The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the Chiefs prepare to play in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at Baltimore, you’ve heard it and seen it everywhere:
The essential game within the game — a matchup of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson — marks the first time in NFL history that two past MVPs under age 30 will face each other in the playoffs.
For all the focus on their relative youth, though, it’s more surprising that we’re only now getting to see what has long seemed an inevitable postseason clash between the irresistible force of Jackson and the immovable object of Mahomes and a Chiefs team playing in its sixth straight AFC title game.
Because this has been bubbling from the time they first met in 2018, a 27-24 Chiefs overtime win enabled by Mahomes’ unforgettable fourth-and-9 pass for 41 yards to Tyreek Hill. And it’s been percolating this way since Jackson and the Ravens edged the Chiefs, 36-35, in Baltimore in their last meeting in 2021.
“For sure …” Mahomes said. “I knew that he was going to put them in the right position to win, and we were going to be playing in a lot of big games: AFC championships, playoff games, whatever that was.
“And so it’s cool to see that we’re finally here, finally playing our first playoff game against each other.”
Part of the reason for that now is what makes this such a formidable challenge for the Chiefs that figures to portend future results. A Baltimore win not only would eliminate the Chiefs this time around, it also could propel the Ravens forward in the years to come.
Until now, among such stellar young AFC peers as Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Jackson, Mahomes indisputably has set himself apart — and set himself up for more — with a 13-3 postseason record, three Super Bowl appearances and two titles.
At the other end of that has been Jackson, a splendid talent likely to match Mahomes with a second MVP award after this season.
As brilliant as Jackson has been in the regular season, though, something had seemed to shroud him in the playoffs. Until last week, he was 1-3 in the postseason with five interceptions to just three touchdown passes.
But his play in last week’s divisional round victory over Houston suggested a different aura. In that 34-10 romp, he had his career-best postseason quarterback rating (121.8) while throwing for two touchdowns with no interceptions and rushing for 100 yards and two more TDs.
“Lamar just played out of his mind,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters after the game.
Or at least with a mindset that he hadn’t been able to demonstrate much in the postseason.
To Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton, that’s shown up through scheme changes and experience that seem to have “slowed the game down for him a little bit” — which speeds up the urgency in trying to contain him.
From Mahomes’ perspective, it’s easy to see how Jackson has developed overall as a passer.
“Throwing from within the pocket, arm angles, making the accurate throw in big situations and big moments,” Mahomes said. “That’s what the great quarterbacks do.
“He continues to get better and better every single year. I knew we were going to play in a lot of games like this as our careers go, and I’m sure this will be the first of many.”
If Jackson indeed is emotionally liberated from whatever might have held him back in the postseason crucible these last few seasons, he and the rather complete Ravens team will make for a different tier of challenge for Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Not just on Sunday but, in fact, over the years to come as anticipated for a good long while now.
At the very least, though, his breakthrough indicates a thriller ahead on Sunday.
Something each quarterback relishes, even if Jackson initially joked on Wednesday that he doesn’t like competing against Mahomes “at all.”
“It’s a no-brainer; he’s definitely a Hall of Famer,” Jackson added to reporters in Baltimore. “But I believe (it’s) just two greats — up-and-coming greats — just going toe- to-toe, like a heavyweight fight, heavyweight matchup. That’s just what I see.”
With different styles, to be sure.
While Mahomes is an effective, even dangerous, runner, he indirectly offered perspective on the difference between Jackson and him in 2019.
After serpentining around to be able to throw a two-point conversion pass against Denver, a mic’d up Mahomes came to the sidelines and playfully said, “Did I look like Lamar? With that juke … that’s as close as I can get right there.”
Jackson, of course, not only can juke but can cruise and even bruise. Including with many a designed run, he rushed for 821 yards compared to Mahomes’ 389 this season while also throwing for a career-high 3,678 yards with a 24-7 TD-INT ratio. (Mahomes threw for 4,183 yards with 27 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions.)
“Lamar’s athleticism is second to none,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “His strength, his power, the way that he’s able to run the ball, his speed to get around the edge and be able to get north and south, all of those things are a big challenge for us … (And) he can still make all of the throws like everybody else.”
The traits are different but the sentiments are about the same when it comes to how Baltimore views Mahomes.
As Harbaugh put it earlier this week, Mahomes “plays his own brand of football. … He sees the field, and he feels the pocket. He must have [an] antenna that he just senses all that, like your car has all those sensors that start beeping when guys get close.
“It must be that way for him, because he kind of senses the pressure, and he’s able to just move around and get away but keep his eyes downfield, slip out [and] all those kinds of things. That’s what he does. Everybody that watches football knows it.”
Some better than others.
“I happened to be on the field when (Mahomes) threw that no-look pass (a few years ago), and that ball went right by my face, so I get reminded of it every time they show a commercial,” Ravens nose tackle Michael Pierce told reporters in Baltimore, later adding, “He can just, literally, throw the ball from any angle. We’ve seen him just make a whole bunch of just unbelievable plays.”
You can figure on more of those on each side of the field Sunday in a game that also represents the first AFC championship game featuring two Black starting quarterbacks.
A year after Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts became the first to start against each other in a Super Bowl, it’s not only another milestone but also a step toward what Mahomes last year said he hoped the future ultimately would make it.
As much as he appreciated all whose shoulders he stood on to get to that point, Mahomes said then, he hoped that over the years it would become a topic “we’re not even talking about … because we’ve evolved the game so much.”
As he considered the thought this week, Mahomes said, “I think we’ve started to break through that mold now; the (Black) quarterbacks that came before us kind of set the standard, and we’ve been able to keep rising the level to hopefully even higher standards and hopefully the kids behind us do the same.”
As for right here, right now, it’s simply about the best vs. the best: the likely 2023 MVP and his team of Ravens against the superstar and his Chiefs team on the verge of an indisputable dynasty.
And for all the other dynamics in play, the burden of proof remains on Jackson and the Ravens against the still-reigning Super Bowl champs.
“If you want to make it to the NFL championship … you have to take it from (Mahomes),” Pierce said. “I mean, that is just what it is.”
In the game we’ve been waiting to see for years — and perhaps the start of a new tier of rivalry going forward.