Lamar Jackson seems certain to match Patrick Mahomes in NFL MVP awards, though he’s still got some catching up to do on his counterpart when it comes to the one trophy that defines a quarterback’s legacy more than any other.
The Baltimore Ravens superstar is an overwhelming favorite to take home a second career MVP at the NFL’s annual awards ceremony in a couple of weeks and join nine other quarterbacks – Mahomes included – to win the league’s most prestigious individual honor multiple times.
And Jackson could be the only member of that select group never to lead his team to a Super Bowl. He has the best opportunity of his career to shed that unwanted label this weekend, when the Ravens host the AFC championship game at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time in 11 years (on CBS).
But to do so, Jackson will have to get past the team that has set the standard of excellence in the NFL playoffs for the last half-decade, the one led by the player who’s already made his mark as one of the most successful postseason quarterbacks in league history before his 29th birthday.
One day after Jackson collected his second career playoff win with the Ravens’ 34-10 dismantling of the awestruck Houston Texans in last Saturday’s divisional round, Mahomes added the 13th to his Hall of Fame resumé as his Kansas City Chiefs outlasted the Buffalo Bills in another thrill-packed postseason encounter between the teams.
One more victory would tie Mahomes with three immortals – Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Peyton Manning – for the third most in league history for a quarterback, and in considerably fewer games than each of them.
HIGHEST WINNING% BY A QB IN THE POSTSEASON SINCE 1950 (MIN. 10 STARTS)
- Bart Starr (9-1)
- Patrick Mahomes (13-3)
- Jim Plunkett (8-2)
- Terry Bradshaw (14-5)
- Troy Aikman (11-4)
The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs have already secured their own place in the record books with last week’s 27-24 win, which made them the second franchise of the Super Bowl era with six consecutive appearances in a conference title game (the New England Patriots went to eight straight from 2011-18).
Now they’ve got a chance to join company even more elite, as a victory Sunday would place them as one of just three times to reach the Super Bowl four times in a five-year span. The Tom Brady/Bill Belichick-led Patriots accomplished the feat from 2014-18, while the hard-luck Bills got there in four straight years (and lost each time) from 1990-93.
Despite those mighty credentials, the Chiefs do find themselves in the rare spot of being playoff underdogs per the sportsbooks as they venture outside of Kansas City for an AFC title game for the first time during their remarkable run.
Baltimore’s present standing as 3.5-point favorites has plenty of merit to it, however, as the Ravens have been far and away the AFC’s most consistently good team over the course of the season and earned the conference’s best record even with the league’s third-toughest schedule based on 2023 records.
They also have a better adjusted team rating than the 2013 Denver Broncos (12.0), who have the highest mark we’ve recorded for a Super Bowl team since 1991. Our adjusted team ratings measure how many points per 10 drives better or worse a team is compared to the league-average club that year.
The Ravens are 11-4 against teams that finished above .500, the most victories and highest winning percentage of any club in such games this season.
But our supercomputer sits as squarely on the fence as it can possibly be as to choosing a winner, calling Kansas City the best bets by the slimmest of margins at 50.1%.
PROJECTED WINNER: CHIEFS
WIN PROBABILITY: 50.1%
While the two quarterbacks are undeniably the headline acts of this star-studded showdown, they’ve both been aided by an exceptionally strong supporting cast on the other side of the ball.
As the chart below illustrates, this matchup also features arguably the league’s two best pass defenses this season.
How each of these premier quarterbacks navigate the obvious obstacles they’ll be presented with will go a long way in determining which of these powerhouses represents the AFC for Super Bowl LVIII.
Both teams have some other items on their to-do list to check off before making plans for Las Vegas, however, which we’ll explain in further detail below.
KC’S KEY: STOP THE RUN/CONVERT IN THE RED ZONE
Head coach John Harbaugh wants his teams to run the ball in the postseason, and the Ravens have been very proficient at doing just that over his accomplished 16-year tenure that includes a Super Bowl victory during the 2012 season.
In Baltimore’s last five playoff games dating back to the 2019 campaign, it’s averaged nearly 35 rush attempts, 191 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per carry per outing.
The Ravens carried out that plan to perfection in the divisional round as they bullied the Texans for 229 yards on the ground, and you can bet Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Todd Monken took notice of the Bills churning out 182 rushing yards with a run-play success rate of 62.5% against Kansas City last week.
That total was inflated somewhat by the Chiefs’ inability to contain Josh Allen in the pocket, as Buffalo’s franchise quarterback gained 42 yards on six scrambles that night.
Problem is, Jackson poses an even greater threat than Allen as a runner, and no player this season has ripped off long gains with his legs at a higher frequency than the two-time 1,000-yard rusher.
HIGHEST% OF RUSHES OF 10+ YARDS (INCLUDING PLAYOFFS/MIN. 100 ATTEMPTS)
- Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (21.4)
- Justin Fields, Chicago Bears (21.0)
- Devon Achane, Miami Dolphins (20.2)
- Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers (16.6)
- Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers (15.9)
Jackson torched the Texans on both scrambles and designed runs en route to amassing 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, and he’s easily Baltimore’s most dangerous player when used as a running back with speedsters J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell both out for the season
The area the Chiefs do excel in on defense is in limiting big plays, and that aptitude was on display last week. The Bills had to work for every point they earned on coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit, as all four of their scoring drives were between 11 and 15 plays and they didn’t have a play longer than 18 yards the entire game.
Baltimore can play that game as well, however. The Ravens produced 30 scoring drives of 10 or more plays during the regular season, with only the Dallas Cowboys (39) and Philadelphia Eagles (34) exceeding that total.
And the Ravens know how to finish possessions with touchdowns, especially when tight end Mark Andrews is on the field like he’s expected to be Sunday.
Andrews missed Baltimore’s final six regular-season games as well as last week’s playoff opener with a serious ankle surgery he suffered in mid-November. The three-time Pro Bowler is set to return this week, and the Ravens will be hoping he can immediately reclaim his role as an elite red-zone weapon.
Prior to the injury, Andrews had six touchdown catches while hauling in 10-of-14 targets within the red zone in just 10 games, and likely would have led the NFL in red-zone TD receptions had he stayed healthy (no player had more than eight this season).
Moreover, the Ravens scored touchdowns on 65.9% of their red-zone drives with Andrews active from Weeks 2-11, a rate that would have bettered every team over the entirety of the season except for the NFC championship game host San Francisco 49ers. With him out, Baltimore’s red-zone touchdown percentage dipped to 54.5% over the final six weeks of the regular season.
If the Ravens are generating touchdowns inside the enemy’s 20-yard line, then the Chiefs could be in for a tough time unless they can quickly find a solution for their season-long red-zone issues.
Kansas City finished 17th in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage (54.1) during the regular season, and it’s been worse so far in the playoffs with just four TDs in 10 trips. The Chiefs had to settle for Harrison Butker field goals four times in their opening-round win over the Miami Dolphins, then kept the Bills in the game last week when wide receiver Mecole Hardman fumbled into the end zone from the Bills’ 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter with a chance to take a two-score lead.
Complicating matters is that the Chiefs will be going up against one of the league’s stingiest red-zone defenses in Baltimore. The Ravens yielded the fewest points per red-zone possession (4.06) and the fewest yards per play (1.78) in that area during the regular season, and the chart below shows just how much of trouble they’ve given for opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
Andy Reid’s offense will no doubt have a serious challenge on its hands Sunday, though the Ravens figure to face a far sterner test than they got from the inexperienced Texans a week ago as well.
BALTIMORE’S KEY: KEEP EXCELLING IN PASS DEFENSE
Though this hasn’t been a vintage season for the Chiefs’ offense, it’s hitting its stride at the perfect possible time. Mahomes has been on point with both his accuracy and decision-making during the first two playoff games (he’s yet to throw a pickable pass in 55 adjusted attempts this postseason), and he’s been getting plenty of help from a receiving corps that too often lacked consistency in the regular season.
The passing game is also clicking again because Mahomes’ primary two outlets, tight end Travis Kelce and rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice, are doing their jobs at an extraordinarily high level. Rice has been open on every one of his 16 targets in the two playoff wins while recording a burn on 15 of them. Kelce, fresh off a two-touchdown effort against the Bills that further enhanced his reputation as a legendary postseason performer, has been similarly dominant with 15 burns and 15 open occasions on his 16 targets.
That’s a combined open rate of 96.9% and a burn rate of 93.8% from the players Mahomes has directed more than 58% of his adjusted pass attempts towards in this postseason.
It won’t likely be that easy, however, against a Baltimore defense that hasn’t limited its prowess to only the red zone. The Ravens were the best team in the league in open-allowed rate during the regular season at 72.6% and were even better over the second half, registering a sensational 68.3% rate from Week 9 on. No team came close to matching that number during that period, with the No. 2-ranked Atlanta Falcons coming in at 72.3%.
There haven’t been any weak links in Baltimore’s deep and talented secondary, as each of its top four cornerbacks (Brandon Stephens, Marlon Humphrey, Ronald Darby, Arthur Maulet) produced open-allowed rates under 63% and burn-allowed rates of 42.3% or below in the regular season. And that doesn’t include All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton, the ultimate chess piece for coordinator Mike Macdonald’s fearsome unit.
With his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and remarkable agility for a defensive back his size, Hamilton may be the perfect antidote for Kelce, who’s seen more targets out of the slot than any Kansas City receiver. Hamilton has often been an eraser when deployed by Macdonald as an inside cornerback, as he recorded the second-lowest burn percentage of any player targeted 25 or more times out of the slot in the regular season.
LOWEST BURN ALLOWED% BY SLOT DEFENDERS (MIN. 25 TARGETS)
- Michael Carter II, New York Jets (19.6)
- Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens (32.1)
- Arthur Maulet, Baltimore Ravens (32.4)
- Quentin Lake, Los Angeles Rams (38.5)
- Mike Hilton, Cincinnati Bengals (38.6)
We mentioned when outlining the Miami game two weeks back how much the Chiefs’ success has been predicated on Mahomes’ performance, and that has held true heading into the conference championship game. Kansas City is 11-0 when the two-time MVP registers a passer rating of 80 or above and 1-6 when he falls below that mark.
There’s also a correlation between how the Chiefs fare and how prevalent Mahomes is throwing to uncovered receivers. The Ravens allowed an open target 77.4% of the time last week against Houston, a team which finished above 80% during the regular season. Should they maintain that level on Sunday, the Chiefs could be in for a difficult time.
Kansas City finished with an open rate of 77.4% or below in seven Mahomes starts during the regular season. Five of those games were losses, and Mahomes’ adjusted completion and pickable pass rates were a combined 63.7% and 3.98%, respectively, over those contests.
Conversely, the Chiefs are 10-1 when their open percentage is higher than that aforementioned mark and not surprisingly, Mahomes’ adjusted completion percentage rises to 75.3 and his pickable pass percentage declines to 2.69 in those games.
One aspect working in Kansas City’s favor is that it’s been running the ball with more regularity and with greater effectiveness in the playoffs. Top back Isiah Pacheco has accumulated 186 yards on 39 attempts over the last two games while receiving a healthy average of 3.28 yards before contact behind the Chiefs’ outstanding offensive line.
And although the Ravens have generally been solid in defending the run, their greatness this season has primarily come from their ability to routinely shut down their opponents’ passing attacks.
They’ve still yet to do just that against quite possibly the greatest postseason quarterback of this era, though the same could probably be said about Mahomes as he prepares for perhaps the most daunting task of his glorious playoff career.