The 2020 rookie quarterback class was loaded. Even Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who hadn’t even left college yet, was an electric storyline from the NFL’s first quarterback snap of this season.
Somewhere behind that collective Champagne pop for the next generation, Tom Brady emerged as the aging “all-in” gamble of a hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise. And further north, Aaron Rodgers absorbed the Green Bay Packers spending a first-round draft pick on a player who is being groomed to eventually take his job. On Sunday, Brady or Rodgers is going to advance from the NFC title game with a shot to break up an NFL party that seems to be trying hard to rage on without them. Regardless of whether the AFC title game produces the Kansas City Chiefs and Mahomes or the Buffalo Bills and Allen, the quarterback storyline is set.
It’s then versus now, with Brady or Rodgers representing the final gasps of a golden era, and Mahomes or Allen repping a budding era of “everything” quarterbacks.
Youth against wisdom.
Porsche 911s against diversified 401ks.
Decades of big-game experience against big bodies, bigger arms and crazy off-script plays.
And without a doubt, the senior heads of state are absolutely here for it. Say what you want about their different paths to the NFC title game — from Rodgers’ searing MVP campaign to Brady’s statistical chef’s kiss suddenly buoyed by a defense — both are defiantly representing themselves as two of the league’s greatest quarterbacks right now. Mahomes might be the league’s centerpiece and defending Super Bowl champ, and Allen might be the early favorite for next season’s league MVP, but Rodgers and Brady are vying for the head of the table when this season is over. If only to prove that the baton isn’t going to be a handoff as much as an alley fight.
There’s some bitterness in that pursuit. Don’t kid yourself about either first-ballot Hall of Famer still feeling like he has something to prove about where they reside in the game. Especially after Brady had his awkwardly empty breakup with the New England Patriots and Rodgers experienced another needle jab of a personnel department that continues to chart a course without him. Both have accomplished too much to let themselves be pushed aside, either by the franchises each raised up on their shoulders or the league that is leaning hard into the next wave of multifaceted talents at the position.
After all, it’s not like Brady and Rodgers don’t see what is happening around them. The lights are steadily being turned out on many of the contemporaries who helped define them over the past two decades, with Peyton Manning’s retirement in 2016 signaling a two-minute warning for arguably the league’s greatest “same era” collection of quarterbacks. Eli Manning followed in 2019. Drew Brees will likely hang it up this offseason, with Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers deep into the winter of their careers as well. That’s a group of players who define the top 10s of virtually every single important statistical measure of quarterbacks, not to mention the Super Bowl wins brought to the table by the Manning brothers, Roethlisberger and Brees. What’s interesting about this NFC title game is that it can’t be assumed that this is the last hurrah for either Brady or Rodgers. Both insist they are pressing on into 2021.
That’s certainly not a surprise for Rodgers, who looked arguably as dominant this season as any in his 16-year career. It was a campaign in which he not only declared (before the season had ended) that he believed he was the league’s MVP, but then backed it up with what amounted to perfection down the stretch. Lest anyone forget, Rodgers is a young 37 years old when compared to the 43-year-old Brady — and the Packers quarterback has reiterated several times that he wants to play into his 40s. Given how his 2020 season has unfolded, that seems less like a goal and more like a certainty.
He’s not alone, either. Brady is already planning to return to the Buccaneers next season and reportedly says Year 2 in Tampa will be the apex. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has gone on the record as saying he will be back in 2021, too, and wideout Antonio Brown has said repeatedly he’d like to continue playing with the Buccaneers quarterback. While it’s crazy to think Brady could be a better player kicking off camp at 44, it’s worth noting that he may have a more normal offseason than his last one, including an offseason passing program where vital parts of the offense get fine-tuned.
Neither Rodgers nor Brady is leaving. The NFC title game isn’t some grand sendoff. If anything, it’s a prologue to next season, when the teams around them should be even better. And that gives both even more motivation to treat the next three weeks as an opportunity. It’s not just to add more frosting to their already-rich resumes, but to also send a message to anyone and everyone that their era isn’t as over as we might have expected five months ago.
Of course, the Super Bowl will be the ultimate referendum for the advancing quarterback. But Sunday’s NFC title game at Lambeau Field maintains its significance. Brady is coming in with an absurd 32 postseason wins and nine conference title game appearances in his last 10 seasons. And Rodgers has outplayed all comers over the course of the season, including Mahomes, Allen and every other quarterback spinning it in 2020.
Age or not, this is still a battle of titanic proportions, exceeded only by the size of the middle finger delivered by the matchup, sending a message that if the next era of dynamic quarterbacks is ready to own the league, one of them is still going to have to prove it against an ageless wonder in February.
More from Yahoo Sports: