Ravens 33-year-old guard Kevin Zeitler has played a dozen seasons in the NFL. He’s been on six teams that have qualified for the playoffs. Before Baltimore’s 34-10 victory over the Houston Texans Saturday night, Zeitler had never experienced the feeling of a postseason win.
Yet, less than an hour after the conclusion of the divisional victory, Zeitler was already looking ahead. The celebration was short-lived.
“We know we’re going to have a hell of an opponent, no matter who it is next week,” he said. “We’re going to have to make sure we focus in this week and bring our ‘A’ game. Even though we had a good (second) half, what we did today won’t get it done next week.”
Lamar Jackson challenges teammates at halftime, then carries Ravens to AFC Championship
A day later, Zeitler and the rest of the Ravens learned who their opponent in the AFC championship would be. The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Buffalo Bills, 27-24, to advance to their sixth consecutive conference title game. The Ravens and Chiefs will now meet at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
As formidable as the Bills are and have been, isn’t this how it was meant to be for these Ravens? The Chiefs have been the class of the conference in recent seasons, going to three Super Bowls since 2019 and winning two of them. Baltimore has struggled to win in the postseason and close the gap on Kansas City. That is until this season.
While the Ravens were establishing themselves as the team to beat in December, slipping past the dangerous Los Angeles Rams and overmatching division-leading Jacksonville, San Francisco and Miami teams, the Chiefs were losing three out of four during one stretch.
However, the demise of Andy Reid’s team was overstated. The Chiefs won their last two games of the regular season, handled the Dolphins with ease in the wild-card round and then went on the road Sunday, which they haven’t had to do in the playoffs, and dispatched a Bills team that was playing its best football of the season.
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It feels fitting that for the Ravens to get back to the Super Bowl, they first have to get through the reigning champs and their star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, who has been a fixture on conference championship weekend since his career began.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Playing a great football team, very talented, very well-coached. They know how to win. They’ve been in these situations many times. It’s our first time with this team and these guys, but we’re up for the challenge, and we’re excited.”
Sunday’s game will mark the first time in team history that the Ravens will play an AFC championship game on their home field. It will be the first conference title game in Baltimore since January 1971, when the Baltimore Colts beat the Raiders.
Harbaugh powered down his window as he drove away from M&T Bank Stadium Saturday night so he could acknowledge some fans and hear some of the celebrations. The atmosphere will be even more raucous Sunday with the Ravens one win away from their third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
The coaching matchup will also be very meaningful for Harbaugh, who was an assistant under Reid in Philadelphia for a decade. The two have remained friends despite leading two of the perennial contenders in the AFC. However, Sunday will be their first meeting in a playoff game.
“We were in a lot of championship games, a lot of playoff games,” Harbaugh said. “I just learned so much as a coach and as a person. Then, competing against him now all these years has been really challenging. Andy’s a great coach. He has a great staff.”
The hype around the game — and there will be plenty — will undoubtedly be centered on the quarterback matchup between the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Chiefs’ Mahomes. Jackson will likely match Mahomes in a couple of weeks by winning his second MVP award. But it’s what else Mahomes has that continues to drive Jackson. Mahomes has led the Chiefs to two Super Bowl victories. Jackson has still yet to play in the game, and it’s long been his obsession.
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There will be other highly anticipated matchups. In a best-on-best type of scenario, Ravens All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton will likely be matched for at least part of the game with All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. After a relatively quiet finish to the regular season, Kelce has 12 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns in two playoff games. He remains Kansas City’s top weapon.
Baltimore will have to do far better than Buffalo did in stopping Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco. Pacheco had over 100 all-purpose yards and a touchdown Sunday. Up next is a Ravens defense that has struggled at times against hard-running, downhill backs.
“They’re running the ball really well,” Harbaugh said. “They’ll come out with three or four kind of game-plan runs in certain ways. Nothing that you haven’t seen before, but they dial in on something that they try to exploit. Then, Pacheco, man, that guy is coming downhill. He’s hitting it that way, all out. He’s 225 pounds. His knees are up high. He’s rolling, and it’s going to be a big challenge for us to deal with him, because he’s as physical as a runner as there is in the league.”
The game will also feature two of the league’s best defenses. The Ravens finished first in points allowed per game (16.5). The Chiefs were second (17.3). The Ravens were first in sacks (60). The Chiefs were second (57). Both teams also ranked in the top six in passing yards allowed per game.
Whether it’s Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo trying to figure out how to stop Baltimore’s top-ranked run game or how much to blitz Jackson, or Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald deciding the best way to attack Mahomes, there are significant dilemmas on both sides. That’s what makes this matchup so intriguing.
For about 24 hours from Saturday evening into late Sunday night when the Chiefs finally put the Bills away, the Ravens were free to ponder what conference championship matchup suited them best. A case could have been made for either side. Now, they know they’ll get the Chiefs — and that feels fitting.
(Photo: Mark Goldman / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)