Every so often, a Super Bowl–caliber game appears during the regular season and the stakes are immediately apparent. The 54-51 classic the Rams won against the Chiefs in 2018 comes to mind, but that happened in mid-November when both teams were 9-1. It’s only Week 3 in the 2020 season, but no one will be surprised if the winner of Monday’s Ravens-Chiefs game ends up earning the top seed in the AFC. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, let’s focus on the matchup. It’s a historic meeting: the first time two former MVPs age 25 or younger—Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes—will go head-to-head, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It’s rare to find such an abundance of offensive talent in one game; even the kickers are elite. It’s compelling enough that Ravens coach John Harbaugh found himself daydreaming about it when he was supposed to be reviewing film from Sunday’s win over the Texans.
“You can’t help it,” Harbaugh said Monday.
Baltimore and Kansas City look like the best teams in the AFC, if not the entire league, especially after teams like the 49ers, Cowboys, and Saints have been hit by injuries or struggled early. They seem destined to meet again in the playoffs. The Ravens have looked like the better team through two weeks, but their ascension will be measured against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, whom they’re 0-2 against with Jackson as the starter. The Ravens are trying to follow the Chiefs’ progression plan: In a year, they’d like to be where the Chiefs are now—planning both a title defense and a long future with their newly extended franchise quarterback. If Jackson follows the same timeline as Mahomes, who signed a 10-year contract extension in July, he’ll get a new deal in Baltimore this upcoming offseason. What makes both teams’ futures so exciting is also what makes the thought of their Monday Night Football meeting intoxicating: It’s easy to define Mahomes’s and Jackson’s best qualities, but both have shown they have more than one way to win games.
In his second year as the Ravens’ starter, Jackson somehow seems to have progressed beyond last season, when he ran a Baltimore offense that was first in points scored and second in total yardage. One area in which the Ravens offense has improved is the downfield passing game. Jackson said he focused on his deep-ball accuracy this offseason; so far, it looks to have paid off. Jackson completed 39.5 percent of his deep throws (32 of 81) last season and has completed 58.3 percent (7 of 12) so far this year, per Pro-Football-Reference. Through two games, Jackson’s overall completion percentage is 77.6 percent, which is 12.2 percent above the Next Gen Stats expected completion percentage based on the throws he has made. He has the fifth-highest completed air yards (7.9) in the league.
Ravens receiver Marquise Brown said that Jackson has improved his deep ball accuracy by throwing to spots on the field, not to moving targets. “He’s a lot more pinpoint with it,” Brown said after the Ravens’ Week 1 win over the Browns. “Now it’s our job to get to that spot because that is where he is putting it.”
Jackson was 3-of-4 throwing into tight windows in that game, 11-of-13 on passes of 10 yards or more, and 8-of-8 off play action, finishing with 275 passing yards. In Week 2 against the Texans, the Ravens started with a pass-heavy script: Jackson threw 17 times to just 10 rushing attempts by the team in the first half. It was a departure for a team that led the league with 3,296 rushing yards last year. They switched back to the ground game in the second half, wearing out Houston’s defense with a committee approach. Jackson and running backs Gus Edwards, Mark Ingram, and J.K. Dobbins each had at least 48 rushing yards in the game, and the Ravens held the ball for more than 18 in the second half. Of their 230 total rushing yards against the Texans, 186 came in the second half. At one point in the fourth quarter, Baltimore ran 14 consecutive runs. It has always been unfair to call the Ravens offense one-dimensional. With Jackson’s topflight deep ball added to his growing arsenal, that criticism looks like lunacy.
Mahomes is familiar with Jackson’s predicament (if you can even call it that) of having to follow up an incredible first full season as a starter. Mahomes’s numbers dipped last season from his superb 2018 MVP campaign due to a knee injury that cost him two games and limited him in several others. After throwing 50 touchdowns in 2018, Mahomes threw 26 last season, in part because Kansas City ranked 20th in red zone efficiency. Improvement near the goal line has the potential to send the Chiefs’ scoring back into the stratosphere, though they have been only slightly better through the first two weeks of 2020; they rank 17th in the NFL, having converted on four of seven trips inside the red zone. They rank eighth in the league in points scored, 13th in total yards, and eighth in offensive DVOA so far this year.
The Ravens have been the better offense through two games, but no rational person would count the Chiefs out. Even though Kansas City hasn’t consistently lit up opponents so far this year, they’ve found their magic in the right moments. Even when the Chargers led the Chiefs by eight points in the fourth quarter Sunday, it still felt like they were losing. Mahomes gave Kansas City the lead with a 54-yard touchdown pass thrown on the move to Tyreek Hill, who somersaulted into the end zone. Kansas City went for two and Mahomes completed a shorter-range but possibly more impressive pass to Mecole Hardman that somehow snuck through five Chargers defenders. Notably, the Chiefs are also atop the leaderboard in these categories: Tony Romo guttural noises produced and quarterbacks named Patrick Mahomes listed on the roster.
The lesson of the Chiefs’ comeback against the Chargers is that they can have an off game and still win. Los Angeles defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s units play mostly cover-three defense and get pressure with four pass rushers and rarely blitz. Bradley has a decent history of slowing Mahomes and did so again—the Chiefs were held to one touchdown in the first half Sunday.
“I was so frustrated at the beginning of the game because I knew it was just me that was killing the team,” Mahomes said. “Guys were getting open and the line was giving me enough time, but I wasn’t making the throws in the right spots.”
In the second half, Mahomes found ways to convert on the ground. With 54 seconds left in regulation and the Chiefs facing a third-and-20, they needed to get into field goal range for a chance to send the game to overtime. The Chargers sent a rare blitz, one of only three they sent at Mahomes in the game. He countered by scrambling for 21 yards to keep the drive going. All together, Mahomes ran to convert a first down on four third-down tries with at least 3 yards to go. Since 1991, the only other player who’s converted more than four runs on third down with at least 3 yards to go was Vince Young, who did so six times in Week 13 of 2006 against the Colts. Even when compensating for a slow passing day, Mahomes is historically effective. The Chiefs had struggled, but when Anthony Lynn chose to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Chargers’ 34-yard line in overtime, it felt like Jack Nicholson going against all advice and entering Room 237 in The Shining. Lynn gave Mahomes the ball back. Nothing good comes after that.
The Ravens are up next. Baltimore has a chance to beat a conference rival with their star quarterback for the first time. It would be a fitting victory for the Ravens: beating the team that’s shown the blueprint for success with a young quarterback who took over the league earlier than expected. Monday night will feature the reigning MVP against the defending Super Bowl champion, the highest-scoring team in the league against the team that can come back from any deficit. We’ll see how they measure up.