Any time two NFL MVPs step on the same field, it's sure to be a heck of a show. That's even more true when those two MVPs are Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, two of the small handful of most exciting players in recent NFL history.
When those two MVPs have coaches like Andy Reid and John Harbaugh at the helm, things get even more interesting. When coordinators like Eric Bieniemy, Steve Spagnuolo, Greg Roman, and Don Martindale get into the mix, well, you've really got something cooking. Throw in Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, Mark Ingram, Mark Andrews, Marquise Brown, Calais Campbell, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and more, and there's the potential for something special to happen.
How to watch
When the Chiefs have the ball
Last week against the Chargers, the explosive Kansas City Chiefs offense experienced some uncharacteristic struggles -- at least, for most of the game. Through the first three quarters, K.C. ran only 40 plays totaling just 178 yards, an average of 4.45 per play. By way of comparison, consider that last year's Chiefs averaged 6.2 yards per play and the 2018 Chiefs averaged 6.8 per play. It's worth noting, though, that the Chargers had actually held the Chiefs below those averages across four contests in 2018 and 2019, yielding an even 6 yards per play.
So, can the Ravens replicate that type of result, and perhaps without allowing Patrick Mahomes to get himself untracked toward the end of the game? If they can, it likely won't be accomplished through the same tactics. The Chargers run one of the NFL's more passive defenses, preferring to sit in zone coverage and rarely sending blitzes. The Chargers' 11 percent blitz rate is the lowest in the NFL so far this season. They also ranked last in the league in blitz rate last season, and 30th the year before. The Ravens, by contrast, love to blitz. They led the NFL in blitz rate in 2018 (40 percent) and 2019 (55 percent), and through two weeks they ranked second behind only the Steelers in 2020 (47 percent).
Regular-season matchups don't get any better than Chiefs-Ravens, and R.J. White and host Will Brinson get you ready for the big game with all sorts of gambling advice on the Pick Six Podcast; listen in the player below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness fired into your eardrums.
In his two-plus seasons as the Chiefs' starter, Mahomes has absolutely lit up opposing secondaries when the defense sent a blitz, completing 194 of 296 passes for 2,593 yards, 25 touchdowns, and one interception, per Pro Football Focus. That's a 120 passer rating, in case you're wondering. Of course, most defenses don't have the talent the Ravens have on that side of the ball. When they blitz, they're sending a cavalcade of quality rushers after the quarterback, but supporting that rush with one of the NFL's best coverage units. Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Jimmy Smith make up one of the league's premier cornerback trios, and even without Earl Thomas they sport a quality safety group in Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, and Anthony Levine.
Helpfully from Baltimore's perspective, they have done a good job of taking away speedy deep threats so far this season, holding Odell Beckham Jr. and Will Fuller to a combined three catches for 22 yards. That does not bode well for Tyreek Hill, nor for Mecole Hardman. But where the Ravens can be vulnerable is over the middle, where star tight end Travis Kelce and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire do most of their damage. In two games against the Ravens in 2018 and 2019, Kelce posted receiving lines of 7-77-1 and 7-89-0. Edwards-Helaire didn't contribute as a receiver in his NFL debut, but hauled in six passes for 32 yards last week against L.A.
In order for him to even get the ball out to those playmakers, though, the offensive line will have to hold up against what is a very strong defensive front. Mitchell Schwartz should not have much problem taking care of things on the right side of the line, but the Ravens might be able to wreak some havoc on the interior, where Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe could have athleticism advantages against guards Andrew Wylie and Kelechi Osemele. They've each allowed three pressures and taken multiple penalties already this season. If Baltimore brings blitz help on the edges, it could allow Campbell and Wolfe one-on-one matchups inside. The Ravens could try to flood the interior with blitz pressure in hopes of getting to Mahomes before he breaks the pocket, but that's an awfully big risk to take against arguably the best scramble-drill quarterback in the NFL.
When the Ravens have the ball
It's safe to say that Lamar Jackson has picked up right where he left off in 2019. Through two weeks, Jackson is 38 of 49 for 479 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks, good for a 134.6 passer rating. It was widely expected that Jackson's 9 percent touchdown rate from last season would regress, and indeed it has ... all the way to 8.2 percent. Ho-hum. He's added 99 additional yards on 23 carries, as if the passing numbers weren't enough.
The Ravens have stormed their way to back-to-back blowout victories, so Jackson hasn't even gotten the chance to really spread his wings just yet. The Ravens have already made clear, though, that they intend to make their two biggest passing-game weapons from last season (Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown) significantly larger parts of their offense this year. In 2019, Andrews played only 41 percent of the team's offensive snaps and still finished with 64 catches for 852 yards and 10 scores -- numbers good enough to send him to the Pro Bowl. This season, he's up at 65 percent of the snaps, and again, that's in two blowouts. Brown, meanwhile, played just 51 percent of the snaps while dealing with various injuries last season, and still hauled in 46 passes for 584 yards and seven scores on only 71 targets. He, too, is up to 65 percent of snaps so far this season despite the back-to-back blowouts.
The Chiefs defended tight ends very well last season (fourth in Football Outsiders' DVOA), and that includes Andrews, who finished with just three catches for 15 yards on his seven targets in the teams' Week 3 meeting a year ago. The safety trio of Tyrann Mathieu (who typically plays in the slot, where Andrews lines up often), Juan Thornhill (returning from his torn ACL a year ago), and Daniel Sorenson is a strong one, and could muck things up a bit for Andrews over the middle. The Ravens would be better off keeping Andrews in-line more often than they typically do, and utilizing him as part of their play-action attack to take advantage of Kansas City's linebackers in coverage.
Less clear is how the Chiefs plan to deal with Brown. No. 1 cornerback Bashaud Breeland is suspended for two more weeks, leaving Rashad Fenton and rookie L'Jarius Sneed manning the perimeter. Sneed is the much faster of the two players and thus more well-equipped to deal with Hollywood's deep speed, but he's also less experienced than Fenton, who played a significant role in Kansas City's Super Bowl run.
The Ravens, though, might be the one team in the NFL where you actually have to worry more about stopping their running game than their passing attack. The threat of Jackson making something happen with his legs opens up some of the league's widest rushing lanes for the likes of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and rookie J.K. Dobbins. Baltimore loves to use the threat of Jackson's speed to the edge to run the ball right up the middle, and the powerful runners they've collected each do a terrific job of punishing opposing defenses for committing extra attention to the quarterback. And in the event they actually try to stop the backs, Jackson almost always makes the right read and takes off on his own.
The Chiefs have struggled to stop the run for much of the last few seasons, and they're 26th in run defense DVOA so far this season. That's dangerous against any team capable of getting rolling on the ground, but especially so against the NFL's most diverse and efficient run game.
Prediction: Ravens 34, Chiefs 30