As the Kansas City Chiefs line up for their third straight AFC championship game today against the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens can only look on and dream.
For the second straight year, the Ravens and Chiefs were pegged as the AFC favorites to meet for a ticket to the Super Bowl. But for the second straight year, Baltimore didn't hold up its end of the bargain.
The Ravens know that if they're going to reach their ultimate title goals, they're going to have to go through the Chiefs – and they haven't done it yet. And as of now, they haven't put themselves in position to get over that hump when it matters most.
Would Baltimore have won a rematch this season? We'll never know, but the Ravens do know they have some catching up to do. Asked this week whether he looks at the Chiefs as the team the Ravens will eventually have to overcome, Head Coach John Harbaugh said, "Oh, absolutely."
"We haven't beaten them. They've beaten us the last three times we played them," Harbaugh said. "You kind of look at it like … I think they're a little ahead of us in the timeline."
Harbaugh made some historical NBA comparisons to make his point – the Celtics and Pistons, the Pistons and Bulls, then the Bulls and everyone else.
For right now, it's the Chiefs and everyone else. The defending Super Bowl champions are in a class of their own with a young quarterback that is as good, if not better, than anyone else in the league in Patrick Mahomes, who signed a 10-year extension last offseason that will take him through the 2031 season.
Mahomes was drafted one year before Lamar Jackson, and their maturation timelines have often been compared. After being named the league's MVP in his second season, Mahomes followed it up with worse stats but a Super Bowl finish in his third year. Jackson also was the MVP in his sophomore season, and also had a worst statistical Year 3, but his quest for the Lombardi Trophy fell short.
The Ravens and Chiefs could have a budding rivalry, but it's been one-sided so far. The Ravens should have beaten the Chiefs in 2018, but Mahomes pulled a rabbit out of his hat with a fourth-down heave that keep the game alive, then won it in overtime. In 2019, the Ravens got off to a slow start and couldn't come all the way back in an early-season 33-28 loss in Kansas City.
In 2020, again in Week 3, the Chiefs hammered the Ravens, 34-20, but this time at (an empty) M&T Bank Stadium. Kansas City had a 17-point lead at halftime and Mahomes threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns on "Monday Night Football."
"We've got to beat them, and we've got to find a way to beat them," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh said he talked to Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale throughout the year about how they might approach the Chiefs differently in a rematch. Baltimore has been yearning for that playoff rematch to see if their improvement – as Harbaugh's teams always do – might change the result.
"We made a lot of changes to our defense after that [Monday Night Football] game," Harbaugh said. "I thought they did a great job attacking our scheme, that game, and had a lot of well-executed, really creative plays that they worked [on] all through training camp and just sprung on us in that third game, that they executed great, and it was stuff that was specific to our defense.
"That was a good learning experience for us, as coaches, and throughout the course of the season, we expanded and added some things that took those plays away, because other teams were copying them, because they had success with them. In the offseason, we're going to look at those. We've already had the conversation, Wink and I, about … We already know what we need to add and how we're going to build it into our defense to just be as diverse as we can to answer."
Harbaugh said the Bills also did a good job of countering the Ravens' defensive strengths. After watching Baltimore stuff the NFL's leading rusher in Derrick Henry in the wild-card round, Buffalo hardly ran the ball at all a week later – despite a driving wind that made throwing it more difficult.
It's no cakewalk for the Ravens to get to that elusive playoff game against the Chiefs in a battle of AFC elites because there are so many good teams, and great young quarterbacks, in the conference right now. It was only 11-5 teams or better that made the AFC playoffs this season, and that may not change.
"I mean, how about the Steelers and the Browns, in our division?" Harbaugh said. "They are going to be challenges. And the Bengals have their quarterback. So, you always look at your division, too."