Only one round of playoff football stands between the NFL’s final four contenders and a trip to Super Bowl LVIII, which will kick off Feb. 11 on CBS, Nickelodeon and Paramount+. Two of the league’s top quarterbacks, meanwhile, will go head-to-head in the AFC Championship, with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson headlining a marquee matchup of conference heavyweights.
How did the star signal-callers get to this point? Who has the advantage going into the AFC title game? Here’s a full breakdown:
How are the QBs built? How did their careers begin? And how do they play the game? Let’s take a look:
2017 draft (1.10)
2018 draft (1.32)
Mahomes and Jackson entered the NFL within a year of each other, both widely viewed as dynamic but unpolished projects upon arrival. Neither QB necessarily possesses prototypical height for the position, and yet both have compensated for that shortcoming with unmatched athleticism, quickly emerging as premier playmakers.
Mahomes, who threw a league-leading 50 touchdowns in his first season as a starter, often appears as if he’s playing another sport entirely, pairing unpredictable arm angles with a knack for clutch and creative decision-making. His unique brand of reliable off-script heroism has put him on a Hall of Fame trajectory before the age of 30, making him the heart of an aspiring dynasty.
Jackson’s physical tools rival those of Mahomes, as evidenced by a Year 2 breakout that included 36 passing TDs and 1,200 rushing yards. Like his Chiefs counterpart, he won NFL MVP in his first year as a starter. He’s been banged up more, with dips in passing efficiency, but at peak speed, with an effortless rocket of an arm, he’s arguably the NFL’s top dual threat.
Both QBs notably had the benefit of joining established organizations to start their careers; the Chiefs were a playoff team with veteran Alex Smith at QB when Mahomes was drafted, and the Ravens had a similar status with Joe Flacco. But both teams have also been far more explosive, thanks to their unteachable traits, setting the stage for a high-octane showdown this postseason.
Let’s start with their 2023 regular-season production:
Jackson was clearly the more efficient of the two QBs in 2023, which is a dramatic reversal of the norm for both signal-callers. The Ravens QB was always a fearsome scrambler, capable of scoring any time he reached the open field, but he improved as a decision-maker from the pocket under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, threading the needle in key situations. Mahomes, meanwhile, has settled in as of late, justifying belief with another calm and collected postseason start, but he struggled to develop chemistry with a rotating cast of characters at wide receiver for much of 2023, sometimes pressing to force downfield plays for a dominant-turned-sluggish offense. It’s a credit to Mahomes, though, that even his ugliest numbers register as serviceable.
Now let’s expand our view to each QB’s career numbers:
This is where we can clearly see the disparity in both reliability and skill sets. Mahomes isn’t averse to moving the chains on the ground, and, in fact, probably remains something of an underrated scrambler, usually saving some of his best runs for pivotal moments. But he often uses his legs instead to set up something downfield, or “play” his receivers open. And it shows in his prolific passing marks; in just six years as a starter, he already ranks No. 39 among career passing-TD leaders of all time. His career passer rating, meanwhile, is the second best in NFL history, behind only future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers.
Jackson’s also had tremendous success through the air, sporting one of the best career TD:INT ratios of all time. It’s just that almost 25% of his total yards come on the ground, where he trails only Michael Vick, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson in all-time rushing yards by a QB. Whether such a dependence on rushing is sustainable in terms of playoff results, well, that’s up for debate. But Jackson’s regular-season record shouldn’t be lost in the equation, either. In the end, both of these QBs — supremely gifted, but in different ways — have proven to be steady winners, shepherding different kinds of offenses to multiple postseason bids.
The playoff resumes
How have the QBs fared in the postseason during their career? Have a look:
Pitting Mahomes against anyone in this exercise is unfair. It speaks to the all-world status of both his Chiefs setup — which has touted elite weapons like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, plus All-Pro defenders like Chris Jones and a future Hall of Fame coach in Andy Reid — and his natural feel for the bright lights. Simply put, Mahomes and the Chiefs are the modern equivalent of Tom Brady and the Patriots, who forged a multigenerational dynasty, never to be counted out when it mattered most.
Keep in mind that one of Jackson’s five playoff starts came as a rookie, when he had just seven other NFL starts under his belt. That game, a one-score loss to the Chargers in 2018, preceded a march to the AFC’s No. 1 seed in 2019. Even so, it’s true that Jackson is trying to shed the narrative that his special talent has not translated to big-game results. He has seven turnovers in just five playoff appearances, which rings loud in light of Mahomes totaling just eight in 11 (!) more postseason games.
To Jackson’s credit, the Ravens QB is coming off easily the most impressive playoff appearance of his career, a 34-10 rout of the Texans in which he completed 72.7% of his throws, scored four times and hit 100 yards on the ground, all while controlling the ball.
Facts to know
Worth every penny: Jackson is, so far, living up to the hype that came with a record five-year, $260 million contract extension he signed with Baltimore last April. The deal is scheduled to keep him with the Ravens through 2027.Matchup history: Jackson and Mahomes have met four times in their careers, with the Chiefs going 3-1 in those games. Jackson’s lone victory, however, came when Baltimore was the home team, which will again be the case on Sunday.Playoff brilliance: Mahomes is one playoff win shy of tying NFL legends Peyton Manning, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw for the third most by a QB in league history. And he doesn’t turn 29 until September 2024.
Jackson has a chance to totally rewrite the notion he’s not “ready” for the elite status afforded other top QBs who’ve seen regular-season firepower result in postseason stardom. He’s certainly one of, if not the, closest QB to rival Mahomes in terms of sheer one-man difference-making at the position. But it’s pretty clear that Mahomes enters the AFC Championship with the advantage, just because of his experience and historic playoff reputation. He is, again, the Brady of his time. And while Jackson and the Ravens are talented enough to unseat the defending champions, until that happens, No. 15 is the safer bet.