Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs and Ravens were on even terms less than two seasons ago when they met on a frigid field at Arrowhead Stadium to see who would advance in the AFC playoffs.
Baltimore won the game going away, pressing on in the postseason, just as it has made a habit of doing for more than a decade. The Chiefs went back to the drawing board, fired their coach last season and now are trying to appease a fan base increasingly frustrated by mediocrity.
Two franchises, one the model of consistency, the other in turmoil.
“There’s been a tradition and an expectation and a standard that’s been established around here recently,” said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who will lead his Ravens (3-1) back to Kansas City (1-3) today for a match-up of two teams heading opposite directions.
“Ray Lewis is a big part of that. Ed Reed is a big part of that. Those two guys have a great way of training the younger guys,” Harbaugh said. “We always bring coaches in, they get ingrained in the system before they become a coordinator, so they’re evolving. But to me, it comes to down to veteran leadership and there’s no team that has veteran leadership like we do.”
There has been a massive leadership void in Kansas City for years.
When the franchise was peaking in the 1990s, there were fearsome players on defense — Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas, the Chiefs’ own versions of Lewis and Reed. Joe Montana and Marcus Allen came through town, and stalwarts such as Willie Roaf and Will Shields played the offensive line.
One by one, though, they moved along or retired, and the tenures of former general manager Carl Peterson and current GM Scott Pioli have so missed out on identifying the kind of personality that, regardless of position, seems to bring an entire locker room together.
“Baltimore is consistent just because of the core guys they have,” Chiefs cornerback Javier Arenas said. “They have special core guys, guys like Ray Lewis, that have been there a long time. They have guys who lead, who bring it, and who drag the best out of each and every one.
“They make sure you’re going to play well.”
Arenas wasn’t saying that the Chiefs are entirely devoid of leadership. Linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali provide some of it, and there are other players on both sides of the ball who have assumed a more visible role this season.
Still, the success level of the two franchises indicates it hasn’t been enough.
Baltimore’s been to the playoffs eight times over the past 12 years, including each of the last four, and beat the New York Giants in the Super Bowl to finish off the 2000 season.
The Ravens’ regular-season winning percentage over that stretch is .607, sixth-best in the NFL. Their nine winning seasons trail only the Patriots and Colts. Their 10 playoff wins are third in the league, and their three conference title games tied for fourth.
“They’ve got great veteran leadership,” Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. “They try to push those guys to go in the right direction, so any of those young guys that are coming in, they have to jump on the bandwagon and get going.”
There hasn’t been a bandwagon in Kansas City so much as a sinking ship.
That playoff loss to the Ravens a couple years ago represents the Chiefs’ only appearance since the 2006 season, and their only winning record. The franchise has only been to the playoffs three times total over the past 15 years, and hasn’t won a game since the 1993 season.
Only the Bengals and Lions have gone longer without winning a playoff game.
“Like you said, a few years ago they were a playoff team,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice, alluding to how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL. “Not a lot has changed with the personnel there, so we know what they are capable of.”
Indeed, looking merely at the outcome of games this season, Sunday looks like a mismatch.
The Ravens have been in every game they’ve played, winning most of them, while the Chiefs have been blown out in all three of their losses. Their only win, two weeks ago in New Orleans, required a franchise-record 18-point second-half rally against another team in disarray.
But digging deeper, the Chiefs have the fourth-best offense in the league — Baltimore is currently No. 2 — and a defense that has been decent against both the pass and the run.
The culprit in their losses? Fifteen turnovers, by far the most in the NFL.
“You take away the turnovers and things, and they’re doing an awfully great job with their offense,” Lewis said. “I think they were leading the league before last week.”
So maybe the teams that will meet today aren’t that far apart. Maybe they’re more similar than dissimilar, two teams with potent offenses and respectable defenses.
It’s difficult say the two franchises have been anything alike.