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 teams battle for the right to call themselves the AFC's best teams.
The Ravens finished the regular season with the best record in the NFL and will pit likely league MVP Lamar Jackson against Patrick Mahomes and Co. Baltimore is seeking its first AFC title of the Jackson era and its first as a franchise since the 2012 season, when John Harbaugh's team defeated his brother Jim's 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Kansas City, meanwhile, is looking to return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in Mahomes' six seasons under center and capture its first AFC title on the road. The Chiefs have hosted the conference championship each of the last five years, and this will be a new challenge for them a week after their first road game in the playoffs.
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 how to watch the game.
Here's how to watch
Date: Sunday, January 28th | Time: 3pm ET
Location: M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore)
TV: CBS | Stream on Paramount+
Consequences: CBS Sports App
opportunities: Ravens -3.5, O/U 44.5 (via Sportsline consensus odds)
When the Chiefs have the ball
After two of their best offensive performances of the year, the Chiefs will now face the strongest 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 the best defense against the pass.
Mike Macdonald's group held CJ Stroud and the Houston Texans' explosive offense – which was in the process of upsetting the Browns – to just 213 total yards, 10 first downs and three offensive points a week ago. Obviously, doing this 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 much different task than it is against Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and the Chiefs' offense – even if that offense didn't perform to its usual standard this season.
The most important aspect of this matchup will be how Kansas City's offensive line fares against Macdonald's various pressing looks. The Ravens don't actually blitz all that often (23.4% of opponent dropbacks during the regular season, the seventh-lowest blitz rate in the NFL according to Tru Media), but Macdonald uses heavily simulated pressure so opponents don't know where the rushers are coming from.
The Chiefs have been excellent up front in recent seasons, but their signing of Jawaan Taylor and Donovan Smith to man the tackle spots hasn't worked as well as their other tackle spots over the last few years, and as a result they've been far more vulnerable up front than ever before since the Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers a few years ago. Because of his ability to create on the move as a thrower and runner, Mahomes has the ability to defuse and avoid pressure with the best, but he has also faced more pressure this season than at any 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 saw it.
Kansas City has largely been in denial about this issue in recent weeks. But even if they do that again, the Chiefs will face tougher matchups in the secondary than they did against the Dolphins or Bills.
Travis Kelce will see a lot of Roquan Smith in the middle of the field and Marcus Williams up front. When he goes to the slot, Kyle Hamilton will be there waiting for him. Rashee Rice is in the slot quite often and has to deal with Hamilton there. When he goes outside, he could see Marlon Humphrey, who returned to practice this week, but also Brandon Stephens and the cloud cover at his side. (I wouldn't be surprised if Rice was in motion quite a bit to give him free throws on downfield routes.) Smart use of screens will be crucial against this Baltimore defense, as you'll be able to control the Ravens' aggressiveness against I want to use them, but I also don't want to be too passive when it comes to challenging them in the field.
Given the relative weakness of the rest of the pass-catching group, it wouldn't be surprising if Macdonald paid special attention to these two players and tried to force Mahomes to beat him by throwing to players like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson, Mecole Hardman, Richie James and Noah Gray. That's easier said than done considering Reid's mind, but there have 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 running game has been inconsistent at best during the regular season. The Chiefs will need the Mauler version of their offensive line on Sunday, whether or not Joe Thuney (who has yet to practice due to a pectoral injury) is able to do so. And if he's out, it will only weaken what was previously a pretty good unit and put KC further behind the eight-ball against this fearsome Baltimore group.
When the Ravens have the ball
Unlike previous seasons, Kansas City's defense is a unit capable of taking on a top-tier offense and coming out victorious on the other side. The Chiefs finished seventh in DVOA this season and ranked 27th against the run and fifth against the pass.
The former number is obviously concerning against a Lamar Jackson-led Ravens team. According to Tru Media, the Chiefs allowed the 10th-most rushing yards to quarterbacks in the regular season, although their strength kept QBs' explosive run rate significantly low (6.6% compared to a league average of 9.7%). Tackle ability at the second level. If Kansas City can limit Jackson's runs to short-to-medium wins and keep him from making big plays on the ground, it could swing the game a bit in their favor here.
According to Tru Media, the Ravens averaged the sixth-most yards before contact per carry and running back runs this season, and the combination of Gus Edwards and Justice Hill doesn't offer nearly as much explosiveness as players like JK Dobbins and/or Keaton Mitchell, all of them have their advantages as ball carriers. Both players mostly tend to just get what's blocked to them and don't try much to break tackles, but Hill in particular looked pretty good against the Texans last week – and that was a team that started the season on the had finished second in run defense DVOA.
How well Baltimore's offensive line can control play up the middle and whether the Ravens can take advantage of the fact that Chris Jones – a true game-wrecker in the passing game – hasn't been as good defend the run This year, like most of his career, will also be crucial. The middle of the pocket is also key for the Ravens in the passing game. Jones is easily the best pass-rush threat on Kansas City's defensive line and will be able to compete with a strong interior trio of John Simpson, Tyler Linderbaum and Kevin Zeitler. Because of the way he navigates the pocket, Jackson is typically most vulnerable to pressure in the middle. That's why keeping Jones from shoving that interior space back into his fold will be paramount.
Last week against Houston, DeMeco Ryans unleashed an avalanche of blitzes in the first half that kept Baltimore's passing game in check. The Texans rarely blitzed during the regular season, but did so on an incredible 72.2% of Jackson's dropbacks before halftime a week ago. According to Tru Media, Steve Spagnuolo sent blitzes on 38.4% of opponent dropbacks during the regular season, the fifth-highest rate in the league. It wouldn't be at all surprising if Spags tried to fire up Lamar as much as possible in this game to prove he can beat the blitz the same way he did after halftime last week. (He completed 8 of 9 for 79 yards and a touchdown.)
The Ravens could bring 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 if the Chiefs decide to shadow Zay Flowers with L'Jarius Sneed or if they are comfortable with one of them, Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams or Jaylen Watson, going after him at some point. Odell Beckham Jr. didn't see the much-rumored playing time extension last week and instead took a backseat in the pecking order behind Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor. How this group performs and whether they are able to find the same success they have had for most of the season against a very stingy secondary will obviously have an impact on how much success Jackson can achieve through the air.
Prediction: Chiefs 20, Ravens 17
Most numbers and matchup details point to the Ravens. They're at home, they were the better team in the regular season, they probably have the league MVP… and yet I can't bring myself to choose against Patrick Mahomes and/or Andy Reid. Until these guys get blown away, I'm going to keep going with them.
If you want a more analytical approach to your NFL picks, I highly recommend taking a look at the SportsLine Projection Model, which has been in full swing this year. Give it a try if you want to know which side you should bet on for each divisional round game.