BALTIMORE (AP) — The first quarter was vintage Patrick Mahomes, picking apart the Baltimore defense with quick passes, with Travis Kelce on the other end of several of them.
Then the Kansas City defense — now elite after some shaky seasons in the past — took over.
Finally, when Mahomes needed one more completion to send the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl, he went deep to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, whose struggles this season were emblematic of the team's maligned receiving group.
Complete for 32 yards. Ballgame.
“The Chiefs are still the Chiefs," Kelce said emphatically.
After all the moments this season when they looked disjointed and vulnerable, the Chiefs are headed back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years.
Mahomes and Kelce were at their magnificent best in the first half, and Kansas City’s defense delivered another masterpiece against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, leading the Chiefs to a 17-10 victory in the AFC championship game Sunday.
Kelce caught 11 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, and now the big question at next month’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas is whether his girlfriend, Taylor Swift, will be able to make it there in the middle of her tour. The pop star was on hand again Sunday, and it was a milestone day for the 34-year-old Kelce, who surpassed Jerry Rice's career record for postseason receptions.
Kansas City (14-6) will face San Francisco on Feb. 11, and a victory would make the Chiefs the first team to win it all in back-to-back seasons since the New England Patriots 19 years ago.
Swift's presence has turned the Chiefs into even more of a glamour team than they already were, but it's been more of a blue-collar performance on the field this season. Aside from Kelce, Mahomes' playmakers haven't been as threatening as in years past.
Only once this season has Kansas City scored more than 31 points, and a home loss on Christmas to the Las Vegas Raiders — on the same day Baltimore made a statement with a win at San Francisco — seemed to indicate that the Chiefs' days atop the AFC were numbered.
Not so fast.
Playing on the road in the playoffs for the first time with Mahomes, the Chiefs beat Buffalo and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks to win the conference.
“I've never doubted, no,” coach Andy Reid said. “That's not how we roll.”
The Chiefs led 17-7 at halftime, and Justin Tucker's 43-yard field goal with 2:34 to play was the only scoring of the second half. Baltimore kicked deep after that, and on third-and-9, Mahomes connected with Valdes-Scantling, who held on and knew exactly what that catch meant.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl," he said. "That was it. I knew we needed one first down to get us to the goal, and they trusted me to go get one.”
Mahomes went 30 of 39 for 241 yards and a touchdown.
Jackson could win his second MVP after leading Baltimore to the league’s best record and point differential during the regular season, but the Ravens allowed touchdowns on the first two Kansas City possessions and appeared a bit panicky at times after that.
Baltimore (14-5) made undisciplined mistakes all game, while Kansas City looked the part of the team making its sixth straight appearance in the conference title game.
With the Ravens down by 10 in the third quarter, rookie Zay Flowers caught a 54-yard pass to the Kansas City 10 — then was flagged for taunting after the play. Moments later, he fumbled near the goal line and the Ravens ended up with no points.
That was one of several frustrating moments for Baltimore fans, whose city was hosting an AFC championship game for the first time since January 1971, when the Colts beat the Oakland Raiders.
Jackson went 20 of 37 for 272 yards and a touchdown, but Baltimore never really exploited its perceived advantage on the ground. Jackson raced under one of his own tipped passes in the first half for a 13-yard reception, but he also turned the ball over twice, including a forced pass into heavy coverage that was picked off in the end zone with 6:45 left in the game.
Once it was clear defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had the upper hand against the Baltimore offense, Mahomes was happy to manage the game and avoid doing anything too risky.
“Spags, it seems like when the games get bigger, when the challenges get higher, he performs even better," Mahomes said.
Jackson fell to 2-4 as a starter in the postseason despite having been the top seed in the AFC twice. He made a few sensational individual plays, but the Ravens had trouble moving the ball otherwise.
“That guy was the main guy I was playing for, honestly,” Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen said. “So much stuff he gets that he doesn’t deserve. This was his opportunity to be able to write some of that stuff off and move on to the next thing. That’s why it hurts, because you want to see people like that, teammates that you love and care about, get what they’re supposed to get."
Mahomes, meanwhile, completed his first 11 pass attempts, and although the Ravens largely shut Kansas City down after that, the damage was done on a rainy day in Baltimore.
There was some chippy behavior before the game, which included Ravens defensive back Arthur Maulet and a group of Kansas City players having to be separated.
Then the Chiefs forced a three-and-out on the game’s first drive and went 86 yards for the opening touchdown. Kelce caught a 13-yard pass from Mahomes over the middle on fourth-and-2. Then the star tight end beat All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton for a 19-yard touchdown to make it 7-0.
Jackson answered in his own spectacular way. He broke free for a 21-yard run when Baltimore went for it on fourth-and-1 from its 34. Then the star quarterback ducked out of a near-sack by Leo Chenal, retreated a bit farther back and threw a 30-yard scoring strike to Flowers, who celebrated with teammates by doing the “swag surf” dance that Swift and Chiefs fans did at a recent game.
Kansas City was unbothered. Mahomes drove his team 75 yards in 9:02 — with the help of an acrobatic diving catch by Kelce on one third-down toss — and Isiah Pacheco capped the 16-play march with a 2-yard touchdown run.
The Chiefs actually missed chances to extend their lead. A sack by Charles Omenihu forced a fumble by Jackson that gave Kansas City the ball at the Baltimore 33. But Kelce was marked just short on a third-down catch, and Pacheco was stopped on the ensuing fourth down at the 13.
After a couple of personal fouls on Baltimore helped Kansas City cross midfield late in the half, the Chiefs were flagged for back-to-back holding calls, the second of which wiped out a 33-yard screen pass to Rashee Rice that would have been a touchdown.
A 9-yard pass to Kelce put Kansas City in position for Harrison Butker’s 52-yard field goal that made it 17-7.
The Harbaugh brothers came up short in their attempt to sweep the college and pro championships after Jim Harbaugh coached Michigan to a national title. Jim, who then left the Wolverines to become coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, was at the game Sunday.
John Harbaugh said he was still proud of Baltimore's season.
“I feel like it was a team that had a lot of challenges. I don’t think it was a team that was too highly touted coming into the season by the pundits and the prognosticators and all that, and I think they proved a lot of people wrong, all year,” he said. “The quarterback made a statement all year.”
Omenihu left with a knee injury, and star defensive tackle Chris Jones was shaken up in the fourth quarter for the Chiefs.
Chiefs: The Chiefs have not played the 49ers this season. This will be a rematch of the Super Bowl four years ago, which Kansas City won 31-20.
Ravens: Baltimore knows it can win a lot of games with Jackson and his talented supporting cast, but getting past the Chiefs seems like an especially daunting task if they couldn't do it this season.
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