This year’s AFC and NFC Championship games might need to come with opening credits.
Fans aren’t used to this cast of characters, each of whom plays a distinct role.
First there’s The Phenom: Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the 24-year-old prodigy who has already won an MVP award. Mahomes has the Chiefs in the AFC Championship in back-to-back years for the first time in the team’s 60-year history.
He’ll be facing The Journeyman: Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was tossed aside by Miami last offseason after seven disappointing seasons. Tannehill has shown the most improbable improvement in years, finishing with a 117.5 passer rating, fourth-best in NFL history, and will play in his first conference championship game this Sunday.
On the NFC side is The Kid: 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who will play in just his second career playoff game. After sitting patiently behind Tom Brady for four years, and suffering a torn ACL last year, Garoppolo finally gets his first chance to start a conference championship game.
He’ll be squaring off against The Future Hall of Famer: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers, 36, is 1-2 in his career in the NFC Championship, and his teammates badly want to win him a second Super Bowl before his time runs out.
“I do appreciate that,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “There is a feeling, I think, when you’re younger and there’s some older guys on the squad who are on the back half of their career and wanting to get that ring for them.
“It was important to get that for those guys because just how much I knew it meant to them late in their career.”
This year’s championship games are unusual in that many of the usual actors are staying home.
Tom Brady and the Patriots aren’t playing in the AFC Championship for the first time in nine years. In fact, the Chiefs-Titans showdown will be the first AFC title game in 17 years to not feature Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger.
In the NFC, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, and Jared Goff will all be sitting at home.
“Things have a way of working out,” Garoppolo said. “I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, the ACL and everything. This ride is crazy. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
The AFC Championship game will feature two diametrically opposite quarterbacks. Mahomes, the second-youngest MVP in NFL history last year, is arguably the league’s greatest passer right now. He has the strongest arm, makes the most jaw-dropping throws, and is perfectly fine with throwing the ball 40 times per game.
The Chiefs erased a 24-0 deficit last week against the Texans and won by 20. Probably no other quarterback in the league could pull that off.
Mahomes will look to avenge a 35-32 loss to the Titans in Week 10, which was his first game back from a knee injury.
Despite his youth, Mahomes has experience in the AFC Championship game, losing a heartbreaker to the Patriots last year, 37-31, in overtime. He said the experience taught him a lot.
“I think just trying to prepare for everything. That’s the big thing,” he said. “Last year, they caught us a little off-guard with the coverages they played in the game and we made adjustments and were able to score points later in the game. But you want to make sure you are just preparing for anything.”
Tannehill, meanwhile, is at his best when he’s throwing the ball 15-20 times per game and letting running back Derrick Henry carry the load. The Titans have pulled off two huge upsets in the playoffs, knocking off the No. 1 defense (Patriots) and No. 1 offense (Ravens), and have done it with Tannehill throwing just 29 total passes.
But Tannehill certainly can throw when he has to. This season he became just the third quarterback in NFL history to complete 70 percent of his passes and average more than 9.0 yards per attempt, joining Sammy Baugh and Joe Montana.
“Being a quarterback, obviously I love throwing the ball,” he said. “But I just want to win.”
No one, probably even Tannehill himself, expected him to be starting the AFC Championship game. The Dolphins had had enough of him, and the Titans kept him on the bench behind Marcus Mariota for the first six weeks of the season. With the Titans languishing at 2-4 and averaging 16 points per game, they finally turned to Tannehill, who went 7-3 and helped them average 30 points per game.
“You don’t want to come in guns blazing, and shake the boat too much,” Tannehill said. “I got to kind of be a fly on the wall for a few weeks there and just see how guys operated, how they responded to adversity, to positive things, and just really learn about them from afar while getting to know them on a personal level.”
The NFC game features one quarterback who might not get this far again, and another who may become a mainstay.
Rodgers, who has lost his last two conference championship games, may have to light up the scoreboard Sunday. The 49ers beat the Packers, 37-8, back in Week 12.
But Rodgers has developed into more of a game manager. His completion percentage (62.0) and passer rating (95.4) were among the lowest of his career, and in the Packers’ current 7-1 stretch, he only has one game with more than 250 passing yards. He also has just four interceptions all season, in 596 pass attempts.
“My job is different year to year, and it’s about being efficient and taking care of the football and making the right checks,” he said. “The last six weeks, I’ve felt really locked in on the preparation, and I think that’s helped us on offense to really be on the same page.”
His counterpart Sunday, Garoppolo, hopes to become a regular in these big games like Brady, his former mentor. Garoppolo’s impact on the 49ers is undeniable: Since the start of 2017, the 49ers are 4-20 without him, and 20-5 with him. Garoppolo gets criticized for being a game manager and coasting on the backs of his defense and run game, but it can’t be a coincidence that the 49ers are in the conference championship game in his first full season as a starter.
“That’s just how this world works,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. ‘”We ran the ball last week, so a lot of people are going to say that Jimmy didn’t do enough.
“I think we’ve shown that we can win a number of ways, and I know Jimmy doesn’t care how we win it. A lot of guys say that it doesn’t bother them, but I promise it doesn’t bother him. I’ve never had to call him in and talk to him about it; he’s so locked into whatever the plan is or whatever we’re doing, and he’s just trying to distribute the ball.”
The Phenom vs. the Journeyman, and The Kid vs. The Future Hall of Famer. Certainly not the matchups anyone expected when the season began.