Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

BALTIMORE — This was correctly billed as Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson, the reigning and likely next NFL MVPs, two of the most dangerous, electric playmakers in today’s game.

Just the same, the Chiefs are heading to another Super Bowl and the Ravens are heading home because Kansas City’s defense stole the spotlight and won the game Sunday, forcing three turnovers in a 17-10 win in the AFC Championship Game.

The unsung hero, posing in the locker room with the Lamar Hunt Trophy and his proud players, was a 64-year-old man who hasn’t been mentioned for any head coaching jobs and who went 11-41 as a head coach and just pulled off a masterpiece.

That hero is Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

“In Spags we trust,” said safety Justin Reid, and the Chiefs wore shirts saying just that as they celebrated in the locker room. “Spags put together a hell of a game plan. He has such a feel for the game, when to call pressure, when to fake a pressure and have us drop in coverage. It’s big-time plays in the moments we needed them the most.”

Baltimore tied for the best turnover margin in the league in 2023, finishing at plus-12, and yet the Ravens were minus-3 Sunday, matching the best turnover margin in any conference championship game in the past eight years, and the best in the last 19 Chiefs playoff games. Player after player cited Spagnuolo, who redirected any praise to his staff and his team.

“This is the highest group of cerebral, passionate football players I’ve ever had,” Spagnuolo said. “Every one of them, to a man, loves ball and is really smart about how they play, and that makes a lot of difference.”

Let’s face it: The defense hasn’t done a ton of heavy lifting in the Mahomes era. In five previous conference championship games with him, Kansas City has given up at least 20 points and an average of 26.4 points; in three Super Bowls, at least 20 in each and an average of 28.7 points.

So holding the league’s No. 4 scoring offense to 10 points on its home field, it means something.

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“The guy is so dynamic, it’s tough,” Reid said of Jackson. “We sent a whole lot of things at him, trying to make it as difficult as possible. We sent zone pressures, man pressures, max-drop protection, zero pressures. We tried to put a lot of things on his plate.”

Jackson threw a 30-yard touchdown on Baltimore’s second drive, made highlight-reel plays early in the game, like when a pass was tipped at the line, and Jackson scrambled, caught his own pass and took it for a 13-yard gain.

“A guy that can throw a pass and then catch it on his own. How do you defend that?” Spagnuolo said. “We didn’t have a defense in for that. He was so hard to contain, and when he decides to tuck it in and run, he’s scary.”

Two of Baltimore’s three turnovers came in the fourth quarter, and the biggest came on the first play of the quarter. Down 10, Baltimore had gotten a 54-yard pass from Jackson to rookie receiver Zay Flowers, threatening to make it a three-point game. Flowers was going in for the touchdown when cornerback L’Jarius Sneed dived and poked the ball loose inside the 1-yard line, and corner Trent McDuffie recovered the fumble in the end zone.

“He had a step on me, and all I was thinking was just catch up with him,” Sneed said. “He’s a fast little jitterbug, but I caught up with him, punched at the ball and the ball came out. It’s a blessing.”

Said Spagnuolo: “He does that. He’s always done that. He never stops on a play. Even in practice, you’ll see him always punching at the ball. He’s a special player and I love having him.”

Early in the game, when the teams had traded touchdowns on three straight drives, the Chiefs got their first takeaway as edge Charles Omenihu stripped the ball from Jackson on a sack, with George Karlaftis recovering the fumble. It didn’t result in points, but it took the momentum away from Baltimore, which punted on its next four drives.

The Ravens had the fewest interceptions in the NFL this year — just seven all season — but the Chiefs got Jackson to throw one in the fourth, throwing into triple coverage in the end zone, with safety Deon Bush coming away with the interception.

“It’s a testament to our leader, Coach Spags,” Bush said. “One of the best in the game. We’ve got superstars, but we don’t have superstar egos. Everybody goes out and prepares humbly. … I saw the ball in the air and I couldn’t believe it.”

The Chiefs are going to their fourth Super Bowl in five years, and yet they found a way to feel like underdogs, with critics saying they couldn’t win a conference championship on the road after having their previous Super Bowl trips go through Arrowhead Stadium.

“Nobody gave us a chance. ‘We can’t win on the road. They got this, they got that. We’re not going to be able to score, we’re not going to be able to stop the run,'” Reid said. “Alright. We’re going to keep the receipts and we’re going to pull them up on you.”

For all the attention on Baltimore having the league’s No. 1 scoring defense, Kansas City’s defense ranked second in yards allowed and second behind the Ravens in points allowed. Take away a rest-the-starters game in Week 18, Baltimore had scored at least 20 points in 12 straight games, but the Chiefs held them to just 10 on Sunday. 

“It’s crazy. I just appreciate our whole defense, top to bottom,” safety Mike Edwards said. “The camaraderie and everything that comes with Kansas City. That’s the reason I came here. I knew we had a chance to get back to the Super Bowl. It’s an unbelievable feeling. I just love this team.”

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.

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