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Instabreakdown: Chiefs use all-time defensive performance to win AFC

Kansas City returned to the Super Bowl by stifling the Baltimore offense in the AFC Championship.

NFL: AFC Championship-Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2023 season’s AFC Championship, the Kansas City Chiefs topped the Baltimore Ravens 17-10, advancing to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, Nevada on February 11.

Offense

The Chiefs’ offense executed its initial game plan: coming out hot, getting early points and helping take the raucous Baltimore crowd out of the equation. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes operated in a great rhythm on the opening drive, getting the ball to his playmakers with awesome throws and good decisions. That included a tightly contested touchdown throw.

Mahomes’ patient, efficient game gave him 30 completions on 39 attempts for 241 yards and a touchdown. For the fourth consecutive game, he did not throw an interception.

The early momentum continued on the second drive, in which he continued to lean on running back Isiah Pacheco and wide receiver Rashee Rice, who was well utilized by the offense early in the game; the team put him in situations where he could make plays after the catch. The two touchdown drives gave the Chiefs an early 14-7 advantage.

Then Pacheco was stuffed on a fourth-down run, giving Baltimore possession and momentum. This was where the swarming Ravens’ defense began to make its presence felt. By the end of the game, Kansas City’s lead back averaged just 2.8 yards per attempt.

The offensive line fought with the Ravens’ defensive front all game. The battle went back and forth. Right guard Trey Smith came out with the aggression he’s known for, but it led to two holding penalties — one of which took a touchdown off the board. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor also earned a holding penalty — and also sometimes gave way to pressure.

After squeezing out a field goal before halftime, the Chiefs’ offense never regained the rhythm it had to begin the game. The next five possessions ended in punts — and three of those were three-and-outs. Credit is due to the Ravens’ second-half defense, which took tight end Travis Kelce out of the mix more often and rarely missed a tackle as they swarmed ball carriers.

With just over two minutes left, the Kansas City offense just needed one first down to win the game. In poetic fashion, Mahomes found wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 32-yard reception to seal the AFC title.

Offensive player of the game: Tight end Travis Kelce

From the get-go, it was truly incredible to see the future Hall of Fame tight end take over. Kelce racked up 11 catches on 11 targets, totaling 116 yards and the score that started the game. Despite tight coverage by safety Kyle Hamilton, Kelce secured the pass to his back shoulder.

That wasn’t even his most impressive grab. On important plays, he made multiple catches with arms outstretched, showing off incredible hands. One converted a fourth down, another moved the chains on third down. It was a legendary game for a legendary player.

Defense

The Chiefs are in Super Bowl LVIII because the defense put together a masterful performance against a very good offense in Baltimore. The Ravens only managed 81 rushing yards — and only converted three of the 11 third downs they faced.

It started with Kansas City’s physical coverage. The back seven did not allow much space with which the Baltimore receivers could work. That led to quarterback Lamar Jackson holding onto the ball and letting the pressure affect him. He was sacked four times — each time by a different Chiefs defender.

Defensive end Charles Omenihu’s was perhaps the biggest. After the Chiefs built the 14-7 lead, he came around the edge of Jackson’s blind side, tomahawk-chopping his pass and setting up a turnover. From the opposite side, defensive end George Karlaftis used a speed rush to get his own sack late in the game, helping to stop a Ravens comeback. Defensive tackle Chris Jones also ended a drive with a batted pass.

The clean-up by the Chiefs’ defensive front was set up by an attacking secondary. Safety Justin Reid came through to earn one sack — but the position group’s main focus was on preventing downfield completions. Every member of the Chiefs’ back seven came together to shut down the Ravens’ passing attack.

Early on, cornerback Trent McDuffie forced a punt when he knocked away a pass over the middle. He defended two passes to lead the team. Linebacker Nick Bolton also forced a punt with a defensed pass; he picked up a crossing pattern and nearly intercepted the pass. Then safety Deon Bush read Jackson’s eyes on a throw to the end zone and cut it off for a pick.

The only touchdown pass of the game was the result of a broken play after linebacker Leo Chenal missed a sack attempt.

Defensive player of the game: Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed

The game’s biggest defensive play earned Sneed this title — even though he also added five tackles and limited Baltimore receivers all afternoon.

But when Ravens’ wide receiver Zay Flowers found space and headed to the end zone, Sneed lunged at him, punching the ball loose just short of the goal line. The Chiefs recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchback. It was a reminder that the shutdown cornerback is also a great playmaker. He certainly deserved All-Pro recognition in 2023.

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