The NFL is on doorstep of new quarterback hierarchy

There was a passing of the torch in the NFL this weekend, an unexpected but significant occurrence that could usher the league into a new era of quarterbacks.

A cynic might describe the transition as “out with old and in with the new.” But what’s evolving before our eyes is the next generation of quarterbacks proving their worth by making their mark in the playoffs.

This season’s divisional round doesn’t have many of the familiar names that have starred in the recent past. Tom Brady, 42, and the Patriots made an early exit, raising speculation his Hall of Fame career in New England could be over. Drew Brees, who turns 41 this month, and the Saints saw their season come to an abrupt end by losing at home in overtime against the Vikings.

Meanwhile, Philip Rivers, 38, (Chargers) and Matt Ryan, 34, (Falcons) couldn’t get their teams into the playoffs; Eli Manning, 39, lost his starting job with the Giants; and Ben Roethlisberger, 37, played in just two games before his season ended with an injury.

Those familiar names are spectators now, clearing the way for a younger collection of quarterbacks trying to create its own playoff legacies. If the future hasn’t arrived, it’s certainly pounding the door, especially in the AFC, where Pat Mahomes, 24, leads the Chiefs against Deshaun Watson, 24, and the Texans in Kansas City, while Lamar Jackson, 22, and the Ravens take on Ryan Tannehill, 31, and the Titans in Baltimore.

Jackson is likely to be named the league’s MVP after leading the NFL in touchdown passes (36) and setting a quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards. The unstoppable offensive force led the Ravens to a 14-2 record and the top seed in the AFC. That’s all good, but Jackson is determined to atone for a poor showing in his first playoff start a year ago that ended in a 23-17 loss to the Chargers.

“All the accolades and stuff like that, I’ll cherish at another time. I’m chasing something else right now,” Jackson said recently, adding, “I’m a lot more confident than last year. I’m not a rookie anymore. I’ve been around and seen everything they can bring at me. I’ve just got to keep playing ball.”

Jackson will have to get past the Titans, who were energized when Tannehill saved the season, taking over for Marcus Mariota. Tannehill has gotten plenty of help from running back Derrick Henry, but might be counted on to do more against the Ravens.

Sunday’s game in Green Bay features two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in Seattle’s Russell Wilson, 31, and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, 36. They are in their primes for quarterbacks, but seem ancient among the group.

The winner there will face either Jimmy Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins. Garoppolo, 28, is making his first playoff start for the 49ers against Cousins, 31, who won his first playoff game Sunday as the Vikings beating Brees and the Saints.

Watson versus Mahomes, the MVP a year ago, should be a treat, two dynamic quarterbacks who can find exciting ways to put points on the board. Watson ran for one touchdown and threw for another to rally the Texans from 16 points down to beat the Bills 22-19 in overtime Saturday for his first playoff win.

“When I play the game I don’t look at the scoreboard, I just keep fighting,” Watson said. “You’ve got to be gritty and have the guts to keep pushing and do what you need to do.”

Garoppolo is fulfilling the potential the 49ers envisioned when they acquired him from the Patriots in 2017. He guided the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” he said. “It’s a great step to win the NFC West. But now the real tournament starts. We’ve got a great mentality. Guys are ready for this.”

The NFL is ready for this.

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