BALTIMORE - The Ravens' home game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night will provide new insights on the development of this team.
In two previous regular-season meetings with the Chiefs, both on the road, and in playoff matchups against the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans, the Ravens lost the game and their identity. They played scared, much like the Cleveland Browns and the Houston Texans did against the Ravens to start this season.
If the Ravens want to make a deep postseason run this year, that will have to change. Simply put, Monday night's game will show whether the Ravens have grown up and if quarterback Lamar Jackson can finally beat rival Patrick Mahomes.
Jackson might also have to prove he is accurate throwing outside the numbers down the field. On defense, the Ravens have steadily improved in the first two weeks, but an old problem resurfaced Sunday when Texans tight ends Darren Fells and Jordan Akins combined for nine catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.
Guess who is coming to town Monday night? Travis Kelce, one of the best receiving tight ends and end zone dancers in the league.
"He's a defending champ," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Mahomes, the 2018 NFL Most Valuable Player and reigning Super Bowl MVP. "He's just been phenomenal in his first three years in the National Football League. We've seen it up-close and personal in two different occasions - at their place the last two years - where he's made some just tremendous plays that have really, in the end, beaten us. So, we have to find a way to stop him and all those weapons they've got. It's going to be a big challenge."
The key will be poise, and whether the Ravens stay in character. In the two previous losses to Kansas City, the Ravens got caught up in trying to keep pace with the Chiefs offensively, which forced them to abandon the running game too early. Against the Titans last year in the divisional round, Jackson threw the ball 59 times in a 28-12 loss.
The shift in offensive strategy resembled the Browns calling a fake punt inside their own territory in the first quarter of the season opener, or the Texans going for it on fourth-and-short in the first 15 minutes of Sunday's game.
After the past two playoff losses, Harbaugh, to his credit, acknowledged that the Ravens should have stuck with their original game plan. Well, we'll see Monday night whether the offensive coaching staff has developed alongside the rest of this team.
Ideally, the Ravens want to pound the Chiefs with the run, keeping Mahomes off the field, and keep Jackson's pass attempts in the 25-30 range. If that strategy fails, the Ravens enter somewhat of a "Twilight Zone," especially if Jackson has to throw the ball all over the field. The Ravens have worked hard to improve their downfield passing attack, but have showed very little in the season's first two games.
There hasn't been any need.
The Ravens beat the Browns by 32 points and the Texans by 17. Jackson has completed 38 of 49 passes for 479 yards and four touchdowns, but most of those throws have been in the middle of the field, with many coming on short-to-intermediate crossing routes. He has a completion rate of 77.6% and a passer rating of 134.6, but what happens when he has to go deep down the field outside the numbers? Can he throw those deep comeback routes, or even short hitch patterns that require passes to be high, tight and outside?
Kansas City will present the Ravens defense with some problems as well. Mahomes is off to another strong start, having completed 51 of 79 passes for 513 yards and five touchdowns. He has had great success against the Ravens, throwing for 377 yards and two touchdowns in 2018 and for 374 yards and three touchdowns last year. Some of the game's best matchups will feature Ravens cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters against Chiefs receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins.
The Ravens, though, have to find someone who can slow down Kelce. In the Ravens' 27-24 overtime loss in Kansas City in 2018, Kelce had seven catches for 77 yards and one touchdown. Last year, Kelce had seven receptions for 89 yards in a 33-28 victory.
That's another reason for the Ravens to try and control the game by running the ball. If you are going to beat the Chiefs, you have to keep Mahomes off the field, Kelce on the bench and not get caught up in the arms race.
The Ravens need to stay disciplined and do what they do well, which last season was being the best rushing team in NFL history. If they need to get into a shootout, so be it.
But there is no hurry. There is no reason to overreact.
"I don't think you can ignore it. The guys understand that," Harbaugh said of playing the Chiefs. "You can't sit there and pretend. Every game is important; that's the thing. It is true, because they all count for wins, and you don't want to mess up one that the fans or somebody else might not think is important. But who wouldn't get excited for a game like this?
"When you're playing a team that is the defending champs, the favorites to win the whole thing again - going forward - the type of players they have, the coaches they have, the head coach, Coach (Andy) Reid, you're going to get excited about it. It's not something that we downplay. We don't ignore it. We try to embrace it and make the most of it, really. That's what we try to do."
Now, just stay in character.
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