SPORTS

Rookie WRs could be the key this week for Chiefs, Ravens

Three of the best quarterbacks in NFL history will take the field for Divisional Round weekend, each with a different narrative surrounding him. Patrick Mahomes is participating in the first road playoff game of his career on Sunday. He is Michael Jordan in 1993 and 1998, having to rely on his own greatness like never before. Josh Allen has overcome a turnover-laden season to finally have a shot at Mahomes on his frigid homefield. The road to the AFC Championship goes through Baltimore for the second time in Lamar Jackson’s career, and he will be looking to add a deep playoff run to his NFL resume.

As great as these three players are, without some big plays from their pass catchers — even in winter weather — they likely will not advance to conference-championship Sunday. Even though the connection between Allen and Stefon Diggs has been off lately, that has not stopped the Bills from rolling to six consecutive victories. Diggs is on the injury report with a foot injury and did not practice on Thursday. Obviously, if he does not play the Buffalo Bills will have problems.

At least Diggs’ team knows what they are getting from their veteran star if he takes the field. The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs are going to need rookie wideouts Zay Flowers and Rashee Rice to apply pressure to the opposing defense, or their offenses will be idling in the freezing temps.

Rice played the best game of his rookie season when the Chiefs needed it most. In only the second wild-card game of the Mahomes era, Rice became the first rookie wide receiver in NFL history to record eight receptions and 130 yards in a playoff game — a mark that would be surpassed by Puka Nacua the next day. That night was Rice’s third 100-plus yard game of the season. His second one was the last time he took the field before the playoffs. Rice caught five passes on six targets for 127 yards in a win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

He has not had a game with fewer than 50 yards receiving since before Thanksgiving. Mahomes hit Rice over the middle of the field over and over again against the Dolphins. After totaling the third most yards after catch in the NFL during the regular season, most of the time Rice had the ball in his hands on Saturday night, he spent it running past opposing defenders. If not for Jordan Love picking the Dallas Cowboys apart, Rice would have been the breakout star of Wild-Card Weekend.

Unlike Rice, Flowers was a first-round draft pick. The Chiefs were doing the best they could to find a hidden gem, while the Ravens believed from the start that they had found one capable of grabbing a Super Bowl ring.

Flowers had an up-and-down season early, but that was not all his fault. The whole team was adjusting to Todd Monken’s offense. It took the Ravens new OC some time to open up the offense, but when he did, they looked like the team to beat in the NFL. One of their best performances was a Week 14 overtime win against the Los Angeles Rams.

The most memorable play of the day was the game-winning punt return for a touchdown by Tylan Wallace. He doesn’t get the chance to be voted RedZone’s No. 1 play that the network aired all season if not for Flowers’ work in the fourth quarter.

The rookie put up an octopus on the Ravens’ final drive in regulation. On third and 17, Jackson hit Flowers on a dig route that went for a 21-yard touchdown. The Ravens went for the 2-point conversion and Flowers caught a toe-tapper on the sideline to extend the lead to three points.

Two weeks later, he showed off his elusiveness during the Ravens’ big Christmas Day win against the San Francisco 49ers. He tied his season-high of nine receptions and juked Fred Warner into the matrix on a screen pass.

Flowers’ best game of the season was the following week when the Ravens clinched the top seed in the AFC with their third-consecutive double-digit victory. His only 100-yard receiving game of the season was that day against the Dolphins, and 75 of those came on a single touchdown catch.

In the hard salary cap world of the NFL, rookies have to grow up quickly. For teams like the Ravens and Chiefs, they need players who can bulldoze their way through early-season errors so a great team can be constructed by winter.

The big-name quarterbacks will get most of the attention, headlines, social media posts, praise and scorn this weekend. That is what comes with being a star athlete. Their narratives will dominate the coverage and the actual game, but a standout chapter from Rice and Flowers might be just the push their teams to get past this weekend, and to a conference championship matchup.


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