Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes is only one of the storylines for AFC championship (2024)

Every year, it seems, we get a game in the early rounds of the playoffs that seems better suited for the Super Bowl. Well, the AFC championship between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens is that game.

Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes are the two best quarterbacks of their generation. Arguably the two best players of their generation, though Aaron Donald might like a word. The Kansas City quarterback won his second NFL MVP award last year while the Baltimore Ravens' QB is the prohibitive favorite to win his second this season. Each is backed by a stellar supporting cast and a nasty defense.

Oh, and there's history here, too. Mahomes has gotten the better of Jackson in their first four meetings, with the Chiefs winning three of them. But the Ravens' one win? It came the last time they played, in 2021, a game that was in Baltimore. Now they meet again, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

We asked our USA TODAY Sports NFL crew what they see as the key factors to watch in the game. Here's what they said:

Are we seeing the old Patrick Mahomes-Travis Kelce connection reemerge and is that good enough to beat the Ravens?

Jarrett Bell: Let's say the Chiefs can't beat Baltimore without Mahomes and Maauto (Kelce) connecting like old times. But it's going to take more than that for Kansas City to secure another trip to the Super Bowl. But it's going to be a much tougher matchup. Kansas City exploited a Buffalo defense that was seriously depleted at linebacker, including the absence of emerging linebacker Terrel Bernard. The Ravens, on the other hand, bring linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen (who cover as well as they attack the run), backed by star safety Kyle Hamilton. None of that is good for Kelce. Still, It was so significant that Kelce scored two TDs at Buffalo — his first multi-touchdown game of the season — as it was a sign that the tight end is healthier than he's been all season. The connection has been off for the bulk of the campaign, with Kelce hampered by an assortment of injuries that began with a hyper-extended knee that kept him out of the season-opening loss against Detroit. Before Sunday, Kelce had gone seven games in a row without a touchdown and scored just once in 10 games. His five TDs during the regular season were his fewest in four years. So, yeah, the Chiefs need their best player (Mahomes) to be able to lean on his favorite target to stand any chance of pulling off an upset. And it still might not be enough.

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Chris Bumbaca: Did it ever really go away? Kelce didn’t have a 1,000-yard year for the first time in seven seasons, but he was 16 yards away. There were certainly games it felt like Kelce disappeared. But the play of the Chiefs’ wideouts has been well-documented, and the assessment is that the room didn’t fare well for much of the regular season. Opposing defenses allocated more resources to defending the All-Pro tight end. This is a case of two all-time greats raising their game when it matters most.

Nate Davis: Mahomes and his favorite target certainly seemed to re-establish their famous mind meld in Sunday’s win at Buffalo, hooking up for a pair of touchdowns — and giving the duo a playoff-record 16 together. But don’t necessarily assume that will continue against a Baltimore defense that surrendered the fewest points in the league this season and didn’t give up an offensive touchdown to the Texans in the divisional round. More relevant, Kelce will likely have to deal with Roquan Smith and/or Patrick Queen, arguably the league’s best linebacker duo, covering him a week after the Bills were searching for one healthy body at that position. Further, Kelce will also likely draw All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton, who is huge (6-4, 220), quick, and might be even more suffocating in coverage. Could mean a massively significant difference in production.

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Safid Deen: Travis Kelce scored two touchdowns against the Bills, his first time scoring since Week 11. So, if we are, it happened at the right time. But it needs to happen twice again if the Chiefs want to repeat as Super Bowl champions. While Kelce could have some issues going against Ravens linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen next week, he and Mahomes are certainly good enough to beat the Ravens. The Chiefs just need to watch out for the Ravens’ star tight end Mark Andrews making his return to the lineup.

Tyler Dragon: Coming off a two-touchdown performance and setting an NFL record for most postseason TDs by a duo in NFL history, Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are still a difficult connection to stop. The 34-year-old Kelce isn’t as spry anymore and he’s noticeably slower this season, but he still knows how to find open areas on the field and remains Mahomes’ favorite target, especially on third downs and in the red zone. The Mahomes and Kelce connection is still strong enough to beat the Ravens and advance to the Super Bowl.

Lorenzo Reyes: I don’t think the Patrick Mahomes-Travis Kelce connection is re-emerging as much as it never left. Certainly, there were some dips in regular-season production, but both these players have always excelled on the biggest stages. In 17 playoff games together, Mahomes has thrown 16 touchdowns to Kelce. It seems to me they were just waiting to turn it on. As to the second part of the question, in my time covering this league, I’ve come to learn that anything related to Patrick Mahomes is typically good enough to beat anyone — especially in the postseason, and especially in tight games.

What is the best way for Kansas City to slow Lamar Jackson?

Jarrett Bell: The Chiefs defense has carried the team this season, strange as it sounds because the team includes Mahomes. But while the offense has sputtered, Steve Spagnuolu's unit has been consistent in keeping the points and yards down. Of course, Jackson presents the toughest challenge yet. But Kansas City can begin by employing principles that helped to win against Josh Allen in Buffalo. KC needs to hold up on the back end and allow extra time to put the rush on Jackson. Can you say coverage sack? One of the best things about a crafty secondary that includes shutdown corner L'Jarius Sneed and physical nickel back Trent McDuffie has been its ability to disguise coverages, typically rotating out of pre-snap looks to cause confusion, which can fuel hesitation. An even bigger key, though, could be to seal the edges, limiting Jackson from extending plays and throwing while out of the pocket. Or extending plays by ripping off runs around the corner. Sure, Jackson can burn a defense by running straight up the gut. So taking away the edges is just half the battle. Half, though, is better than none.

Chris Bumbaca: Pray, maybe? Sacrifice a goat? Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have to find a way to nurture his game plan from last week, when the Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen accounted for zero (0) explosive plays. Allen’s longest run was 18 yards and his longest completion went for 15. Spagnuolo’s unit will have to replicate that performance against Allen. Dialing up creative pressures — rushing four or five simply doesn’t work against Baltimore’s offensive line — will be key.

Nate Davis: The Chiefs defense is in an interesting situation, more adept against the pass than the run — though highly effective holistically given only the Ravens gave up fewer points this season. Houston held Jackson in check during the first half Saturday, racking up three sacks and more pressures thanks to relentless blitz packages — which isn’t the norm for the Texans defense. Kansas City coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sent the blitz about one-third of the time this season, among the highest rates in the league. So they might be well-prepared to attack Jackson, though he’ll also surely expect it. And as well as the presumed MVP played in the second half last weekend, history suggests the Chiefs might be better off letting their Chris Jones-led defensive line generate pressure while remaining honest — and even aggressive — against the run given how Jackson and his backfield mates chewed up the Texans for 229 yards on the ground.

Safid Deen: Do not blitz the Ravens. I repeat: Do not blitz. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is considered one of the best in the NFL, but this will be his stiffest test in helping Kansas City return to the Super Bowl. And he knows this. But the Chiefs will still have some moments where a blitz will be appropriate. The thing is once Jackson feels the pressure, it’s an open invitation for him to get loose in the open field. And that’s most often a recipe for disaster defensively.

Tyler Dragon: The most effective way to slow Lamar Jackson is to call a variety of zone blitz packages the entire game, plus you almost have to spy him with a linebacker or safety on every play. Defensive ends and or outside linebackers have to also contain him inside the pocket. If Jackson breaks contain it’s nearly impossible to stop him. All that is easier said than done, which is why Jackson is on his way to being a two-time NFL MVP.

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Lorenzo Reyes: Hope? Pray? In all seriousness, I suspect this comes down to pressure and hurrying Jackson’s process and timing within the offense. To be fair, this tends to be the case when facing most elite quarterbacks, but with Jackson it’s imperative. Of all quarterbacks with at least 225 passing attempts in the regular season, Jackson posted the sixth-longest time to throw (2.95 seconds per attempt), so not letting him sit back is essential. That said, there needs to be a certain control when rushing Jackson; pressure ideally should come up the middle, with the ends and edge rushers sealing off any lanes to scramble. The other thing Kansas City could do, which defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo does quite well, is disguise coverages and blitzes.

Is Isiah Pacheco the biggest X-factor in this game?

Jarrett Bell: The Chiefs running back plays like he could be a Raven: hard, physical, full of energy. That makes him a huge X-factor, and he'll have his toughest matchup yet against a Baltimore linebacking crew that comes with the fire of Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen. Kansas City can strike in a lot of ways when Mahomes is in rhythm and, well, when the receivers are catching the football. But Pacheco, who slashed and pounded for 97 yards on the ground at Buffalo, is essential because he can't be ignored. That he can hurt a defense in the passing game, too, makes him doubly dangerous.

Chris Bumbaca: Not even close. I’ll give some love to the O-line and say Ravens second-year center Tyler Linderbaum. Chiefs nose tackle Chris Jones will line up opposite him, and Linderbaum must hold his own in both the rushing and passing attack. It should be a great duel all Sunday afternoon.

Nate Davis: Is Pacheco an X-factor at this point? I’d argue not given the extensive role he’s blossomed into, plus the absence of injured scatback Jerick McKinnon to diversify the backfield load. Is rookie receiver Rashee Rice even an X-factor at this point? Arguable, too, but I’ll go with him. He’s clearly matured into QB Patrick Mahomes most-trusted target who’s not dating Taylor Swift. Over the past three weeks, Rice, a second-round pick out of SMU, is averaging nearly six receptions for 100 yards. The Ravens are also banged up at cornerback, perennial Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey out since New Year’s Eve with a calf issue. And if Baltimore bottles up Kelce, as one would expect, and the Chiefs need to get more explosive plays than hoping Pacheco busts loose on the ground? At that point, Rice might become the logical choice for a big afternoon.

Safid Deen: Chad Johnson, the former Bengals receiver, said it best on Shannon Sharpe’s YouTube show Nightcap on Sunday night: “When angry meets angry, when force meets force, when impact meets impact. The laws of physics will be tested on Sunday, I’ll tell you that.” If you love old-school football, this is the matchup to watch: The Chiefs running back who runs with brute force and strength vs. the Ravens defense, which wants to make you physically feel their force and strength on the field.Pacheco may not be the X-factor, but he certainly is an equalizer with his running style and production. When the Chiefs get inside the 5, they need to rely more on Pacheco instead of a fluky trick play that could haunt them (like Mecole Hardman’s fumble/touchback play).

Tyler Dragon: It’s almost hard to call Isiah Pacheco an X-factor at this point. Pacheco is one of Kansas City’s best players and an essential piece on offense. The running back runs with a lot of authority and hardly ever gets tackled on first contact. With that being said, I’d say the biggest X-factor is the Chiefs’ front seven. Can they contain Lamar Jackson and keep the star dual-threat quarterback inside the pocket? Last week, Josh Allen took advantage of Kansas City’s defense with his legs, especially in the first half. Jackson is a better runner and athlete. If the Chiefs front seven don’t do a better job stopping the quarterback from running, Jackson will torch them.

Lorenzo Reyes: See my answer to the above question. This is why I think Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is the X-factor. Jones had half a sack against the Dolphins in the wild-card round and forced a fumble against Josh Allen in the divisional round. But if Baltimore is able to neutralize Jones and the interior pass rush, I just don’t see how Kansas City can win.

Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes is only one of the storylines for AFC championship (2024)
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