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  • Writer's pictureJoshua U.

AFC Championship: Super, Again!

"Ownership."


It's a phrase I typically don't like to use when it comes to sports discourse.


"Team X owns Team Y."

"Player X is Players Y's father."


Sometimes we have to remember that these are grown men and women we're talking about, at the height of competition. That's why I'll always hesitate to say one team/player just flat-out owns another.


With that being said...


The Chiefs flat-out own the Bills in postseason ball.


Chiefs' QB Patrick Mahomes runs off the field at Highmark Stadium in jubilation after breaking Buffalo Bills fans' hearts once again. Mahomes completed 74% of his passes for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns to capture his career's first road playoff win in Kansas City's thrilling 27-24 victory.


And it's not due to any type of talent disparity. Kansas City's 3-0 record over Buffalo in the playoffs might speak to that on the surface, but that couldn't be further from reality. The two teams' only postseason matchup in recent history that finished as a double-digit margin of victory was the initial playoff meeting between Patrick Mahomes and Bills QB Josh Allen in 2020.


Ownership.


That word isn't just representative of the Chiefs' dominance over the Bills in the playoffs. It also speaks to the Chiefs' dominance over the AFC as a whole since Mahomes took over.


Kansas City played in their 6th AFC Championship game in 6 seasons on Sunday afternoon in Baltimore. The latest leg of the Kansas City Chiefs' Invitational featured the first ever postseason meeting between Mahomes and another young superstar quarterback in the conference.


Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is fully expected to join an exclusive club of two-time NFL MVPs when the postseason awards are announced at the NFL Honors the night before the Super Bowl. Jackson's stats this season: 3,678 pass yards, 24 pass TD, 7 INT, 821 rush yards, 5 rush TD, 13-3 record.


Lamar Jackson is expected to become, like Mahomes, a two-time NFL MVP in 12 days at the NFL Honors. Jackson, also like Mahomes, is a generational, one-of-one type talent at the quarterback position. The parallels don't stop there, though. In their first full seasons as NFL starting quarterbacks, both guys completely burst onto the scene and each won their first MVP award -- and Lamar won his in unanimous fashion! Jackson became only the 2nd unanimous MVP back in 2019, joining Tom Brady in 2007, where Tom threw 50 touchdown passes and led his New England Patriots to an undefeated 16-0 regular season. Tom was 30 years of age when he won that MVP. Lamar, remarkably, was only 22 when he won his.


Jackson is a revolutionary, but he is not the perfect QB by any means. No one is, but for whatever reason, Jackson's flaws become sports talk media fodder far more often than his peers. Despite winning not just one, but two Heisman trophies, the most prestigious award in college football, during his career at Louisville, his ability at the quarterback position was consistently called into question ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft.


As much as I personally believe that the media's criticisms of Jackson are coded in many ways that we'll get to later, let me first draw this comparison: the only other massively successful collegiate QB to win as many games as Jackson, and win as many awards as Jackson, that faced as many questions on whether they could adequately play the QB position at the next level was Tim Tebow. There was a decent amount of chatter about Tebow and whether it would be better for his career for the 6'3", 255 lb quarterback to make a full-time positional change to tight end, after winning a Heisman of his own in '07, alongside two other top-5 finishes in 2008 & 2009. Tebow was always consistent in his insistence of being a QB and QB only, as has Jackson.


That didn't stop prominent NFL voices, like former NFL executive Bill Polian, from infamously stating before the draft in 2018 that Jackson should look to switch positions to wide receiver because he was "short and slight", and "clearly not the thrower that the other guys [were]" -- "the other guys" being Jackson's positional peers in the draft, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. Despite Jackson's arguable shortcomings as a passer, for Polian to claim that Jackson, who is 6'3", was too short to be an effective NFL quarterback, is insane... considering the fact that Polian consistently lauded the aforementioned Mayfield at that time, who is at least 2 inches shorter than Lamar.


Bill Polian was a massively successful NFL executive, but has somehow become more known in recent memory for his series of anti-Lamar Jackson takes.


Polian hasn't been the only one to make similar dog-whistle type statements about Jackson's abilities as a quarterback over the past 6 years. Far from it, actually. Lamar gets called a "running back" fairly often by fans on social media when the actual media isn't calling his skills into question. And let's not get this twisted. A lot of the noise surrounding Jackson has much less to do about his actual ability to play the position well -- it has a lot more to do about how NFL executives have viewed black men's ability to "process information" and "lead teams". Over the course of the NFL's now 104-year history, we have seen other black quarterbacks with unique skill-sets, such as Cam Newton, Michael Vick, and, of course, Colin Kaepernick face similar scrutiny for simply playing the position in a much different (but still effective!) way while also looking very different from the typical 'tall & white' quarterbacking prototype.



Look at all of these accomplishments, though. The truth of the matter is, Lamar has completely dispelled the notion that he can't play the QB position at a high level. In fact, he's played himself into a very rich contract, a sterling win-loss record as a starter, and he's frequently mentioned in the discussion of who the best quarterbacks in the league are. Here's the issue, though: when you're a 2-time MVP by age 28, your expectations get raised. By a lot. And in situations like Sunday afternoon's AFC Title Game, you're fully expected by the masses to raise your game along with them.


The main plot in this game may have been the two future Hall-Of-Fame quarterbacks, but the key subplot was both the Chiefs and Ravens' defenses. We saw both of the two best defenses in the NFL this season on the field yesterday, the Ravens at #1 and Chiefs at #2 in terms of scoring defense.


After Lamar & the Ravens went 3-and-out on the opening possession of the game, Patrick Mahomes took the #1 defense in the league and walked them right down the field in the midst of a 9-play, 86 yard opening drive that culminated in an insane Mahomes-to-Kelce touchdown connection from 19 yards out, a back-shoulder pass thrown so perfectly towards the pylon on the near sideline that it should've had an parental warning on it. Just like that, Kansas City took a 7-0 lead and quickly had the Ravens' players, coaches and fans alike back on their heels. Taylor Swift and the rest of the Chiefs' press box reacted accordingly, though.


The NFL's newest super-fan this season: Pop megastar Taylor Swift, who is very notably dating Chiefs' TE Travis Kelce. Look at the passion!


Jackson got the ball back and delivered a glancing blow right back to the Chiefs. From KC's 30-yard line, Lamar took the snap, scrambled around the pocket like the elusive, athletic marvel that he is, and calmly delivered a perfect pass downfield to star rookie wideout Zay Flowers for the game-evening score.


At this point in the game, I was thoroughly convinced that we were headed towards an all-time shootout between these two QB legends, elite defenses be damned. This opening sequence to the game? It's what everyone wanted to see -- Mahomes and Lamar going bar-for-bar in a huge legacy-defining game for the right to go to Super Bowl LVIII.


The Chiefs scored on their very next possession as well -- a possession that started towards the end of the 1st quarter and concluded with 4 minutes gone in the 2nd with Isiah Pacheco's third rushing touchdown in three games played this postseason. Shockingly, at least to me, that would be the final touchdown scored for the remainder of the game.


Defense wins championships. If you're any type of sports fan, you've heard that cliche more times than you could possibly count. Historically, though, in every single major sport -- it's the truth. Offense will win you games in the regular season, but defense always shines in the postseason -- and these two defenses shone bright on an otherwise cloudy, grey late-afternoon in Baltimore.


The Chiefs drove it once again into the red zone, but a clutch stop by Baltimore's defense on 4th-and-1 stifled that threat. KC again drove the ball decently deep into Ravens' territory before half, but after a Rashee Rice catch-and-run TD was called back due to offensive holding, Kansas City settled for a 52-yard three-pointer from kicker Harrison Butker to take a 17-7 lead into halftime. After halftime, the two offenses traded punts the entire way until Baltimore got the ball with under a minute left in the 3rd.


I made mention of Baltimore's talented rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers earlier; he has truly been a game-changer for an Ravens' offense & franchise that has historically struggled to get Lamar Jackson competent pass-catchers, before their selection of the explosive Flowers with the 22nd overall pick in the most recent draft.


In a sequence of events that started with roughly 45 seconds remaining in the 3rd, Flowers flashed that special explosiveness yet again -- but that play was immediately followed up by a series of much more unfortunate, self-sabotaging ones.


Ravens rookie WR Zay Flowers commits a costly taunting penalty against Chiefs' CB L'Jarius Sneed after Flowers' huge 54-yard reception late in the 3rd quaeter.


Here's a couple more playoff cliches for you. Experience matters. Championship DNA matters. The Chiefs carried the latter into Sunday's game, and that was a major factor in builidng their double-digit 2nd-half lead. Playoff football can get intensely emotional, and the ability to keep your cool & act like you've been there before can win or lose games.


Flowers re-invigorated a Ravens' offense and crowd that had been rendered lifeless in the 2nd half with a 54-yard reception-and-run all the way down inside the Chiefs' 10-yard line. When Flowers rose back up after being tackled, he pushed Chiefs' corner L'Jarius Sneed down, flipped the ball down towards him and stood over Sneed while flexing his arms.


The good news is that's an efficient 4 taunts in 1 from Zay. Clean work. Impressive.


The bad news is that you're practically begging the referees to throw a flag on you in doing that.


The refs did just that, and pushed the Ravens back 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. After the big-yardage play though, Baltimore still had a valuable scoring opportunity in front of them. Another reception by Flowers got the Ravens right back down inside Kansas City's 15. Then, two plays later, Flowers caught another pass over the middle and raced towards the end zone.


Chiefs'CB L'Jarius Sneed made the play of the game on Sunday -- punching the ball out from Ravens WR Zay Flowers' grasp just before Flowers crossed the goal line, to thwart Baltimore's biggest scoring threat in the 2nd half.


The Chiefs' secondary has been their strongest, most consistent positional group this season. Every time they've been tested, they've responded with a big pass break-up or turnover forced. Their best cover man this season has unquestionably been the aforementioned Sneed. He's proved himself to be one of the very best corners the NFL has to offer, and stepped up yet again early in the 4th.


Flowers and Sneed had yet another dramatic confrontation, this one featuring an amazing punch-out by Sneed to force the ball out from Flowers for the Chiefs' 2nd forced turnover of the game, a crippling blow to the Ravens' hopes. On Baltimore's following possession, they again got it deep into KC territory, until Jackson threw an unconventional and untimely pick into the end zone for his team's THIRD turnover of the night. Baltimore did get it back and kick a field goal to make it a one-possession game, but with the Ravens out of timeouts, just ahead of the two-minute warning, Mahomes finally landed a death blow.


Marques Valdez-Scantling, who has been terrorizing himself and costing his team wins with untimely drops all season long, has been much more sure-handed during KC's now three-game playoff run. 'MVS' brought in Mahomes' deep ball over the middle and -- game over.


Game, set, match -- as they say in Tennis circles.


Just like that, the Chiefs head back to the Super Bowl -- for a historic 4th time in 5 years -- and just like that, Baltimore is left stunned & disappointed yet again; now 1-3 in playoff home games in the Lamar era. Jackson had another lackluster playoff game, fresh off an outstanding game in the prior week vs Houston.


The Ravens' offense was all-around humming vs Houston, especially in the second half -- they rushed for an insane 229 yards in that one, and rushed the ball 42 times in comparison to Lamar's 22 pass attempts. In this AFC Championship loss, they somehow deviated from their rush-heavy gameplan in totality, only 16 rushes to a wild 41 passes. It's even wilder when you consider that NFL offensive play-callers typically only abandon the run when trailing by a large margin in a game -- the Ravens trailed by only 10 points for the vast majority of the 2nd half, a deficit that is not usually "throw-every-down" territory. Baltimore's first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken will surely have to answer for that in the aftermath here, as will head coach John Harbaugh, who, despite his Super Bowl XLVII victory in the 2012 season, has had way too many of these home playoff stinkers happen on his watch.


On the Chiefs' much happier side of things, there have only been two other franchises that have made it to four Super Bowls in a five-season span: the 2014-18 New England Patriots, who went 3-1 in those games, and the 1990-93 Buffalo Bills, who actually made it to the big game in four consecutive seasons... and somehow lost all four!


Horrible story, witty headline.


When a star player bursts onto the scene like Patrick Mahomes did, the 'wow factor' will typically last for a while, until they keep 'wowing' and winning -- or dominating, in Mahomes' case. Then, fatigue usually starts to set in, and with that comes hate.


Mahomes & the Chiefs were the NFL crown jewel in fans' eyes, with their consistently explosive big-play offense, until they weren't. It started to become more than football with Mahomes; whether fans drew ire with his scathingly-supportive wife, his Tik-Tok dancing, delinquent brother, his cigar-loving, unabashed, retired athlete father. Many fans began to grow tired with all these aspects of Mahomes' personal life being continually shoved into their faces because of the Chiefs' sustained success.


That trend continued in a major way with Mahomes' main man, Travis Kelce. His very, very, very public relationship with music mega-star Taylor Swift has bothered many NFL fans, and some of these same fans have viewed it as a shameless publicity stunt from day one, as Swift was present at several Chiefs games over the course of the season, even some road games, and especially for the many nationally-televised Chiefs' games.


That, in combination with Kelce's down season statistically, had many NFL fans forget just how elite this guy can be. Kelce, who averages just over 71 receiving yards per game for his career, only recorded a 65.6 average in that same category in 2023, and his production took a complete nosedive to close out this regular season -- he put up 29 YPG and 0 touchdowns scored in his final three regular season games played.


But there are certain guys whose games rise in the playoffs. Kelce is and has historically been one of them, and that's continued this postseason.


Kelce caught 7 passes for 71 yards in KC's opening salvo vs Miami. In the Chiefs' trip up to Western New York, Kelce dominated, catching 5 balls for 75 yards and two touchdowns vs a stingy Bills defense. And, this past Sunday? Kelce put on an absolute masterclass, catching the ball EVERY SINGLE TIME he was targeted -- 11 receptions on 11 targets, 116 yards and that opening drive touchdown on a beautiful pass from Mahomes. Kelce became the NFL's all-time postseason reception leader at 156, surpassing the legendary Jerry Rice. He is simply one of the greatest to ever play at his position, just as his teammate Mahomes is. It's amazing that American sports fans are fickle enough to let Kelce and Mahomes' very public-yet-personal lives distract them from how legendary these two are as a tandem at this time of year, each and every year. And now, these two legends, (and a third in Taylor Swift), are headed to Vegas for the Super Bowl.


PICTURED: more hate-fuel for the "Why don't they show the other 105 players' girlfriends and wives" crowd.


Back to Mahomes, now. He is off to the greatest start by an NFL quarterback in the history of the sport. This was true after he tossed 50 touchdowns on his way to his first MVP award in his first year as a starter in 2018. This was also true after he captured his first championship the next season in 2019. This was, again proven true after going back to the Super Bowl the next season, the AFC Title Game the season after that, and then winning both his second NFL MVP award and Super Bowl MVP award last season.


I've gotten into the habit of deeming him 'NFL Jordan', not just because of his relentless mentality towards becoming a better athlete and winning. It's also the fact that Mahomes' peers, save for Joe Burrow in 2021 and the now-retired Tom Brady in 2018 & 2020, repetitively fail when trying to knock him off his throne.


Josh Allen hasn't been able to get it done in three tries now. We'll call him Mahomes' version of Patrick Ewing.


Mahomes got his get-back on Joe Burrow on the way to the Super Bowl last season. Remember when Shaquille O'Neal and his Orlando Magic were able to beat a vulnerable, fresh-off-retirement Michael and the Bulls in the 1995 playoffs, only for a reloaded Bulls squad to avenge that loss in 1996 on their way back to the NBA Finals? Yeah.


Charles Barkley was the second-best player of the heralded '90s era of the NBA. He could never get over the championship hump, though, even when presented with his most golden opportunity in the 1993 NBA Finals, having home-court advantage against Mike in that series. The Bulls won in 6, with a dramatic finish in Phoenix in Game 6, with Jordan famously passing it out to John Paxson for a dagger three-pointer through Barkley & Phoenix's hearts. Doesn't that sound just like Lamar Jackson's dynamic vs Mahomes? Lamar, unlike Burrow and Allen, got his first matchup vs Mahomes in his house, at M&T Bank Stadium, as the Ravens finished with the #1 seed, resulting in the Chiefs having to come through Baltimore. But, no matter the venue or situation, you just know Mahomes is going to make the huge soul-crushing play eventually, just as everyone knew would be the case in most every big game that Michael Jordan played in.


Ownership.


These fortunes can change, though, as it is still early in all these guys' careers, and we know the NFL stands for 'Not-For-Long'. As Detroit Lions' head coach Dan Campbell noted after his team's brutal 34-31 defeat vs the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship, there are never any guarantees in this sport. There's no guarantee that you'll make it back to the same point in following seasons, so when you have a 24-7 halftime lead in the NFC Championship game, you'd better not allow the opposing team to score 27 unanswered points, while committing a comedic series of errors yourself, on the way to defeat.


The Lions had their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1957 all but signed, sealed and delivered, until, in pure Detroit-gonna-Detroit fashion, committed one critical, self-induced error after another to gift the 49ers a 17-point comeback and a 2nd Super Bowl berth in 4 seasons.


But, every so often, there comes along a player and a team that push back against that notion. And 6 conference championship appearances in 6 seasons would certainly qualify as that.


Another year for Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, defensive lineman Chris Jones and head coach Andy Reid -- another trip to the Super Bowl. Ho-hum.


I guess the 49ers will serve as the 90's Utah Jazz in Mahomes' story. (I guess that makes 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan Mahomes' Jerry Sloan.) San Francisco will get their second crack at the Chiefs in Vegas after their 31-20 loss to Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV in Miami. It's a new leading man for San Francisco -- Brock Purdy instead of Jimmy Garoppolo. The Niners will also present a tough challenge for the very stout Chiefs' defense: Christian McCaffrey was brought to San Francisco for this very reason -- to show up & show out in the big games.


It's not the Super Bowl matchup many wanted, but it should be another instant classic between two extremely well-coached and evenly-matched teams.


Can't wait for Feb 11th, and hopefully nobody on either side gets into any major trouble in 'Sin City' before the big game.



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