There comes a point in the journey of all championship contenders when they have to be brutally honest with themselves.
Such teams can't merely marvel at the talent in their locker room, the statistics they compile or all the opponents they batter when the games don't mean as much. They actually have to deliver when the spotlight burns brightest, and the consequences are most dire. This is where the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) keep falling short, and they officially should consider it a problem.
Baltimore's 34-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) on Monday night was yet another example of how far these Ravens need to go to achieve what they believe is within their grasp. The Chiefs showed up, provided a stunning tutorial on how to beat down an opponent on the road and left everyone watching with a clear reminder of why they're the defending Super Bowl champions. The Ravens are supposed to be the most dangerous threat to Kansas City's hopes at a repeat. Baltimore looked like a team that had no business even pondering such thoughts at this point in time.
The problem for the Ravens is that this is now a recurring theme. Since Lamar Jackson took over as their quarterback in the 2018 season, they've gone 21-1 against everyone else in the league during the regular season. They're now 0-3 against the Chiefs, with this latest defeat certainly stinging the most.
"They have our number," said Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith. "We can't make any excuses. They beat us. ... It's embarrassing, but at the same time, we get to bounce back. But until we do it against that team, it's going to go unnoticed."
That about sums it up. The Ravens are an incredibly talented team, one that has the 2019 AP Most Valuable Player starting at quarterback, a defense blessed with Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers at every level and arguably the best special teams play in football. What they don't have is the kind of victory that speaks to how great they truly can be. That's what should make their Monday night loss all the more deflating.
The Ravens went on a magical run when Jackson entered the lineup as a rookie, then watched the Chargers beat them in the Wild Card Round of that year's playoff. Baltimore also won 12 straight games last year -- and finished with a league best 14-2 record -- only to lose to Tennessee in an AFC Divisional Round matchup. The excuses were easier to accept back then. Jackson was running a makeshift offense in 2018, while the Ravens admittedly underestimated the Titans in January.
There are no more explanations when it comes to the Ravens' failings against the Chiefs, except for the obvious one: They're just not as good as Kansas City.
Baltimore finally was playing this game in its home stadium (the previous two contests were on the road), with complete confidence in its offense and a defense that has been the league's most dominant since the second half of last year. The Ravens wound up playing a supporting role in what turned out to be another showcase for the brilliance of Chiefs Pro Bowl quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He torched the league's top scoring defense in ways that almost seemed criminal at times.
Mahomes completed 31 of 42 passes for 385 yards. He threw four touchdown passes -- including one to left tackle Eric Fisher -- and ran for another. His play resulted in the Chiefs amassing 517 total yards and converting 10 of 13 third-down situations.
As Ravens defensive tackle Calais Campbell said, "In the plays that mattered, they came up with the big play."
The Ravens, of course, were almost the complete opposite, specifically in the first half. They fell behind, 27-10, and it was impossible to ignore how much their effort resembled their playoff loss to the Titans. Instead of sticking with the same running game that proved effective on their first drive, Baltimore abandoned its smashmouth approach when the contest was still fairly competitive. When Jackson tried to pass his way back into the game, he couldn't connect on the throws he needed to make or his receivers dropped balls they desperately needed to catch.
A week after the Ravens gashed the Houston Texans for 230 rushing yards in an easy win, they managed just 228 total yards against the Chiefs.
Jackson finished with only 97 yards passing. When asked about the Chiefs, he jokingly referred to Kansas City as "our kryptonite."
When pressed for answers on why Kansas City's defense so easily controlled an offense that had been averaging 35.5 points a game, Jackson admitted that the Chiefs' game plan "looked like the same thing from the Tennessee game, to be honest."
Jackson was referring to a Titans strategy that called for the cornerbacks to play deep and the safeties to hover closer to the line of scrimmage. That scheme frustrated the Ravens back in January because it provided more run support against Baltimore's read-option offense while also stifling Jackson's opportunities to attack downfield through the air. It's also bad news for the Ravens moving forward. In a copycat league, you can bet they'll see plenty more of that look in the coming weeks.
One trap the Ravens were determined not to fall into was allowing this game to morph into something much bigger. They acknowledged that there's a lot of football left and Baltimore did use two defensive stops in the second half to help cut the deficit to 27-20 before the Chiefs closed out the game.
"We don't have a team of quitters," Smith said. "Everyone thought we could win right until the end. ... We faced the champions on our field. It's one game. It's a lesson."
Added Campbell: "I'm looking forward to playing them again. I'm fairly confident that if we play like we're capable, we can hang with those guys."
These are the types of statements that tend to come out of games like this, especially when one team disappoints like the Ravens did.
Some Baltimore players, particularly Jackson, downplayed the significance of this matchup last week, referring to it as merely another game on the schedule. The reality is that the Chiefs likely saw it that way. The Ravens, on the other hand, had a lot more to prove in a contest like this.
There's now no need to speculate on what would've happened if these two teams had met in the AFC Championship Game last year.
There's really never been a legitimate debate of whether Mahomes is the best quarterback on the planet.
The only mystery still lingering after this latest meeting between the Ravens and Chiefs is one that Baltimore will struggle with until the postseason arrives. It's the question of why there's so much talk about this "rivalry" when only one team is doing all the winning.