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Chiefs defense was 'dirty tough' in locking down Ravens for AFC title win

The Chiefs' defensive assignment for the AFC Championship Game was clear, but daunting: contain Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson for four quarters.

Somehow, Steve Spagnuolo's unit pulled it off -- even with some tense moments in the second half -- in Kansas City's 17-10 stunner of a victory in Baltimore on Sunday to advance to Super Bowl LVIII where the Chiefs will face the San Francisco 49ers.

In the Chiefs' first three Super Bowl trips with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, it was the offense that carried the load. Not this season.

Nothing against Mahomes or Travis Kelce or Andy Reid, for that matter. The Chiefs put the Ravens in a tough spot with touchdown drives on their first two possessions, which ended up being enough points to win.

But when the Chiefs' offense stalled -- a fourth-down failure, followed by punts on seven of the next eight drives -- the defense picked up the slack.

"Spags did an amazing job," Reid said during the team's trophy presentation. "Spags, that defense, man. They were dirty tough today."

After a season during which the Chiefs have often won ugly, "dirty tough" was enough to get it done. Three huge Ravens turnovers, two by Jackson, were the difference. The Chiefs didn't turn the ball over Sunday.

"They played the game basically perfect, and they put points on the board," a despondent Jackson said after the game. "I felt like if we wouldn't have turned the ball over we definitely would have had a shot, we definitely would have came out with the win."

The Ravens tied the game, 7-7, on their second possession, driving 75 yards in what would be a rare breakdown from Spagnuolo's unit. Yet on Baltimore's next six possessions, running through the fourth quarter, the offense gained only 67 total yards.

Jackson, perhaps the favorite for the league's Most Valuable Player award next month, was 5-of-13 passing at halftime for 67 yards, and had run for 27 yards. Although Jackson pulled a rabbit out of his hat at one point in the second quarter by catching his own batted pass for 13 yards, the Chiefs helped limit his magic moments.

It wasn't one dominant performer, either. It was a team effort. The Chiefs' defensive centerpiece, Chris Jones, had zero tackles. But he had a few dominant reps, including a hit on Jackson to force a second-down incompletion and a batted third-down pass to force another Ravens punt.

"As a whole we tried to limit (Jackson's) big plays," Jones said. "We knew we weren't going to be able to completely stop him. But just try to eliminate big plays. I think they hit us on two. … If we're able to limit Lamar to two big plays, that's good."

The problem for the Chiefs was that they couldn't improve on the 17-7 halftime lead. The defense had to shoulder the load for most of this one. It almost broke -- twice.

Jackson hit Zay Flowers on the game's longest play, a 54-yard connection on which Flowers beat the indomitable L’Jarius Sneed, who has played as well as any corner in the league this season. Flowers hurt his own cause with a taunting penalty after that catch. But his next mistake would be even more costly.

A few minutes after Flowers stood over Sneed and spun the ball in his face to earn a taunting penalty, Sneed got his revenge. As Flowers caught a short pass at Kansas City's 7-yard line, he turned upfield and appeared destined to streak into the end zone for a massive, game-changing score. But Sneed punched the ball out mere inches from the goal line, recovered in the end zone by Trent McDuffie.

After a Chiefs three-and-out on offense, the defense was forced to dig in once more. Baltimore had ground down Kansas City with a series of short passes, Jackson scrambles and a wide-open connection to Nelson Agholor for 39 yards. The defense looked to be on the ropes with seven minutes still on the clock.

But Jackson forced an end-zone shot to tight end Isaiah Likely in triple coverage, and the pass was picked by Deon Bush, his first pick since late in the 2021 season -- and his first ever in the postseason.

"I love Spags," Bush said after the game while holding up an "In Spags We Trust" shirt, via The Athletic’s Nate Taylor.

Jackson said he was trying to give Likely a shot to make a play.

"(It was) Tampa 2, and I see both of them trailing him, and I didn't want to throw it all the way out of the end zone, I just tried to let him turn around and make a play," Jackson said. "I thought it was going to be PI, but you know it is what it is, the safety made a great play and made an interception."

The Chiefs couldn't quite slam the door off the turnover, and the Ravens' field goal with 2:34 remaining made it a one-score game. But it took the Ravens more than two minutes of game clock to gain 29 yards on nine plays, though, so the Chiefs' defense once again did its job.

When Mahomes hit Marques Valdes-Scantling on a 32-yard pass, the game finally was academic. But it was the Chiefs' defense that bailed out the offense, which did next to nothing in the second and third quarters.

"It's special because that's a great team and a great quarterback," Mahomes said. "Spags, it seems like when the games get bigger, when the challenges get higher, he performs even better.

"Whenever (the Chiefs' defense is) rolling like that, I have to kind of manage my game. That's stuff that I've learned throughout the season is even if we're not having the success that I want to have, the defense is rolling and getting stops, let's just take the safe choice, get the ball out of my hand, don't turn the ball over and let's go win a football game."

The Ravens certainly can look in the mirror at all their self-inflicted errors as contributing to the painful loss. They committed eight penalties for 95 yards, including several that were avoidable. They also ignored the effective Gus Edwards on offense (a season-low four touches) and had trouble keeping clean pockets for Jackson.

But the Chiefs deserve credit for the job they did on Jackson, sacking him four times on 41 dropbacks (including a crucial strip sack by Charles Omenihu), hitting him three more times, batting down five passes (including three early) and picking him off on the crucial end-zone interception. In the first half, Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton was credited with one pass defended, which he stepped in front of for what should have been another INT.

Jackson ended up throwing for 272 yards and running for 54 more. But it felt like Spagnuolo's play calling and the Chiefs' execution was one step ahead most of the game, even as the Chiefs lost Omenihu midgame to injury and were without linebacker Willie Gay Jr., who was assumed to be the Kansas City's best option to spy Jackson. Instead that job fell to Leo Chenal early before the Chiefs played more nickel defense after gaining a lead.

"I thought we did a great job. That's an explosive offense," Reid said. "You've got to make sure where you come in with (pressure), that you keep that quarterback somewhat in the pocket the best you can, and he's an unbelievable competitor. I thought our guys were able to do that up front.

"I thought our linebackers did a good job. We asked them to not only cover a great tight end, but also these receivers at times. Spags had a variety of things he was throwing at the offense, and I thought our guys did a nice job with that."

Spagnuolo called plenty of zone coverage, making sure to have eyes on Jackson quite a bit. Interestingly, most of Jackson's scrambles were against zone coverage, limiting the impact a bit, and three of his four sacks came versus zone, per Next Gen Stats.

But Spagnuolo also foiled Jackson with selective man looks, against which the Ravens QB went 6 of 15 for 81 yards. For the game, the Chiefs blitzed on 43.5% of Jackson's dropbacks. The Chiefs even brought four all-out blitzes against the Ravens, perhaps inspired by the Texans' blitz-heavy approach that had some early success last week.

Jackson said he wasn't surprised by the Chiefs' pressure but was caught off guard at how often they sent extra rushers.

"No, not really, because we've seen the film, blitz here and there, but 50 percent? That's different," Jackson said. "We wasn't expecting that. But sometimes, you know, we have intermediate routes, and (the Chiefs were) jumping (them), you can't just throw the ball and make them try to tip the passes, I'm trying to make something happen, but they did a great job."

And they've done a great job most of this season, which has felt like no other prior Chiefs Super Bowl run. When the NFL announced its award finalists for the 2023 NFL Honors -- get this -- not a single Chiefs player or coach was among them. Don't think Jones didn't notice.

"I still think Spags should be up for Assistant Coach of the Year," he said. "What he's been able to do with this defense from last year to this year and how we were able to force a lot of guys to grow. You look at last year, we gave up a lot of big plays.

"Come back this year, I'll say it right now, L'Jarius Sneed had an All-Pro year. Should've been an All-Pro. 22 (Trent McDuffie) had an All-Pro year. We can go on down the list, and those guys set the standard on the back end."

The Chiefs will forgo the awards for a third Super Bowl title in a five-year span. The reason they're even on the big stage again? It might be the phrase that best sums up the journey to this point: In Spags they trust.

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