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Jackson, Ravens finally get shot to “go through a champion” facing Kansas City in January

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This is the way it was supposed to be for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. 

From the moment they lost an overtime thriller at Arrowhead Stadium in December of 2018, we’ve talked — even obsessed — about what it would take for Baltimore to best Kansas City in January. But in the years since that inaugural meeting between a rookie Jackson and a second-year Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs own two Super Bowl wins, an additional trip to the Super Bowl, and six straight AFC title game appearances, picking up where Tom Brady and New England left off as kings of the AFC. 

Meanwhile, John Harbaugh’s team has experienced more playoff pain than prosperity despite its regular-season success, never getting close enough to cross paths with Kansas City in January until now. The Ravens have settled for a 1-3 record against Mahomes and the Chiefs in the regular season with the last three meetings all falling in September, which isn’t exactly the way to birth a rivalry. The most recent clash between these teams did result in a Baltimore home victory in Week 2 of the 2021 season, but that might as well be ancient history with both teams undergoing much change over the last two years. 

On Sunday, the Ravens will finally battle the Chiefs for the conference championship with Harbaugh facing mentor Andy Reid in the playoffs for the first time. Even as a deserving favorite and the superior all-around team in the regular season, the Ravens know it won’t be easy against the defending Super Bowl champions, especially as Kansas City comes off its most impressive win of the season taking down Buffalo in the 28-year-old Mahomes’ first career road playoff game. 

“I don’t like competing against him at all,” said Jackson as he chuckled. “But he’s a great quarterback — definitely a Hall of Famer. It’s a no-brainer. He’s definitely a Hall of Famer. But I believe it’s just two greats — up-and-coming greats — going toe to toe like a heavyweight fight, a heavyweight matchup.” 

A championship bout that’s long overdue. 

While Jackson is about to match Mahomes in the regular-season MVP department with his second award in five years, he has a long way to go to catch the Kansas City quarterback’s postseason legacy. But that can only begin with the Ravens taking down a Chiefs team that looked as mortal late in the regular season as it had at any point since Mahomes replaced veteran Alex Smith after the 2017 season. In contrast, the Ravens enjoyed a December for the ages, beating four teams with winning records by a combined score of 149-76 to lock up the No. 1 seed and set up the AFC title game being played in Baltimore for the first time in 53 years. 

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Mahomes has been the best quarterback on the planet over the last six years, but the 27-year-old Jackson has been the best this season and has never looked better prepared — on or off the field — for this moment. His teammates certainly agree with his impassioned halftime words and his brilliant four-touchdown performance in last Saturday’s divisional-round win over Houston being the latest example.

“I’ve only been here two years, but I feel like there is a little something different there this year,” All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton said. “He’s a big leader for us. Everybody on this team looks to him for energy and just good vibes, and he brings that every single day. No matter what’s going on in the building, no matter what’s going on in the game, he’s going to be the same Lamar. 

“I feel like he’s just carried that even further into the playoffs.” 

Of course, overcoming a choppy first half to pull away from rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Texans is a different task than eliminating the Chiefs and their championship pedigree. Just ask Buffalo — who’s won the last three regular-season tilts with Kansas City — how difficult it is to finish off Kansas City in January after Josh Allen and the Bills fell to 0-3 against Mahomes in the postseason last Sunday.

Much like how we were always eager to bury the Patriots whenever they looked more vulnerable than usual in a given season, the Chiefs appeared all but dead after that abysmal Christmas Day loss to Las Vegas. But here comes Kansas City again, standing in Baltimore’s way and threatening to become more Patriot-like than ever if Mahomes and Reid get the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years.

It’s a sobering thought for the rest of an AFC that had to suffer through New England’s dominance for the better part of two decades. 

Jackson can’t finish his story and fulfill his draft-night Super Bowl vow without beating the quarterback and the team that’s become the standard since he entered the league. It’s no different than what Joe Flacco and the 2012 Ravens had to do in first taking down Peyton Manning and then Brady and the Patriots to advance to Super Bowl XLVII. 

One step at a time, but this is the biggest one of all.  

“We can’t overshadow what’s in front of us right now — not at all,” Jackson said. “Those guys are the former Super Bowl champions. To be a champion, you’ve got to go through a champion. That’s pretty much the mindset.” 

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