BALTIMORE — Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs put their championship-caliber mettle on display once again Sunday, knocking off the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens 17-10 in the AFC title game.
Reid, Patrick Mahomes and company are headed for their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons not because they boasted a prolific offensive attack or breathtaking fireworks display. No, they punched their ticket to Las Vegas because Reid and his staff won their chess match with John Harbaugh and his Ravens assistants and positioned their squad to pull off the grittiest victory of this budding dynasty’s history.
The Chiefs, long known for lighting up scoreboards with dizzying and dazzling heroics from Mahomes, didn’t even score in Sunday’s second half. Instead, they drew heavily on experience and also leaned on the most dominant defense Kansas City has fielded in the last six seasons. That defense delivered a performance that largely neutralized presumed NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and one of the league’s most imposing offensive attacks of the 2023 season.
But as a whole, the Ravens found themselves on the losing end after succumbing to pressure early and failing to overcome crippling mistakes late.
Well aware of how the Ravens are constructed and how they like to attack offensively (with a strong run game that ensures balance and paves the way for an improved passing attack), the Chiefs understood the importance of a fast start. They brought the pressure early to force Baltimore into a quick three-and-out and then delivered as impressive an offensive display as they have all postseason: a 10-play, 86-yard scoring drive, capped by a 19-yard Mahomes pass to Travis Kelce. With that, the Chiefs extended their streak of game-opening touchdown drives to eight straight playoff contests.
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The Ravens did respond with a touchdown of their own — a highlight-worthy Jackson escape and 30-yard strike to Zay Flowers. But the Chiefs came right back with a methodical 16-play, 75-yard drive that gobbled up 9:02 of clock.
Mahomes couldn’t miss, completing 11 straight passes to start the game. Kelce was as unguardable as ever. And that Chiefs defense that this season morphed from serviceable to dominant kept the pressure coming and delivered a strip-sack and recovery at the Baltimore 33-yard line.
And just like that, the Ravens found themselves on high alert.
Punt, touchdown, fumble was not the desired tone setter for Baltimore early in the first half. The Ravens’ defense had yielded game-opening touchdown drives only twice in its last 26 games, and until Kelce’s touchdown catch, Baltimore’s second-year star safety Kyle Hamilton had never surrendered a touchdown to a tight end as a pro.
The scoreboard may have read 14-7, but as Baltimore found itself in unfamiliar territory, the deficit felt far larger. And that’s when the Ravens committed their mortal sin.
Overwhelmed by the ease with which the Chiefs had scored, they went into panic mode. On defense, they momentarily lost their poise while committing life-giving personal fouls. And offensively, they got suckered into believing they had slipped into a far larger hole than they were actually in. As a result, they abandoned their bread-and-butter and tried to adapt a style of play for which they are not built.
After dominating on the ground all season long, the Ravens opted for a pass-heavy attack far too early.
For the rest of the second quarter, the Ravens ran the ball just twice (once on an off-schedule play by Jackson). For the remainder of the game, they ran the ball only seven more times. The league’s leading rushing team — a unit that averaged 156.5 rushing yards per game while boasting the most balanced offense in the NFL — turned one-dimensional and finished with only 81 ground yards, never regaining control in a very winnable game.
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The Ravens trailed only 17-7 at halftime. Yet they came out in the second half with the same frantic feel and approach as if they trailed by a heftier margin. They kept gunning even though their defense was keeping them in the game and the Chiefs off the scoreboard.
“It was just that kind of a game, I’d say,” Harbaugh said of the season-low 16 rushing attempts. “That’s just how it played out.”
The absence of a run game meant Baltimore’s offense never regained the rhythm that carried it so often this season. And the lack of balance eased pressure on the Chiefs’ defense because it allowed Kansas City’s pass-rushers to pin back their ears and come after Jackson. Meanwhile, when the quarterback wasn’t getting hit, a familiar problem — a lack of consistency in the receiving department — cropped up for the Ravens.
Again and again, Jackson dropped back to throw, but struggled to find an open receiver. Aside from Flowers, who finished the game with five catches on eight targets for 115 yards and a touchdown, Baltimore’s receivers struggled greatly to get any separation. Running back Justice Hill was the second-leading receiver with four catches, and not until the fourth quarter did Odell Beckham Jr. manage to get involved (three catches for 22 yards).
“We could’ve ran the ball,” Jackson said. “But we were just down and just trying to get the ball downfield. You’ve got to make something happen.”
Even while one-dimensional, the Ravens did have a chance. To open the fourth quarter, they reached the shadow of the Kansas City goal line on a five-play, 78-yard drive highlighted by a 54-yard throw to Flowers. But that possession painfully ended with a fumble as Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed punched the ball from Flowers’ grasp as the receiver dove for the end zone after an 8-yard catch.
And on the next possession, after reaching the Kansas City 25, Jackson threw an interception into triple coverage while trying to connect with tight end Isaiah Likely.
A Justin Tucker 43-yard field goal with 2:38 left cut the deficit to a touchdown, but the Ravens came no closer.
The Chiefs didn’t score in the second half, but they didn’t really have to. They did just enough offensively to spell their dominant defense and run precious minutes off the clock: five minutes here, two minutes there, another four there. By game’s end, they had won the time of possession battle 37:30 to 22:30.
The defeat represents a lost opportunity for the Ravens, even though the game never felt as close as the score might indicate. Jackson and his teammates lamented that they managed just one touchdown, and they’ll spend the offseason replaying costly miscues. It’s impossible to avoid wondering if a more patient approach would have better benefitted the Ravens while helping them find a better offensive flow throughout the game.
“You would like to use the saying of ‘I would love to have this back or have this play back,’ but you can’t get those plays back,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “You have to learn from them and move forward. And you know, it’s not over. Anytime you have a quarterback like Lamar, you have the opportunity to play in games like this again.”
This one will sting for a while, however, especially because of how it ended.
The 2023 season was a year of change and growth in Baltimore, and perhaps the Ravens can build on that. But Sunday, as they aimed for their ultimate goal, they strayed from their identity when pressure reached its highest point and never recovered.
(Top photo: Rob Carr / Getty Images)