By ROB MAADDI AP Pro Football Writer
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs took a different route to face the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game.
They’re going on the road.
After hosting this game five straight seasons, the No. 3 seed Chiefs had to beat Josh Allen and the Bills at Buffalo and now travel to Baltimore to face Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs (13-6) are looking for their third Super Bowl title in five years and are trying to become the first team to repeat since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did it in the 2003-04 seasons.
They have to get there first.
Standing in their way are the No. 1 seed Ravens, who have played their best against tough opponents. The Ravens (14-4) had 11 wins over winning teams, including nine by at least 14 points.
The Chiefs shut down Tua Tagovailoa and Miami’s potent offense in the wild-card round and sneaked past the Bills in Mahomes’ first career playoff game on the road.
The Ravens rolled to a 34-10 win over Houston after enjoying a first-round bye. They’re 3 1/2-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
The Chiefs had the league’s sixth-ranked passing offense behind Mahomes and 19th-ranked rushing attack. The Ravens gave up the fewest points per game (16.5) and were sixth against the pass and 14th against the run.
Mahomes is a magician and what he’s been able to do without a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver has been impressive. The two-time NFL and Super Bowl MVP threw for 4,183 yards with 27 touchdowns, a career-high 14 interceptions and career-low 92.6 passer rating. His receivers dropped 44 passes, most in the league.
Mahomes’ go-to option still is tight end Travis Kelce. The Ravens have All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton to match up against Kelce so rookie wideout Rashee Rice, veteran Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Kadarius Toney, if he’s healthy, need to step up.
Kelce had 93 catches for 984 yards and five TDs in the regular season and caught two scores last week in Buffalo. Rice had 79 receptions for 938 yards and seven TDs.
The Chiefs will rely on running back Isiah Pacheco to balance the offense. He ran for 935 yards and seven TDs in the regular season, and had 97 yards on 15 carries with one TD against the Bills last week. Baltimore’s front seven led by All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith, LB Patrick Queen and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike held Houston to 38 yards rushing last week and kept nine teams under 100 this season.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid is one of the NFL’s all-time great offensive innovators and he’s been known to add a few new wrinkles in big games. Injured All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney will force Reid to make some adjustments to the game plan. Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has become a hot candidate for head coaching positions after Baltimore’s defense became the first in NFL history to lead the league in fewest points allowed, sacks and turnovers.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Ravens led the NFL in rushing and were 21st in passing behind the dual-threat Jackson. The Chiefs gave up the second-fewest points (17.3), were fourth against the pass and 18th against the run.
Jackson is one of the league’s most talented all-around offensive players so defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit will have its hands full. The All-Pro QB and 2019 NFL MVP threw for 3,678 yards and 24 touchdowns and also ran for 821 yards and five scores. Jackson excelled in the biggest games this season, outplaying Brock Purdy in a rout over San Francisco and tossing five TD passes in a win over Miami that determined the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
The Chiefs can expect to see a heavy dose of Gus Edwards, Justice Hill and Dalvin Cook running the ball and have to watch out for Jackson’s scrambles. The trio of backs ran for 129 yards on 31 carries against Houston last week. Jackson led the way with 100 yards rushing.
Rookie Zay Flowers led Baltimore with 77 catches for 858 yards and five TDs. Jackson also has veterans Nelson Agholor and Odell Beckham Jr. Tight end Mark Andrews is expected to return from an ankle injury, giving Jackson his favorite playmaker.
All-Pro slot cornerback Trent McDuffie against Flowers, who lines up everywhere, will be a key matchup. Blocking All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones, who can be a game-changer, is a top priority for Baltimore’s offensive line.
Jackson flourished in his first season in offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s system. Spagnuolo’s defense can perplex the best teams. His unit shut down Brady, Randy Moss and the undefeated Patriots when the Giants pulled off a stunning Super Bowl upset 16 years ago.
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Two of the best kickers in the NFL are in this one. Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker made 33 of 35 field goals, including all five from beyond 50 yards. Ravens five-time All-Pro Justin Tucker had a down season by his standards, going 32 of 37 on field goals and missing four of five from 50-plus yards.
Ravens punter Jordan Stout had a 39.1-yard net average while Kansas City’s Tommy Townsend had a 41.9-yard net average.
The Chiefs use Mecole Hardman and Richie James for returns. Hardman had the longest punt return at 50 yards and James had the longest kick return at 31. Devin Duvernay is a solid returner for the Ravens. He returned a punt 70 yards.
Reid is a likely future Hall of Famer. He already has two Super Bowl rings and is the winningest coach in the history of the Chiefs and Eagles.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a Reid disciple, also has a Hall of Fame-caliber resume. He’s only had two losing seasons in 16 years with Baltimore and led it to one Super Bowl title.
Reid and Mahomes are chasing Bill Belichick and Brady. They’ve got to win four more Super Bowls to match them. Jackson and the Ravens are trying to silence the playoff narrative. The Ravens were 1-3 in the postseason with Jackson before last week’s dominant win. Losing this one would be a setback.