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AFC Championship Preview: Road Dog Redemption for the Chiefs

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Here we are, the first road AFC Championship game for the Kansas City Chiefs in the Patrick Mahomes era. What will happen? What will it bring? Can the Chiefs beat the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium? I will answer all those questions and more.

First, let’s talk about the state of the team. Joe Thuney is banged up with a pectoral strain and has been ruled out. That means Nick Allegretti will get the nod. Isiah Pacheco has a sprained toe, and Mike Edwards appears to have cleared the concussion protocol, but Derrick Nnadi has been placed on injured reserve. Other than some other nicks and bruises, for the most part, the rest of the team is in great shape for this game. I wouldn’t worry too much; the injury report can be strategic.

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Leading up to this game, national writers and pundits have refused to acknowledge the greatness of this team. I’ve said it before. I don’t believe they see what we see. Patrick Mahomes will be considered the greatest of all time before his career ends. He shows us every weekend what he is capable of, which is nothing short of astonishing. Whether or not folks outside of the KC sphere of red and gold choose to believe it or not, it doesn’t change the facts.

The Baltimore Ravens have some firepower, but the jury is still out at playoff time. Lamar Jackson is 1-3 against Patrick Mahomes since he came into the league. Don’t look for that to change this weekend. Yes, I said it. The Chiefs will win the AFC Championship and move on to Super Bowl LVIII.

Here’s the funny thing about being underdogs on the road: there is no expectation of winning. Most major sporting news outlets are picking the Ravens to win. Few pundits are willing to say the Chiefs will win; I’m not one of them. This team has a sense of inevitability. The Chiefs have not played top-shelf football this season, yet they are in the conference championship. How strange does that sound?

Baltimore is playing at home, and ALL the pressure is on them to win. They are the betting favorites by 3.5-4 points, and with that onus firmly shackled around their neck, they have much to prove. This will be a fight between the NFL’s number one and two defenses. Statistically, this game should be a clash of the Titans.

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The Ravens took on a very young Houston Texans team in the divisional round with rookie QB C.J. Stroud at the helm of that offense. For the first half of that game, the Texans kept up. However, the Texans are different from the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs led by Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and Travis Kelce.

Suppose the Chief’s divisional performance against an outstanding Buffalo Bills squad indicates how they will play Sunday. In that case, the tilt leans toward Kansas City, especially if the Chiefs play up to their competition. The Ravens will be a handful, don’t get me wrong, but I genuinely see the Chiefs climbing the mountain and capturing the Lamar Hunt Trophy once again.

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I can honestly say that although this season’s iteration of the Kansas City Chiefs is not what Chiefs Kingdom is used to in the Reid/Mahomes era, I do believe that the lessons learned by the coaching staff, front office, and players have been enlightening. Brett Veach and his team have a lot of issues to resolve to place an even more competitive product on the field for 2024.

Per OverTheCap.com, with a projected cap space of $51.66 million, I think Veach and the management collective will have room to make some splashes in free agency, including signing some of their pending free agents. All of that is well and good for the future, but how about this weekend?

The Baltimore Ravens are going to fight hard to get this win. The Kansas City Chiefs will fight harder.

First, on offense, the Chiefs must stick to the run game. If they can find success in pounding the rock, they will be able to control the clock. That’s not to say that will be an easy task on a run defense that is quite stingy in letting runners go, as they ranked 6th in defending rushing attempts. However, the Ravens ranked 14th in yards allowed but were ranked 1st in touchdowns allowed with only six all season.

The Chiefs strategy here is to gain chunks on the ground and get passing touchdowns. Even though the Ravens were ranked 2nd in passing touchdowns allowed with 18, that’s still over double what they allowed on the ground. The gameplan will have to be somewhat of a finesse passing game. Rashee Rice, Mecole Hardman, Marques Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson, and Richie James must be up for the task. Patrick Mahomes can deliver the ball, but the wideouts must catch them. Add Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, and Blake Bell to the mix, and they could dominate.

In forcing a heavy running game, the Chiefs can tire out the Ravens defense, making them more susceptible in the air. Isiah Pacheco, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and La’Mical Perine must be ready for the load they are about to carry.

The Raven’s defensive line only boasts two regular starters in DT Justin Madubuike and NT Michael Pierce, but Madubuike has 13 sacks on the season to be a game-wrecker. Their real strength comes in the middle with LBs Roquan Smith, Patrick Queen, and Jadeveon Clowney. All of those guys are tackling animals. I expect Andy Heck will have the line ready for anything.

The defensive secondary play of S’s Kyle Hamilton, Geno Stone, Marcus Williams, and DB Brandon Stephens will likely have the most impact on the passing game. Precise route running by the Chiefs receivers and timing will need to be on point to accomplish things in the air. Again, I believe the Chiefs will step up and make the plays necessary to win this game on the offensive side. Don’t be surprised if Andy Reid and Matt Nagy pull some rabbits out of the playbook hat.

They are looking ahead to the Chiefs defense against Lamar Jackson. The Chiefs have playmakers at every level in the defensive formation. They have the group best suited to take down the Ravens from the line through the secondary. This is where the game will be won or lost. I hate to put the season’s fate on one unit, but this defense has been outstanding all year. They should be able to take care of the business at hand.

Steve Spagnuolo will be dialing up many new looks, you can be sure. Look for the defense to exploit any miscues on the Ravens offensive line. Chris Jones and George Karlaftis will be focused. Watch for hidden blitzes and effective spy formations to check Jackson’s running ability. Spags knows the gravity, and he will have his unit ready.

L’Jarius Sneed, Trent McDuffie, Justin Reid, Chamarri Conner, and Mike Edwards (if he can go) will make the bulk of plays against pass plays that Jackson wants to throw. The line play will need someone to fill Derrick Nnadi’s cleats, which could be Turk Wharton. If the line can keep Jackson from squirting through when a pass play breaks down, and the middle and secondary can contain any designed runs, this game could be one of the shortest in playoff history.

I don’t believe that will happen, but we’ll be surprised at how the game ends up being played by both teams. Here’s the bottom line: Kansas City will do enough to ensure a victory. As I said earlier, the Chiefs play up to their competition, and Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes understand what they must do to win this game. Chiefs Kingdom is excited, and I am excited. This game will become an instant classic, and we’ll all be on hand to witness it.

My Prediction:

Chiefs 31, Ravens 28

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