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5 things to watch as the Chiefs play the Ravens in AFC Championship

Baltimore is the latest, greatest AFC foe looking to stop Kansas City from reaching another Super Bowl.

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

For the sixth consecutive year, the NFL's Championship weekend will be prominent in Chiefs Kingdom. The (13-6) Kansas City Chiefs will travel to play the (14-4) Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. The battle for the Lamar Hunt trophy will occur at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland; kickoff is set for 2:00 PM Arrowhead time.

The Ravens stand as four-point favorites heading into the weekend, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. That reflects both teams' seasons: Baltimore has been a consistently dominant contender, while the Chiefs had to turn things around to get back to this stage.

The winning formula Kansas City found will be put to the ultimate test against the Ravens. I have five things to watch in the AFC Title game:

1. Matching Baltimore's defensive physicality

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Ravens' defense is great, regardless of how you look at it. The team allowed a league-low 16.5 points per game during the regular season. No team forced more turnovers or earned more sacks than Baltimore. The average pass attempt gained only 5.9 yards against the unit.

"They're good all the way around," Chiefs' head coach Andy Reid emphasized on Thursday. "A good back end with the secondary and linebackers, fast and good tacklers. Then, the front is strong. They're an all-around defense."

It starts with the Ravens' two All-Pro defenders: linebacker Roquan Smith and second-year safety Kyle Hamilton. They will be the key to covering the middle of the field against tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Rashee Rice.

"They're going to play physical, they're going to play fast," Chiefs' quarterback Patrick Mahomes detailed during a press conference Thursday. "When you think about the Ravens, it's defense. They're going to fly around and try to dictate tempo; that's just who they are. Our job is to go out there and play our game, play fast, play physical as well, and match their tempo."

The player most able to set that tone is running back Isiah Pacheco, who missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a toe injury. He returned Friday and will need another attacking performance from the offensive line to help bring the fight to Baltimore.

2. Matching Baltimore's offensive physicality

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens can also throw the punches on offense, using a league-leading average of 157 rushing yards per game to wear down defenses. The team rushed for 229 yards in the Divisional round win.

That will be a problem for a Chiefs' defense that allowed 182 rushing yards to the Buffalo Bills, constantly losing the battle at the line of scrimmage on handoffs. It put the Bills' offense in too many advantageous positions; Chiefs' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is preparing to better defend that this week.

" We can't get into that kind of game, those long drives like that with Baltimore," Spagnuolo told reporters on Thursday. "I know exactly what [Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh] is telling them... to come right at you, whether it's run or pass, just keep bullying their way downfield. We need to be prepared for that and find a way to match that with the same kind of aggressive play."

One solution is a stronger, more stout game from the front seven — but the Chiefs' secondary also needs to emphasize the aggression. Kansas City's defensive backfield outweighs the Ravens' receiving corps in talent, and the Chiefs need to utilize that by trusting them in physical man coverage.

3. Dealing with Lamar Jackson

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

The physical pass coverage could disrupt the dropback rhythm of Ravens' quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is a very disciplined pocket passer. He will wait for the open throw downfield, so if the Chiefs' coverage prevents that, the underneath players will need to account for a scrambling Jackson.

The unit implemented a similar strategy against the Buffalo Bills and quarterback Josh Allen, but Spagnuolo expects improved containment.

"We certainly need to defend this quarterback better than we did last week to make things go the way we want," Spagnuolo noted.

The schemed runs by Jackson will also be a focus point: in the Divisional round, Jackson's four designed carries totaled 52 yards. Overall, he moved the chains seven times with his feet. This is where linebacker Willie Gay plays a key role — if he can: he is questionable after not practicing on Friday, a downgrade from limited participation due to the neck injury.

4. Generate big plays on offense with scheme

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Chiefs have benefitted from playing injured defenses the last two weeks, being able to beat them with a simplified game plan. The Ravens won't make it that easy this week; wide receiver Rashee Rice previewed the matchup on Thursday.

"I see an aggressive defense," Rice shared. "They have great corners, they have great size... they are really good at rallying to the ball. We just have to make our catches and be ready to get tackled."

To open up space for Chiefs' pass catchers, the play calling will need to feature plenty of pre-snap motion and misdirection; an aggressive group of defenders can be exploited with eye candy, using that same aggression against them.

5. Limiting the Ravens' explosive plays

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

Against the Buffalo Bills, the Chiefs' defense bent but did not break.

"The best thing we did last week... was limit the explosive passes," Spagnuolo reflected with reporters. "It makes them matriculate down the field; hopefully we can make a play along the way."

The lack of familiarity with Baltimore could make that harder this week: the Chiefs haven't played the Ravens since a 36-35 loss in Week 2 of 2021, but Spagnuolo still remembers the forgettable performance.

"We have to get them in passing downs," Spags asserted. "Last time we played this group, I know it was a different offensive coordinator, we only had 11 third downs, and five or six of them were one to four [yards to go]. That needs to change to have a chance at success."

It's Game Time.

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