Over his three years at Alabama, Marlon Humphrey went 40-4, advanced to three College Football Playoffs, played for two national championships and won one.
So, on a certain level, the Ravens cornerback understands how it is that the Kansas City Chiefs find themselves in yet another AFC championship game. Some teams — the best teams — have an aura of inevitability to them.
“It’s like, every year in, year out, they might be like, ‘Oh, they’re not looking that good. They’re not this.’ They’re still ‘that team.’ They’re still the team to beat,” Humphrey said after practice Thursday. “Whether they’re losing, whether they’re winning, they’re still the Chiefs, and they’re the team to beat. They’re Super Bowl champs, and for us to beat them, it’s going to take everybody firing on all cylinders.”
On Sunday, the top-seeded Ravens will welcome third-seeded Kansas City to M&T Bank Stadium for the city’s first conference championship game in over five decades. It will be, as Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson said, a “heavyweight fight” — not just his matchup with Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but the Ravens’ elite defense against Kansas City’s surging offense, the Ravens’ balanced passing attack against Kansas City’s overwhelming pass rush, John Harbaugh against longtime mentor Andy Reid.
As the Ravens push for their first Super Bowl appearance since 2012, the stars are bound to come out. But Sunday’s showdown could be decided by the less glamorous work of tight ends and run stoppers. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ matchup.
1. No arrival at the stadium will be more scrutinized than Taylor Swift’s. But Mark Andrews’ could be a close second.
The Pro Bowl tight end appears on track to return for Sunday’s game, his first action since he suffered a fractured fibula and ligament damage to his left ankle during a Week 11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Andrews, who underwent surgery over two months ago, was a full participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday, though Harbaugh has remained noncommittal about his availability this week.
“We’ll just see on all those things, how they go and if guys are ready to go,” Harbaugh said Thursday.
Andrews was activated off injured reserve Friday, meaning the Ravens have a role in mind for him. But relying more on two-tight-end sets, even with the emergence of Isaiah Likely, could be playing to the Chiefs’ strengths. Kansas City’s defense led the NFL this season in expected points added per play and success rate when facing offenses in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), according to TruMedia.
The Ravens still might like their chances, especially situationally. Although Andrews and Likely played just 72 offensive snaps together in 12 personnel during the regular season, the offense’s EPA per play and success rate would’ve finished first and fourth in that grouping, respectively. Jackson went 23-for-29 (79.3%) for 327 yards and a touchdown with both on the field in 12 personnel.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Thursday that the Ravens would consider Andrews’ health and Likely’s strong form as they devised their game plan. “How can we incorporate them?” he asked. The answer will arrive Sunday.
2. No unit has as lopsided an advantage as the Ravens’ ground game, which led the league in rushing yards. Now Monken just has to figure out how to make the most of it.
Kansas City finished the regular season 27th in the NFL in run defense efficiency, according to FTN. The Chiefs ranked 24th in yards allowed per carry, 22nd in success rate against designed runs and 27th in the percentage of runs stopped for no gain or negative yardage, according to TruMedia.
Kansas City’s run defense was especially vulnerable against 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers). Teams in the fullback-friendly grouping averaged 6.6 yards per carry against the Chiefs, who allowed a whopping 2.31 yards before contact per carry (fourth worst in the NFL) and an even-more-whopping 4.33 yards after contact (second worst in the NFL).
Kansas City’s front could be especially compromised Sunday. Defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi, who started all 17 regular-season games, hasn’t practiced since suffering a triceps injury in the team’s wild-card-round win over the Miami Dolphins. Inside linebacker Willie Gay Jr., who started 15 games, left Sunday’s win over the Buffalo Bills with a neck injury and, as of Thursday, couldn’t turn his neck, according to the Chiefs’ Reid.
With Kansas City softened upfront, Ravens fullback Patrick Ricard could have a game-tilting influence. The offense averaged 4.8 yards per carry when he was on the field, just a hair behind its season-long average, but he helped make the Ravens a more explosive rushing and passing team.
Harbaugh has “built the team that way, to come right at you, whether it’s run or pass, and just keep bullying your way downfield,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo told local reporters Thursday. “So we need to be prepared for that and find a way to kind of match that with the same kind of aggressive, fast play that they do.”
3. This has not been a vintage season for Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who finished 2023 with fewer than 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since 2015, along with a career-low 10.6 yards per catch.
Still, the nine-time Pro Bowl selection remains Mahomes’ most reliable option. Kelce averaged a stellar 0.37 EPA per target this season, first on the team, and 42.1% of his targets resulted in a first down, behind only standout rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice (43.1%). He had 71 receiving yards against the Dolphins, then 75 yards and two scores against the Bills.
In Baltimore, however, Kelce could find his usual pockets of space hard to find. The Ravens ranked ninth in pass defense efficiency against tight ends, according to FTN, allowing 47.7 yards per game to players at the position. Inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen and safety Kyle Hamilton, who can line up as a slot defender, have turned the middle of the field into a hornet’s nest for offenses.
On intermediate passes (10 to 19 yards downfield) thrown between the numbers, opposing quarterbacks went 29-for-53 (54.7%), averaging a respectable 10.4 yards per attempt but throwing more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (three), according to TruMedia.
“It’s just playing disciplined football,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “Understand where your one-11th fits in the whole puzzle, and then trusting that the guys around you are going to do it. I think what you see on tape and over the course of time, if you keep doing it right, it’s hard to find the right spots to matriculate the ball down the field. That’s the whole idea.”
4. It’s not just Kelce the Ravens have to watch out for. It’s the Chiefs’ other tight ends, too. Kansas City punished a linebacker-depleted Buffalo defense in heavy formations Sunday, averaging 7.3 yards per play in 12 personnel and 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver).
Multiple-tight-end looks can force a defense’s hand before the snap. When offenses line up with just one or two wide receivers, most defenses answer with their “base” defense, sending four defensive backs (two cornerbacks and two safeties) onto the field. Defensive coordinators want to match bigger bodies with bigger bodies.
The Ravens, though, have not always followed convention. They lined up against 12 and 13 personnel with four defensive backs on the field 121 times this season. They also lined up against 12 and 13 personnel with their nickel personnel — five defensive backs — on 45 plays, according to TruMedia.
Against the run, the Ravens were, predictably, far more efficient on a down-to-down basis with four defensive backs on the field (68% success rate) than with five (56.3%). But there was only a small difference in overall production: 3.9 yards per carry allowed in base, 4.2 yards per carry allowed in nickel.
Against the pass, though, the Ravens’ splits diverged dramatically. In base defense against those heavier groupings, they allowed 8.8 yards per attempt on 78.9% accuracy and ranked 31st in EPA per drop-back. In nickel, they allowed 6.8 yards per attempt on 53.8% accuracy and ranked fourth in EPA per drop-back.
“Anytime people are changing personnels on you, you have to make the decision on how we’re going to match it,” Macdonald said. “Those are the decisions you have to make, and then where are the stresses of the calls you’re going to make and things like that? A lot of times, it’s going to morph and evolve over the course of the game. After you make a decision, you see how they make their decision. You’re kind of playing off one another as the game starts to unfold. We have an initial plan on how we’re going to play it, and obviously it’ll evolve as the game starts to declare itself.”
5. In November, Mahomes told ESPN he’s used a silent count — where the snap of the ball depends on visual rather than auditory cues — in only two road venues: the Seattle Seahawks’ Lumen Field and M&T Bank Stadium.
“It was so loud in those stadiums that even the tackles couldn’t hear me,” Mahomes said.
Crowd noise could complicate the Chiefs’ presnap plans again Sunday. They used motion on 64.2% of their plays this season, one of the NFL’s highest rates, according to ESPN. But, in the divisional round against Buffalo, Kansas City ran a relatively smooth operation, leaving Highmark Stadium without a false-start or delay-of-game penalty.
In Baltimore, the Texans were less composed. Houston had six presnap penalties: five false starts and one delay of game.
“This last weekend in the divisional round, I don’t think I’d ever experienced ‘The Bank’ quite as electric as that,” kicker Justin Tucker said Wednesday. “That was awesome. The place was rocking. I know our fans are going to kick it up another notch this weekend, coming up. As far as what we’re expecting, we’re expecting our fans to be absolutely lit up and ready to go. We will be doing the exact same thing.”