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NFL playoffs: Four things to watch for in Chiefs-Ravens in AFC Championship Game

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Kansas City Chiefs
2023 · 13-6-0
Baltimore Ravens
2023 · 14-4-0

Well, what a surprise: The Chiefs are back in the AFC Championship Game once again.

This time, though, we won’t watch the action unfold at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs are now road warriors, boarding a plane for their second straight playoff game played away from Kansas City. When they land, they’ll meet the hottest team in football, leading NFL Most Valuable Player candidate Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.

A changing of the guard could be ahead. Perhaps more accurately, it’s simply a clash of two contenders led by elite quarterbacks. And when the final whistle blows, we’ll learn whether the reigning champ is still king of the conference, or if the Ravens have effectively dethroned the monarch.

We don’t have to look past the most important position in sports to find a storyline. Jackson is careening toward his second MVP, while Patrick Mahomes is aiming to pull off his best LeBron James impression by carrying the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs certainly haven’t been perfect, and haven’t inspired the same fear of past years. They have offensive issues, but seem to have ironed most of them out in the last two weeks. And the Ravens, well, they’ve been on fire for nearly two months. 

What prevails: championship experience, or an incredible hot streak powered by the league’s most entertaining player? We’ll find out Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Here are four things to watch for when the Chiefs visit the Ravens on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game:

1) Lamar Jackson, Ravens cruise into AFC title game. Baltimore has enjoyed smooth sailing for the last month and a half, running through a gauntlet that included the Rams, Dolphins, 49ers, Jaguars and most recently, the upstart Texans. Jackson has compiled an incredible run of performances so impressive that he's now the clubhouse leader to win NFL MVP. But will he take home that award mere days before making his Super Bowl debut? Or will the reigning champions end his dreamlike run one stop shy of the game's greatest stage? Jackson's Ravens have defeated Mahomes' Chiefs just once in four meetings, but all of those contests occurred in the regular season. Historically speaking, Mahomes has been the better postseason quarterback, but these Ravens are different. They're no longer the Greg Roman-directed offense that carried a limited ceiling into the playoffs; Instead, Todd Monken's offense has blossomed at the perfect time, placing them in historic company: Only the 1985 Bears, 1972 Dolphins and 2023 Ravens have scored 25-plus points per game while leading the NFL in rushing offense and scoring defense. The two aforementioned teams won the Super Bowl and are considered to be two of the greatest teams ever assembled. Need more proof? Baltimore's offensive evolution is easy to see in Jackson's statistical difference. After completing 55.9 percent of his passes and posting a 3-5 TD-INT ratio in his first four postseason games, Jackson lit it up against Houston, completing 72.7 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and a passer rating of 121.8. He added two more rushing touchdowns to his ledger, capping a memorable day that could end up being a precursor to another great outing in an even bigger game. It's certainly not an inevitable outcome, but plenty of signs sure seem to point toward Baltimore reaching Super Bowl LVIII.

2) Can Chiefs keep offensive momentum rolling? The prevailing theme of the 2023 Chiefs was one of consternation. Despite featuring an elite quarterback and a play-caller with plenty of familiarity, Kansas City couldn't find a consistent rhythm for most of the regular season. The blame centered on Mahomes' weapons, who were reliably unreliable, dropping accurate passes and flat-out failing their quarterback on a number of occasions. But that seems to have shifted in the postseason, where the Chiefs have scored 53 points combined in their two playoff wins. History is also on Mahomes' side in a meeting with Baltimore's top-five scoring defense. He owns a 2-0 record against defenses owning such status, and has scored a total of nine touchdowns in three meetings with top-ranked pass defenses. Mahomes also seems to have Baltimore's number, averaging nearly 370 passing yards per game in meetings with the Ravens, the most by any player versus any team in the Super Bowl era prior to a playoff matchup. But those facts might be fool's gold, because like Baltimore's offense, this Ravens defense is playing at an incredibly high level that has exceeded its past standard. And even if Mahomes is as sharp as can be, he'll still need more than just Rashee Rice and Travis Kelce to come through. Therein lies the true unpredictable variable.

3) Baltimore's defense packing punches for Mahomes, Chiefs. A quick skim of the rankings tells us this Baltimore defense is very good. The Ravens are first in points per game allowed, opposing passer rating, rushing touchdowns allowed, sacks and tied for first in takeaways (31). They rank third in yards per play allowed, supporting the tape with legitimate statistical production. And when it comes to the tape, they're downright frightening. With studs at every level of the defense -- including first-team All-Pros Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton -- Baltimore has game-changing potential in its personnel. The unit proved it against a relatively explosive Houston offense in the Divisional Round, holding C.J. Stroud and the Texans to three offensive points in a dominant win. Baltimore hasn't allowed a passer to break 300 yards in a game this season, and has allowed as many games with two passing touchdowns (four) as it has had contests with two or more interceptions (four). Simply put, this defense is ferocious, capable of wrecking game plans with pressure brought from seemingly every angle, and has yet to meet an offense that can counter legitimately. The task is incredibly tall for Mahomes. Fortunately for him and the Chiefs, he has experience with such situations.

4) Two kicking titans could determine the game. I really wanted to use this space to write about Kansas City's greatest strength, its defense, but I have to show some love to the kickers, because we're about to watch the game's best two boots share the same field with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Justin Tucker is a surefire Pro Football Hall of Famer and commonly known as the best kicker to ever play the position, but he has missed five field goals this year, the second-most misses of his career (behind last season's six misses on a league-high 43 regular-season attempts). He went a perfect 2 for 2 (and 4 for 4 on extra points) on a frigid day in Baltimore last weekend, so he seems to be in a good spot entering Championship Weekend. And on the other side resides Harrison Butker, another dynamite kicker who has missed just two field-goal attempts this season, and has drilled all six of his postseason tries. If the Chiefs can contain Baltimore's offense and keep pace with them into the final minutes of the game, this position will become vitally important. And after we watched Tyler Bass miss the biggest attempt of his 2023 season (and perhaps, his career), we already know how big a field goal can be in a playoff game. Fortunately, we'll see two of the best of their generation handling the duties. Maybe we'll even luck out and see one send his team to the Super Bowl.

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