Sunday’s highly anticipated matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs will feature two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks dueling it out with a trip to Super Bowl LVIII on the line. Lamar Jackson, this season’s presumed MVP, and Patrick Mahomes, a two-time league MVP and two-time champ, are facing off in the playoffs for the first time in their careers.
The Ravens secured the AFC’s No. 1 seed after a dominant regular season and will host the conference championship game at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time in franchise history. It’s also the first conference championship game hosted in Baltimore since 1971. The last time the Ravens advanced this far, during the 2012 season, they eventually hoisted the Lombardi Trophy with quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way.
As for the Chiefs, getting to this point has become the norm. They’ve reached the AFC Championship Game every season since Mahomes was named a full-time starter in 2018, making Sunday their sixth consecutive appearance. This, however, will be the first time they’ve had to play this game on the road during that span.
Will Kansas City’s experience be enough to help the team get back to the Super Bowl? Or will Jackson and Baltimore get a chance to perform on the game’s grandest stage on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas?
We’ll allow our reporters here at The Athletic to discuss. Chiefs writer Nate Taylor and Ravens writer Jeff Zrebiec break down the game’s potential X-factors, the keys to victory and more.
What is the matchup you’ll be paying closest attention to?
Taylor: Coaching in the postseason matters so much, and the matchup between Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is fascinating. Reid is known for saving his best-designed plays for the playoffs, and the Chiefs, after a grueling season, are finally in an offensive groove. Will Macdonald blitz? Or will Macdonald use simulated pressure to try to speed Mahomes up in the pocket? Historically, Mahomes performs exceptionally well when blitzed. A couple of years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals used eight defenders in coverage to clog passing lanes for Mahomes. Macdonald could use a similar tactic in the red zone. But in a game expected to be close, one question usually follows Reid: Will he stick with the running game or abandon it? Reid will likely need to balance his play calls to help the Chiefs succeed against such a quality defense.
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Zrebiec: It probably won’t be an every-play thing, but Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is as good as it gets. Kelce’s credentials are well-documented. Hamilton, meanwhile, is allowing a league-best 0.45 yards per slot coverage snap this season. Kelce works out of the slot on nearly 50 percent of the Chiefs’ passing snaps, so it’s inevitable that these two Pro Bowl selections will see a lot of each other on Sunday. In many ways, the Ravens selected Hamilton in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft for a matchup like this. They play him at deep safety at times. They put him close to the line of scrimmage. They use him as a blitzer. Hamilton will likely move around Sunday, but given Kelce’s importance to Kansas City’s offense, Baltimore will want one of its best defensive players on him in big moments.
We know about the stars on both teams. Who is a potential X-factor in this game?
Taylor: The Chiefs arguably have the best pair of cornerbacks in the league in L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie. They rarely allow long completions. Ravens receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Zay Flowers have been a big part of Baltimore’s dynamic offense, but if Sneed and McDuffie can limit their production, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could be more aggressive with the blitz to generate quicker pressure on Jackson. Sneed, who works from the perimeter, has allowed just one touchdown in coverage this season. From the slot, McDuffie is just as effective as a blitzer as he is in coverage. When not blitzing, Spagnuolo could send a second defender to cover one of the Ravens’ tight ends, Isaiah Likely or Mark Andrews, if Sneed and McDuffie play well.
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Zrebiec: Justice Hill has been the perennial No. 3 running back for the Ravens during his young career. However, with J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell both out, Gus Edwards more in a short-yardage role and Dalvin Cook having just gotten here, Hill is the closest thing the Ravens have to a lead back. He is solid out of the backfield, reliable in pass protection and has had some success running between the tackles in recent weeks. Kansas City’s run defense looked vulnerable against the Buffalo Bills. Hill needs to stress the Chiefs’ defense with his speed and pop some big plays. If the Ravens can control the clock with their run game and keep Mahomes on the sideline as much as possible, it’s hard to foresee them losing.
If the team you cover is going to win, what has to happen?
Taylor: Perhaps the biggest variable is the Chiefs’ running game. Running back Isiah Pacheco loves to initiate contact and keep his legs churning. Despite dealing with ankle and toe injuries this week, Pacheco will have to be a rugged runner to give Kansas City a balanced offensive attack. If Pacheco is effective, that will ease the burden on Mahomes, who can use play action to connect on the occasional deep pass. The ideal scenario is that the Chiefs are just as sharp on first-down snaps as they were last week against the Bills. In that game’s first 45 minutes, the Chiefs averaged 10.4 yards per play. The one area where the offense can still improve is in the red zone, as Kansas City has scored a touchdown on just four of its 10 trips in the postseason. The simplest way for the Chiefs to move the ball forward in the red zone is to trust Pacheco.
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Zrebiec: Offensively, the Ravens can’t turn the ball over. It sounds so simple and obvious, but the numbers in the 10 playoff games so far tell the story. The winning teams have totaled two turnovers in 10 games. The losing teams have had 11. The Chiefs’ defense will be enough of a challenge. The Ravens can’t afford to squander scoring opportunities and give Kansas City momentum with turnovers. Defensively, the Ravens have to find a way to disrupt Mahomes. Such disruption can come by confusing him, sacking him, hitting him, whatever. They just have to do it. In his last five playoff games, Mahomes has zero interceptions and has been sacked just three times. If he’s comfortable and confident in what he’s looking at after the snap, it could be a long day for Baltimore.
What should concern the team you cover the most about this matchup?
Taylor: So often, the Chiefs’ opponent has had to worry about the highlights Mahomes can create when he’s out of the pocket and extending plays for his pass catchers. This time, their defense faces a more fearful situation when Jackson has those opportunities. Jackson has been dynamic in those moments, whether he decides to throw downfield or tuck and run. Kansas City did a solid job in the second half last week at keeping Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the pocket. Jackson is an even tougher challenge. The biggest emotional gut punch for the Chiefs could be Jackson escaping a near sack and producing a game-winning, highlight-worthy play.
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Zrebiec: Mahomes, of course. And everything that Mahomes brings. That probably doesn’t need further explanation, but he and Reid can find defensive weaknesses and exploit them. I also think the Chiefs’ ability to run the football is a Ravens’ concern. Baltimore didn’t have a dominant run defense by any stretch this season. It struggled at times against power backs. Few players in the league run as hard as Pacheco. Macdonald liked to go light in the box at times this season. If they do that against Kansas City, Mahomes and Reid will take the 4 and 5 yards every time.
Who wins this game and why?
Taylor: The Chiefs’ experience in this game over the past five years should be a considerable resource for Reid, Spagnuolo, Mahomes, Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones, who has been the unit’s closer in the fourth quarter. Another positive for Kansas City is that Mahomes and Kelce are as healthy as you could want for this game. The Chiefs defense hasn’t surrendered 30 points this season, and the unit is strong enough to keep the score close entering the fourth quarter. Mahomes has shown he can make the necessary plays in the final minutes to guide the Chiefs to a thrilling victory. And if they need a game-winning field goal, kicker Harrison Butker has been just as clutch in such moments as the Ravens’ Justin Tucker.
Zrebiec: My general rule of thumb is to never go against Mahomes in a big game. He just finds a way. However, I think the Ravens have shown themselves this season to be the better team and the team with more ways to win a football game. I also think the fact that they are far healthier than the Chiefs and are playing at home have to be considered. I’d be surprised if this game doesn’t come down to the end, but I’ll go with the Ravens on a late field goal. For all of Mahomes’ and Jackson’s brilliance, I trust the Ravens’ running game and defense a little more than the Chiefs in both of those areas.
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(Top photos of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson: Maddie Meyer and G Fiume / Getty Images)