The Ravens will play the Chiefs in the AFC championship Sunday at 3 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium after Kansas City held on to beat the Bills, 27-24, in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday night in Buffalo. Baltimore advanced with a 34-10 blowout of the Houston Texans on Saturday.
For the Chiefs, it’s their sixth straight appearance in the conference championship game, while it’s just the fifth all-time and first since the 2012 season for the Ravens.
The last time the teams played was Week 2 of the 2021 season, when Baltimore rallied to a 36-35 win as Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another score. This time, the Ravens are the top seed in the AFC after going 13-4 in the regular season, while the third-seeded Chiefs will be looking for their second straight road win and third overall in this year’s playoffs after advancing out of the wild-card round.
Baltimore Sun reporters Brian Wacker, Childs Walker and Hayes Gardner and columnist Mike Preston answer the five biggest questions facing the Ravens as they prepare to take on Kansas City.
How can the Ravens’ defense stop Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes?
Wacker: Make Mahomes hold the ball by taking away his first read in coverage and be able to apply pressure with simulated blitzes and disguised looks by rushing only four players and spying on the quarterback. That’s easier said than done, of course, but that was Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner’s breakdown of why Mahomes has struggled against the Cincinnati Bengals in recent years. The Ravens have been masters of getting to quarterbacks without rushing more than four, and it’ll be imperative to not let tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Rashee Rice roam free in the middle and downfield.
Walker: They need to force Mahomes to move the ball in small bites. Mike Macdonald’s defense is designed for the task, with disguised looks and a disciplined secondary that will force difficult reads. The Ravens generate pressure up the middle and from the edges without blitzing relentlessly, an essential component to reducing Mahomes’ big-play opportunities. Linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen will help muddy the picture in front of him. All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton could be the most important defensive player on the field, whether the Ravens use him to cover Kelce, blow up screens or contain Mahomes’ scrambles.
Gardner: If I had an easy answer to this one, I’d have more interview requests than Macdonald. It’s a tall order, and I doubt the Chiefs will have as many false starts at M&T Bank Stadium as the Texans did. Plus, it’ll be a monumental task to keep a Mahomes offense out of the red zone, like the Ravens did to Houston. But if Baltimore’s pass rushers can provide pressure, Macdonald can keep Mahomes off balance with different looks and the secondary can step up on a big stage, the Ravens’ defense — the best in the NFL all year — can keep even Mahomes in check.
Preston: The Ravens need to get an early lead and then get pressure with their front four so they can drop six or seven into coverage. It’s hard to pressure Mahomes, even for a team like the Ravens, who love to bring pressure off the perimeter or corner.
How will the Ravens’ offense attack the Chiefs’ defense?
Wacker: Against the Texans, Jackson picked apart the secondary with his arm in the second half and broke their will with his legs. The Chiefs have a better pass defense, but dual-threat quarterbacks, as we saw with the Bills’ Josh Allen on Sunday, can have success. Collectively, the Bills ran for 182 yards, and the Ravens this season led the NFL in rushing yards. Expect a mix of runs, the occasional deep throw and wide receiver Zay Flowers and tight ends Isiah Likely and/or Mark Andrews (if he plays) to see a healthy dose of targets.
Walker: They’re at their best when they mix it up and stay aggressive on early downs as they did in the second half against the Texans. But this will be a week for the Raven’s top-ranked ground game to shine. They went for 229 yards against a Houston run defense that was one of the league’s best down the stretch, with Jackson more willing to take off than he was for most of the regular season. They’ll face a softer run defense this time around. The Chiefs allowed 4.5 yards per attempt during the regular season, 24th in the league.
Gardner: Jackson ran often against the Texans. I anticipate more of that — both designed runs and scrambles — as Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken seeks to capitalize on the singular talent Jackson is.
Preston: Run the football. Pound the Chiefs with a steady diet of Gus Edwards and Dalvin Cook. The Ravens might also want to use an extra offensive lineman as a tight end or use the two-tight end formation to wear down Kansas City.
What’s the Ravens’ biggest concern going up against the Chiefs?
Wacker: Aside from the obvious of Mahomes, Kelce and a surging defense, it’s running back Isiah Pacheco. The 2022 seventh-round draft pick out of Rutgers ate up the Bills’ defense with 97 yards on just 15 carries. Baltimore has also been susceptible to tough runners like Pacheco, who also has plenty of speed. But the game could also be decided by the Chiefs’ defense, which was second in sacks behind Baltimore this season and is third in yards allowed per catch.
Walker: They’ll be facing a quarterback who can upset even the best-laid plans with improvisation. The Ravens showed remarkable discipline in keeping the Texans’ C.J. Stroud out of the red zone with nary a sack nor takeaway. They stuck to their rules, an approach that will serve them well Sunday. But how many times have we seen Mahomes come up with a scramble to convert on a key third down or squeeze a rocket throw into the smallest sliver of space? He’s the NFL’s signature player because there is no reliable method to shut him down.
Gardner: The obvious answer is containing Mahomes, the NFL’s best player of the past five years and a wizard with the ball. But the Ravens’ own special teams is also a consideration; if the Ravens’ defense hadn’t been so stout throughout against the Texans, the 67-yard punt return Baltimore allowed Saturday could’ve been damaging. The Ravens can’t have a similar slip-up Sunday.
Preston: It’s Mahomes, he is the best quarterback in the NFL. He doesn’t have the playmakers of previous years, but to get Kansas City into the AFC championship game speaks volumes about his ability.
What does Lamar Jackson have to do against the Chiefs to reach his first Super Bowl?
Wacker: The same thing he has been doing: Evolving as the game goes on, torturing defenses with his feet, precise passes and smart decisions while also not fumbling or turning the ball over. Jackson has continued to put together one MVP performance after another and he’ll need one more against the NFL’s reigning MVP to reach his first Super Bowl.
Walker: Nothing different than he did in the last few games of the regular season or in the divisional round against Houston. Jackson has so many more answers than he did as a young quarterback, making quick reads against the blitz and probing downfield even as he extends plays with his legs. He’s still an exceptional runner, but there’s no longer any question that he’ll make big-time throws against a playoff-caliber defense. He doesn’t get flustered and rush into mistakes when the game isn’t going his way. He just needs to trust his tools and the best set of targets he’s had in six years as a Raven.
Gardner: Jackson and Mahomes are both former MVPs — the only ones who played the bulk of this past NFL season — and I expect big performances from both. It’ll be fun to watch. The difference might be in taking care of the football. Jackson has done a good job of that lately and he’ll need to keep that up. As Monken mentioned last week when asked about the importance of ball security and the turnover battle: “It’s the No. 1 indicator of winning and losing.”
Preston: Relax, and get involved in the running game early. He should be able to pop some runs off the corner, but the Ravens are nearly unbeatable when he doesn’t turn the ball over.
Who will be the biggest X-factor in the game?
Wacker: Inside linebacker Roquan Smith is the heart and soul of the Ravens’ defense and might be the unit’s most valuable player, but safety Kyle Hamilton is perhaps its best given his unique versatility that is matched with a high football IQ. The Chiefs’ screen game and short passes can destroy a defense, but Hamilton can do the same to the rhythm of an offense.
Walker: Pacheco will never be the headline performer in an offense featuring Mahomes and Kelce, but the Ravens have struggled against relentless power runners this year, and that’s exactly what he is. Pacheco averaged 4.6 yards per carry during the regular season, and the Bills could not bring him down at crucial junctures Sunday. The Ravens will need an excellent game from nose tackle Michael Pierce, quietly one of their best defenders against Houston, and sound tackling from Smith, Queen and Hamilton. They’ll concede some yards to Pacheco as they drop seven or eight defenders into coverage to confuse Mahomes, but they can’t let him run wild.
Gardner: Is the greatest kicker of all time an X-factor? A wide-left miss hurt the Packers on Saturday and a wide-right one doomed the Bills on Sunday, emphasizing the importance of field goals. In a game expected to come down to the wire — the line is, fittingly, 2 1/2 points — Tucker’s boot might be pivotal in the waning seconds.
Preston: Let’s see what Chiefs coach Andy Reid will come up with to attack the Ravens’ defense. The Ravens have played well, but not against a quarterback as good as Mahomes. Reid usually has some trick plays he comes up with in big games.