Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

Conference championship weekend is finally here. In the first of two Sunday games, the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs will visit the Baltimore Ravens as two of the NFL’s best team vie for the right to call themselves the AFC’s best. 

The Ravens finished the regular season with the NFL’s best record and will bring likely league MVP Lamar Jackson to bear against Patrick Mahomes and Co. Baltimore is looking for its first AFC title of the Jackson era, and its first as a franchise since the 2012 season, when John Harbaugh’s squad defeated his brother Jim’s 49ers in the Super Bowl. 

Kansas City, meanwhile, is looking to head back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in Mahomes’ six seasons under center, and to capture its first road AFC title game win. The Chiefs have hosted the conference championship in each of the last five years, and this will be a new challenge for them a week after going on the road for the first time in the playoffs, period. 

Which of these teams will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? We’ll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here’s a look at how you can watch the game.

How to watch

Date: Sunday, Jan. 28 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
Location: M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore)
TV: CBS | Stream on Paramount+ 
Follow: CBS Sports App 
Odds: Ravens -3.5, O/U 44.5 (via Sportsline consensus odds)

When the Chiefs have the ball

Coming off two of their best offensive performances of the year, the Chiefs will now face the toughest defense they have seen all season. Baltimore finished the regular season ranked first in FTN’s DVOA, with the league’s seventh-best unit against the run and best defense against the pass. 

Mike Macdonald’s group held C.J. Stroud and the explosive Houston Texans offense — which was fresh off tearing up the Browns — to just 213 total yards, 10 first downs, and three offensive points a week ago. Obviously, doing that against a rookie quarterback in his first road playoff game, while missing his Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers (Tank Dell and Noah Brown), is a far different task than doing it against Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and this Chiefs offense — even if that offense did not perform up to its usual standards this season.

The single-most important aspect of this matchup will be how Kansas City’s offensive line holds up against Macdonald’s various pressure looks. The Ravens don’t actually blitz all that often (23.4% of opponent dropbacks during the regular season, per Tru Media, the seventh-lowest blitz rate in the NFL), but Macdonald makes heavy use of simulated pressures so that opponents do not know where the rushers are coming from. 

The Chiefs in recent seasons have been excellent up front, but their signings of Jawaan Taylor and Donovan Smith to man the tackle spots did not work out as well as their other tackles have over the past couple years, and they have thus been far more vulnerable up front than at any time since their Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers a few years ago. Mahomes is able to mitigate and avoid pressure with the best of them due to his ability to create on the move as a thrower and runner, but he was also more affected by pressure this season than at any previous point in his career. If the Ravens can get after him early and often and prevent him from throwing in rhythm, this year’s Chiefs can be thrown off their game. We’ve seen it happen. 

Kansas City has negated that issue these past couple weeks, for the most part. Even if they’re able to do that again, though, the Chiefs will face tougher matchups in the secondary than they did against either the Dolphins or Bills. 

Travis Kelce will see a lot of Roquan Smith in the middle of the field, as well as Marcus Williams over the top. If he heads to the slot, Kyle Hamilton will be there waiting for him. Rashee Rice lines up in the slot quite often, and will have to deal with Hamilton there. If and when he heads outside, he could see Marlon Humphrey, who returned to practice this week, but could also see Brandon Stephens and cloud coverage to his side. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rice in motion quite often to get him free releases on downfield routes.) Judicious use of screens will be key against this Baltimore defense, as you want to be able to use the Ravens’ aggressiveness against them but also don’t want to be too passive when it comes to challenging them downfield.

Considering the relative weakness of the rest of the pass-catching group, it would not be surprising to see Macdonald devote extra attention to both of those players and try to force Mahomes to beat him by throwing to the likes of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson, Mecole Hardman, Richie James, and Noah Gray. That’s easier said than done with Reid scheming things up, but there have also been few things more difficult in the NFL this season than throwing the ball against the Ravens defense.

Isiah Pacheco has mostly run quite well since returning from injury, but Kansas City’s run game was inconsistent at best during the regular season. The Chiefs will need the mauler version of their offensive line to show up on Sunday, whether or not Joe Thuney (who has still yet to practice due to a pectoral injury) is able to suit up. And if he’s out, that only makes what has just been an okay-ish unit weaker, putting KC further behind the eight-ball against this terrifying Baltimore group. 

When the Ravens have the ball

Unlike in previous seasons, Kansas City’s defense is a unit that is capable of tangling with a high-level offense and coming out the other side as the victor. The Chiefs finished this season ranked seventh in DVOA, checking in 27th against the run and fifth against the pass. 

The former number, obviously, is concerning against a Ravens team led by Lamar Jackson. The Chiefs allowed the 10th-most rushing yards to quarterbacks during the regular season, according to Tru Media, though they notably held QBs to a low rate of explosive runs (6.6% compared with a league average of 9.7%), thanks to their strong tackling ability on the second level. If Kansas City can limit Jackson’s runs to short-to-medium gains and prevent him from ripping off big plays on the ground, that can tip the matchup in their favor a bit here. 

The Ravens averaged the sixth-most yards before contact per carry un running-back runs this season, per Tru Media, and though the Gus Edwards/Justice Hill combination does not provide nearly as much in the way of explosiveness as the likes of J.K. Dobbins and/or Keaton Mitchell would, they do each have their merits as ball-carriers. Both players mostly tend to just get what is blocked for them and don’t do much tackle-breaking, but Hill, in particular, looked quite good against the Texans last week — and that was a team that had finished the season ranked second in run defense DVOA. 

How well Baltimore’s offensive line can control the matchup up the middle, and whether the Ravens can take advantage of the fact that Chris Jones — a true game-wrecker in the pass game — has not been as good defending the run this year as he has for most of his career, will also be key. The middle of the pocket is the key for the Ravens in the pass game as well. Jones is by far the best pass-rush threat on Kansas City’s defensive line, and he’ll hang to tangle with a strong interior trio of John Simpson, Tyler Linderbaum, and Kevin Zeitler. Jackson tends to be most susceptible to pressure up the middle due to the way he navigates the pocket, so keeping Jones from pushing that interior back into his lap will be of paramount importance. 

Last week against Houston, DeMeco Ryans unleashed an avalanche of blitzes throughout the first half that kept Baltimore’s passing game at bay. The Texans rarely blitzed during the regular season, but did so on an incredible 72.2% of Jackson’s pre-halftime dropbacks a week ago. Steve Spagnuolo sent blitzes on 38.4% of opponent dropbacks during the regular season, the fifth-highest rate in the league, per Tru Media. It would not at all be surprising if Spags tried to heat Lamar up as often as possible in this one, making him prove that he can beat the blitz in the same way he did after halftime last week. (He went 8 of 9 for 79 yards and a touchdown.)

The Ravens could get Mark Andrews back for this game, and the combination of him and Isiah Likely could give the Ravens an advantage over the middle of the field. It will be interesting to see whether the Chiefs decide to shadow Zay Flowers with L’Jarius Sneed, or whether they’re comfortable with any of Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, or Jaylen Watson winding up on him at any time. Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t see the much-rumored expansion of playing time last week, instead taking a back seat behind Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor in the pecking order. How that group shakes out and whether they’re able to find the same type of success that they have for much of the season, against a very stingy secondary, will obviously play into how much success Jackson is able to find through the air. 

Prediction: Chiefs 20, Ravens 17

Most of the numbers and matchup details point toward the Ravens. They’re at home, they were the better team during the regular season, they have the likely league MVP … and yet, I cannot bring myself to pick against Patrick Mahomes and/or Andy Reid. Until these guys get knocked off, I’m going to keep rolling with them. 

If you want a more analytical approach to your NFL picks, then I highly suggest that you check out the SportsLine Projection Model, which has been on fire this year. Check it out if you want to know which side to bet for every game in the divisional round.

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