Just two teams are left standing in the AFC as the Kansas City Chiefs will head to Baltimore to face the Ravens with the winner punching their ticket to Super Bowl LVIII.
For the Chiefs, they find themselves knocking on the door of the Super Bowl and in the AFC title game for the sixth straight season after outlasting the Buffalo Bills. Unlike previous versions of the Chiefs, this club has leaned heavily on its defense throughout the year but has started to find a rhythm on offense after averaging 7.7 yards per attempt in the divisional round. While the arrow may be pointing up for the Chiefs offense, the unit faces its toughest challenge of the season with the Ravens also having their calling card come on the defensive side of the ball.
John Harbaugh’s team held rookie phenom C.J. Stroud and the Texans to just 10 points in a 34-10 divisional win last week. In that game, they held Houston to 4.5 yards per play and didn’t let the offense sniff the red zone as the only touchdown came on a punt return. On top of boasting arguably the top defense in the league, Baltimore also has Lamar Jackson under center, who is the presumptive league MVP this year. He is coming off a playoff victory where he rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns, while also throwing for 152 yards and two scores.
That combination has the Ravens sitting as a 3.5-point favorite as they are set to host Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game. As we get closer to kickoff, let’s highlight the top five players that will likely have the biggest impact on the final score of Sunday’s showdown.
As noted above, the Chiefs offense has started to click over these last few weeks and part of that has been the success they’ve been able to have on the ground with second-year back Isiah Pacheco. He’s averaging nearly 5 yards per carry in the playoffs and has a rushing touchdown in each of the past two games, along with at least one run of 20-plus yards. That opens up play-action for Kansas City and frees up the likes of Travis Kelce, Rashee Rice and others in the passing game for Mahomes.
The man who will largely be asked to shut down that key piece of Kansas City’s offense is Roquan Smith. The Ravens star linebacker has a positive success rate as a run stuffer across the board but is particularly impactful at protecting the edges where he is allowing just 3.8 yards per carry, according to TruMedia. That’s where Pacheco has enjoyed most of his success this season, averaging 6.7 yards per carry running outside to the left, and 5.8 yards per carry running wide right. If Smith can headline the Ravens run defense to eliminate the Chiefs rushing attack, it’ll eliminate a key element in how K.C. moves the football.
Rice has been an X factor for the Chiefs offense down the stretch, but he did not look 100% in the team’s win over Buffalo last week. If he continues to be hobbled, that’ll put a lot of pressure on Kelce to put together an encore performance of his two-touchdown showing in the divisional round. These playoffs, Kelce has been averaging six catches for 73 receiving yards thus far, which is an uptick from a rather slow finish to the regular season where he didn’t top 100 yards receiving since Week 7. In this type of game in a hostile road environment, Patrick Mahomes is going to lean on his trusted weapons which is primarily Kelce, who saw a team-high six targets last week in Buffalo. With plenty of attention set to be paid to him, Kelce will need to put together a monster outing to help this offense advance against a stout Baltimore secondary.
Jumping off of that Kelce point, let’s highlight the player who will likely be tasked with slowing him down. As we noted above, the Chiefs tight end will be Mahomes’ go-to weapon in this game, and stopping him could prove to be the nudge that has the house of cards crumble for the K.C. offense. Hamilton matches up size-wise with Kelce, standing at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and the safety has been a ball hawk throughout the year. As the primary defender in coverage, he’s allowed quarterbacks to complete just 56.1% of their passes against him and a 41.1 passer rating. Hamilton has surrendered one touchdown as the primary defender and recorded four interceptions. So long as he can shadow Kelce and limit his impact on the game, it’ll likely force Mahomes to put the ball into the hands of some other Chiefs wide receivers, which, as we’ve seen throughout the year, isn’t exactly a winning formula.
2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens
In all likelihood, Jackson is going to be the league MVP this year and he’s been slaying every top-tier opponent he and the Ravens have faced thus far. While Baltimore could, in theory, win this game solely on a defensive effort, if Jackson is on his game it could reach blowout status. Jackson is coming off a historic playoff win where he rushed for 100 yards and had two passing and rushing touchdowns. His legs could continue to be a major X factor in the AFC Championship, especially after the Chiefs just allowed Josh Allen to rush for 72 yards and two touchdowns in the divisional round. He also has performed well when facing pressure, which is noteworthy given that the Chiefs applied the ninth-highest pressure rate this season. When pressured, Jackson leads the NFL with 8.4 yards per attempt. If he can maintain that level of play, Baltimore should be able to punch its ticket to Las Vegas.
These quarterbacks are more 1A and 1B in terms of impact. The reason why Mahomes gets the edge in terms of this game is because he’ll likely be asked to be perfect in order for Kansas City to win. If he doesn’t, the Chiefs could be sent packing. As we’ve covered, the Ravens have plenty of tools to slow down key areas of the Chiefs offense, and it will be up to Mahomes to pull the right levers and counter with gut-punching plays down the stretch, which we’ve seen him do countless times. Throughout his career, Mahomes has been the great eraser for the Chiefs. No matter the mistakes the Chiefs may make or the impossible situations they find themselves in, his generational talent gives them the ability to overcome almost anything on the field, even going into M&T Bank Stadium to send the Chiefs to the Super Bowl yet again.