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Martyball meets Mahomes: How the Chiefs beat the Ravens in the AFC Championship

Kansas City used a familiar formula (and its quarterback’s golden arm) to win the conference in Baltimore.

Kansas City Chiefs’ coach Marty Schottenheimer tries to moti Photo by Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

In last Sunday’s AFC Championship, the Kansas City Chiefs handed the Baltimore Ravens a 17-10 loss in an old-school slugfest that resembled the approach used by legendary head coach Marty Schottenheimer to revive the franchise in the 1990s: a powerful defense and a strong running game.

In those days, Kansas City fans called it Martyball — and on Sunday, both teams came out swinging, looking to lay the lumber whenever they could.

It was another indication that the Chiefs have made nearly a 180-degree turn from the offensive juggernaut that won Super Bowl LVII a year ago. But while the team’s approach has become radically different than we have seen since 2018, it boasts a combination of defensive excellence and complementary offensive football that is rare in the modern game — and it still has the league’s best quarterback: Patrick Mahomes.

Starting fast

Facing a Baltimore team that has created one of the league’s best offenses by blending a power running game with an explosive passing attack, the Chiefs needed to start the game by holding the ball and building a lead — especially since the Ravens have been among the league leaders in time of possession and average margin of victory.

Both offenses came out firing. After both teams had run a pair of drives, Kansas City led 14-7. Then late in the half, the Chiefs were trying to go up two scores. Back-to-back penalties knocked them out of field goal range — and also took a touchdown off the board.

On third-and-24, the Chiefs had a choice, take a deep shot or try to set up Harrison Butker for a field goal with seconds left in the half. The Baltimore defense played to prevent a long strike — and Mahomes was more than willing to let Kelce cap a brilliant first half with an easy completion to set the table for Butker.

As we see here, the Ravens bring pressure — more than Kansas City’s pass protection can cover. Coming out of the slot, Kelce recognizes Baltimore’s soft coverage and turns to look for the ball. Mahomes dices the blitz look — and Kelce’s 9-yard catch moves the Chiefs into field goal range.

A 52-yard field goal in wet conditions would be no easy task, but Butker was up for it.

Butker’s kick gives Kansas City a 10-point lead going into the locker room.

This was the most recent in a string of clutch postseason performances by Butker — many of which were the result of the team avoiding being too aggressive. Before, Mahomes might have challenged the Ravens’ deep coverage. But the team has learned it can trust its defense — particularly in the second half.

Playing the field and the clock

During the regular season, Baltimore led the league with 541 rushing attempts. That’s been an integral part of the Ravens’ success in 2023 — but in this game, the Chiefs used it against them.

It’s one of the game’s most basic concepts: running the football takes time off the clock. So beginning the second half two possessions down increased the pressure on Baltimore to score quickly. But on three straight drives, the Ravens didn’t score.

Early in the fourth quarter, a Kansas City drive stalled around midfield. But rather than be aggressive, the Chiefs punted the ball away. Tommy Townsend delivered the best punt of his career.

Earlier in the game, Townsend had launched a booming 53-yarder to flip the field. But this time, he drops a dime inside the five-yard line. Thanks to great tracking skills by Justin Watson, Kansas City pins Baltimore at its 1-yard line — forcing the Ravens to go the length of the field.

After burning close to four minutes of game time, Baltimore made it to the red zone. But then — after looking solid for most of the game — quarterback Lamar Jackson made a critical error in the worst possible spot.

Jackson elects to play hero ball, firing a pass into triple coverage that the Chiefs’ Deon Bush intercepts in the end zone. It is the Ravens’ second red-zone turnover of the day.

All of the work — and time— that Baltimore had invested in the drive vanished.

Baltimore’s methodical approach had come back to bite them. Late in the game, they would finally cut Kansas City’s lead to one possession — but the Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense would make sure they wouldn't see the field again.

The closer

Schottenheimer’s great teams of the 1990s never had a young, generational talent at quarterback like the one head coach Andy Reid and his staff now have. Had Schottenheimer had Mahomes’ elite arm on his teams, he might have been able to reach the promised land.

In Sunday’s game, we saw what that might have looked like.

Reid knew when it was time to trust coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense — but he also knew when it was time to let his quarterback stick his dagger into the Ravens’ hearts.

Here, the Chiefs only need a first down to close out the game. On third-and-9, Baltimore only brings four. Initially, Kelce stays in to block — which takes Baltimore’s second-level defenders by surprise, slowing down their timing. Marquez Valdes Scantling runs an over route. ending up one-on-one with some separation. Mahomes lets it rip — and Scantling hauls it in to send Kansas City to the Super Bowl.

The bottom line

To beat a good team like the Ravens, the Chiefs had to lean into playing some Martyball — letting their defensive playmakers control Baltimore’s high-powered attack.

But they didn’t just control the Ravens. They dominated them.

What looked like a conservative offense was actually a calculated risk: the Chiefs believed they could turn Baltimore’s offense into something it is not — and run it out of time.

But when it was time to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl, they left the ball in Mahomes’ hands — and he didn't disappoint.

It's Game Time.

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