts, a national champion at Alabama and a Heisman finalist at Oklahoma, and his top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles vs. Jones, the sixth pick in the 2019 draft who finally fulfilled his potential this season, and his New York Giants.
Sunday brings Allen, the seventh pick in the 2018 draft and an absolute star, and his Buffalo Bills vs. Burrow, the top pick in the 2020 draft who already took his team to the Super Bowl, and his Cincinnati Bengals. Finish it all off with Prescott, the 2016 rookie of the year, and his Dallas Cowboys vs. Purdy, the only one without pedigree but also — even as the final pick in the 2022 draft — the only one without a loss, and his San Francisco 49ers.
Not a dud in the bunch. The NFL is sports Teflon. Stars seem unique and irreplaceable — until they’re replaced by the newest version of what once was. It doesn’t mean this group is different. It does mean it’s capable of sustaining and growing what the legends built before them.
Consider, too, the cities these young men are representing. Jones and Hurts represent the first- and fourth-largest media markets in the country. But that doesn’t mean Giants at Eagles is the best matchup of the weekend.
Kansas City and Jacksonville are the 24th and 27th biggest media markets in the league, according to Sports Media Watch. Yet who isn’t intrigued by the idea of Mahomes, who has still never played a playoff game on the road, against Lawrence, fresh off a 27-point comeback against the Los Angeles Chargers in which he responded to his four interceptions with four touchdown passes?
There’s a good argument that Cincinnati at Buffalo is the most enticing matchup of the weekend. The Bengals went to the Super Bowl a year ago. Buffalo was favored to get there from the first snap of this season. The game will be colored by the interrupted meeting between the teams earlier this month, when Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field and underwent lifesaving CPR in front of his teammates and their opponents. Hamlin is back at the Bills’ training facility this week, so there is much to be thankful for. The game feels like unfinished business.
And then you get to Allen and Burrow, the main attraction. Does it matter that Buffalo is the second-smallest market (ahead of only Green Bay) in the league? Does it matter that Cincinnati is only four spots higher? It does not. Allen and Burrow are national stars on a national stage. The cities they represent are of utmost importance to the fans who grew up there and live there still. To a sporting nation that wants football for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and all the snacks in between, these teams could represent Wichita and Waukesha and people would watch. That’s so different from, say, baseball, where the brand-name teams — Yankees and Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox — matter so much more than whoever is wearing the uniform at the moment.
The Mannings have moved on. Rodgers and Brady will soon. The Mannings’ appearances on ESPN’s “Manningcast” can be riveting and smart. Rodgers opens up most frequently on the podcast of former NFL punter Pat McAfee. Brady already has signed on with Fox to be an analyst whenever he retires.
But all that star power from the former stars does not and will not overshadow what plays out on the field. The next generation of quarterbacks isn’t next. It’s now. Maybe in two decades, we will look back on a landscape and wonder when the last time a playoff weekend didn’t feature Mahomes or Lawrence or Burrow or Allen. We have them all right now — and more.