3:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Ravens -3.5, Over/Under: 44.5
Championship Sunday is here, folks, and we kick things off with a seismic showdown at M&T Bank Stadium, where the (reigning Super Bowl Champion) Kansas City Chiefs face off against the surging Baltimore Ravens in this afternoon’s AFC Championship Game, with a ticket to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas on the line. So often in sports, it appears that the more that things change, the more they stay the same, which encapsulates this campaign for the Chiefs (11-6, 1st in AFC West), who once again find themselves on the precipice of securing yet another AFC Title. We’ve waxed poetic about how this franchise has gradually replenished their ranks on the fly, which is one of the most difficult things to do in sports while still competing for championships. However, (Head Coach) Andy Reid and (General Manager) Brett Veach have been doing a masterful job of performing this task, for this current iteration of the roster couldn’t be more different than the one that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy five years ago. Hell, they aren’t that similar to the one that upset the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII less than a year ago, and for much of this season appeared to be well below that level of performance. Indeed, the 2023 Chiefs ranked a middling fifteenth in points scored (21.8), their lowest since 2018, while also placing twenty-third in turnovers (28) and seventeenth in red zone efficiency (54.1%). While the defense carried the team in many respects, finishing second in both points allowed (17.3) and total defense (289.7), the offense appeared to be missing something throughout the season, with a glaring disconnect in the passing game proving to be the main culprit. A year ago, (perennial Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes laid claim to his second MVP award, though this season saw him go from leading the NFL in passing yards (5.250) and touchdowns (41) to posting 4,183 yards and twenty-seven touchdowns, thanks in large part to a young Receiving Corps that has been prone to drops. Seriously, Kansas City pass-catchers have dropped a whopping THIRTY-NINE balls thrown by Mahomes (pictured below), robbing the attack of rhythm and a consistent sense of verticality (6.32 net yards per attempt). With that being said, the postseason has seen Reid’s troops rediscover their touch in remarkable fashion, flipping the proverbial switch in victories over the Dolphins (26-7) and Bills (27-24). In these two outings, the Chiefs have averaged a healthy 26.5 points on 385.0 total yards including 238.5 yards via the pass on a much-improved 7.5 net yards per attempt. So, what’s the difference, you ask? KC has embraced the ground game like never before, churning out 146.5 rushing yards on 5.1 yards per carry, which has in turn opened up space downfield for Mahomes to find his targets, while bolstering their success in the red zone. In last weekend’s Divisional Round showdown with the Bills in Orchard Park, Mahomes & Co earned their third postseason victory over their rivals in four years, this being the first away from Arrowhead Stadium, thanks in large part to an attack that met very little resistance throughout the affair. While the hosts had to meticulously engineer lengthy drives to maintain control of the contest, the visitors amassed 361 total yards on twenty-one first downs despite only possessing the football for a mere 22:57 of game time. The Chiefs still managed to rush for 146 yards and faced only FIVE third downs on the night, with the longest of their five scoring drives lasting only 4:20! For those wondering, the home side ran seventy-eight plays in comparison to forty-seven for the visiting side, who averaged a healthy 7.68 yards per play. If not for an inexplicable fumble from (veteran Receiver) Mecole Hardman into the end zone for a stunning touchback early in the fourth quarter, then this one wouldn’t have been so close, rendering Buffalo’s unfortunate 44-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right moot. In the end, Mahomes completed an efficient 17-of-23 pass for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both of which went to (all-world Tight End) Travis Kelce, the first of which went for twenty-two yards and the latter for three yards. Kelce led the way with seventy-five yards on five receptions, while (veteran Wideout) Marquez Valdes-Scantling only caught two passes, but they went for sixty-two yards. (Sophomore Tailback) Isiah Pacheco was the star of the show though, rushing for ninety-seven yards and a touchdown on fifteen attempts, while also hauling a 14-yard catch to boot. (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s unit didn’t log a sack or a takeaway, but did a tremendous job of making sure that the Bills couldn’t find any options downfield, limiting Josh Allen to a mere 186 passing yards, while the home side could muster just fifty-nine total yards and three first downs in the fourth quarter.
From a betting perspective, the Chiefs come into this sixth consecutive AFC Title Game with a sterling 13-6 record straight-up, while proving to be almost as rewarding against the spread, posting an 11-7-1 mark in that regard. After a stretch in which they had covered just two of eight games (2-5-1 ATS), Kansas City has returned to form at the right time, winning and covering each of their last four contests, including each of their two postseason tilts. The latter of which is notable because it came as an underdog, which as we’ve stated many times in this column before, is a rare place for Reid’s charges to be, though nonetheless advantageous for the betting community. That is because since Mahomes became the starter back in 2018, he and his teammates are a stellar 8-3 straight-up when receiving points from the oddsmakers, which is the best record of any Quarterback in the Super Bowl era with a minimum of ten starts. Dating back to last season (including playoffs), this is a team that has been a dog just six times in thirty-nine games, though the regular season finale at the Chargers from two weeks ago should be stricken from the record since Reid opted to rest the majority of his starters, including Mahomes. Furthermore, the Chiefs have covered SEVEN consecutive games as a road underdog of 3.5-10.0 points, which is the case this afternoon. Keeping with that theme, the underdog has covered each of the last four meetings between these teams, dating back to 2018, with Kansas City winning four in a row before finally meeting defeat in Baltimore in a thrilling 35-36 affair from two years ago. This one was WILD, folks, as the two combatants traded scores through the first three quarters highlighted by huge plays made on both sides of the football; (former Safety) Tyrann Mathieu kicked things off with a 34-yard interception return to the house, before the hosts responded with a short fumble return to the end zone, succeeded by three touchdown passes courtesy of Mahomes of thirty-three, forty, and forty-six yards. However, the blackbirds would have the final say, rallying back from an 11-point deficit in which Lamar Jackson (much more on him in a bit) rushed in for back-to-back scores to win the game. In the end, both sides amassed over 400 total yards, including 405 from the visitors, who remarkably faced just SIX third downs on the night. Mahomes completed an efficient 24-of-31 passes for 343 yards and those three scores along with an interception, while Kelce hauled in seven receptions on eight targets for 109 yards and a 46-yard touchdown late in the third period. Spagnuolo’s unit was really worked over in this one, relinquishing 481 total yards, including 251 on the ground, leading to THIRTY-ONE first downs, affording the hosts a commanding 35:59 of possession. Throughout his career, Mahomes has faced the Ravens four times, winning three of them, completing 71.8% of his throws for an average of 369.8 yards on a healthy 8.83 net yards per attempt, with twelve touchdowns opposed to just two interceptions. On the injury front, Reid’s troops did NOT emerge from last weekend’s clash with the Bills unscathed, with the likes of (playmaking Linebacker) Willie Gay (neck), (veteran Guard) Joe Thuney (pectoral), (veteran Safety) Mike Edwards (concussion), and (versatile Defensive Lineman) Derrick Nnadi (triceps) all exiting with various ailments. Looking ahead, a win this afternoon would propel Kansas City to their fourth Super Bowl in five years, where they will be looking to earn their fourth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history (third since 2019) and become the first repeat holders of the Lombardi Trophy since New England did it back in 2004.
Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine this season having played out more ideally for the Ravens (13-4, 1st in AFC North), who have clinched the number one overall seed in the AFC for just the second time in franchise history, and as such find themselves hosting a Conference Championship Game for the first time since 1971 when the franchise was the Colts. Of course, it was only a year ago in which this organization found themselves at a proverbial crossroads; (former MVP Quarterback) Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury in early December and missed the final four games of the campaign, including a narrow 17-24 loss at the Bengals on Wild Card Weekend, with the lingering black cloud of his free agency permeating through every corridor of the franchise. (Head Coach) John Harbaugh and (General Manager) Eric DeCosta were locked in a prolonged stalemate with their QB for months, before both sides eventually came to an agreement on a lucrative 5-year, $260 million contract, including a $72.5 million signing bonus and $185 million in total guarantees, the most ever in NFL history. On the gridiron, Baltimore did everything within their power to make the offense more inviting for Jackson (pictured below), offloading (former Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman in favor of the more balanced approach of Todd Monken, while bolstering a long-neglected Receiving Corps with (22nd Overall Pick) Zay Flowers alongside (veteran pass-catchers) Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor. The result was a familiar, yet more balanced attack, that despite ranking first in both rushing attempts (31.8) and yards (156.5) has proven that they can indeed make plays when they take to the air. Under Monken’s direction, the Ravens attempted the third-fewest passes in the league (29.0) leading to 228.3 yards per game (21st Overall), though it was more about what they did when they did decide to let it fly, logging a healthy 6.79 net yards per attempt, the fifth-highest figure. As for Jackson, he turned in his finest campaign as a passer, posting career-bests in completion percentage (67.2%), yards (3,678), and yards per attempt (8.0), while tossing twenty-four touchdowns opposed to just seven interceptions, with a QBR of 64.7. Mind you, he remains an absolute rushing threat with over 800 yards on the ground for the fifth consecutive season, though he has shown a propensity for being more comfortable within the pocket, posting personal-bests in average pocket time (2.7 seconds) and pressure percentage (15.7%). Around him, Flowers proved to be quite a find, with the diminutive joystick leading the team in receptions (88), receiving yards (858), and touchdowns (5), while Beckham has successfully revitalized his career after missing all of last season recovering from a torn ACL, hauling in thirty-five catches, 565 yards and three scores. With all that being said, this team’s success can only be partly attributed to the evolution of the offense, for the defense has been dominant throughout the campaign. In his second year calling plays (Defensive Coordinator) Mike McDonald has established himself as one of the hot young profiles of this current coaching cycle, with his unit shipping the fewest points in the NFL (16.5), while ranking sixth in total yards allowed (301.3), first in takeaways (31), seventh on third down (36.4%), and second within the red zone (40.8%). This group has made a habit of pummeling the opposition, having recently relegated the likes of the Jaguars, 49ers, and Dolphins to a combined forty-five points in successive weeks. In the case of San Francisco and Miami, two teams billed as Super Bowl contenders, Baltimore outscored them by margin of FIFTY-ONE points, forcing the former into four turnovers on Christmas Day in Santa Clara, before hanging a 50-burger on the latter a week later at M&T Bank Stadium. All of those takeaways have helped drive their success, with Harbaugh’s troops enjoying a very healthy +7 turnover differential in those two affairs alone. This success continued in last weekend’s 34-10 triumph over the Texans in the Divisional Round, in which the visitors were completely shutout in the second half, converting only one third down and being relegated to a mere fifty-eight yards. On the other hand, the hosts had no such issues, catching fire in the second half to score twenty-four unanswered points, highlighted by success drives that bled over seven minutes off the clock apiece. Jackson opened things up with a 15-yard jaunt into the end zone, before finding (Sophomore Tight End) Isaiah Likely for a 15-yard strike, and then closing the door on the visitors with yet another rushing score. In the end, the Ravens outgained Houston 352-213 in total yards, 22-10 in first downs, 229-38 in rushing yards, and possessed the football for a commanding 37:55 of game time. Jackson completed 16-of-22 passes for 152 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while cracking the century mark on the ground with 100 yards and two more scores on eleven carries, a performance well worthy of what is widely expected to be his second MVP award to be announced next weekend.
From a betting perspective, the Ravens come into their fourth AFC Championship Game in franchise history on the strength of a superb 14-4 record straight-up, while covering twelve games to boot, the most of any team in the league this season. Consistency is the name of the game for Baltimore, who remarkably gone twenty-four consecutive games without failing to cover back-to-back games, which is a streak that they managed to keep going with last weekend’s drubbing of the upstart Texans, whom they were conceding ten points to. Indeed, Harbaugh’s troops have made a habit of handling quality competition, boasting a 7-3 record against teams that comprise this current playoff field, while embarrassing the two participants in today’s NFC Championship Game, the Niners and Lions, by a combined FORTY-SIX points. With that being said, there are a pair of trends that support a buyer beware approach here, folks; in their last ten games after allowing less than 250 total yards, these blackbirds are just 2-8 against the spread, while in their last five contests after shipping less than fifteen points they are 1-4, with both in play for this afternoon’s showdown with the Chiefs. Speaking of Kansas City, Jackson & Co snapped a 4-game losing streak to the reigning Super Bowl Champions in their most recent affair, that aforementioned 36-35 affair back in 2021. As we covered earlier, the Ravens trailed throughout virtually the entire contest, only drawing even twice in the first half. Facing a 25-34 deficit late in the third period, the hosts picked off Mahomes at midfield, only for Jackson to stroll into the end zone five plays later. After forcing the visitors to punt, Jackson engineered a 14-play, 68-yard drive that bled over eight minutes off the clock, once again breaching the goal line with his legs, this time to take their first lead of the game. With that being said, the ensuing two-point conversion failed to materialize, leaving KC just over three minutes to get into field goal range. Fortunately, (Edge-Rusher) Odafe Oweh stripped Clyde Edwards-Helaire of the football at the 32-yard line, recovering it boot, effectively ending the game with 1:14 on the clock. In the end, the Ravens met very little resistance in moving the chains, churning out 481 total yards, including 251 on the ground, along with thirty-one first downs, converting 6-of-11 third downs and their only attempt on fourth. Jackson completed 18-of-26 passes for 239 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions, while gashing the Chiefs with his legs, rushing for 106 and another two scores on six carries. For what it’s worth, the Ravens failed to sack Mahomes, though did pressure him eight times, hurrying him on five occasions, and knocking him down thrice, with (backup Cornerback) Tavon Young snaring that interception. Over the course of his career, Jackson is 1-3 versus Kansas City, completing just 56.2% of his throws for an average of 187.5 yards on 5.58 net yards per attempt with four touchdowns in comparison to two interceptions, though as expected has enjoyed much more success rushing the ball, with another 75.8 yards per game on 6.45 yards per carry and three more scores and a pair of lost fumbles. On the injury front, Harbaugh & Co could receive two very significant reinforcements in the form of (Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Marlon Humphrey, who missed last weekend’s victory due to a tender calf muscle, and (Pro-Bowl Tight End) Mark Andrews, who has been sidelined since mid-November thanks to a nasty high ankle sprain that required surgery. Simply put, adding these two back into the starting lineup would make this team even more formidable than they already are. Looking ahead, a win this afternoon would send Baltimore to their third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history and first since 2012, where they bested one of the two possible opponents that they could meet from the NFC, San Francisco.