KANSAS CITY -- During the week leading up to Sunday's AFC wild-card game here, when it was suggested to the Ravens that the Chiefs -- the young and inexperienced Chiefs, the Chiefs that had gone 10-6 and won the AFC West but had played just one 10-win team, to the Ravens' seven -- appeared to be overmatched, their responses were usually similar, and often included the same word.
"Very explosive," said seven-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed of the Chiefs' assorted offensive weapons. "They're a very explosive team."
"One guy that's a very explosive player for them is McCluskey," said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison of young run-and-catch threat Dexter McCluster. While Mattison didn't have the rookie's name quite right -- an inconsequential detail to a coach, really -- he knew his number well, from countless hours of film study. "Number 22," he said.
"Pure explosive," said linebacker Ray Lewis, this time of Chiefs' running back Jamaal Charles.
Early in Sunday's game -- which ended up as a 30-7 blowout in the Ravens' favor -- the Chiefs, the NFL's sixth-youngest team (average age: 25.98), showed glimpses of their much-discussed explosiveness. Eric Berry, the rookie safety considered by many to be Reed's heir, athletically broke up his first of four passes at the end of Baltimore's opening drive, knocking away a sure touchdown from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to tight end Todd Heap on 3rd and goal at the 1, forcing the shortest of field goals. With three minutes left in the first quarter and the Ravens leading 3-0, Tamba Hali, the linebacker who won the AFC sacks crown, raced around tackle Michael Oher, stripped the ball from Flacco and recovered it.
Two plays later, the 24-year-old Charles, who came just short of breaking Jim Brown's 47-year-old record of 6.4 yards per carry this season (Charles finished at 6.38), turned his second-ever postseason handoff into a 41-yard touchdown, breaking a Reed tackle before sprinting away from his pursuers. The Chiefs led 7-3. Even though the Ravens pulled ahead 10-7 by the halftime whistle -- and had an astonishing advantage in time of possession (20:31 to 9:29) and offensive plays run (42 to 17) -- things seemed even. Moreover, Charles, who already had amassed 87 yards on the ground, looked assured of becoming the first running back to rush for 100 yards against the Ravens in a postseason game.
Charles never got there. In fact, he went
Charles was stuffed, badly, on a 4th-and-1 attempt on the Chiefs' opening drive of the third quarter, strung out to the right and tackled for a four-yard loss. On the next play, after the Ravens had taken over, Hali was penalized for hitting Flacco late, essentially turning an 11-yard completion into a 26-yarder. After the Ravens had completed that drive with a field goal, Cassel was flagged for a thoroughly unnecessary intentional grounding. Two plays later, McCluster, who led the Chiefs with four receptions (four more, somehow, than All-Pro wideout Dwayne Bowe managed), was leveled by Lewis after a short completion and fumbled at the Chiefs' 17. Another Ravens field goal followed.
By the end of that disastrous third quarter -- which included, in sum, three costly Chiefs penalties, two Cassel interceptions, that McCluster fumble and 13 Ravens points -- the Chiefs seemed neither explosive, nor volatile, but simply inert. It was time for the Ravens to run out the clock, by virtue of a crushingly methodical 15-play, 80-yard, 10-minute, 34-second drive. It was aided by an awful offsides penalty against linebacker Demorrio Williams on what would have been a Ravens punt (although, to be fair to Williams, punter Sam Koch stuck the kick at the 1-yard line anyway) and ended with a 25-yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee on 4th-and-1 from the Chiefs' 25.
By that time, with 4:26 left and the score 30-7, Arrowhead Stadium, with its legendary crowd that had 2½ hours been collectively apoplectic in anticipation of their team's first home playoff game since 2004, had gone quiet. It was maybe 20 percent full, the stadium's colored bands of seats -- orange on bottom, yellow in the middle, red up top -- plainly visible.
With the clock winding down, Lewis, in his 15th season, sacked Cassel for an 11-yard loss and somehow contorted himself so that he was sitting on the quarterback's face. It was little wonder that Cassel's next throw -- his last -- was intercepted by Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson. Then, someone named Jalen Parmele ran up the middle four times, and Flacco knelt twice, and the Ravens had won their fourth road playoff game in the past three years, with their thoughts immediately shifting to the Steelers next week.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, were left trying to extract any positives from a game in which a team that had committed only 14 turnovers on the season had five, and in which a team that allowed an average of just 14.8 points per game at home this season allowed 30. "In the game, I thought we got great experience for a lot of young guys that hadn't been a part of this," said head coach Todd Haley. Despite the result, the Chiefs showed they are a contender of the future, with a talented -- and, yes, explosive -- core of players like Berry, Charles and Hali.
The Ravens, though, are a contender of the present. Experience is something they have -- the experience gap was clear on Sunday -- but it is also something possessed by the Steelers. "Sometimes it just comes down to, they're a better team than the Chiefs," said Ravens cornerback Chris Carr of Pittsburgh. "No disrespect to the Chiefs. But [the Steelers] went 12-4 for a reason, and they beat a lot of good teams, including us. That's why it's going to be a tougher game, because they're a better team. They're going to stay focused the entire game."
The Steelers are also as talented as the Ravens, and have played as difficult a schedule, and will not wilt under Baltimore's unflinching pressure. "We know what kind of game it's going to be," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
Despite their pre-game complimenting of the Chiefs, which in retrospect sounded like a company line, and despite the fact that temperatures here hovered below freezing, the championship-minded Ravens probably also knew what Sunday's game would be: Just a warm-up.