The Chiefs defense and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo know well the challenge of containing Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Kansas City faced him four years in a row from 2018-21, winning the first three and then losing a thriller in 2021. But in the two-plus years since the Chiefs last faced him, Jackson has added to what makes him so dangerous.
“Everybody has talked about his running, but you can see how he’s developed as a passer,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said Wednesday. “Throwing from within the pocket, arm angles, making the accurate throw in big situations and big moments — that’s what the great quarterbacks do. He continues to get better and better every single year.”
Jackson, 27, is in line to win his second career NFL MVP, leading the Ravens to the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which is why Sunday’s conference championship game is being played in Baltimore after five straight years in Kansas City. Jackson led the Ravens in rushing for a fifth year in a row — only four running backs can even boast that — and the challenge he presents starts with the threat of him taking off.
“Lamar’s athleticism is second to none,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said this week. “His strength, his power, the way that he’s able to run the ball, his speed to get around the edge and be able to get north and south, all of those things are a big challenge for us. We’re going to have to … try to contain him in the pocket as much as we can to make sure that we get him on the ground in those times that he does run.
“He can still make all of the throws like everybody else.”
The growth of Jackson’s passing game this year has added another level of difficulty for opponents. How has he changed with Todd Monken taking over as offensive coordinator this season? Jackson has had some of the best passing numbers of his seven-year NFL career. He set career highs in passing yards (3,678), completion percentage (67.2) and yards/attempt (8.0), and his 102.7 overall quarterback rating is his best since his MVP season in 2018.
[READ MORE: Ravens on brink of Super Bowl by trusting Lamar Jackson: ‘I have the keys to offense’]
Consider the Ravens’ growth in big-play passes. A year ago, the Chiefs led the NFL with 73 pass plays of 20 yards or longer; the Ravens were second-lowest with just 33. This year, they’ve met in the middle, with both teams getting 52, a significant growth for Baltimore and a step back for Kansas City.
Jackson has had 12 different players on the opposite end of such passes, led by rookie receiver Zay Flowers, who has led a veteran group that includes Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor, all in their first year with Baltimore. Jackson has thrown 11 of his touchdowns to tight ends Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely, making the Ravens the only NFL team with two tight ends catching at least five scores.
Add that downfield passing threat to the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack, averaging 156 yards per game, and it’s a nightmare for opposing defenses. Jackson hasn’t faced the Chiefs since 2021, and yet over the past five years, he has the two best rushing performances by quarterbacks against Kansas City, getting 107 in 2021 and 83 in 2020.
“He’s hard to tackle. To me, the greatest compliment would be being hard to tackle,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “I can think back to when I was a kid, I read the Woody Hayes book. Woody Hayes talked about, ‘You could tell what a great running back looked like carrying the ball by how many tackles people miss trying to tackle him.’
“I think that’s true for wide receivers [with] run after the catch. It’s true for quarterbacks on scrambles. Patrick Mahomes is one of the best at making tacklers miss. Lamar’s unique that way. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, obviously, anybody’s ever seen. He’s a tough tackle.”
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This is the first playoff showdown for Jackson and Mahomes, but they’ve had some epic duels in the regular season. The most recent was in Week 2 of the 2021 season, when Mahomes passed for 343 yards and three touchdowns. The Chiefs led 35-24 in the fourth quarter before Jackson rallied for two rushing touchdowns and a 36-35 Ravens victory. Their first meeting, in 2018, was also down to the wire, as Baltimore took the lead with 4:04 left, only to see the Chiefs answer with a touchdown with 53 seconds left, leading to a 27-24 overtime victory.
The one thing missing from Jackson’s résumé is postseason success. He had just one playoff win in his first six NFL seasons, never making it past the divisional round. Now he has a chance to show what he can do in a conference championship game, with a much bigger platform. That motivation could take his game to another level Sunday.
“I just know his mindset, how excited he is [to] show the world exactly who he is play in and play out, and just the way he’s leading the offense and the things he’s able to do with the football,” Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith said.
“I’m just grateful that I’m playing with him and not against him, because it’s definitely a handful, and he can beat you in so many different ways.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.