By Noah Trister
BALTIMORE (AP) — Patrick Mahomes has already defeated an impressive list of quarterbacks in the playoffs: Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Ben Roethlisberger, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa.
And of course, Josh Allen, who was eliminated for the third time by Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs last week.
One star AFC quarterback whom Mahomes has never run into in the postseason is Lamar Jackson. The Baltimore Ravens star could match Mahomes this season with his second MVP award — but is only now making his first appearance in the AFC championship game.
“He’s going to be the MVP for a reason,” Mahomes said. “He leads his team. He scores, he runs, he throws, he does whatever it takes to win, and that’s what the greats do. It’s a challenge for our defense, but also a great challenge for our offense to keep up.” Mahomes and the Chiefs face that difficult task Sunday at Baltimore in the AFC title game. It’s their sixth consecutive year reaching this stage of the playoffs, but the first time in that span they’ll have to play it on the road.
The Chiefs are the defending Super Bowl champions. The Ravens have the NFL’s best record this season. It’s a fascinating matchup made even more so by the presence of Mahomes and Jackson.
Even if Jackson would be happy to avoid such a tough opponent.
“I don’t like competing against him at all,” Jackson said with a laugh. “He’s definitely a Hall of Famer. But I believe it’s just two greats — up-and-coming greats — just going toe to toe, like a heavyweight fight.”
This is the first playoff matchup between former MVP quarterbacks who are both under 30.
That’s not to say Mahomes hasn’t been pushed in the quarterback-deep AFC. Allen has come close to knocking him off, and Burrow actually beat Mahomes in the AFC championship game two years ago before Mahomes won a rematch last season.
Jackson’s most recent matchup with Mahomes was a 36-35 win by the Ravens in September 2021. Mahomes won their meetings in each of the previous three seasons.
“Listen, this league is a lot about the quarterbacks, right? We’re fortunate in this game we have two of the best ones in the league,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “Our goal and what we talk about all the time is, ‘Let’s just get the ball back to our quarterback.’ That’s our job. And the only way to do that is make sure their quarterback doesn’t do the things that he’s capable of doing.”
Baltimore (14-4) reached this round with a 34-10 win over Houston. Kansas City (12-6) beat Allen and Buffalo 27-24 last weekend — with Taylor Swift in attendance watching her boyfriend, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
That romance could be headed to the Super Bowl next month — but the Ravens will do their best to end Kansas City’s run.
LONG TIME COMING
This is the first time Baltimore is hosting the AFC title game since the Colts beat the Oakland Raiders in January 1971. The current Baltimore franchise has made it to this game four times previously, all on the road, and won twice on the way to Super Bowl titles.
This is Baltimore’s fourth time reaching the game under coach John Harbaugh, but the Ravens haven’t been this far since their Super Bowl run 11 years ago. Kansas City, of course, has made the AFC title game an annual part of its schedule lately.
“They’ve been in this situation many times. They’ve played in this game. I think they’re a very experienced team,” Harbaugh said. “They’re a hardened team. They’ve been through a lot. That experience always is helpful.”
POPS GOES PACHECO
Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco, affectionately known as “Pops” by teammates, has been a big reason why they have won their first two playoff games.
The second-year standout has run for 186 yards and two scores in wins over Miami and Buffalo, and his success between the tackles has opened up a downfield passing game that has been bottled up all season.
“I think leaning into him, leaning into our offensive line and what they do best is extremely important to our team,” Mahomes said. “It’s not always going to be high-flying, but we’re going to do whatever we can to win the football game at the end of the day. And if that’s running the ball, throwing the ball, whatever that is.”
Of the Ravens’ 13 regular-season victories this season, a record 10 were over teams that finished above .500.
“I think that we just do what we’re signed up to do, and that’s play for each other, at the end of the day. Give everything that we’ve got and try to send a message, play in and play out,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “No bigger stage to do that than the game coming up this week.”
GET A KICK OF THIS
Special teams is usually a factor in the postseason — look at the misses by Buffalo and Green Bay last week. And the Ravens and Chiefs have two of the game’s best kickers.
Justin Tucker is going to his seventh Pro Bowl in 12 seasons for Baltimore, while Harrison Butker was 33 of 35 on field-goal attempts for Kansas City this season and is perfect so far in the playoffs.
“He’s been there for such a long career, no injuries, and he’s made it look effortless,” Butker said of Tucker, whom he recalls watching on Youtube as far back as high school. “He’s kind of changed the kicking game, and pushed us younger guys to say, ‘It’s possible to make 65-yard field goals and these game-winning kicks.’ He’s just an artist.”
Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) hasn’t played since November, but he has been practicing this week. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf) also returned to practice after missing last weekend’s win over Houston.
Pacheco (ankle/toe) and guard Joe Thuney (pectoral) missed practice time for Kansas City this week.
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta contributed to this report.