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Changing of the Guard in the AFC

A room filled with heroes – Dan Hanzus, Gregg Rosenthal, Marc Sessler and Chris Wesseling get you up to date with all the latest news around the league including the Browns introducing Odell Beckham Jr (5:00), the Raiders work out and dinner with top draft prospect Kyler Murray (11:22) and Sean McVay’s prank on Kliff Kingsbury (23:16). Could there be a changing of the guard in the AFC? (30:32). 

The AFC is on the verge of a forced swing toward parity. Over the past 15 years, only four quarterbacks have won the AFC championship and represented the conference in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger have each made at least three trips to the Super Bowl on behalf of the AFC. Joe Flacco rounds out the group with his one miraculous playoff run that included an all-time disastrous play from Raheem Moore to help the Baltimore Ravens advance through the postseason. 

What is more is that these four quarterbacks have often been battling each other for Super Bowl bids. 8 of the past 15 AFC championship games featured two of Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, or Flacco facing off against each other. Only 11 unique quarterbacks have even appeared in the AFC championship game. Compare that to the NFC, where 19 unique quarterbacks have played for the NFC championship and 13 unique quarterbacks have won it. There has been a much more defined power structure atop the AFC than in the NFC over the past decade and a half. 

The quartet of winning AFC quarterbacks is on its way out, though. Manning already started the exodus when he retired three years ago at the age of 39. After suffering a career-threatening neck injury in 2011, Manning was traded from the Colts to the Broncos, where he found a temporary fountain of youth and broke a number of passing records. After four successful seasons in Denver, Manning’s body finally gave out in 2015. Manning had so quickly deteriorated over the course of the 2015 offseason that the Broncos turned to Brock Osweiler for parts of the regular season. Oddly enough, the Broncos won the Super Bowl that season on the back of an all-time great defense, but Manning had run smack into the “wall” of old age that many quarterbacks fear and retired as a result. 

Brady is likely the next domino to fall. Now 41 years old, Brady is approaching nearly uncharted territory for players his age. Warren Moon (42) and Vinny Testaverde (44) are the only quarterbacks since the 1970 merger to start at least six games in a season at 42 years of age or older. Testaverde is an odd case of an unkillable journeyman quarterback whose career does not align with Brady’s. Moon, however, was a Hall of Fame passer who had helped define his era of quarterbacks and remained successful into his late 30’s. Moon made a Pro Bowl in 1997 at the age of 41 before falling off in his age 42 season, ultimately marking the end of his days as a starting quarterback. After spending the following two seasons as a backup, Moon retired after the 2000 season at the age of 44. Though Brady has had a more illustrious career and is a different style of passer than Moon, their careers are at least partially comparable as age-defying Hall of Famers. 

In addition to his almost unprecedented longevity, Brady has recently walked back some of his confidence that he can or will play until he is 45 years old. During an interview this summer with Oprah, Brady acknowledged that he thinks about retirement more than he used to in the past. Throughout the interview, Brady laced in introspective comments about his family life and experiences outside of football, which is uncharacteristic of someone who has appeared to have a one-track mind about football since entering the league. For once, there are real signs from Brady himself that retirement is on the way.

There is no telling how long Roethlisberger plans to keep playing either. Roethlisberger has always been one to throw out the possibility of retirement during the offseason, but he has become especially open about it over the past two years. He changed his tune when the team drafted Mason Rudolph in the second round this spring, but that only serves to cloud which sentiment from Roethlisberger is legitimate. Roethlisberger’s sudden willingness to continue playing also does not nullify his injury history, particularly in regards to concussions. Roethlisberger has three confirmed concussions on his record, one as recently as 2015, and went into concussion protocol last week after a scare in practice. Thankfully, results came back negative and Roethlisberger was cleared, but even a scare at this stage in his career should give him pause. After a certain point, Roethlisberger has to recognize the diminishing returns of furthering his career. 

Flacco is the only recent AFC champion whose team has made a clear effort to push him out of the building. Over the past three seasons, Flacco accrued 5.8 adjusted yards per attempt and a measly 52 passing touchdowns to 40 interceptions. Flacco has been neither efficient nor explosive and the team has suffered as a result. The Ravens posted a 20-22 record when Flacco was healthy over that three-year stretch, missing the playoffs in all three seasons. In response to Flacco’s replacement level play, the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson, an explosive runner and passer who serves as the perfect antithesis to Flacco. 

With all of the AFC’s winningest quarterbacks gone or on their way out, someone has to pick up the slack. Rookies and veterans alike will have a better chance at securing Super Bowl bids as the old guard falls by the wayside. The AFC is about to turn into the Wild Wild West. 

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Six AFC teams drafted a quarterback in the first round over the past two years. The Cleveland Browns’ selection of Baker Mayfield was the only one of those six selections which did not involve a trade to move up or back in the first round. 

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