No doubt, the two things we’ll remember most about the 2019 NFL season are the magical regular-season performance of Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson and the otherworldly postseason heroics of Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Mahomes and Jackson are two of the most exciting young stars in all of professional sports and they took us on a terrific ride, but the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t win their first Super Bowl title in a half-century and the Ravens didn’t post the best regular-season record in their history just because they have elite multi-threat quarterbacks.
Offensive players win awards and defenses win — or lose — championships.
How many times during the days leading up to the Super Bowl did you hear how about the 49ers being ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total defense and the Chiefs being ranked 26th against the rush? Which is why so many analysts wondered how Kansas City could be favored to win the game.
The pundits were right to wonder about that, because the 49ers defense was statistically superior and carried that dominance through their first two playoff games. The Chiefs, meanwhile, allowed a total of 41 points in the first halves of their playoff games against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans and needed Mahomes to bail them out on both occasions.
What changed Sunday? The supposedly deficient Chiefs defense was able to hold the 49ers to 10 points in the first half and make some big stops after Mahomes threw a pair of third-quarter interceptions and Kansas City entered the fourth quarter trailing 20-10.
That allowed Mahomes to do what he had done in his previous two playoff games. He settled down and engineered three touchdown drives and left no doubt who was the best individual player on sport’s biggest stage.
The Kansas City defense pretty much got lost in the shower of confetti.
Jackson was consistently electrifying during the regular season, but the Ravens fell out of the playoffs because the Titans got off to a quick start and pounded the Ravens defensive line until Derrick Henry had run up a team-record 195 rushing yards.
Henry had been a beast the week before, rushing for 182 yards against the New England Patriots’ top-ranked defense, but it was hard to imagine him replicating that performance against the AFC’s No. 2 defense against the run.
Obviously, the Ravens fell short in several areas and Jackson was the first to take responsibility for the loss, but the Titans found every hole in the Ravens defense on the way to one of the greatest upsets in NFL playoff history.
Why is this important? Because the Ravens are in the rare position to be able to take their offensive weaponry for granted. They’ve got their MVP quarterback. They’ve got solid depth at running back and tight end. They’ve got a couple of good young receivers who have a chance to get much better.
They also will have much of that strong defense back, but they need to focus on developing a scarier pass rush after ranking 23rd in the league with just 37 sacks during the regular season. That number is a bit deceptive, since they did a good job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but we’re talking about what it will take to go from being the winningest team in the league to leaving nothing to chance in the postseason.
If we’re talking Super Bowl or bust, Jackson has to deliver a suitable encore to his MVP season, but it will be the defense that gets the Ravens there next year.