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Ravens vs. Chiefs potential X factors: Young pass rushers poised to dominate

This AFC clash of titans could be decided by contributions from a handful of players.

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens will be playing in their first AFC championship game in 11 years on Sunday, when they host the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The last time these two teams faced off was in Week 2 of the 2021 season. They combined for nearly 900 yards of total offense in a 36-35 win for the Ravens, in a game they were predicted to lose. This time around, they’re favored to come out on top and will be playing for the chance to reach the Super Bowl for just the third time in franchise history.

In almost every game, there is a play or two made that helped swing momentum into a team’s favor or extend their lead. There are a handful of select Ravens players who either aren’t being talked about as much or are primed to have a big day.

Below are some of those individuals who could prove to be deciding factors in the outcome of this conference title bout between the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds.

DT Justin Madubuike

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images

The fourth-year breakout star has led the charge for the Ravens’ top-ranked pass rush all season long and will be going up against a comprised Chiefs interior offensive line. First-team All-Pro guard Joe Thuney was officially ruled out for this game on Friday with a pectoral injury he suffered in the divisional round. Opposing pass protection units have had trouble stopping Madubuike even when at full strength and he’s been even more disruptive when lined up across from inferior competition.

In the regular season, Madubuike led the Ravens and all interior defensive linemen in sacks with a career-high 13. Although he wasn’t able to sack rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud in the Ravens’ 34-10 blowout win over the Houston Texans last week, he was extremely disruptive nonetheless. The second-team All-Pro finished with a team-leading seven pressures and a pass rush win-rate of 21.7 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.

OLB Odafe Oweh

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Oweh is also primed to be a potential game-wrecker come Sunday as well. Chiefs’ offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor have been two of the most penalized linemen in the league the past two seasons. This season alone, Taylor ranks first with 18 accepted including a league-leading nine false starts and six holding penalties.

10th-year veterans Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy have been the Ravens’ most durable and productive edge rushers. However, Oweh is exactly the type of explosive and twitchy athlete that can take advantage of undisciplined perimeter blockers. Generating consistent pressure, finishing sacks, and creating turnovers will be paramount this week going up against two-time league and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes.

Even though his first career sack came in the Ravens’ 2021 season opener, Oweh’s first big splash play in the NFL came the following week when he ripped the ball out of the grasp of Chiefs’ running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The turnover came late in the game when Kansas City was already in field goal range for a potential game-winner. It gave the Ravens possession and they picked up the necessary yardage needed to seal a one-point victory. If Sunday’s game goes down to the wire again, the team might need him to come up clutch yet again.

RB Justice Hill

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The fifth-year veteran has been an unheralded difference maker in the Ravens’ backfield this season and is coming off a strong divisional round performance. He averaged over five yards per carry and finished with a career-high 66 rushing yards against the Texans.

Hill was a dangerous all-purpose weapon in the second half of the regular season, especially down the stretch. Against a Chiefs’ defense that’s had trouble stopping the run, he could be in store for an even heavier workload than last week. Hill can also be a vital asset in the passing game both as a stout pass protector and target when leaking out or releasing into a route against linebackers.

DB Marcus Williams

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Kara Durrette/Getty Images

Williams has had to overcome a lot of injury-related adversity this season to reach the second conference title game of his career. It’s his first in the AFC after he previously made it to the NFC championship in 2018 with the New Orleans Saints.

The seventh-year has gotten healthier over the last month and shown glimpses of his usual ball-hawking self, even though he finished the regular season with just one interception. Last week against the Texans, he broke up a pass over the middle to force a third-and-long on a drive that ended in a punt. In order to beat the reigning champions, he will need to make plays like that and then some on Sunday for a chance to advance to his first career Super Bowl.

WR Rashod Bateman

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The third-year pro has yet to reach or eclipse 60 receiving yards in a single game this season. However, his lack of consistent targets in the passing game hasn’t deterred him from coming up clutch when the offense has needed a big catch. The majority of Bateman’s receptions down the stretch, including last week, have resulted in first downs. His natural feel for zone coverage and awareness of route depth have made him a reliable chain mover.

Bateman has also shown some impressive wiggle after the catch. That should earn him more opportunities to showcase his explosive playmaking ability, which displayed as a rookie and last season before injuries derailed what looked like a prime breakout year.

CB Arthur Maulet

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The seventh-year veteran is another unsung hero from last week’s win and over the course of the season overall. Against the Texans, he was sent to pressure Stroud three times on nickel blitzes and was given unabated paths each time. That resulted in impactful pressures leading to an intentional grounding, a pair of hurries, and a quarterback hit.

Maulet could be called upon in such a way again this week against the Chiefs in addition to playing his typical sticky coverage in the slot. That likely won’t feature a lot of, if any, one-on-one matchups with nine-time Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce given the size mismatch in favor of Kansas City.

TE Isaiah Likely

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

As exciting as the return of three-time Pro Bowler Mark Andrews will be on Sunday, Likely will still have a prominent role in the offensive gameplan after his sensational emergence down the stretch. In his mentor’s absence, Likely recorded 21 receptions on 28 targets for 322 receiving yards and five touchdowns in the final six games of the regular season . Last week, he caught two of his three targets for 34 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Likely has proven he doesn’t need a high volume of passes to be a difference-maker because of the elusive threat he becomes after the catch, as well as in the red zone.