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The Titans were the NFL's breakout stars a year ago and entered the AFC Championship Game with something to prove. They were riding a 9-3 run against the spread behind the historically efficient play of Ryan Tannehill, who took a backseat in the playoffs as Derrick Henry tore through the Patriots and Ravens to set up a semifinal matchup with the Chiefs.
When it was Tannehill's time to shine, he came up short. He posted one of his least efficient showings of the season in his first-ever conference championship appearance, as Kansas City rolled to the Super Bowl behind the steady play of Patrick Mahomes. It was a similar story for Mahomes in his debut title game a year prior, and for the long line of quarterbacks before him.
Since the NFL changed its playoff format ahead of the 2002 season, 10 signal-callers have reached the AFC Championship Game for the first time. Those quarterbacks went 0-10 straight up and 2-8 ATS, losing by an average of 13.1 points per contest. The last quarterback to win their AFC title debut was Tom Brady during the 2001 campaign. Brady has since crushed the dreams of six first-timers in the last two decades.
This year, Josh Allen has played at an MVP level to carry the Bills (+3) to Sunday's matchup with the Chiefs, who are making their third consecutive title game appearance. The dynamic of Sunday's contest obviously changes if Mahomes can't play, though the challenge remains for Allen in his first-ever AFC Championship Game. Can he reverse the daunting trend of first-time quarterbacks in this spot?
The AFC has been the conference of dynasties and all-time great passers for the better part of two decades. Since the 2003 season, every single AFC title game has featured one of Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, or Mahomes, and only one quarterback (Joe Flacco) has outdueled that group to reach the Super Bowl.
None have done so on their first try. Here's a list of every quarterback since the 2002 campaign who made his first AFC championship appearance and how his team fared in that matchup:
|2019||Ryan Tannehill||Titans (+7.5) at Chiefs||24-35||L/L|
|2018||Patrick Mahomes||Chiefs (-3) vs. Patriots||31-37||L/L|
|2017||Blake Bortles||Jaguars (+7.5) at Patriots||20-24||L/W|
|2014||Andrew Luck||Colts (+7) at Patriots||7-45||L/L|
|2009||Mark Sanchez||Jets (+8.5) at Colts||17-30||L/L|
|2008||Joe Flacco||Ravens (+6) at Steelers||14-23||L/L|
|2007||Philip Rivers||Chargers (+14.5) at Patriots||12-21||L/W|
|2005||Jake Plummer||Broncos (-3.5) vs. Steelers||17-34||L/L|
|2004||Ben Roethlisberger||Steelers (+3) vs. Patriots||27-41||L/L|
|2003||Peyton Manning||Colts (+4) vs. Patriots||14-24||L/L|
Two of those quarterbacks were coming off MVP seasons. Two were favored, four were at home. None of it mattered. Only Philip Rivers and Blake Bortles managed an ATS win by squeaking out close losses as big underdogs. Eight of those passers lost by at least nine points, and all 10 lost by at least four - which would spell an ATS loss for the Bills if that trend continues Sunday.
Yes, every one of those quarterbacks had to face one of Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, or Mahomes in their conference title debut, but that alone doesn't justify the record of the first-time challengers. Those four have gone a combined 8-1 ATS in the AFC title game against quarterbacks making their first appearance. They're a lackluster 6-9 ATS against all other passers in the championship game, and only Manning has a winning record in such contests.
Those four all-time greats also don't explain the newcomers' struggles on the big stage. The 10 aforementioned signal-callers averaged 221.8 passing yards in their conference title debuts with a combined 12 touchdown throws, 17 interceptions, and six fumbles. Only two of them completed more than 60% of their passes in the semifinals, and six of them threw multiple picks.
Allen has been on a tear this year, ranking in the top five in passing yards (4,544), touchdowns (37), and first downs (228) en route to a likely top-three finish in MVP voting. Still, he's struggled in two of his three career postseason games and has been contained in two career contests against the Chiefs.
Truthfully, it's hard to know how Allen will look in the biggest game of his career. Manning won the MVP in 2003 and was on fire in the playoffs before wilting in his first conference championship game. Roethlisberger (2004) and Rivers (2007) threw multiple picks in their debuts. It's up to Allen to rewrite that narrative in a favorable matchup Sunday - unless the AFC title jitters get to him.
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.