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Ravens News 1/26: AFCCG Key Battles

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Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

The Ravens empowered Lamar Jackson. Facing Patrick Mahomes should show how far he’s come.

Kyle Goon, The Baltimore Banner

The script has flipped for Jackson, who always had talent within him but less around him to thrive as a passer. Now, off his best passing season ever, Jackson’s first playoff matchup against Mahomes is a referendum on not only him but everything Baltimore has done to empower him. The playing field is more even than their last meeting, if not tilted in Jackson’s favor.

When it comes to throwing the ball this season, there’s no doubt who does more of it. Mahomes has 140 more attempts than Jackson and 505 more passing yards. But Jackson has the same completion percentage as Mahomes (67.2%), a better quarterback rating (102.7 to 92.6) and half as many interceptions (7 to 14). Jackson just set a career high in yards per attempt (8.0), while Mahomes set a career low (7.0). The quarterbacks threw nearly the same intended air yards (Jackson’s 3,831 to Mahomes’ 3,876).

Mahomes is not to be counted out, of course. This postseason, he’s thrown three touchdowns against zero interceptions. In his duel with Buffalo’s Josh Allen, he was 17-for-23 for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Kelce.

But the Ravens believe what they saw in 2021 was just a preview of what Jackson can do.

Ravens vs. Chiefs isn’t just about Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. The defenses get a say, too.

Hayes Gardner, The Baltimore Sun

The Chiefs rank seventh among NFL defenses in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (a mark of overall efficiency), but in a much more straightforward stat — points allowed — they rank second. Just behind the Ravens.

Baltimore, atop the league in defensive DVOA, allowed 16.5 points per game during the regular season while Kansas City allowed 17.3.

Ravens wide receiver Rashod Bateman said the Kansas City secondary is among the best he’s faced this season and backup tight end Charlie Kolar noted that one of the most difficult aspects of facing the Chiefs is identifying their defense, which they mask well.

“And on top of that, they have good players. So it is a big challenge for us, but we’re excited for it,” Kolar said.

Kansas City boasts star defensive lineman Chris Jones, who’s racked up 26 sacks over the past two seasons, and cornerback Trent McDuffie, an All-Pro in his second year. But more than the individuals, they have a solid unit led by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

NFL playoffs: Key matchups to watch in the Ravens-Chiefs AFC Championship Game

Ted Nguyễn, The Athletic

No team stifles receivers like the Chiefs’ secondary. In the regular season, they allowed the fewest yards to wide receivers. It’ll be a challenging day for Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman against L’Jarius Sneed, Jaylen Watson and Trent McDuffie.

With Mark Andrews slated to make his playoff debut, I’d expect the Ravens to use a lot of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, and two receivers) to get the Chiefs’ base personnel on the field and heavily target Andrews and Isaiah Likely. Running back Justice Hill also should see some pass plays designed for him.

There’s no great answer against this Chiefs pass defense. They’re third in defensive EPA per dropback with base personnel and rank 10th in defensive EPA per play when targeting tight ends, but the Ravens do have a rare pair of tight ends. Whether they can produce against the Chiefs’ elite pass defense will be vital for the Ravens’ passing efficiency.

The Chiefs didn’t defend Allen as a runner on designed runs or as a scrambler well last week. Allen had 12 carries for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Their inability to defend against mobile quarterbacks is a trend. In the past two seasons (regular and playoffs), the Chiefs are the fifth-worst team in defensive EPA against designed quarterbacks runs and scrambles.

NFL Conference Championship Round Preview: Betting tips, highest-graded players and matchups to watch

Marcus Mosher, PFF

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS VS. BALTIMORE RAVENS (-3.5)

Matchup to watch: Chiefs TE Travis Kelce vs. Ravens SS Kyle Hamilton

By his standards, Kelce had a “fine” regular season, but he’s really turned things up in the playoffs. Against the Buffalo Bills, he caught five passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns to help the Chiefs advance. He looks healthier than he did at any point in the regular season and is back to being a dynamic weapon for the Chiefs.

Nonetheless, he is in for quite the test this week as he’ll see a ton of Kyle Hamilton. Standing at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Hamilton has the size and athleticism to match up with any tight end in the NFL. Hamilton had the second-highest PFF coverage grade in the NFL this season (90.2) and excels in mid-field zone coverage.

Best bet: Chiefs +3.5 (-110)

It’s hard to bet against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, especially in the playoffs. It’s even harder to do that when they are getting 3.5 points against the Ravens. Mahomes has a career playoff record of 13-3 with two losses against Tom Brady. Just blindly betting on the Chiefs and the Mahomes since 2018 has been highly profitable.

Baltimore’s defense has been incredible this season, but it has struggled a bit against elite quarterbacks. Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams lit up the Ravens, only to fall short in overtime. The Chiefs aren’t quite as dynamic as the Rams, but they should be able to move the ball. Expect this game to be really close, which is why Chiefs +3.5 is the best bet on the board.

NFL picks: Chiefs to upset Ravens on Championship Sunday? Will Lions or 49ers earn Super Bowl berth?

Brooke Cersosimo, NFL.com

Kansas City’s air attack has taken steps forward lately, but it’s hard to forget all the issues from the regular season. After all, including the playoffs, Mahomes has suffered the NFL’s most dropped passes (32) and inherently leads the league in expected yards on drops (384), per Next Gen Stats. The Chiefs simply can’t afford these miscues in the pass game, because while Isiah Pacheco has produced, he’s not going to carry the unit — even if the forecast says it’ll rain Sunday. Plus, K.C.’s staring down a Ravens D that has very few weaknesses and is capable of not only stunting drives (SEE: vs. Houston in the Divisional Round) but having a turnover heyday (SEE: at San Francisco on Christmas night).

On the flip side, Lamar has moved the ball with ease via his arm and legs. I love his connection with rookie Zay Flowers, whose rapport with Jackson has only improved throughout the season, and it helps that the quarterback is likely to have Mark Andrews (Jackson’s favorite target from 2022) back in action. Building a lead early before riding the league’s top-ranked run game could be critical for Baltimore, knowing Kansas City has allowed a mere seven points per game in the second half of contests this season (including playoffs).

This game will be dictated by these two all-world quarterbacks, but the defense that makes the most plays — and wins the turnover battle — will have earned a trip to The Strip. Based on what I’ve seen from Baltimore’s D over the last month-plus, I can’t not lean the Ravens’ way.

Ravens 26-24