When the AFC title game kicks off Sunday evening, I think it’s fair to assume most Ravens fans will be rooting for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Who around here isn’t tired of being bombarded with all the blather about the decade of dominance the New England Patriots will carry into their eighth straight conference championship game, fresh off earning their ninth straight playoff bye on the heels of their 10th straight AFC East title?
It’s impressive stuff, of course, but we all know the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ravens and probably the Cincinnati Bengals would have won that horrible division every year, too. It’s pretty nice to start the season with five or six division wins all but assured. It also doesn’t hurt that for some magical reason the entitled Patriots almost always seem to be playing their Thursday night games at home. (You can look that up.)
Still, Tom Brady might be the best quarterback ever, which is another reason for Baltimore fans to resent the Patriots. But this game is really about the Chiefs quarterback and how he performs with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick — one of the best game-planning coaches in NFL history — on the opposite sideline.
Patrick Mahomes has been a revelation. He can do it all and he can do it with such flair that it’s hard to imagine anyone stopping him. He’s the guy Ravens fans hope Lamar Jackson will evolve into, so they’ll want to know that the guy can do again to the hated Patriots what he has done to just about everybody this season.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying Mahomes and Jackson are the same player at different stages of development. They’re not even close. Mahomes looked like he was NFL-ready the day he made his first professional appearance in the 2017 preseason.
Jackson, 22, is a run-first, college-style quarterback who hasn’t yet shown he can throw the ball efficiently enough to remain the dynamic force he became after the Ravens sprung him on the the league in Week 11. Mahomes, 23, is a do-whatever-he-wants-first quarterback who can move the chains with his legs and thread a needle with his arm.
He is a different guy with a different skill set, but he is the embodiment of every Ravens fan’s ultimate fantasy. He’s the guy who makes it seem possible that Jackson’s game can be tweaked enough to allow him to carve up the Patriots defense when Brady and Co. come to M&T Bank Stadium next season.
That’s why it’s important — from a Ravens perspective — for Mahomes to put on the same kind of show he did when the Chiefs lost a heart-stopping 43-40 shootout to the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., in October.
The Patriots picked him off twice in that game, but Mahomes threw for 352 yards and four touchdowns. It will be interesting to see what adjustments the New England defense makes to prevent him from running up another 110.0 quarterback rating.
The reason this is in any way relevant to Jackson’s future in the NFL is because of the way the Los Angeles Chargers were able to stifle the rookie in their playoff victory over Baltimore on Jan. 6 after failing to hold the Ravens’ balanced offense in check just two weeks before that.
The Ravens have a right to be excited about Jackson’s potential after he led them on a second-half run that put them in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. But the playoff loss stoked concern that the opponents on the 2019 schedule will have plenty of time and tape to figure out how to frustrate him like the Chargers did.
If Belichick and his coaching staff can’t figure out Mahomes on Sunday, that would raise hope that Jackson can be molded into a fundamentally sound quarterback whose improvisational skills might make him truly elite.