We know a lot about Patrick Mahomes, budding superstar NFL quarterback. Just not as much as we will know, perhaps soon.
We know he’s been downright awesome in his second NFL season and first as a starter, joining Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to throw 50 touchdown passes in a single season. We know he throws the best no-look pass since Larry Bird. We know he has a good nature, a great hairdo, and a voice like Kermit the Frog.
We might even know that his dad, Pat, had a 6.85 ERA in two seasons as a Red Sox relief pitcher. Maybe he should have been a quarterback too.
What we don’t know, as he prepares to take on Brady and the Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, is whether he’s ready for this moment. He was very good in the Chiefs’ thumping of the Colts in the divisional round, but for the first time since Week 4 he did not throw a touchdown pass, and in fact it was just the third game this season that he did not throw multiple touchdown passes. We don’t know how he will fare in cold weather, or in assorted other circumstances presented in the playoffs.
To put it another way: This will be his 19th NFL start. This will be Brady’s 39th postseason start. We know all there is to know about Brady. Mahomes is a revelation, but one not yet fully revealed.
Mahomes will be the eighth different quarterback to duel Brady in an AFC Championship game. His career is ahead of him, but Sunday will bring a clue on how he might ultimately rate among them. There’s a chance that someday Mahomes will be the second-best Brady has ever faced under those particular stakes.
Here’s how the quarterbacks to oppose Brady in his 12 AFC Championship games rank, best to worst, with a look at each of the Patriots’ previous dozen conference title matchups of this era.
January 18, 2004: Patriots 24, Colts 14
Manning has joked through the years that he should be the one to introduce Ty Law when the great cornerback is eventually elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Law was a player who showed up in the biggest moments, and many of his highlights came at Manning’s expense, never more so than in the 2003 AFC title game. Manning threw four interceptions – three to Law – and just one touchdown pass. Colts receivers yowled after the game about the Patriots getting away with illegal contact over and over again. That offseason, the NFL rules committee, led by Colts GM Bill Polian, made enforcing the illegal contact penalty a priority. The Colts remained soft.
January 21, 2007: Colts 38, Patriots 34
The one all the Manning fans had been waiting for, and probably weren’t sure would ever come. He threw just one touchdown pass (a 1-yarder to ex-Patriot Dan Klecko) but also ran for one in leading the Colts to a rally from a 21-6 halftime deficit. There’s little doubt that this would have been the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl win in six years had they been able to fend off the Colts. Instead, Manning got his first ring by beating the outclassed Bears in the Super Bowl.
January 19, 2014: Broncos 26, Patriots 16
Manning was annoyingly spectacular, using his enviable arsenal of weapons to complete 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. Julias Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker combined for 20 catches for 293 yards, while Wes Welker had four catches and wiped out Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib in a play that enraged Belichick. Brady’s top target was Julian Edelman, who had 10 catches on 15 targets but wasn’t yet the force he would become.
January 20th, 2016: Broncos 20, Patriots 18
Wait, what? Manning beat the Patriots in three of four AFC Championship game showdowns? How can that be? It’s actually true, though the Broncos ferocious defense carried him in this one, pummeling Brady. Manning, who had long since lost his fastball by this point, still had his command, completing 17 of 32 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, both to tight end Owen Daniels, who scorched Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins in coverage. Manning didn’t throw many true spirals, but he didn’t throw an interception, either. (Side note: This was the game in which Brady took some grief for targeting James White 16 times, completing just 5. White wasn’t quite ready for prime time then, but he sure would get there.)
January 23, 2005: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
The Patriots’ victory over the Chargers Sunday reminded me of this game more than any of the 37 previous playoff games Brady had played prior to last weekend. The Patriots jumped to a huge lead (24-3 at the half) and led comfortably the entire way (they were up 31-10 midway through the third quarter), and the final score was not indicative of what a thumping it was. Rookie Roethlisberger threw for 224 yards and three interceptions in his second career playoff start, including one Rodney Harrison returned 87 yards for a touchdown in the first half.
January 22, 2017: Patriots 36, Steelers 17
Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls, and he’s going to make the Hall of Fame someday, but it is a mark against him that his Steelers never beat the Patriots in a postseason game. He had decent numbers in this one (31-47, 314 yards, 1 TD, 1 pick), but Brady was spectacular (32-42, 384, 3 TDs), and the Patriots put the Steelers away by outscoring them 16-0 in the third quarter.
January 20, 2008: Patriots 21, Chargers 12
The Patriots stayed perfect at 18-0, grinding out the win over a beaten-up Chargers team. Rivers played like he had a torn MCL – probably because he did — finishing 19 of 37 for 211 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Probably yelled like a madman at a lot of people, too.
January 22, 2012: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
I wouldn’t call it an elite performance, per se, but Flacco did outplay Brady, finishing 22 of 36 for 306 yards, with two touchdowns, an interception and a 95.4 rating. (Brady was also 22 of 36, but for 239 yards, with two picks, no touchdowns, and a Losman-like 57.5 rating.) Flacco would have had a third touchdown pass, but Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore pried the ball loose from Ravens receiver Lee Evans in what would have been a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute. This one began the ongoing streak of eight straight AFC title game appearances by the Patriots.
January 20, 2013: Ravens 28, Patriots 13
Flacco completed 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards, no interceptions, and three touchdown passes, including two to Anquan Boldin (how did that guy never play for the Patriots?) in the fourth quarter. A 106.2 quarterback rating? OK, that’s elite.
January 18, 2015: Patriots 45, Colts 7
It would be known as the game that sparked Deflategate, but in real time the only thing that was obviously deflated was Luck’s confidence. The Patriots held him to 12 completions in 33 attempts and 126 passing yards, picked him off twice, and the Colts’ lone touchdown came when someone named Zulon Tipton ran in from a yard out in the second quarter. He’ll be higher on this list someday if he stays healthy.
Jan. 27, 2002: Patriots 24, Steelers 17
Stewart, whom you may remember as Slash, spent the week filling up the Patriots’ bulletin boards by cockily talking about the logistics of the Steelers’ inevitable trip to New Orleans, where Super Bowl XXXVI would be played. He then went out and assured the Steelers wouldn’t get there by throwing three interceptions (to Tebucky Jones, Terrell Buckley, and Lawyer Milloy) and putting up a 45.2 quarterback rating. He wasn’t even the second-best quarterback in the game, for this was the scene of Drew Bledsoe’s redemptive last stand – he threw the lone touchdown pass after replacing an injured Brady in the second quarter.
Jan. 21, 2018: Patriots 24, Jaguars 20
Bortles! He’s become a recurring punchline on NBC’s brilliant The Good Place, but he was no joke in this one. Bortles completed 23 of 36 passes for 293 yard and a touchdown, didn’t commit a turnover, and staked the Jaguars to a 20-10 early in the fourth quarter. But it was clear the Jaguars didn’t trust him, going super-conservative with their offense, and Brady seized the moment, hitting Danny Amendola with two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.