DENVER — Buckle up. We are about to encounter a seismic shift in the National Football League. One of a magnitude we haven’t seen in at least 20 years.

Allow me to explain.

May 2, 1999, is a day known to Broncos fans as the day John Elway retired. But to the NFL, it was much more than that.

You see, while it may not have been entirely clear then, Elway’s retirement was the end of an era, the perfect conclusion to the run of dominance by the top quarterbacks of the 80s and 90s. Even though he wasn’t the last to retire, Elway was the last of his kind to appear in a Super Bowl.

Brett Favre never made it to the big stage again, nor did Troy Aikman, nor did Steve Young. Dan Marino’s disappointing drought continued. Joe Montana was gone, and so was Jim Kelly. Arguably the greatest era of quarterbacks—at the time—had seen their run come to a legendary close, a two-year stretch of dominance by one of the last to be crowned.

What happened next, though, is why we are here today.

Without much of a warning at all, the path to the top of the NFL mountain cleared in a big way. Over the course of the next four seasons, seven quarterbacks played in their first Super Bowl. The Winners of Super Bowls 34, 35, 36 and 37 were all first-time winners with ages ranging from 24 to 34.

One of those first-time winners berthed the next great sports dynasty and ushered us into a new generation of NFL quarterbacks. His name is Tom Brady, and although he’s the only one of those then-first time winners to win another championship after the four-year window of opportunity, he has now appeared in a total of eight Super Bowls and won a total of five.

The “new era” has seen Peyton Manning appear in four Super Bowls, Ben Roethlisberger appear in three, Eli Manning appear in two and fellow future Hall of Famers Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers each appear in one.

What do all of these quarterbacks have in common? Well, for starters they will all be at least 35 years old during the next NFL season. Since 1980, only four quarterbacks over the age of 35 have won a Super Bowl.

We also know that most of them, really aside from Rodgers—who we’ll address later—are on the back end of their career, if not already retired. Outside of Brady and Peyton, the last of the bonafide “greats” to make or win a Super Bowl was Eli Manning in 2012.

Here’s what it boils down to—it’s fair to assume that in the next five years, the next window of opportunity is going to open up again. Even more intriguing is that in the AFC, it could be even sooner.

It’s fair to say that Roethlisberger is almost done, he’s already mulled retirement and eventually the software that powers Tom Brady’s robotic body is going to crash. After that, who holds the quarterback power in the AFC? The answer is literally no one.

Andrew Luck? Eh. Deshaun Watson? Maybe. Derek Carr? No thanks.

I’ve argued against the idea in the past, but upon further thought, I’ve realized the best reason to sign Kirk Cousins is that he can walk into the AFC and instantly be in the discussion to be the third-best quarterback in the conference. He’ll also have the ability to move up to No. 1 the second Brady and Roethlisberger are gone. That’s intriguing, to say the least.

After 14 of 15 seasons with the same three quarterbacks (Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger) representing the AFC in the Super Bowl, suddenly it will be the NFC with the power structure in place. With Aaron Rodgers being the youngest of the current dominant quarterbacks and Russell Wilson being the only “young” quarterback to play in the Super Bowl twice. Add in a strong core of proven veterans like Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Matt Stafford and finally a rapidly-emerging crop of young guns featuring Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garrapolo, Jared Goff and Dak Prescott.

The NFC is ready for the shift; the AFC is not.

Over the last 10 years, the average age of a starting quarterback in the big game has been 31.5. Kirk Cousins is currently 29, setting him up perfectly to hit the money age right around the time the current regime plays their final games.

$30 million is a whole lot of money, and there’s no guarantee Cousins has what it takes to reach the mountaintop, but there has not been a better time in the last 20 years to take a big risk on a quarterback.

A seismic shift is coming, and AFC teams should be doing everything they can to prepare for the quake.

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Ryan Koenigsberg
Author

Ryan D. Koenigsberg, was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, and is the Vice President of Content Strategy and co-founder of BSN Denver. Ryan also covers and travels with the Denver Broncos. Education: Graduated from the University of Colorado in 2015 with a degree in both Broadcast Journalism and Communication. Career: I got my start in Journalism in 2011 with an internship covering University of Colorado athletics for a website called BuffScoop.com, a branch of the 247Sports Network. Less than one year after accepting that position, I was promoted to the lead writer of the site. After another year at BuffScoop, I was hired to a staff position covering the Buffaloes for Buffstampede.com, the CU site for the Rivals.com network. Two years later, shortly before officially graduating from CU, I was approached by a dude named Brandon Spano who was planning to revolutionize the way sports were covered in our great state. I accepted a position on the ground floor of BSN Denver that, at the time, centered—once again—around covering the Buffaloes. After another year on the Buffs beat that resulted in winning the inaugural BSN Denver Silver Slugger award—given to the writer whose stories generated the most traffic—I was promoted to the Broncos beat. In my time at BSN, I’ve had the pleasure of covering a Super Bowl, a Pac-12 Championship, a bowl game, multiple games in the NCAA Tournament and so much more. Somewhere along the way, I earned that fancy title you see at the top of all this. Most memorable sports moment: Nov. 23, 2001: Behind SIX Chris Brown rushing touchdowns, the No. 14 Colorado Buffaloes trounce the No. 2 Nebraska Cornhuskers by a count of 62-36. It was the day I fell in love with college football for good. So much so that I haven’t missed a single Buffs’ home game since. The finest sports book I’ve ever read: I don’t know about finest, but when I was in elementary school, I read every single Matt Christopher book in our school library. It was the best way to not stray away from sports while still filling those pesky reading logs. One sports movie that I can’t live without: When I was a kid, I didn’t have cable in my room but I did have a TV with a VCR. Thing is, I only had a few movies on VCR and I needed to have the TV on to fall asleep. Well, eventually I came around to the fact that the best movie I had was “Cool Runnings,” so I feel asleep to the Jamaican Bobsled team every night for years. You need sleep to live and I couldn’t sleep without “Cool Runnings” SO I guess that’s the one I can’t live without. Most memorable experience as a reporter: Pretty hard to beat the week leading up  to Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco. To be at the center of the sports world with not only the greatest athletes but also the greatest sports journalists in the world all around was a truly special experience. Between wake up calls at 4:45 am to catch the media shuttle to the Broncos hotel by 6, the 14-hour work days and the regrettable post-work festivities, I calculated that I got about 20 hours of sleep over an eight-day period… and I wouldn’t have traded one minute of it all. That was awesome. The sport that started it all: It’s hard to pinpoint one sport that truly “started it all” for me. When I was a kid, I remember people used to always ask me what my favorite sport was, and I would always answer the same thing, “Whatever sport is in season.” As long as I can remember, my life has always revolved directly around sports, from playing to watching to writing. It’s not a sport that started it all, it sports that started it all.