Fantasy Index

header banner img
Win here.

Fantasy Index Weekly

Championship Game Preview: Kansas City

Underdog has experience edge

Overview: Recent meetings have been higher scoring. Kansas City has won three of four since 2018, with 27-24, 33-28 and 34-20 wins, and a 36-35 loss in the most recent game (2021). Both defenses are much better now (1st and 2nd in points allowed during the season), reflected in the betting lines (suggesting a 24-21 Ravens win).

Weather could potentially be a factor. There's an 80 percent chance of light rain during the game, with winds of 10-15 mph. Temperatures in the high 40s. Nothing too terrible, but could make for some slick conditions and reduce the likelihood of longer pass plays.

Kansas City: The Ravens had the much better season. Setting aside the meaningless finale, where they held out a lot of starters, Baltimore went 13-3, with late-season wins over three playoff teams (Rams, 49ers, Dolphins) and a convincing dispatching of Houston last week. Kansas City lost five of its last nine meaningful games and engaged in a seesaw affair with Buffalo. And yet: they've dominated the AFC postseason over the last five years. In that time they've been to three Super Bowls (2 wins), with an overtime loss to the Bengals their only stumble. They've been home for all those previous AFC Championships, but playing in Buffalo didn't seem to bother them. Experience counts for a lot in this game, and Odell Beckham is the only key Raven who's been to a conference championship. Would not be surprising if Kansas City makes more of the clutch plays to come away with the road win.

These teams faced each other in each of the 2018-2021 regular seasons, and Patrick Mahomes was shocking productive. He threw for over 340 yards in all of those games, with 12 touchdown passes (and another on a run). But this is a much different Baltimore defense, and it's a different Mahomes. Baltimore ranked 8th against the pass during the season (the last time Mahomes saw them, they were 32nd) and only one team allowed fewer touchdown passes (18). Mahomes, through some combination of a lesser receiving corps and an apparent coordinator downgrade (from Eric Bienemy to Matt Nagy) has put up the lowest passing numbers of his career: 261 passing yards, with 27 touchdowns in 16 games. Six quarterbacks averaged more yards, and seven threw more touchdowns. And the Ravens just held C.J. Stroud nearly 100 yards below his season averages (274; he threw for 175 last week, with no touchdowns). Baltimore allowed four quarterbacks to reach 250 yards all season, and three of those were in blowout losses.

All this is not to say that Baltimore will be shutting down Mahomes, but it's a different defense than the one that used to shut down the run while giving up more through the air, and Kansas City's offense hasn't been near its previous levels this season. Far more likely Mahomes finishes with no more than 250-260 yards and 2 TDs, with that total likely because the Ravens allowed three times as many scores on passes (18) rather than runs (6). Mahomes has been running some, averaging 24 yards during the season and carrying 8 times for 60 yards the last two weeks. But a lesser situation for him. He probably won't have left guard Joe Thuney (pectoral) in front of him, weakening his protection, while the Ravens might have top corner Marlon Humphrey (calf) back in the lineup, helping their coverage unit.

A poor matchup also for Isiah Pacheco. On the one hand, the Ravens were just slightly above-average (14th) in rushing yards allowed. But they allowed only 6 rushing scores, one by a quarterback and two of the meaningless variety (in the waning moments of a blowout win, and while resting starters in Week 18). Pacheco is running well, and he's getting the vast majority of the touches (Clyde Edwards-Helaire averages 6 touches and 35 total yards in the last three games Pacheco has played in). But they haven't been throwing to him much (1 catch in each playoff game), and odds of scoring are down this week. Reliable usage puts him ahead of Baltimore's committee backs, and the matchup isn't much better for Detroit's committee. But similar expectations compared to the Lions' runners, who are in a committee but in a ground game ranked 14 spots better than this one in the regular season. Pacheco is dealing with a toe injury and didn't practice on Wednesday, something to keep an eye on -- might lose a little more work than usual to Edwards-Helaire if that's affecting him.

For a long time (including the most recent meeting), the pass was the way to attack Baltimore, but they've been really tough on opposing passing games this season. Including wide receivers, with only five teams allowing fewer touchdowns to the position than the Ravens (12). So it will be harder for Rashee Rice to have a big game. But he had a great season, particularly in the second half, and will be the clear No. 1. The Bills were able to slow him down last week (4 for 47), but the big game by Travis Kelce might make it harder for Baltimore to focus on the wideout. Prior to last week Rice had seen 9-plus targets in six of seven, with three 100-yard performances, a fourth over 90, and 4 touchdowns in those games. Difficulty level goes up and he'll be a focus of the secondary, but Mahomes will still look his way some.

If Rice is drawing extra attention, other wide receivers will get some open looks, but it's a motley group. Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught a pair of 30-yard passes last week. Those were his first big plays since Week 7, with him generally being phased out of the offense as Rice emerged, and with his most noteworthy play being a critical drop in the loss to Philadelphia. MVS caught 6 for 116 and a touchdown in last year's AFC Championship game, but since then he's had 1 or no catches 11 times in 19 games.

Justin Watson is cut from a similar cloth, rising up with the occasional good game (4-5 catches and touchdowns against the Eagles and Raiders) but also catching 1 or no passes in half (9) of his games, including two of the last three. He caught 3 touchdowns, highlighting his rapport with Mahomes, and had 7 receptions over 25 yards. But you're about as likely to take a zero from him as to have more than 2 catches. Mecole Hardman has as many fumbles (2) as catches the last two weeks; it's not clear why they put him on the field at all. Kadarius Toney (hip, ankle) hasn't played since Week 15, but he practiced fully on Wednesday and will probably return. But he hasn't been a factor all year, limited to spot duty and gadget plays even when more or less healthy. Maybe Kansas City cooks up some wrinkles with one of these players to surprise this defense, but there's not enough there to risk a lineup spot on.

Travis Kelce stepping up with a huge game at Buffalo wasn't terribly surprising. He had a disappointing year (by his lofty standards), but was able to find a little extra for an elimination game, just as he has in past postseasons. Kelce has now scored in seven of his last eight playoff games, with 9 total touchdowns, and gone over 70 receiving yards in 11 straight. Four of the game's top tight ends might be playing this week (if Mark Andrews suits up), but hard to slot any ahead of Kelce. Only the matchup (Baltimore allowed just 3 touchdowns to tight ends during the season) works against him; George Kittle, for example, has a better one. Noah Gray would be a Hail Mary by a team that's already used all of the starting tight ends in these games. He caught 3 passes for 16 yards at Buffalo, but that was one of his more productive games. On the season he averaged under 2 catches for 18 yards, with 2 TDs.

The AFC teams ranked 7th and 9th in field goals during the season, far better than the NFC teams (both bottom-5 in that regard). Harrison Butker, in fact, has kicked twice as many field goals (14) in the last four games as extra points (7), while the Ravens during the season allowed 3 more field goals (32) than anyone else still playing. Both AFC kickers seem to be in the hunt for multiple field goals in this one.

The Kansas City Defense ranked 2nd in sacks (57, behind only Baltimore) but was a lesser group for takeaways (just 17). Lamar Jackson was careful in terms of forcing throws (just 7 interceptions), and a little better than average in terms of taking sacks (37). Scoring systems vary, but in general the AFC looks like a better matchup for chasing sacks, NFC for takeaways. Kansas City has been using Richie James on returns, with minimal impact.

Next: Baltimore Ravens.

--Andy Richardson

Fantasy Index