The game, and ultimately the Ravens season, turned on a punch.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Ravens trailing 17-7, rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers dove toward the goal line and stretched the football out, desperate to score.
Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed punched the ball out of Flowers’ hands just before he was over the line, and the Chiefs recovered the fumble in the end zone, reversing the momentum the Ravens offense had finally generated.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said there wasn’t anything different Flowers should have done. “We coach two hands when you reach for the end zone,” Harbaugh said. “He had two hands on the ball.” Still, on the sideline afterward, Flowers stewed among teammates and threw another punch, at a white plastic bench, causing the 23-year-old to open a cut on his finger.
The sequence came after Flowers drew a taunting penalty when pushing and staring down Sneed in the wake of a 54-yard reception earlier in the game (Sneed was hanging on one of Flowers’ legs), and before Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson threw an ugly interception into triple coverage with about seven minutes left in the game—the team still trailing by 10 points. Jackson slammed his helmet after that mistake, another sign of frustration in a game filled with plenty of them.
All in all, in the Chiefs’ 17-10 AFC Championship win in front of 71,439 jazzed-up Ravens fans at M&T Bank Stadium, Kansas City and its quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, showed why they are a dynasty. (They’ve reached six straight conference title games, and they’re headed to their fourth Super Bowl in five years.)
Meanwhile, the dud of a result for the Ravens—the top-seeded playoff team in the AFC with a 13-4 record—left room for so many questions. The team suddenly heads into the offseason unsatisfied and bitter, following the deepest playoff run of the Lamar Jackson era that didn’t go quite far enough.
“We’re mad,” Jackson said in a post-game press conference Sunday night. “We got to this position, one game away from the Super Bowl—what I’ve been talking about and my team has been talking about all season—and we fell short.”
The Ravens’ defense was solid on Sunday, holding the prolific Chiefs offense scoreless in the second half, and limiting Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, after he hauled in nine catches for 96 yards in the first half. Mahomes began with 11 straight completions and led the Chiefs on TD-scoring drives of 86 yards and 16 plays—to go ahead 14-7 with 10:56 left in the second quarter.
The Ravens’ offense actually generated more total yards (336 to 319), but the performance also rekindled related images of past playoff struggles—like in 2019-20, when Jackson won the NFL MVP award (which he is likely to again), but struggled in a home playoff game against Tennessee. Or his rookie year, when the Los Angeles Chargers similarly frustrated a rookie Jackson. He’s come a long way since then, and has won a pair of postseason games, but familiar flaws emerged Sunday.
Jackson held the ball too long on many pass dropbacks, most obviously when Chiefs defensive lineman Charles Omenihu got a strip sack early in the second quarter with the Ravens down only seven, as Jackson was looking to throw a deep ball. He fumbled and turned the possession over. Chiefs defenders clogged throwing lanes and tipped passes, one of which Jackson caught himself and ran—in one of the more productive plays of the game. He didn’t connect on many intermediate passes, only around 10 or 15 yards, that have worked so well for the Ravens this season. Flowers did have 115 yards and a TD catch, on a Jackson scramble, but Isaiah Likely and tight end Mark Andrews, who had just returned from injury, combined for just four catches for 31 yards.
“We sent pressure from everywhere,” Kansas City safety Justin Reid said. “I blitzed, the corners blitzed, nickel blitzed, and the linebackers blitzed. Blitzes were coming from all different directions, so we pair them together with zone coverages that make it look like a blitz, and it’s not a blitz. So, we just tried to confuse him and make him hold onto the ball a little bit longer.”
After the game, Reid wore a T-shirt that said “In Spags We Trust,” referring to Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who called blitzes on roughly half of Jackson’s pass dropbacks. He’s the only defensive coordinator whose won Super Bowls with two teams (the Chiefs and New York Giants.)
“We threw the book at Lamar,” Reid said, “Zone pressures, man pressures, fake pressures, fake pressures that look like pressures that ended up being zone drops. We tried to do as much as we could to confuse him and not give him the same look twice the whole game.”
Said Jackson of the blitzes: “We [weren’t] expecting that, but sometimes…they have lanes. We got intermediate routes, and they jump in. I can’t just throw the ball and [let] them tip the passes. But they did a great job.”
The electric runs that Jackson is known for were rarely seen, either. The Ravens had the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, but only ran the ball 16 times, opening up offensive coordinator Todd Monken to second-guessing. A week after scoring four touchdowns—two rushing and two throwing in a cathartic divisional-round win at home over the Houston Texans—the likely 2023 league MVP threw just one, though he did have 272 passing yards. The turnovers were the problem. The late interception was emblematic. Jackson’s pass toward Likely in the middle of the end zone could have been caught by any of three Kansas City defenders.
“We had some opportunities out there,” Jackson said. “We’ve just got to take advantage of them. We can’t turn the ball over, fumble, stuff like that. That gave them opportunities to put points on the board and win the game…We’ve just got to finish, and we didn’t do a good job of finishing. The defense did a wonderful job and held a great offense to 17 points. We’ve got to execute. We scored one touchdown, and that’s not like us. That was early on in the year. No excuses, though.”
Afterward, as NFL officials set up the trophy presentation stage for the Chiefs, Swift—arguably the most popular person on the planet right now—emerged from the end zone tunnel to soak up the win with Kelce. (Get ready for two weeks of Swift-mania between now the Chiefs facing the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.)
Later, in a cramped, loud visiting locker room, Chiefs players yelled: “We robbed the bank!” referring to M&T Bank Stadium. (We don’t know what made Ravens fans roll their eyes more—this, or when Kelce and Mahomes were messing with beloved kicker Justin Tucker before the game.)
In a hallway nearby, former Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs—among the local legends featured on the stadium screens during the game (flashing his diamond-studded Super Bowl ring right at the camera)—crossed paths with CBS analyst Tony Romo. As they dapped, Romo made an off-hand comment about the “young kid,” who made a few mistakes, apparently referring to Flowers. Suggs walked on, then after a moment, yelled back to Romo, loud enough for anyone within earshot: “You learn more from failure than you do from success.”