The A.F.C. was already where the fresh-faced cool kids hung out: Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson.
If the N.F.L. were a high school cafeteria, the A.F.C. table would be the popular one. Maybe they would let Gardner Minshew or Baker Mayfield stop by occasionally. (The quiet presence in the corner is brilliant but brooding Billy Belichick.)
They went directly to the A.F.C. cool kids’ table.
The N.F.L. is separated into two conferences but there are no rules of operation that make the A.F.C. and N.F.C. divergent. In modern times at least, they have not philosophically favored certain kinds of players. Sometimes a roster’s strengths or weaknesses dictate a draft choice or it comes down to the coincidence of which players are available. But, however you cut it, when the brightest lights were on in this year’s N.F.L. draft, the already loaded A.F.C. snapped up the flashiest rising talent.
“It’s crazy, they all seem to be landing in the A.F.C.,” said Boomer Esiason, a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback who is now an N.F.L. analyst for CBS Sports. “And it’s not just quarterbacks. What I love is how the A.F.C. West is surging at all the skill positions.”
In the A.F.C. West, the Las Vegas Raiders drafted the speedy Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and the Denver Broncos took Ruggs’s deft, productive wide receiving colleague at Alabama, Jerry Jeudy. The Kansas City Chiefs selected versatile L.S.U. running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the only player in the history of the Southeastern Conference to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 55 passes in a single season. The Oregon quarterback Herbert went to the Los Angeles Chargers. That’s a lot of added firepower for a division with the Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champion.
Before this goes too far, let’s acknowledge that the hottest team in the N.F.L. in terms of eyeballs, story lines and star power is the N.F.C.’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the new home of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
New England’s two expatriates are hardly the only N.F.C. players with appeal and top-line talent. At quarterback alone, New Orleans has Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers remains in Green Bay and Russell Wilson is still in Seattle. Add Brady, and the average age of that group is also 37.5.
Mahomes, Jackson, Watson, Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert, and Buffalo’s Josh Allen and the Jets’ Sam Darnold, are all between 22 and 24 years old.
Yes, the N.F.C. also has quarterbacks Kyler Murray, 22, Jared Goff, 25, Dak Prescott, 26, Jimmy Garoppolo, 28, and Carson Wentz, 27. But except for Murray, who is on a dreadful, losing team (Arizona Cardinals), does anyone in that group compel fans to tune into their games just to see what will happen when the football is in their hands? Not really, because the N.F.L. is a quarterback league and watching that position has always been the attraction.
In today’s N.F.L., the ball thankfully no longer gets handed off to a running back on 75 percent of plays. What happens next is the game’s allure. In the past two seasons, players like Mahomes, Jackson and Watson have made it hard to turn away because we might be awed by what comes next.
Of course, the eternal, national allure of Prescott’s Dallas Cowboys will not dissipate. Garoppolo’s San Francisco 49ers vaulted to the Super Bowl last season. Goff’s Los Angeles Rams are in a big market, as is the Giants second-year quarterback Daniel Jones. N.F.L. fans are hearty and do not desert their hometown teams.
But the A.F.C. is capturing the glitz, style and pioneering spirit of a new generation of players.
Asked if a similar imbalance had occurred in N.F.L. seasons in the Super Bowl era, Esiason recalled the mid-1980s when he played quarterback in the A.F.C. along with Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts and Warren Moon. All of them, except for Esiason, are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It felt like every week we were playing some established quarterback who was always leading his team up and down the field,” said Esiason, who was the 1988 N.F.L. Most Valuable Player.
As a chasm appears to be opening between the conferences again, it’s easy to wonder what the A.F.C. is doing differently than the N.F.C. Before Kansas City drafted Mahomes in 2017, N.F.C. teams like San Francisco and Chicago, both needing quarterbacks, took other players. In 2018, Jackson sat with his mother in the green room and watched 31 teams decline to draft him before the Ravens traded up to select him with the last pick of the first round. The draft is nothing if not fickle.
“I don’t think it’s any one thing, if anything it’s luck,” Esiason said. “If Cincinnati doesn’t have the worst season in the league and Burrow doesn’t have the best season in college football, they don’t come together with the first pick of the draft this year.
“If Tagovailoa doesn’t injure his hip late last year maybe he doesn’t fall to Miami. It’s just the way things have broke for the A.F.C. They’re in a great place.”
It’s called the cool kids table.