Three of the best quarterbacks in NFL history will take the field for Divisional Round weekend, each with a different narrative surrounding him.
Patrick Mahomes is participating in the first road playoff game of his career on Sunday. He is Michael Jordan in 1993 and 1998, having to rely on his own greatness like never before. Josh Allen has overcome a turnover-laden season to finally have a shot at Mahomes on his frigid homefield. The road to the AFC Championship goes through Baltimore for the second time in Lamar Jackson’s career, and he will be looking to add a deep playoff run to his NFL resume.
As great as these three players are, without some big plays from their pass catchers — even in winter weather — they likely will not advance to conference-championship Sunday. Even though the connection between Allen and Stefon Diggs has been off lately, that has not stopped the Bills from rolling to six consecutive victories.
At least Diggs’ team knows what they are getting from their veteran star if he takes the field. The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs are going to need rookie wideouts Zay Flowers and Rashee Rice to apply pressure to the opposing defense, or their offenses will be idling in the freezing temps.
Rice played the best game of his rookie season when the Chiefs needed it most. In only the second wild-card game of the Mahomes era, Rice notched the record for the most receptions and yards in a playoff game by a rookie wide receiver. Most of the time Rice had the ball in his hands on Saturday night, he spent it running past opposing defenders. Unlike Rice, Flowers was a first-round draft pick, and the Chiefs were doing the best they could find a hidden gem, while the Ravens believed from the start that they had found one capable of grabbing a Super Bowl ring.
Flowers had an up-and-down season early, but that was not all his fault. The whole team was adjusting to Todd Monken’s offense. On third and 17, Jackson hit Flowers for a touchdown, and he showed off his elusiveness during the Ravens’ big Christmas Day win against the San Francisco 49ers. His only 100-yard receiving game of the season was that day against the Dolphins, and 75 of those came on a single touchdown catch.
In the hard salary cap world of the NFL, rookies have to grow up quickly. For teams like the Ravens and Chiefs, they need players who can bulldoze their way through early-season errors so a great team can be constructed by winter. The big-name quarterbacks will get most of the attention, headlines, social media posts, praise and scorn this weekend. Their narratives will dominate the coverage and the actual game, but a standout chapter from Rice and Flowers might be just the push their teams to get past this weekend, and to a conference championship matchup.