Your Five-Minute, Essential Ravens Playoff Guide

If you’re just now hopping on the Ravens’ bandwagon, here's everything you really need to know for Sunday’s big game.

If you’re just now hopping on the Ravens’ bandwagon, first off, we’re not judging. Life is busy. But the buzz ahead of this weekend’s game is hard to ignore, and not just because Taylor Swift might be there.

The Ravens are one win away from reaching the Super Bowl for the third time in team history, and at 3 p.m. Sunday when they play the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore will host the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1971, when Johnny U was quarterbacking the Colts.

We’re talking history here, people.

So, whether you’re going to the game at M&T Bank Stadium (if you are, the guest list includes, yes, Taylor Swift, as well as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Michael Phelps, and a halftime performance from T-Pain—T-Pain!), or will be watching somewhere with friends, it’s time to get primed.

Even if you think of a man named Justin Tucker as only a Royal Farms spokesperson, or wouldn’t know Lamar Jackson if he walked in your living room, here’s everything you’ll need to keep game day conversation going with even the biggest Ravens fan in your life.

The Ravens are favored to win, but the Chiefs have experience.
The bookmakers in Las Vegas and beyond have determined that the Ravens are a 3.5- to 4-point favorite to beat the Chiefs. For some reason, these professional line-makers are often right (that’s how they keep casinos in business), so let’s hope they are this time.

This will be the Chiefs’ sixth straight AFC Championship game. They are the defending Super Bowl champs, and while rosters change year-to-year, enough Kansas City players know what it takes to win playoff games. “They’ve been in this situation many times,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They’re a hardened team. They’ve been through a lot. That experience always is helpful.”

For this Ravens group, as good as they look, it’s their first run together this deep into an NFL postseason, where the stakes are high and high-pressure situations can wilt some teams.

Lamar Jackson is having arguably the best year of his career. This is very important.
The Ravens go as No. 8 goes—and he looks more determined than ever to reach and win the Super Bowl he’s been obsessing over for years. “The mission isn’t complete,” Jackson said at the Ravens’ practice facility in Owings Mills earlier this week.

After going 1-3 in the playoffs through his first three seasons, then not finishing his past two years due to injury, Jackson got a five-year, $260 million contract this offseason, plus a new offensive coordinator and a pair of hand-picked wide receivers (Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr.) that have helped him prove he can be as proficient of a passer as electric as he is a runner.

At 26, Jackson is in the prime of his career. He’s been having his best season since he won the NFL MVP award in 2019, and he’s likely to win league MVP again when it’s announced in a few weeks. He’s completed 67 percent of his passes (very, very good), thrown 24 touchdowns and a career-high 3,678 yards with only seven interceptions. He ranks this season at or near the top in even the most advanced QB analytics lists.

He’s run about 30 fewer times than his MVP year in 2019, but still for five touchdowns and about 820 yards. And, as we saw last week, when the ball is in his hands, anything can happen.

Yes, Taylor Swift is expected to be at the stadium—and there’s a conspiracy theory.
In case you’ve truly been living off the grid for the past few months, Swift—arguably the most popular person on the planet the past year—is dating Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Her presence in luxury boxes at various stadiums while watching games this season has been well-documented by Swifties and NFL broadcasters alike.

There’s this debate in NFL circles between die-hard fans and those who don’t care as much about whether the attention on T-Swizzle is overshadowing the games themselves. Whatever. It’s fun that one of the world’s biggest entertainers will be in Baltimore, concert or not. Even Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he has a few Taylor Swift songs on his phone.

That said, an intriguing Swift-related conspiracy theory has taken root—at least online—among people who posit that the NFL wants the Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl so Swift will be there, and, in turn, generate even more attention for the most popular sporting event in America.

The NFL’s pick of referee for Sunday’s game, Shawn Smith, is central to the theory. His “ref stats” show he tends to penalize home teams more heavily than road teams. Over the last three seasons, Smith has called roughly 35 percent more false starts on home teams, for instance, which is way above the league average of 5 percent more on road teams. In games he’s officiated, home teams have managed a roughly 41 percent win rate, well below the NFL average of around 55 percent.

Swift will probably be wearing a Towson grad’s apparel.
Towson University grad Kristin Juszczyk—whose husband, Kyle, was formerly a Raven and is now on the San Francisco 49ers—designed Swift’s custom puffer jacket with Kelce’s name and jersey number, which she has been wearing to games the past few weeks. Isn’t it glorious when fashion meets function?

(Another fun fact: Kyle Juszczyk was one featured as one of Baltimore‘s “Top Singles” in 2014, the same year he and Kristin first met. Coincidence? 👀)

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes could be a difference-maker.
If there is a reason to worry about an upset loss, it is Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Drafted out of college a year before Jackson, Mahomes has already led the Chiefs to a pair of Super Bowls and can turn a game just like Lamar can with his arm or legs. Mahomes is not going to shrink in this kind of pressure-packed environment, and he knows what to expect.

On an episode of Peyton and Eli Manning’s Monday Night Football show this year, Mahomes said that when he last played at M&T Bank Stadium in 2021 (a 36-35 Ravens’ win on a Sunday night when Jackson flipped into the end zone for a TD celebration), it was among the two loudest stadiums he’s ever played in.

Crowd noise matters, and home-field advantage is a thing—in part because it can cause opposing offensive players to jump offsides before a play and draw penalties (like the Houston Texans did a bunch of times last week) if they can’t hear the quarterback’s signals. A cacophony also makes it difficult for a QB to change plays at the line of scrimmage, limiting their options.

Roquan Smith, Kyle Hamilton, and the Ravens defense will do their best to minimize Mahomes’ impact.
Smith—the veteran middle linebacker who is reminding people of Ray Lewis—and Hamilton—a second-year defensive back who is not quite Ed Reed but is as effective in his own way—are the leaders of the Ravens defense, which has been stellar most of the year, giving up the fewest points per game of any NFL team (16.4).

There are a lot of things we could say about the Ravens defense, coordinated by assistant coach Mike Macdonald, who graduated from the University of Georgia’s business school with honors and was in the early stages of a career in finance before turning to coaching. It’s a great yarn.

But let’s take a moment to appreciate Roquan Smith. Off the field, Smith became involved in charity work around town as soon as he arrived in Baltimore via a trade in the middle of last season. There is a story to be told about that. But, for this game, there are two things you should know: He’s a tackling machine, and he’s also a satisfying, matter-of-fact trash-talker and tone-setter for the entire team.

“He puts his pants on just like any other quarterback,” Smith said of Mahomes this week. “Yes, he’s an elite quarterback, but at the end of the day, we’re an elite defense.”

Ahead of last week’s divisional round playoff game against the Texans, Smith told reporters: “Pressure? I don’t feel pressure at all, but some [people] do say pressure bursts pipes and makes diamonds. I know a lot of guys in [the locker room] like diamonds, so I would say we’re in a diamond-making business.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Kansas City coach Andy Reid know each other well.
Reid was Harbaugh’s boss for 10 seasons when they both worked for the Philadelphia Eagles—Reid as head coach and Harbaugh as special teams coach. If there is any bad blood between them, we haven’t heard about it. Ho-hum. Two nice guys.

Expect to see a lot of Harbaughs.
When covering the Divisional Round last weekend, I was overrun by Harbaughs—in the stairwell leading from the press box after the game and outside the Ravens locker room.

There was John Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, who was just hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday after winning a college national title at Michigan earlier this month. Plus, one of Jim’s sons—John’s nephew—Jack, who has been coaching with his dad at Michigan for the last few years.

Jack and Jackie, the parents of the famous Harbaugh coaching brothers, were there, too, with dad leading the Ravens in the jazzed-up post-game locker room with a familiar family cheer that he started when his children were little, living in a modest home in Iowa: “Who’s got it better than us?” Answer: “Nobody.”

It’s charming and wonderful to see the family enjoy each other’s company. We expect to see more on Sunday.

If the game comes down to a field goal, you have to love the Ravens’ chances.
Justin Tucker is the greatest NFL kicker of all time. If a field goal is needed, there is no one better suited to give a football a boot through yellow uprights than him. He’s made 90.1 percent of his kicks since his 2012 rookie season, the best percentage in the recorded history of pro football dating back to 1938, and he’s made so many in various clutch situations that it’s hard to remember them all.

We can say this, and somehow it still feels like we’re not articulating his value enough. So here’s what Ravens special teams coach Chris Horton had to say this week: “With Justin, the one thing you know about him is he is always ready for the moment. These situations, this guy lives for. He prepares for daily. On Sundays, when the lights are at their biggest stage, he shows up…Having him around is obviously a luxury.”

In a game where so many kickers buckle under the pressure of expectations and go wayward with the fine skill of hitting the right spot on a football at the right speed with your foot, Tucker has mastered the craft and never stops trying to improve.

Even after last week’s game, when he knocked through a Ravens postseason record 53-yarder in the freezing cold and swirling wind, he wasn’t satisfied. “There were a couple of PATs [extra points] that I didn’t hit right down the middle,” he said. “I can be a little bit better there.” That’s a glimpse of why he’s been so good, for so long.

Another epic post-game dance party could be on the horizon if we win.
If the Ravens win, what song will the coaches dance to this time? More 1980s “Party Train,” or something else from a different decade? Only time will tell. But we know all of Ravens Nation will be dancing right along with them.