The game within the game Saturday night in Buffalo is the matchup between Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen – two of the best and most unique young quarterbacks in the game.
The two share a connection as first-round quarterbacks from the 2018 NFL Draft. They also share a similar story of toppling their doubters. In part for that reason, they both really like each other.
Allen said he "roots heavily" for Jackson, at least when they're not squaring off.
"I tell this to everybody I talk to about him — he is one of the greatest dudes you can be around. He really is," Allen said Tuesday during his press conference. "For him to kind of have the adversity of coming out the first year and people doubted him, and then go out and explode on the scene last year and just be this dynamic quarterback. ... I root heavily for him, just knowing what he went through his first year, how he's been able to do it, and how humble, how awesome he is off the field. He's just one of those guys you root for."
Jackson returned the kind words Wednesday when asked about Allen.
"People are always just talking about Josh and his big arm, but he's doing it all out there," Jackson said. "He's getting out of the pocket, taking advantage of what the defense gives him, throwing the ball on a rope. He's slinging the ball like a Patrick Mahomes. He's helping his team out a lot. He's one of the key reasons they're putting up so many points and winning games. Hats off to Josh because he's been doing it since his rookie season."
The respect for each other goes beyond the players. As the Ravens entered the 2018 draft, they took a long look at all the quarterbacks. Allen was a strong-armed kid out of Wyoming, and Head Coach John Harbaugh was a fan.
"I watched him a lot, actually. He's a guy that most of us here really, really liked," Harbaugh said Monday. "Just the arm talent, the ability, the athleticism and the strength. He's just a big, strong guy.
"And then you heard about his story; I really liked his story and what he overcame to get to where he was at. He kind of came up the hard road and the underestimated road. I always kind of like those kinds of guys, for sure. I've had the chance to talk to him a few times outside of football, at least one time outside of football since he's been with the Bills. I just think he's a great guy, a tough competitor, man."
As everyone knows, the Ravens didn't end up taking Allen, but they did just fine anyway. The Bills traded up to grab Allen with the seventh-overall pick. The Ravens traded up to take Jackson at No. 32.
While the other first-round quarterbacks in that draft, Baker Mayfield (No. 1), Sam Darnold (No. 3) and Josh Rosen (No. 10) were considered more polished products, Jackson's effectiveness as a thrower and Allen's accuracy left big question marks as they entered the league. Now three years later, they've had the most success of the class.
Jackson took over as starter midway through his rookie season and rallied the Ravens into the playoffs. He was named the NFL's MVP in his second year and led Baltimore to a 14-2 regular-season record.
Allen threw more interceptions than touchdowns as a rookie and went 5-6 as a starter. He improved in his second year, getting the Bills into the playoffs, topping 3,000 passing yards and tossing 20 touchdowns to nine interceptions.
Jackson had the better first two seasons, but in their third year – well, the scales have been evened.
Allen made a quantum leap and is among the NFL's MVP candidates. His accuracy has been the biggest question mark, but his completion percentage jumped to 69.2 percent this year (fourth-best in the league). He heaved a whopping 37 touchdowns and finished with the fifth-most passing yards in the NFL (4,544).
Jackson's stats haven't been quite as big this season, but he still became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons and his late-season surge pushed Baltimore into the postseason.
Both quarterbacks have their own dual-threat style. Jackson is unlike any other before him with his ability to run. Allen may BE in a league of his own in terms of arm talent. One thing for sure is they're both dynamic.
Jackson and Allen each got their first playoff win over the weekend. And now they'll square off Saturday night in Buffalo in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
"I'm very excited about this Saturday night because you've got Lamar Jackson on one side and Josh Allen on the other side," said veteran NBC announcer Al Michaels.