It wasn’t long ago that the Baltimore Ravens, not the Kansas City Chiefs, seemed destined for Super Bowl glory. Quarterback Lamar Jackson’s first year as a starter led the Ravens to the best regular-season record in the NFL; they clinched home-field advantage and were expected to host the Chiefs in the 2019 AFC Championship Game.
But the Tennessee Titans upended those plans, upsetting the Ravens in the Divisional Round that year. The Chiefs went on to win the AFC, then the Super Bowl, while the Ravens have taken a step back ever since. Making the playoffs as a wild card team last season, the Ravens again advanced to the Divisional Round (exacting some payback against the Titans in the process) before scoring a measly three points against the Buffalo Bills.
This year, the Ravens’ bad luck began before the season even started: they’ve already piled up a dozen players on injured reserve. All-Pro offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, out for this weekend’s game, is just the latest in a series of physical and medical ailments. Cornerback Marcus Peters, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, plus linebacker L.J. Fort are all out for the season with torn ACLs.
How will their patchwork lineup hold up against a Chiefs team invigorated after their comeback win against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1? This weekend will be the second time in the first five games (Buffalo, Week 5) the Chiefs will face an AFC team that made the playoffs last season. A slow start against the Browns was erased with a fourth-quarter comeback that appeared to happen with a flip of a switch, the Chiefs’ calling card in recent years with their explosive offense capable of throwing up points in bunches.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has plenty more healthy weapons to work with over Jackson, that’s for sure. Will it be enough for the Chiefs to remain unbeaten in an AFC West division where no one lost in Week 1?
Sunday Night Football: Kansas City at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Ravens' running game step up around Lamar Jackson?
Jackson remained the All-Pro mastermind of the Ravens' offense, passing for 235 yards in the season opener while rushing for another 86. It’s hard to fault the best player on the field for a wacky, 33-27 loss in overtime against a pesky Las Vegas Raiders team that was playing their first home game in front of fans.
At the same time, Jackson’s two fumbles wound up costing the Ravens 13 points. A strip-sack by the Raiders’ Carl Nassib made the difference after a goal-line interception by the Ravens gave their team a chance. Jackson’s third sack was only the second time in the last eight games the offensive line had given up that many.
That O-line, of course, will be down one of their best players in Stanley, facing a Chiefs defensive unit that got to Baker Mayfield twice (along with forcing an interception). Can they still protect the fastest quarterback in the league?
It’ll help if the defensive line has to key in on somebody else. Running back Ty’Son Williams, forced into service with all the injuries, impressed with 65 yards on nine carries in his NFL debut. He, along with Latavius Murray, scored touchdowns in what was the league’s top-ranked rushing offense last year. 189 total yards left them leading that category again after Week 1.
Against the Raiders, it wasn’t enough. But this group needs to take care of the ball and run right at the Chiefs to have a chance.
2. Can Patrick Mahomes be stopped?
With 10 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were down nine against the Browns in Week 1. They had trailed the entire game in their home opener as the defense struggled to contain Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and the rest of Cleveland's offense.
Three-and-a-half minutes later, the Chiefs were up by four, a lead they never relinquished the rest of the way.
That’s what happens when you have Mahomes, who threw a 75-yard touchdown bomb to Tyreek Hill, then threw an easy eight-yard touchdown to Travis Kelce after the Browns made a special teams miscue. Mahomes’ numbers to start the year picked right up where he left off in 2020: 337 yards, three touchdown passes, no turnovers, another touchdown on the ground, and an AFC-best QB rating of 131.4.
Those numbers are strikingly similar to when Mahomes rolled over Baltimore during the regular season last September: 385 passing yards, four TD passes, no sacks, no interceptions, and a QB rating of 133.5. How does the vaunted Ravens defense stop that?
“They don’t give that guy a half-billion dollars for no reason,” Ravens defensive tackle Calais Campbell said then. “He just made play after play. You’ve got to give him respect.”
Is there a better strategy to stopping him? This Baltimore Sun article goes in-depth in the various ways Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has tried to slow down Mahomes through the years. Blitzing will again be part of the package this weekend, attempting to attack a Chiefs’ offensive line that has five new starters compared to 2020.
The Browns didn’t have much success against them, though; it’s not like Mahomes was really slowed down. Despite facing a better defense, expect the MVP to still wriggle away from defenders and throw at least one deep touchdown pass.
3. Tyreek Hill & Travis Kelce vs. ... who, exactly?
Hill and Kelce remain a dynamic duo for Mahomes in the Chiefs’ offensive system. Combined, they collected nearly 275 receiving yards, three touchdowns and caught 17 of their 22 targets in Week 1.
Compare that to the Ravens' wideouts, none of whom caught more than six passes against the Raiders. But former Chief Sammy Watkins had a team-high 96 receiving yards, averaging 24 yards per catch, and might be motivated to perform against his former team. It was an important connection for Jackson to make down so many offensive weapons.
The Chiefs spoke highly of Watkins this week, making it clear the defense has been keyed in on him in practice.
“He’s obviously a bigger body who can make a lot of catches,” Mahomes said. “But he has the speed to break it away at any time. I think you saw that in their game on Monday night and obviously when he was here with us. So, I’m happy for him that he’s in a good spot and I know it’ll be a great challenge for our defense to have to battle him.”
Watkins needs to slip past the Chiefs' defense once, maybe twice, for the Ravens to have a shot at the upset. Who else besides Jackson will make the big plays downfield in this offense?
For all the hoopla surrounding the Chiefs’ home-field advantage, they’ve played just as well on the road. They’re a whopping 15-1 in their last 16 regular-season games and their only road loss in 2020 occurred in Super Bowl LV to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were playing in their home stadium.
Expect Jackson and the Ravens to play hard. Head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t lost the locker room. But an alarming deficiency in personnel makes it easy to bet against them, and the spread, especially with Mahomes and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid involved (15 straight wins in September).
Unfortunately for the Ravens, an 0-2 start looks like a tough reality in an AFC North where they may already fall two games behind top rival Pittsburgh after Sunday night.
Prediction: Chiefs 38, Ravens 27
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.