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Mahomes will rule the AFC but NFC’s future at QB is fuzzy

Good luck for the rest of the decade, AFC.

On Sunday night, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes made it very clear that he isn’t your run-of-the-mill franchise quarterback. He’s a generational talent who already has an MVP award and Super Bowl championship before the age 25. ESPN’s Trey Wingo had this stat: Mahomes is 5-0 when trailing trailing by double digits this season — including three times in the playoffs. Hall of Famer Kurt Warner went 2-for-46 when down double digits.

Mahomes is now carrying the torch for a conference that had an extreme lack of parity over the last two decades. Since 2000, only Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco had represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. Even with QBs like Houston’s DeShaun Watson and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson as up-and-coming superstars, it’s hard to see Mahomes being anything short of relevant in the postseason for years to come.

The NFC is a totally different story. Despite the presence of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, the NFC has seen all sorts of quarterbacks make the Super Bowl over the last two decades. The last 10 QBs to make The Big Game in the NFC are: Jimmy Garoppolo, Jared Goff, Nick Foles, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning, Rex Grossman and Donovan McNabb. And figuring out who the next 10 will be is a difficult task with uncertainty about how good many of the QBs are, how much longer some will play and who will be under center for some teams.

The Minnesota Vikings will have to decide whether to sign Kirk Cousins to a contract extension. If they elect to sign him to an extension, that will put the Vikings in the middle of a fascinating group of players who — aside from Russell Wilson — rely on team strength to dictate their success rather than them making everyone better like Mahomes.

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The last two NFC Super Bowl QBs Garoppolo and Goff were each able to post impressive numbers during the regular season with brilliant play callers and outstanding supporting casts but came up short to Brady and Mahomes when push came to shove. The same can be said about Ryan and Newton, who lost to Brady and Manning.

Looking forward, Garoppolo and Goff have both flashed the ability to play at a high level. Jimmy G has a 21-5 regular season record and Goff went 24-7 between 2016 and 2017 but neither overwhelmed with their talent. This year PFF ranked the 49ers’ quarterback 11th among QBs with at least 375 attempts and last year Goff was eighth (and 13th in 2016).

Wilson was No. 1 by PFF’s metrics this year but will need a much better supporting cast to bring his back to the Super Bowl.

Elsewhere there are question marks on top of question marks. Can Aaron  Rodgers win 13 games again at age 36? Can Carson Wentz stay healthy and has his supporting cast faded? Will Kyler Murray or Daniel Jones or Dwayne Haskins take the next step and become serious threats? Is Drew Brees going to give it another shot? Who is playing QB for the up-and-coming Bucs? Will Cam Newton ever return to his 2015 self? Are the Cowboys going to pay Dak Prescott? Will Matt Ryan play long enough to see another good team around him? How much longer is Matt Stafford going to be in Detroit? Will the Bears look elsewhere for a QB rather than keeping Mitch Trubisky?

The NFC feels very much up for grabs. Will the Vikings look at the landscape and see an opportunity for Cousins to repeat what Garoppolo and Goff have done the last two years or as a message that they will need to have someone more dynamic in order to compete for the Super Bowl?

One thing the last three NFC Super Bowl teams had going for them was lack of spending at the QB position. Even with a Garoppolo signing a significant deal, 13 teams spent more at QB than the 49ers and the Rams paid out just $8.7 million at quarterback in 2018. The Eagles spent $7.9 at QB in 2017. If the Vikings keep Cousins that will put them among the highest spenders for years to come. In 2019 they had the fourth highest amount of cap space dedicated to QB.

The Vikings are hardly the only NFC team in the QB cap conundrum. The Rams will have $36 million dedicated to QB in 2020, Seattle $31 million, San Francisco $28 million, Atlanta $28 million and Green Bay $22 million (all numbers per OverTheCap).

With no Brady-Manning-Roethlisberger-Mahomes level quarterback in the NFC, we might see a marry-go-round of teams who manage the cap well, draft well, have creative play callers and get a little luck (like the Rams vs. New Orleans in 2018) be the ones to represent the conference.

Whether that means the Vikings will try to be the most clever of those teams while working around a huge QB contract or if they take the Chiefs’ route in drafting another QB despite having a expensive-but-solid player at the position will be one of the toughest calls the franchise has had to make since…well…the last time they had to decide on a QB in 2018.

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