From 2018 through 2021, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson squared off on four occasions. Mahomes and the Chiefs got the better of Jackson and the Ravens in three of those games.
Jackson won the most recent matchup with Mahomes, which took place in Week 2 of 2021. Jackson rallied his team back from a 35-24 deficit in the fourth quarter — and a fumble by then-starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire sealed Baltimore’s win.
The games featuring these two young quarterbacks quickly became must-see television, but somehow, the two teams have never met in the playoffs.
Until now, that is. On Sunday, the Ravens will host the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. 28 months after their last meeting, Mahomes is readying his team to take on the Ravens again.
“Just looking at what [Jackson] did in college and then the Ravens’ organization and how much success they’ve had my entire life, I knew that he was going to put them in the right position to win, and we were going to be playing a lot of big games,” said Mahomes. “AFC Championship games, playoffs, whatever that was. It’s cool to see that we’re finally here. We’re finally playing in our first playoff game against each other, and it’s going to be a great challenge.”
On Thursday morning, the NFL released its finalists for the 2023 MVP award. The list included Jackson (the odds-on favorite) but not Mahomes, who won it last year. This was to be expected.
“This year, my stats and my numbers, I don’t know if I was in that conversation,” said Mahomes. “[Jackson] led his team. MVP’s a lot of things. It’s stats, it’s leading your team, winning football games — and he did that all this year. I think, for us, it’s just the challenge of going up against the best is what motivates you.”
Jackson threw for more than 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns while also collecting more than 800 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The Ravens finished first in the conference at 13-4.
“They got the best defense, they got the MVP on offense, they have a great special teams unit,” added Mahomes. “They were the best football team throughout the entire season, so it motivates you. In order to win the Super Bowl, you got to beat the best teams and this is the best team that we’ve played so far this year. It will be a great challenge for us.”
During his turn at the podium head coach Andy Reid noted the respect he has for Jackson, who continued his fantastic season into the Divisional Round. Jackson recorded 152 passing yards and two passing touchdowns — as well as 100 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in a 34-10 win over the Houston Texans.
“He’s playing good football,” said Reid. “He’s been doing it all year, and he’s just carried it into the playoffs.”
That unique, dual-threat ability Jackson offers makes it awfully difficult for defenses to prepare for him — but in this case, the Chiefs are fortunate: they faced a similar just one week ago. The Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen can also be a handful — but after three tough quarters, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit found a way to neutralize Allen in the fourth quarter.
“I think there is something to that,” said Spagnuolo. “The challenge is the same... a quarterback that can throw it, that can run it, that can scramble. It’s like three dimensions instead of two. And some of the things that we normally would put in a game plan for that type of quarterback were in there last week. They’ll carry over to this week.”
The defense has been helped considerably by the Chiefs’ third-string quarterback, Chris Oladokun, who simulated Allen last week and Jackson this week. Oladokun’s 4.68-second 40 time isn’t exactly 4.34, but Spagnuolo feels blessed to have him around.
“We’re fortunate that we have Chris,” said Spagnuolo. “He did it last week for us. He was Josh Allen — and Blaine [Gabbert] did a little bit of it, too — but you can’t simulate it. And even in practice, of course, you’re not tackling anybody, so you’re not finishing on a guy. But there are some things that we have talked about in how we should practice to prepare for him, and I think Chris gives us as good a look as we’re going to get during the course of a practice week.”
The status of linebacker Willie Gay Jr. is a point to watch. Spagnuolo admitted he adds a “piece” to how Kansas City likes to defend passing downs. Fellow linebacker Nick Bolton said that if Gay isn’t ready, someone else will step up to fill his shoes.
But as impressive as Jackson has been, Spagnuolo’s messaging remains simple.
“Our goal in what we talk about all the time is, ‘Let’s just get the ball back to our quarterback,’” added Spagnuolo. “That’s our job. The only way to do that is to make sure their quarterback doesn’t do the things we know he’s capable of doing.”
It’s an idea that is much easier said than done, but the Chiefs have no choice in the matter. They must limit Jackson on his home field — or their season will be over.