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Chiefs’ offense leaned on Hall of Fame players to knock out Ravens

Kansas City’s all-time duo came out hot, landing the initial punches that set up another AFC Championship win.

NFL: JAN 28 AFC Championship Game - Chiefs at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the 2023 postseason drew near, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense began to lean more exclusively on running back Isiah Pacheco, wide receiver Rashee Rice and tight end Travis Kelce. That became a winning formula.

But in the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday afternoon, it was taken to a further extreme.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce took over from the start, leading the Chiefs to two touchdowns on two drives. After establishing that lead, the duo picked their spots for the rest of the game, finishing the Super Bowl-clinching win with no incompletions over 11 passes. Kelce moved the chains six times —and also scored on the first possession.

On Sunday, the quarterback and pass-catcher with the most postseason touchdowns in NFL history may have turned in one of their most impactful performances ever.

Let’s take a closer look at the future Hall of Fame duo’s special game.

Beating good coverage

On the Chiefs’ first drive, the offense ran into a fourth down in Baltimore territory. The team goes for it, hoping to keep its initial momentum alive.

The call is a sprint out right — and the Ravens are all over it. The swarm of defenders takes away the play’s primary reads, so Mahomes has to pivot away and back across the middle of the field. That’s where Kelce is, coming across on a drag route into the space voided when Baltimore came up hard to the flat.

Mahomes doesn’t hesitate to go to Kelce, who is actively sealing his defender to prevent them from contesting the catch. Mahomes makes a great throw to keep the ball away from the defender. Kelce hauls it in.

A few plays later, the Chiefs deploy Kelce in the red zone with an out-and-up route. Kelce is trying to bait safety Kyle Hamilton into biting on the initial move, freeing him up for an open pass to the end zone. Last year, it worked against the Philadelphia Eagles — but not here.

Hamilton stays on top of the route through the break, so Kelce sets up to receive a throw to his back shoulder. To do that, he outmuscles Hamilton to keep his long arms from reaching across to the ball. He seals him as he turns to the perfectly placed throw, securing the touchdown.

To keep the second drive alive, the Chiefs once again go to Kelce. This time, it isn’t within the rhythm of the play, because Baltimore does a good job of marrying the pass rush and coverage to take away many of Mahomes’ options.

Once that happens, he just buys time, maneuvering behind the line of scrimmage until the last possible second. He finally gets an awkward toss off to Kelce — who changes direction, twists his body and fully extends to catch it.

It certainly wasn’t a play that someone close to retirement would make.

Scheming up open throws

Ravens’ defenders had their eyes on Kelce throughout the game, so the Chiefs sometimes had to manufacture open space for him.

To convert this third down, Kansas City uses play action to take advantage of Hamilton’s urgency in engaging Kelce’s block. That leaves him frozen when Kelce slips off. Mahomes quickly pulls the ball. Hamilton tries to use his 80-inch wingspan to deflect the pass, but the ball floats over.

To move the chains with Kelce on these plays, the Chiefs use wide receiver Justin Watson to release vertically inside the tight end. He acts as a shield to defenders trying to work towards Kelce’s route, disrupting their timing and spacing.

On the first one, Watson prevents linebacker Roquan Smith from defending Kelce’s out route. On the second play, Watson shoulder-checks the player looking to cover Kelce on the sideline route; he does an excellent job of creating that contact while running a legitimate route.

Drawing attention

The Mahomes-Kelce connection slowed down after the first half. After establishing the 10-point lead, the Chiefs’ offense sputtered — and we have to credit the Baltimore defense for tightening up.

Then the Ravens finally managed a field goal that narrowed Kansas City’s lead to 17-10. That put pressure on the Chiefs’ offense to make one more big play to seal the deal.

On third-and-9, the Ravens anticipate a short or intermediate throw to Kelce or Rice over the middle. The defense puts multiple sets of eyes — including the single-high safety — on both players. The safety checks Rice and then locates Kelce — but he never notices Marquez Valdes-Scantling running right past him on a deep route. The wideout takes full advantage, sprinting into the void to bring in the game-sealing pass.

Kelce wasn’t the target for this play, but he played an important role: he stayed in to help the pass protection for a second, throwing off Baltimore’s plans — and Mahomes likely knew it.

The bottom line

Late in the season, the Chiefs’ offense (finally) found a winning formula. It’s centered around a short list of players who can be relied upon in every game.

In Baltimore, it appeared that list tightened even further, putting a lot on Mahomes and Kelce’s shoulders. But the two superstars got it done, giving us a strong reminder that these two are truly legendary football players.

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