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Ranking X factors in Chiefs-Ravens AFC Championship: Ravens’ Mark Andrews, Chiefs’ L’Jarius Sneed loom large

The AFC Championship between the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs has the potential to be the game of the year in the NFL, and the winner of the showdown will likely be the favorite to win Super Bowl LVIII. Not only does this matchup have two MVP quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, but the Chiefs and Ravens each possess the top-two scoring defenses in the league (the first time in a conference championship game since 2004). 

Mahomes and Jackson will get all the attention (and deservingly so), as both quarterbacks will have plenty to prove in the showdown. Jackson is looking to prove he can lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl and establish his legacy while Mahomes is further trying to cement his status as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever by leading the Chiefs to their fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years. 

For Mahomes and Jackson to advance to the Super Bowl, these five players will have to play a major role in the Chiefs or Ravens advancing to Las Vegas. These are the five biggest X factors in the AFC Championship (the high-profile names like Mahomes, Jackson, Travis Kelce and Roquan Smith were omitted based on their superstar status). 

5. Isiah Pacheco

With not as many offensive weapons as in years past, Pacheco is the one player who can get the offense moving the chains when the pass game isn’t working. Pacheco has 383 career rushing yards in the playoffs, the eighth-most through a player’s first two seasons in NFL history, which included 97 yards and touchdown in the divisional-round win over the Bills

In 14 regular-season games, Pacheco had 935 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as the Chiefs’ featured back — a role he’s embraced in the postseason. He has 39 carries for 186 yards and two touchdowns (4.8 yards per carry) in two playoff games, as the Chiefs offense has averaged 26.5 points per game against two top-10 defenses (in yards allowed). 

For the Chiefs to consistently move the ball against the Ravens, Pacheco has to be involved. 

4. Justin Madubuike

Madubuike has set to cash in this spring in free agency, whether that’s from the Ravens or someone else. He’s been a game wrecker on the interior of the defensive line, accumulating 65 pressures, 13 sacks, and 33 quarterback hits and pressure rate of 13.4%. Keep in mind Madubuike is a defensive tackle. 

The Chiefs may not have Joe Thuney on Sunday, giving a major edge to Madubuike in the trenches. Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith could have a tough assignment if Madubuike plays at the level he has been all season. 

3. L’Jarius Sneed

Sneed has been one of the best cornerbacks in football all year, as opposing quarterbacks have just a 45.2 passer rating targeting him. Opposing quarterbacks won’t even target Sneed, who didn’t even allow a passing touchdown in the regular season and had two interceptions.

In the divisional playoff win against the Bills, Sneed allowed a touchdown catch but was targeted only three times and allowed 17 yards. He’s allowed 5 of 12 completions for 46 yards and a touchdown in the postseason (77.1 rating), getting the top target in the opponent’s passing game. 

Whomever Sneed covers on Sunday will have his hands full. 

2. Zay Flowers

Jackson’s most reliable wide receiver this season has been Flowers, who has arguably been the best rookie wideout not named Puca Nacua. Flowers set Ravens rookie records in catches (77) and receiving yards (858) while adding six total touchdowns in the regular season. 

A matchup nightmare in the slot, Flowers led the Ravens with four catches in the divisional round win over the Texans. It’s highly likely Flowers will see plenty of Sneed on Sunday, as he’ll be the go-to wideout in the Ravens passing attack. 

Of course, a certain player returning to the lineup could free up Flowers between the numbers. 

1. Mark Andrews

After suffering the ankle injury in Week 11, Andrews has been rehabbing to get back for the Ravens and was finally activated off injured reserve on Friday. He’ll make his return to the lineup Sunday, as Jackson will be getting his top pass catcher back. 

The three-time Pro Bowl selection has more receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns thrown by Jackson than any other two players combined, showcasing the impact he has had on the Ravens offense. His 55.8 receiving yards per game are sixth-most for a tight end in NFL history. 

Andrews had 45 catches for 544 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games this season, the most impactful pass catcher in a deep group. For the Chiefs to have any chance to shut down the Ravens offense, they’ll have to slow down Andrews. Whether Andrews is 100% or not, he’ll have a huge impact on the outcome of the game. 

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