For those of us who haven’t cut the cord, when you turn on your TV, I guarantee you’re going to see the Kansas City Chiefs.
You’ll see them on ESPN, of course, or NFL Network and every sports channel known to man. You’ll see them on morning shows and sprinkled into entertainment gossip, as Taylor Swift’s flame of the season advances to play another Sunday.
You’ll also see Patrick Mahomes hawking insurance and cellular plans, and Travis Kelce selling TV packages, and Andy Reid shilling for candy bars.
Imagine being Roquan Smith, Kyle Hamilton or Justin Madubuike this week — seeing the Chiefs every time they flip a channel or unlock their phones. Everywhere you look, it’s the Kansas City stars, smiling with the satisfaction that accompanies high-level success.
By Sunday afternoon when they’ll host the AFC championship, the Ravens will be aching to smack those smiles off the Chiefs’ faces.
From the relentless media saturation of the Chiefs and their players, you’d think there was only one team in the NFL. And, in the 2020s, sometimes it feels as if there is. The Chiefs are not only marketable, they’re damn good — playing in three of the last four Super Bowls and winning two of them.
Mahomes is the most successful young quarterback since Tom Brady; Kelce is one of the best tight ends ever; Reid, John Harbaugh’s own mentor, is one of the winningest coaches ever. The Kansas City brand has never been stronger, gleaming with all the subtlety of a neon sign on a moonless night.
You gotta beat the best to be the best. And Baltimore should relish the opportunity to stamp out the defending Super Bowl champions, ending any doubt that it is the AFC’s best team — and probably the best team in the NFL.
No, you’re not going to find me writing a screed about how the NFL is for Real Football Fans and that Swifties don’t qualify. Fan gatekeeping for sports teams is one of life’s most joyless causes. We may all be bracing for the media storm that accompanies the world’s biggest pop star everywhere she goes (wearing a custom coat designed by a Towson University alum, by the way!), but that’s not something the Ravens should be worried about.
The only motivation they need is the desire to upend the throne — and take the crown for themselves.
The NFL loves dynasties, from the ’60s Packers to the ’70s Steelers to the ’80s 49ers to the ’90s Cowboys (for some reason, a 30-year drought hasn’t yet sapped them of the “America’s Team” label). It’s no coincidence that, as Brady and the Patriots won a boatload of championships, the league’s popularity surged.
The Lombardi Trophy is the pinnacle of the sport, but for teams that compete for it year after year, it is a high note in the operatic saga that defines the NFL through the seasons: Who is the best? How long will he stay on top? Who will succeed him?
Mahomes is in charge of the league’s narrative. You can see the league has jumped upon his playoff battles against Buffalo’s Josh Allen as the new quarterback duel of the generation, taking the place of Brady versus Peyton Manning. On Sunday night, broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo were positively giddy watching the Chiefs’ 27-24 win over the Bills, saying it was “living up to the billing” even well before the expected offensive fireworks had begun.
Lamar Jackson deserves a greater share of the spotlight. When he’s healthy he’s a winner, but he also boasts spectacular style, on his way to winning a second MVP. He may not have had a host of memorable duels this season, but that’s mostly because, as Jackson has shined, the Ravens’ defense has bottled up elite opponents — leading to the kind of blowout that Baltimore enjoyed Saturday against the Texans.
The lack of playoff success is keeping Jackson from this elite tier. He has just two wins. Meanwhile, Mahomes has 13, including two rings that put him higher on the ultimate measuring stick. This also matters examining coaching legacies. Even though Harbaugh beat Reid to his first ring, Reid has won two Super Bowls while Harbaugh is playing for his second berth in the NFL’s biggest game.
Jackson and Harbaugh may have the most on the line from a legacy perspective, but it feels like the difference is, again, Baltimore’s elite defense. The one that led the NFL in sacks, takeaways and points allowed, setting a modern NFL mark of excellence. There are only three other teams left in the playoffs, and the Ravens have already torched the other two in the regular season.
Keeping sensational Houston rookie QB C.J. Stroud and NFL head coaching candidate Bobby Slowik from even crossing into the red zone was a hell of a warmup for a Kansas City team that perennially wins big games in January.
I bet the Ravens’ defense is thrilled with the matchup. I bet those players wanted this Chiefs team that we’ve been saturated with all season. I think of Smith, with his black cowboy hat cocked over his head and a gleaming, white smile.
“We know who we are, deep down, each and every guy in this locker room,” he said. “All we have to do is go out and play to the best of our abilities. And, if we do that, nobody can touch us.”
That’s this year’s Ravens. They already see themselves on top. Now, they get a chance to let the rest of the world see, too — and let’s face it, the narrative could use some spicing up.