In trying to figure out what might happen when the Ravens play the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, there has been a lot of focus on what happened when the same teams met on the same field nine months ago.
It’s understandable. It’s interesting. But frankly, it’s kind of pointless.
I don’t have a name for this theorem, but given how unpredictable the NFL has become, it’s a good bet any rematch is going to be noticeably different from prior meetings between teams. Games boil down to a mishmash of infinite variables, many of which swing wildly. And while most of those variables involve football, some don’t. Like, say, the weather. Forecasters in Kansas City are calling for heavy rain Sunday. That alone could mean this year’s game is different from last year’s.
Everyone is expecting a high-scoring rematch because both offenses are rolling and the teams combined for 51 points last year. But the Ravens know how to play defense, and the Chiefs appear improved on that side of the ball. Those factors and a soggy field could easily add up to the scoreboard not going as bonkers as many expect.
But the biggest reason you can’t use last year’s game as a template is, quite simply, the Ravens and Chiefs both have undergone sweeping changes since then.
Yes, the same head coaches, John Harbaugh and Andy Reid, are still in place, as are the quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, who are dominating the spotlight in the run-up to kickoff. Overall, though, there are as many changes as similarities.
The Chiefs have a new defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, whose many stops in coaching include two years with the Ravens (2013-14). Last week, seven of the 11 starters on Spagnuolo’s unit were players whom the Chiefs acquired during the offseason.
Those new faces include safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark, both of whom signed big contracts with the expectation that they’d lead a resurgence by the Chiefs’ defense, which ranked near the bottom of the league in 2018.
The Ravens, I would say, have undergone even more change than the Chiefs. This is a very different team from the one that held up so well in Kansas City last December, only to lose in overtime.
Their defense, like Kansas City’s, is fundamentally altered. Gone are starters C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith and Brent Urban. The new faces are led by All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, and no doubt, this game is a referendum of sorts of what he can bring. A couple of key breakdowns in the secondary probably kept the Ravens from beating the Chiefs a year ago. The Ravens hope Thomas can keep that from happening again.
By the way, I love what Thomas said earlier this week when asked about the Chiefs’ big-play capability with Mahomes.
"I think that comes down to personnel. Luckily, the Ravens have me playing free safety, controlling the deep end. I plan on eliminating all the big plays,” Thomas said.
That’s super-strong talk. Can he back it up?
Anyway, getting back to the myriad changes, the Ravens are in a very different place offensively from where they were last December. There’s a new unit coordinator, Greg Roman, who oversaw the installation of an entirely new offense during the offseason. Jackson is no longer a rookie mostly just trying to survive on natural talent; he is far more assured and commanding, and his passing is vastly improved.
Jackson also is surrounded by a dramatically overhauled supporting cast that includes rookie receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, veteran running back Mark Ingram II and Mark Andrews, a second-year tight emerging as a Pro Bowl-caliber contributor.
A year ago, the Ravens were a late-blooming team, just starting to coalesce around Jackson, when they went to Kansas City. They’re returning Sunday as the defending AFC North champions, undefeated through two games, the talk of the league in some respects.
Different year, different teams, different game. The Ravens hope it adds up to a different outcome.