It took Ravens coach John Harbaugh several hours to leave M&T Bank Stadium after Baltimore spiked the Houston Texans, securing the city’s first home AFC championship game since 1971. Even in the dark, even in the cold, fans were still lining the streets in celebration.
Harbaugh rolled down his window to shout, “Go, Ravens!”, allowing himself to enjoy the moment before the all-too-quick turn toward the next challenge.
“It was really fun,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It was loud. It was emotional. You could just tell how much it meant. I would say that this [game] is even bigger.”
The Ravens figure to have their hands full with a Kansas City squad that has more recent postseason experience than any other. Both sides have elite quarterbacks, dynamic playmakers, rugged defenses and celebrated coaches. The Ravens will be fighting to go back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2013.
Here’s how Ravens beat reporters Jonas Shaffer and Giana Han and columnist Kyle Goon pick apart the critical matchups in Sunday’s game against the Chiefs.
After Lamar Jackson and John Harbaugh, which Ravens player or coach has the most riding on a Super Bowl berth?
Shaffer: How about Mike Macdonald? There are only five head coaching jobs still open — the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders’ — but the supply of quality candidates in this year’s carousel is outstripping demand. Mike Vrabel, Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh are interviewing for vacancies. Ben Johnson and Bobby Slowik, two of the NFL’s most promising offensive minds, have become highly sought after.
All of which could leave Macdonald, the coordinator behind the NFL’s best defense, without a job offer. (Or at least an attractive job offer. Sorry, Carolina.) But the ultimate resume boost — a Super Bowl appearance stamped with a win over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs — is within reach. Macdonald’s credentials could prove irresistible if the Ravens’ swaggering defense carries them to a Super Bowl.
Han: Yeah, Odell Beckham Jr. already has a Super Bowl title, but he played in only half of the game two years ago before tearing his ACL. If the Ravens don’t win it all this year, he can go chase another ring next year. He’s a big enough brand that someone might sign him. But he also has a lot of doubters who feel the Ravens spent way too much on him. While he’s been a big part of the Ravens’ success, a lot of his impact can’t be measured, so his stats don’t look that impressive. This is a chance for him to experience a Super Bowl without pain and to prove he’s got some good football years left in him.
Goon: In matchups like this, I lean toward the figureheads. Whether it’s firing up the Ravens with his pregame speeches or tearing down opposing teams with his tackles, Roquan Smith is the leader of the defense. He’s proven to be a catalyst in the regular season, but the best defensive players in franchise history have won Super Bowls. If you look at Kansas City’s top playmakers, especially Travis Kelce and Isiah Pacheco, Smith will be in on the action an awful lot while protecting the middle of the field. As one of the best cover linebackers who is also the team’s leading tackler, he’ll have the unenviable task of reading Patrick Mahomes’ intentions. Ray Lewis may have once anointed Smith as one of the last “hunters,” but to be a legend in Baltimore, he’ll need a ring.
What’s the game’s most intriguing matchup?
Shaffer: This is how tight end Travis Kelce has fared in his four games against the Ravens with Mahomes: seven catches for 77 yards and a touchdown (2018), seven catches for 89 yards (2019), six catches for 87 yards (2020), seven catches for 109 yards and a touchdown (2021). Injuries have sapped some of Kelce’s dynamism this season, but he’s still a weapon over the middle. He had five catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns Sunday against Buffalo.
What those Ravens teams needed — what the Bills really needed — was someone like Kyle Hamilton. The All-Pro safety is one of the NFL’s best players in coverage, capable of blanketing everyone from speedy wideouts to shifty slot receivers to imposing tight ends. Depending on how the teams line up Sunday, Hamilton might not see a lot of Kelce. But, when the Chiefs need a big play, Mahomes will probably look to Kelce. Which means the Ravens will probably look to Hamilton.
Han: They won’t go head to head, but to me, this is the Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson game. While the Ravens’ defense has been a hallmark of this year’s team, Jackson is the face of the franchise in the same way that Mahomes is. Both are young, generational talents, but only one has had success in the postseason. This is Jackson’s chance to prove he is up there with Mahomes in the upper echelon of quarterbacks.
Goon: The second quarter against the Texans felt like a reality check. Even though the Ravens knew Houston’s blitzes were coming, they struggled to pick them up. One wonders how exactly the offensive line, which has rotated players throughout the second half of the season, holds up against a defensive line led by All-Pro tackle Chris Jones. The Chiefs had a lot of success moving Jones around, even placing him off the edge, which could be a challenge for Morgan Moses and Ronnie Stanley. Defensive end George Karlaftis also enjoyed a double-digit-sack regular season and figures to be a threat. The Chiefs were the No. 2 defense in yardage during the season due in large part to their front. It took one half for the Ravens to really get rolling in the divisional round. Can the offense get out ahead faster against Kansas City?
This isn’t a vintage Chiefs offense, but it still has Patrick Mahomes. What should be at the top of Mike Macdonald’s to-do list?
Shaffer: Stopping the Chiefs when they come out in heavy looks. Kansas City lined up in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver) on 11 plays against Buffalo, averaging a healthy 8.6 yards per play. The Ravens, who prefer to play with lighter boxes up front, have struggled defending offenses in 12 and 13 personnel this season, ranking 19th in expected points added per play and 17th in success rate, according to TruMedia. All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney’s pectoral injury could make it harder for Kansas City to punish the Ravens on the ground, but Macdonald can’t afford to let running back Isiah Pacheco run wild.
Han: We’ve all seen the clips of Mahomes slamming his helmet into the ground, complaining about the officials and arguing with teammates. Macdonald needs to figure out how to bring out that version of Mahomes. He’s usually a pretty savvy, collected quarterback, but this year is unique; he doesn’t have many reliable options. Tight end Travis Kelce has been and continues to be one of his go-tos. Tight ends have also been a weak spot for this Ravens defense. If the secondary can shut down Kelce, and the pass rush remains ferocious, they might rattle Mahomes the way they have most of the quarterbacks they’ve faced.
Goon: Macdonald should walk down to the defensive line room and point to this part of the divisional round box score: zero sacks. It’s not that Justin Madubuike, Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy had bad games — far from it, actually — but that’s the first time all season the NFL’s leaders in sacks have been blanked. There is more than one way to dominate, as the Ravens showed against the Texans, but getting pressure on Mahomes and forcing him to act is a huge component in winning.
In each of the two road games the Chiefs lost this year (at Denver and Green Bay), he was sacked three times. Mahomes has said he’s had to resort to silent snap counts in Baltimore, which can make snaps more predictable. It’s not usually a good idea to blitz Mahomes, so it will be on the defensive front to pressure him with four rushers. Mahomes’ 14 interceptions this year are a career high. He hasn’t thrown a playoff pick since 2021, but if the Ravens can bring pressure, the odds are they’ll squeeze at least a turnover out of it.
The Ravens could be down a few starters Sunday, but so could the Chiefs. Whose absence would be the most consequential?
Shaffer: The Chiefs were probably counting on linebacker Willie Gay Jr. to spy Bills quarterback Josh Allen throughout Sunday’s game. Then he suffered a neck injury midway through the first quarter, and — surprise! — Allen ended up running wild, finishing with 72 yards (6 per carry) and two touchdowns. Linebacker Nick Bolton led Kansas City in tackles in 2022, but he probably wouldn’t be Andy Reid’s first choice to shadow someone as elusive as Jackson.
Han: The Ravens have some big names out — but they’ve played without big names all season. If I were a Chiefs fan, I’d be more worried about the absence of left guard Joe Thuney than excited about the potential absence of tight end Mark Andrews. This Ravens’ pass rush is not one to take lightly. It led the league in sacks, and even when it didn’t record a sack Saturday against Houston, it still laid on the pressure. I can see the Ravens taking advantage of any weakness in the line around Mahomes.
Goon: This is probably not the most popular answer, given that the Ravens secondary all but pitched a shutout last week, but Marlon Humphrey would be a helpful piece in a game like this. He’s been injured on and off all season, and he hasn’t been great in his first games back from injury. But I think of his performance against San Francisco, when he deflected two passes and laid some hard hits against a team replete with talented skill players.
Humphrey’s physicality makes him a better matchup if he’s forced to line up against, say, Kelce. He’s also physical in the run game, which will be a key facet. Humphrey’s up-and-down availability has probably made him a little underrated at this point, just a few years removed from being one of the stars of this defense.
Which Taylor Swift lyric or song title best defines how you think this game will play out?
Shaffer: Lamar Jackson playing for a Super Bowl berth? Against the defending Super Bowl champions? In Baltimore’s first conference championship game in over five decades? It’s got to be “Wildest Dreams.”
Han: *Googling Taylor Swift song titles.* There are so many good ones, and as I was scrolling down the list, I came up with a lot of ideas. “Shake It Off,” Chiefs, you can try again next year. But when I saw “the 1,” I knew: “’tis the damn season,” Ravens. No explanation required.
Goon: The Ravens have aced every stiff test they’ve faced this season and dominated teams with winning records. Still, with the Chiefs’ track record, it seems like the world expects Mahomes & Co. to surge and win it (the Ravens are barely a field goal favorite at home). This passage from “Look What You Made Me Do” stands out: “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time/Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time/I got a list of names, and yours is in red, underlined.”
The Chiefs are next on the list. Let’s look at what they’ll make the Ravens do.