BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. CHIEFS QB PATRICK MAHOMES
Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd calls it a modern day version of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham views it as a Hall of Fame Field of Dreams what-if matchup between Bengals artist Ken Anderson vs. Green Bay gunslinger Brett Favre. For statisticians everywhere, it is a top-five-all-you-can-eat buffet.
No matter your metaphor, Sunday at Paycor Stadium (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) is one of those games rare enough to save the ticket stub. In your phone or in a frame. Not only does it pit two of the best quarterbacks of their time, but it's a rematch of January's 15-round heavyweight fight in Kansas City that saw the Bengals outpoint the Chiefs in overtime to go to the Super Bowl.
OK, for those of a certain age, Ali-Frazier III. The Paycor Palpitation.
"This is what these guys play for," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who coached in two Manning-Brady AFC title games. "That's what we all grew up watching. Two juggernauts at quarterback. Two of the best offenses. Now we've got the best team in the AFC coming to our place in December. Hopefully they face each other for the next 15 years."
Mahomes comes to Paycor as a leading MVP candidate after the Bengals dealt him bitter red-zone disappointment at the end of both halves of the AFC title game. That was a month to the day after Burrow outpitched him at Paycor with 446 yards in Cincy's walk-off win. Now Mahomes returns leading the NFL in touchdown passes from all arm angles with 28 while Burrow, in second place with Buffalo's Josh Allen with 23, is starting to get his own rumblings for MVP with his CPA efficiency such a great foil for Mahomes' off-platform brilliance.
It's just the fourth time since 1975 (when another arm angle guy named Luis Tiant whirled through Cincinnati in the World Series) that there is a December matchup or later featuring the top two touchdown passers in the league. And the first since Atlanta's Bobby Hebert upset the 49ers' Steve Young in week 15 of 1993.
Mahomes has been The Grinch in December with a career record of 17-2. Make it 26 straight in November and December. Meanwhile, Burrow is the only quarterback to face Mahomes multiple times and emerge undefeated. Burrow's average of 348 yards and 117 passer rating are the best among the 16 quarterbacks facing Mahomes multiple times.
The gauntlet has been thrown.
For a completion, of course.
"He's the best right now," Burrow says of Mahomes. "He's been playing the best all year. It's fun to watch him play, he does it a lot of different ways. There haven't been a lot of people like him to come through the game."
As a Denver assistant and later Manning's quarterbacks coach, Callahan saw only one side of those Athens-Sparta clashes. He's only seen one in this Athens-Texas matchup, but he's glimpsed plenty of Manning and Burrow to chart the similarities.
"Super focused. Concentration. Preparation top notch as always," Callahan says. "When it came time to perform in a big moment, he performed. Yeah, very similar styles."
Burrow may not get the MVP buzz Bengals fans wish, but he's certainly getting it in his own building that is ruled by quarterbacks. Bengals president Mike Brown quarterbacked Dartmouth, director of player personnel Duke Tobin played the position at Illinois and Colorado and UCLA's Callahan assists head coach Zac Taylor, a record passer at Nebraska.
As Taylor says, Burrow "is the perfect quarterback for us.'
"Maybe he doesn't have the 70-yard bomb that Josh Allen has or the crazy no-look pass that Patrick Mahomes has," Callahan says. "But he's playing the quarterback position the way that you want the quarterback to play the position. And I think he's at a level that I think is as good as anybody in football right now.
"There's not much separation between (Mahomes), Allen, Burrow, Lamar (Jackson)."
When it comes to Burrow and Mahomes, Callahan thinks maybe the biggest trait they share "is an incredible ability to create. Different styles, but that same ability to generate plays."
Still, Callahan remembers that second half in Kansas City when Burrow did his best Mahomes and escaped two or three sacks to improv first downs.
"Mahomes will be more improvisational with the different arm angles and all that," Lapham says. "Joe can do that and does do that, but he doesn't make a living off it. Mahomes is unbelievable. His body one way, his arm another, his head another. How do you do that?"
If Burrow is hanging under the radar when they talk about the best quarterbacks in the league, Lapham has an idea why. Ken Anderson's road roommate played in the Anderson-Ken Stabler matchups of the '70s pitting the Bengals efficient engineer against the swashbuckling long-bombing Raider.
Stabler always seemed to get more ink. He won a Super Bowl and went to the Hall of Fame, but he also threw 24 more interceptions than touchdowns and won three fewer NFL passing titles than Anderson, a guy that had three more touchdown passes and 62 fewer interceptions than Stabler.
Same type of thing with Dan Fouts of the Chargers. He played in a wide-open offense breaking all kind of records and went to the Hall of Fame and even though Anderson beat him in the biggest game of their lives, the AFC title game 40 years before the one of Burrow and Mahomes, he's still waiting to get into Canton.
All Hall of Fame worthy, Lapham says. But some styles get more attention.
"It's not necessarily what they did, it's how they did it," Lapham says. "Kenny could throw the long ball as well as any of them. Master of mechanics. Impeccable. To a lot fans, it looks boring. Ho hum. It's expected. Methodical. Joe's in that category. I've drawn a lot of analogies between Kenny and Joe.- They play the quarterback position in much the same way. Patient. Take what they give you."
Then there's Buffalo's Allen, who is as big as almost anybody on the defense's front seven and wows with his running. Lamar Jackson, not as big, but arguably the greatest rushing quarterback of all-time and one of the flashiest.
"Mahomes has a howitzer. Allen has a howitzer," Lapham says of arm strength. "Burrow doesn't have a howitzer, but he's got a strong arm."
Lapham thinks the best comparison for Mahomes may be Favre with his deadly, high-wire act.
"They believe they can make every throw and they should because they can. They can fit it in there," Lapham says. "That gunslinger mentality. Different arm slots and all that stuff. But both those guys can also throw a ball that hits the defensive back right in the hands and they let him off the hook and drop it. Kenny would never think about doing that. But there are just different ways to be great."
Lapham looks at two categories that may best isolate the differences between the styles of Burrow and Mahomes. Third down and fourth quarter. On third down, Burrow has thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions, Mahomes eight and four. In the fourth quarter, Burrow has eight touchdowns and one pick while Mahomes has four and five, respectively.
"Those are the money areas for the quarterback and his numbers are staggering," Lapham says. "Burrow reminds me of Kenny and Mahomes' talents are more like Favre."
Which are bountiful.
"He has a lot of different ways to beat you," Burrow says, "with his legs, he can do it outside of the pocket, inside the pocket. He can do it down the field, with the quick game. Just the total package."
And every package has a few different gifts.