Even in Week 3, Ravens face coming-of-age moment with Kansas City

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Mark Ingram and the Baltimore ground game faces a defense allowing 5.0 yards per carry in 2019.

It’s only Week 3.

After the Ravens host defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City on Monday night, 13 games will remain with the 2020 season capable of going in countless directions — good, bad, or indifferent.

Baltimore could lose to the Chiefs, win every game after that to finish 15-1, and steamroll every playoff opponent — including Kansas City in a January rematch — to the third NFL championship in franchise history. Or, the Ravens could prevail on Monday before enduring a San Francisco-like rash of major injuries that downgrades them from a contender to a pretender by December. We don’t know.

But this isn’t just another week when coaches and players downplay a single opponent’s importance over any other on the schedule, insisting they’re taking it one game at a time. As Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey said, “Even though you try to take that approach, it is a little tougher when it comes to the Chiefs.”

It has to be if you have a pulse and a memory of the last two meetings at Arrowhead Stadium.

“I don’t think you can ignore it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “The guys understand that. You can’t sit there and pretend.”

Of course, no one should ever be making plans for the Super Bowl in late September, but it’s impossible not to view Monday as that potential graduation moment on the path to a championship, one of those significant games fans look back on fondly. The 2000 Ravens finally — after eight straight losses — defeated old AFC Central foe Jacksonville in a Week 2 thriller and took down Tennessee in Nashville in Week 11, the latter being the precursor for their biggest January hurdle to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. For the 2012 team, there was Joe Flacco’s dramatic drive in Pittsburgh the year before and a Week 3 morsel of revenge for Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff before ultimately taking down the New England Patriots in Foxborough on the path to Super Bowl XLVII.

Even with a Week 3 loss at Kansas City last season, the Ravens had seemingly skipped a few grades to graduation with a franchise-record 12-game winning streak and an NFL-best 14-2 record. But the Super Bowl favorites came crashing down against the Titans in the divisional round and didn’t even get their rematch with the Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

That stunning loss magnified the two hard truths about the otherwise wildly successful start to the Lamar Jackson era: the Ravens are 0-2 in the playoffs and are 0-2 against the team that was able to complete the job they couldn’t last year.

This one may only mean so much in the standings with more than three months of the regular season to go, but it couldn’t weigh heavier on their minds, especially when there’s nothing the Ravens can do about that 0-2 postseason mark until January at the earliest.

“It’s definitely a team that we know we need to beat,” Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “And if we want to be champions, this is one of those teams that you have to get past. You have to play your best ball. I think we all understand that we can’t afford to make mistakes. We have to be at our best, and anything less will come up with the results we’ve had in the past.”

If Jackson and the Ravens can’t get by Mahomes and the Chiefs this time around, all is not lost, of course. But there’s nothing else they could accomplish over the remainder of the regular season to combat the same old doubts in any meaningful way. Baltimore already broke league and team records, won numerous individual awards, embarrassed playoff contenders, and earned the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage a year ago.

Been there, done that. What about January?

The Ravens aren’t lacking confidence after a 2-0 start in which they’ve shown a similar propensity for dominance as last year, but beating the Chiefs is really the only meaningful “coming-of-age” moment available to them until January.

“Not to prove to ourselves that we can — I think we know we can,” said Stanley about the need to win on Monday night. “I think it’s more because that’s what we expect out of ourselves, week-in and week-out. No matter who it is, we feel like we have to win that game. We feel like it’s a make-it or break-it game. With that mentality, it’s just going to make us mentally stronger and more capable down the line.”

If the Ravens don’t, that line to January will feel even longer to navigate.

Especially when it’s only Week 3.