Sunday night's AFC Championship Game was a glimpse into the future of the conference, a battle between a pair of immensely talented young quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills. I wrote earlier in the week that we could be looking at the beginning of the next great rivalry at the NFL's most important position.
Instead of a back-and-forth duel between a pair of young gunslingers, we were treated to the starkest of reminders that while Allen and the Bills are an ascending young team, the Chiefs are the best team not only in the AFC but also in the NFL.
And Mahomes is the gold standard at quarterback—by a sizable margin.
The certainty regarding that last statement had been a bit cloudy in recent weeks. Over the past two months or so, it can be argued that Allen has played just as well as Mahomes—and perhaps even a little better. Their statistics in the regular season were close to identical. Allen posted a slightly better completion percentage, while Mahomes had about 200 more passing yards and one more touchdown pass in one less game.
As Mike Florio wrote for Pro Football Talk before the game, some in league circles believed Allen had reached Mahomes' level.
"Most would say that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes currently is the best in the game. Some who know the game and who study it carefully are wondering whether Bills quarterback Josh Allen has caught up with Mahomes.
"[Chris] Simms and I separately have been hearing talk along those lines based on Allen’s incredible improvement in 2020. And the point often made is this: There’s a difference when it comes to seeing Allen perform in person.
"Size, speed, mobility, accuracy. Incredible velocity when he throws. Uncanny ability to sprint one way and throw the other."
Add in that Mahomes came into the game with turf toe after suffering a concussion in last week's win over the Cleveland Browns, and there were murmurs that this could be Allen's time to shine.
As it turns out, those murmurs came from Fantasy Island.
To be fair, Allen didn't necessarily play poorly. He threw for 287 yards and two scores and helped guide the Bills to an early 9-0 lead.
But then reality kicked in, and the league's best quarterback got to work.
When Mahomes hit Mecole Hardman from three yards out early in the second quarter to help cut the lead to 9-7, it marked the beginning of an onslaught that would see the Chiefs score on six of seven drives. The only "drive" that didn't result in points was when Mahomes took a knee at the close of the first half.
When Mahomes hit Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce for his third touchdown throw of the game early in the final quarter, Kansas City had a three-possession lead and the game was essentially over.
Mahomes' toe may have bothered him a bit at times—he limped about on a few occasions. But it certainly didn't hamper his play. At the close of Kansas City's 38-24 victory, Mahomes was 29-of-38 for 325 yards and three scores. His passer rating was a robust 127.6, and he averaged a beefy 8.6 yards per attempt.
He didn't care that Christmas was a month ago—Mahomes carved up a Buffalo defense that had no answer all game like the Grinch on a prime cut of roast beast.
Predictably, while accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy as AFC champs (again) on the CBS telecast, Mahomes was quick to credit his teammates.
"[The key to the win] was just trust in each other," he said. "The best thing about this team is we believe in each other, and every single time we hit the field we leave everything we have. But the job's not finished. We're going to Tampa, and we're gonna try to run it back."
In fairness, Mahomes wasn't a one-man show Sunday night. Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill both had huge games, combining for 22 catches, 290 yards and two touchdowns. The Kansas City defense sacked Allen four times and limited the Bills to five third-down conversions on 14 attempts.
But if the Chiefs are going to down Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in two weeks in Tampa to become the first repeat Super Bowl champions since Brady's New England Patriots of 2003 and 2004, it's going to take another great game from Mahomes.
The smart money should be on that happening, at least if the first four years of his professional career are any indication.
Those numbers are just staggering. And they don't even tell the whole story. Mahomes is now 44-9 as the starter for the Chiefs. In his second season, he became the second quarterback in league history to throw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in the same campaign. He has already been named the MVP of both the NFL and the Super Bowl. His only playoff loss was in overtime against the greatest quarterback in league history (Brady) in a contest where the Chiefs never got a possession in overtime.
Oh, and he won't turn 26 until after the 2021 season has started. Mahomes is incredibly accurate. Capable of making throws with ease that most other quarterbacks wouldn't even comprehend attempting. There are times that the 10-year, $450 million megadeal he signed last year looks like a bargain.
In many ways, it's fitting that Mahomes will have to get past Brady to lock in the Chiefs as the next true NFL dynasty. Brady was at the helm of the last great dynasty in New England, and he's widely regarded as the best to ever play the position.
That the pair have split four previous meetings is just icing on the cake.
As great as Mahomes has been to date, it's going to be a while before he challenges the Golden Boy for the title of GOAT, although a win against Brady in the Super Bowl will narrow the gap.
Ten Super Bowl appearances and six rings is a resume that's hard to top.
But Sunday evening, Mahomes served notice that we need to knock it off with comparisons about who the best is right now. Allen hasn't caught up. Neither has Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. As great as veterans like Seattle's Russell Wilson and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers are, Mahomes has surpassed them. Quickly.
Patrick Lavon Mahomes II is the best quarterback in the National Football League.
And it's not close.