Mahomes, Allen and Burrow: Browns' road to Super Bowl blocked by elite AFC quarterbacks

Mayfield eyeing return to his 'true self' after shoulder surgery (1:08)

Browns QB Baker Mayfield provides an update on his shoulder after having surgery. (1:08)

CLEVELAND -- Just a few days after undergoing surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left shoulder, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was back on social media Sunday night.

The Browns quarterback conspicuously liked this tweet from Cleveland sports talk radio host (and ESPN college football analyst) Dustin Fox:

Then, shortly after the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen finished off their quarterbacking masterpiece Sunday -- which thrillingly featured 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation followed by Mahomes’ game-ending touchdown pass in overtime -- Mayfield posted a pair of tweets himself, also referencing just how spectacular the quarterbacking has been these playoffs.

Whatever fans and, more importantly, the Browns think of Mayfield -- and whether the team truly believes he's primed to bounce back following a miserable, injury-riddled fourth season in the league -- this indisputable fact, reinforced over the weekend, looms over the franchise: the AFC is absolutely loaded with elite quarterbacks at perhaps the worst time possible for the Browns, whose championship window is now.

Defensive end Myles Garrett, running back Nick Chubb and cornerback Denzel Ward are entering the primes of their careers. And yet, for the foreseeable future, the road to Cleveland’s first Super Bowl appearance will have to go through Mahomes and/or Allen and/or Joe Burrow, who has propelled the Cincinnati Bengals into the AFC Championship Game in his second NFL season. The Ravens' Lamar Jackson, who was the NFL’s MVP two years ago, seems like an afterthought at this point in the AFC’s quarterbacking pantheon. And Chargers second-year quarterback Justin Herbert has the look of a future MVP himself.

The 2020 season did show that with Mayfield the Browns can be a playoff team. Mayfield finished 10th in QBR that season. And from Week 7 to Week 15, he was third in QBR, trailing only Mahomes and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Mayfield performed at a high level in the postseason, as well.

And still, Cleveland failed to defeat Kansas City, even after Mahomes had to leave the game with a concussion.

At 26-years-old, Mahomes is back to playing at an MVP level. And now, he has company.

Allen and Burrow are 25. Herbert, who finished third in QBR this season behind Rodgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, hasn’t even turned 24. Unlike in the NFC, where Drew Brees retired, and Rodgers and Brady might not be far behind, the AFC’s top gunslingers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

And as this past weekend showed, having a quarterback who can deliver a touchdown drive in the final minute -- or in Mahomes’ case, the final 13 seconds -- is what counts most in the postseason of this era of the NFL.

Despite their disappointing 8-9 finish this season, the Browns have a loaded roster that is the envy of much of the league. Garrett, Chubb and guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller are among the NFL's top players at their positions. Cleveland's running game is overpowering. The offensive line remains among the best. The defense made huge strides this year, notably in the secondary.

But that's no longer enough to make the Super Bowl in the AFC, where elite quarterback play doesn't just give you a chance, it's become the only hope.