It starts with the quarterbacks, because of course it does.
Do you prefer your victory served with a whirling-dervish gallop to the end zone or a no-look pass? With a clinically dominant first half or an improbable comeback?
When the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs match up Monday night in the first heavyweight slugfest of the 2020 NFL season, all eyes will fixate on Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes — a 23-year-old Most Valuable Player and a 25-year-old Super Bowl winner carrying the most glamorous position in American sports to new frontiers.
The game has created such buzz because it suggests possibilities beyond one night in September and the lofty ambitions these teams share. There’s a sense that Ravens vs. Chiefs and Jackson vs. Mahomes could define the NFL in the decade to come, much as Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady did in the 2000s and Cowboys vs. 49ers did in the 1990s.
“I do [think that],” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN NFL Live analyst Dan Orlovsky. “If we look at dynasties where two teams have been part of a rivalry for a long period of time, they’ve got three distinctive characteristics that are similar. One, do they have great ownership? No. 2, do they have great general managers, where both are very good at drafting, knowing when they miss, being financially sound? And then three, do they have the great quarterback? Both these teams, in Baltimore and Kansas City, I would put up there in those three [areas] with anybody in the NFL right now.
"I think we’ve got an awesome, awesome long-term rivalry because of it.”
The subplots in Ravens vs. Chiefs never end. The matchup pits two of the most respected front offices in the league shaping star-studded rosters around generationally gifted quarterbacks. It brings together two of the NFL’s finest head coaches, with John Harbaugh trying to best one of his key mentors in Andy Reid. Jackson’s favorite target, Mark Andrews, measures himself against Mahomes' third-down safety blanket, Travis Kelce. When analysts describe Marquise Brown’s potential as a deep threat for the Ravens, they say he could be their version of Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill. Even the kickers, Justin Tucker and Harrison Butker, rank 1-2 in career field-goal accuracy.
On and on it goes with these teams.
“To me, these are the two best teams in the NFL. Not the AFC, the NFL,” said ESPN NFL Live analyst Mina Kimes. “It’s one game, but some of the matchups we see and how they play out are going to have ramifications for the rest of the season.”
For the players as much as the viewers at home, the story comes back to Jackson and Mahomes.
“Mahomes just signed for 10 years, whatever, $500 million, and [he’s an] MVP quarterback. And then we have Lamar, MVP and he’ll be a Raven for life,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “So, with those two teams, I think when the NFL is picking out the schedule, they’ll always find a way to keep these two teams going at each other. When those two quarterbacks are on the field, it’s magic on both sides.”
Though Jackson downplayed the individual matchup, noting that he has to prepare for the Chiefs defense, not Mahomes, Ravens tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said it’s inevitable for the two quarterbacks to measure themselves against one another.
“It’s something that comes with the competitiveness of it,” Brown said. “It’s only natural that when you’re playing against a team like this on a prime-time game, you naturally compete with that other person on that team at your position, that’s a superstar as well. Is it something I’ve hear Lamar talk about? No. Is it something you’ll probably hear Pat Mahomes talk about? No. But it’s something that’s natural in this profession.”
Could Jackson and Mahomes trade off Super Bowl trips and MVP trophies, as Brady and Manning did for 15 seasons? Between 2001 and 2015, a Manning team or a Brady team appeared in the last game of the season 10 times.
The NFL has never seen anything like it.
Mahomes started the next-generation conversation by winning MVP honors with an astounding statistical line in 2018 and following with a Super Bowl win in his second season as a starter. Orlovsky said Jackson has made himself a realistic foil with his growing ability to read the entire field presnap.
“Lamar last year was really good at getting through progressions,” he said. “But there’s a big difference between getting through progressions and processing your progressions. Lamar has gotten to the place where his mind is as fast as his body. … It’s no longer my progression is one-two-three-four; it now is my progression is three-four. He’s canceling out options before the ball is snapped. He’s watching things develop before they develop.”
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale sees similar acumen in Mahomes. “The intelligence of the player, he’s at that football IQ level of Brady and Manning, those type of quarterbacks,” he said. “I know he’s making $450 million or whatever it is. I think they could give him a billion and he’d still be underpaid.”
The matchup is all the more exciting because Mahomes and Jackson lead a vanguard of young, Black quarterbacks who play the position masterfully while also lighting up “SportsCenter” with their improvisations.
“They’re not Brady and Manning, yet,” said former defensive back and CBS NFL analyst Charles Davis. “Brady and Manning was built over time and big games and playing against each another. But guess what? We’re going to have [Jackson and Mahomes] continuing to play against each other … I know everybody wants the old school, stay in the pocket. But watch these kids move, watch these kids keep plays alive, watch these kids turn them into bigger plays.”
There’s a counter to all this hype and it’s the same one the Ravens will hear in some form or another until January: They’ve yet to win in the playoffs.
Mahomes and the Chiefs came within an offsides penalty of going to the Super Bowl in 2019 and won it last season with a 21-point fourth-quarter rally. In the same two postseasons, the Ravens suffered crushing home upsets with Jackson playing below his usual level.
Given that the Chiefs also stand 2-0 against the Jackson-led Ravens, a Kansas City fan could be forgiven for asking: What rivalry?
Perhaps that’s why Ravens players and coaches did not pretend they’re preparing for any old game on Monday night. The Chiefs present a unique test of where they stand.
“You can’t sit there and pretend,” Harbaugh said. “Every game is important; that’s the thing. It is true, because they all count for wins, and you don’t want to mess up one that the fans or somebody else might not think is important. But who wouldn’t get excited for a game like this? When you’re playing a team that is the defending champs, the favorites to win the whole thing again … the type of players they have, the coaches they have, the head coach, coach Reid, you’re going to get excited about it. It’s not something that we downplay.”
Brown compared the Chiefs to the New England Patriots teams the Ravens had to get past to win their last Super Bowl.
“That type of feel, that type of atmosphere for those games, it’s similar,” he said. “It’s definitely something that I think we understand the big picture of and the importance of it.”
At the same time, he said the Ravens can’t get carried away with thoughts of playoff seeding and power rankings. They have to start by beating the Chiefs once.
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: ESPN, Ch. 11
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
Line: Ravens by 3½