CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It's "Lovey Dovey" vs. "Minshew Mania."
The Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars feature one of the most improbable early-season matchups of 2019, one that has taken on added significance because of the improbable early success of their young quarterbacks.
Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen -- good-naturedly nicknamed "Lovey Dovey" by Cam Newton because of Allen's social media posts with his girlfriend -- is 2-0 since Newton aggravated a Lisfranc injury on his left foot in Week 1. With a victory Sunday, he would become the first undrafted quarterback since 1999 (Kurt Warner) to win his first four starts.
Gardner Minshew has sparked "Minshew Mania" in Jacksonville after leading the Jaguars to a 2-1 record since starter Nick Foles broke his collarbone in the season opener. Fans have become captivated by Minshew's 1970s-style mustache and headband, in addition to his carefree attitude.
The 23-year-old quarterbacks have made winning look easy in a season in which backups have a combined record of 9-6, including 4-1 last week. Of the 20 quarterbacks drafted in the sixth round or later or who went undrafted, and started at least three games within their first two seasons since 2000, they are among a group of only seven with winning records during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
In that group is New England’s Tom Brady, who went 2-1 in his first three starts after replacing Drew Bledsoe in 2001.
So as easy as Allen and Minshew have made winning look, looks can be deceiving. And both have no guarantees of staying power.
Outside of Brady, the career success of those on the list isn’t impressive. Marc Bulger, who won his first three starts for the St. Louis Rams in 2001, had a career record of 41-54.
Trevor Siemian, who began 3-0 for Denver in 2016, has a 13-12 record and is a backup for the New York Jets. Matt Moore, who began the 2007 season at Carolina with a 2-1 record, is 15-15 and a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs. He knows it isn't easy to do what Allen and Minshew are doing.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, I’m just going to execute the play that’s called,'" Moore said. “But it’s difficult."
The reasons Allen and Minshew have made this transition seamless are similar. They both have star running backs who reduce the number of must-pass situations. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey leads the league in rushing with 411 yards. Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette is third with 404.
They both also play behind solid defenses -- Carolina ranks fourth overall and is tied first in sacks; Jacksonville ranks 18th and is tied for sixth in sacks.
The running backs, in particular, help because they create more effective play-action situations to keep defenses guessing. As a result, Allen has six touchdown passes and no interceptions in his three starts. He has completed 67.8% of his passes, far better than the 57.4 by Brady in 2001.
Minshew has five touchdown passes and no picks. He has completed 69.4% of his passes, higher than Brady (62.1) this season.
“If you can’t run the football when you’re a young quarterback, the onus is on you to make great throws and great decisions in the passing game," said former Carolina backup Derek Anderson, who was 0-3 in his first three starts in 2006 after being a sixth-round pick by the Cleveland Browns a year earlier. “A young guy is going to struggle most of the time.
“If you can run play-action and run the ball, most guys are going to play well."
Bulger had Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk anchor his running game and the seventh-ranked defense. Brady had 1,000-yard rusher Antowain Smith and the league’s sixth-ranked defense.
Because of the personnel around Allen and Minshew, Anderson believes they are set up for success. He has also seen careers destroyed by having to play early, and he’s keeping an eye on what the Washington Redskins do with rookie Dwayne Haskins, the 15th pick.
“In Washington, their line is terrible," said Anderson, who made the Pro Bowl in his second season. “You put Haskins in there, who clearly is not ready to play, and he’s going to struggle and you have those bad war wounds.
“A situation like Kyle has, he can give it to Christian. And if the line plays well and protects him, he makes the plays when they come."
In terms of personality, Allen and Minshew are opposites. Minshew reached rock-star status so fast that the Jaguars are offering a package of tickets called the “Minshew Mini Pack."
There are officially licensed “Minshew Mania" T-shirts. Minshew's jersey sales rank among the top 10 league-wide since his first victory on Sept. 19.
Panthers outside linebacker/defensive end Bruce Irvin referred to Minshew simply as “the mustache guy."
“He’s got a certain swag about him," he said.
Irvin said Allen has a swag about him, as well. But outside of his "Lovey Dovey" nickname, which prompts some teammates to make a heart shape with their hands after the quarterback makes a big play, Allen is relatively invisible in Charlotte.
“I’m pretty unnoticeable. I look at lot like the rest of the people in this room," he told a group of reporters.
Allen, just like Minshew, is getting noticed for his success. And both are focused on continuing that, not nicknames and slogans.
“A win for the Panthers," Allen said when asked to match “Minshew Mania" in terms of a slogan. “How about that?"