Derrick Henry and the Titans take their road show to Arrowhead Stadium to face Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs for a spot in Super Bowl LIV
Raise your hand if you had the Tennessee Titans playing the Kansas City Chiefs in your AFC Championship bracket. Maybe one hand in the corner there? Is that all? After becoming the final AFC team to clinch a postseason spot and entering the playoffs with 60/1 Super Bowl odds, winning one playoff game was a worthy achievement. And when the Chiefs fell behind 24-0 at home last weekend against the Houston Texans, advancing to the AFC title game seemed a virtual impossibility for them.
But here we are. The Chiefs, completing the first such 24-point comeback in Andy Reid's 21 years as an NFL head coach, are on the verge of their first Super Bowl appearance since before the AFL-NFL merger (1970). The Titans, meanwhile, are seeking their second-ever Super Bowl appearance (2000) and their first NFL championship in team history. They'd be the first team since the 2005 Steelers to make the NFL Championship game as the No. 6 seed in the AFC.
Both teams boast a player making a case for league MVP. Derrick Henry has had the most prolific three-game rushing total in league history; Patrick Mahomes took his team on a blowout 51-7 run to finish the Chiefs' Divisional Round game. Each is seeking their first Super Bowl as the NFL continues its shift from Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and its ageless legends to a new generation of budding superstars.
Can Mahomes complete his comeback from a midseason injury, guiding the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl under Andy Reid? Or will Henry continue to rewrite the history books as he carries the Titans on his back straight toward Miami? The Chiefs hold a narrow edge in the all-time series — which has featured a number of exciting games — 29-24.
AFC Championship: Tennessee at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 3:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -7
Three Things To Watch
1. Can the Chiefs' defense stop Derrick Henry?
There's not much to say here that hasn't already been said. Henry has been unstoppable this postseason, rushing for 377 yards and a 5.9-yard average, a total that includes a 66-yard run against the Ravens last weekend. Surprisingly enough, he's scored just one touchdown during that stretch; the Titans use his dominance on the ground to keep opposing defenses on their heels in the passing game.
But make no mistake — this stretch is record-setting. Henry's the first NFL running back in its 100-year history to rush for 180-plus yards in three straight games. His performance leaves the Titans on the precipice of another first: defeating each of the AFC division winners (Texans, Patriots, Ravens, Chiefs) in four straight games to reach the Super Bowl.
Before his 211-yard coup de grace in the regular-season finale, Henry's best game of 2019 came... against the Chiefs. That's right. A 188-yard, two-touchdown performance (on 23 carries) included a 68-yard run in the third quarter that shifted momentum back the Titans' way after a lead change.
What's the Chiefs' plan against Henry this time? Hit him lower, a plan to knock his legs out and keep Henry from gaining those four or five extra yards on stiff arms and missed tackles. But the Chiefs know they can only do so much to slow this guy on offense.
"Even when they're down, they're still feeding him the ball, so it's kind of like playing basketball and your coach tells you, 'Keep shooting,'" All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "And so you feel that confidence. You know that your team believes in you. I think that's the kind of confidence they're playing with."
It's up to the Chiefs' defense to shut that confidence down. Henry, the first rushing leader since LaDanian Tomlinson in 2007 to reach a conference championship game, is in position to pad those stats.
2. Can Patrick Mahomes continue his MVP-caliber performances?
Mahomes has been magical during his postseason career. In three games thus far, he has yet to throw an interception, posting eight touchdowns, 893 yards, and a 61.7 percent completion rate.
And this season against the Titans? He was absolutely incredible, considering it was the first game back from a dislocated kneecap initially expected to knock him out for a month or more. Mahomes threw for a season-high 446 yards, three touchdowns (including a 63-yard bomb) and a 119.2 quarterback rating.
What's scariest for the Titans is how quickly Mahomes can turn a game back around. The longest scoring drive for any of their scores last weekend was 3:55. Four of the Chiefs' touchdown drives took 92 seconds or less. It's that type of explosiveness that means this team is never out of any game they play in.
The key for the Titans may not come in stopping Mahomes but some of his weapons. Tight end Travis Kelce, who had 134 receiving yards and three touchdowns last week, will again be Mahomes' primary target. But don't count out Tyreek Hill, who ran up 157 yards of his own against the Titans during the regular season.
3. Which defense can force turnovers? In particular, will the Chiefs get it together on special teams?
Sneaking under the radar in the midst of Henry's dream postseason has been the way the Titans' defense has forced takeaways. Two games into the playoffs, their turnover margin of plus-four leads all 12 postseason teams; no one else is better than plus-one.
The Titans' total includes a pick-six of Tom Brady to end the Wild Card game and potentially his NFL career; then they picked up a forced fumble and two interceptions from Lamar Jackson, arguably the leading candidate for NFL MVP. In a span of four quarters, from the second half of the Patriots game through the first half against the Ravens, they held opposing offenses to only a pair of field goals.
The Chiefs, despite their slow start last weekend, had just one giveaway on paper: a first-quarter Hill fumble on a punt return. But they also had a punt blocked, suffered through a missed extra point by Harrison Butker, and saw Mahomes fumble the ball after a run deep in Houston territory. If that ball bounced differently, Houston would have gotten the ball back down just 28-24 with the Chiefs' momentum instantly stalled.
Damien Williams' lost fumble during the regular season game against the Titans proved a turning point for the Chiefs, too. That turned into a 53-yard return for a touchdown as part of a razor-thin, 35-32 defeat that could have gone either way. The Chiefs also suffered through a botched snap on a field goal, then a block on one at the end that would have tied the game and forced it into overtime.
"We were too sloppy," Andy Reid said after that Titans game. "We were in position to close it, and we didn't get that done."
Playing at Arrowhead Stadium rather than the road will help this team settle in. But Mahomes, for all his spectacular play, has three interceptions in his last five games played. He'll need a turnover-free performance Sunday, as the Titans will look to jump on them in the first quarter.
X-Factor: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill has been the forgotten man during Henry's ascendance to greatness for the Titans. His performance has been inconsistent at best during the playoffs: just 160 passing yards combined, a 51.7 percent completion rate, three touchdowns, and one interception through two games.
But Tannehill hasn't had to be great. He's simply had to manage the game with the Titans building early leads, allowing them to focus on the run. Tannehill and the Titans may not have that luxury this time around, however, the last time these two teams played, Tannehill stepped up with a back-and-forth battle that was close until the final seconds. Apart from a first-quarter fumble, he was brilliant, going 13-for-19 with two touchdowns that cemented his starting role with this team.
There's no reason to suggest, despite the last two games, Tannehill can't do that again. The question will be how much the Titans need Tannehill to succeed. A punch-for-punch battle with Mahomes will result in a Chiefs TKO, but a few big plays every now and then? Tannehill has shown (see: last week's 45-yard TD pass to Kalif Raymond) that he's capable of a contributing role.
On paper, this setup seems absolutely perfect for Kansas City. The Chiefs are the second seed from the conference, they're playing at home, and they spent the second half of their AFC Divisional Round matchup scoring at will.
Problem is, Andy Reid has a history of taking the perfect playoff scenarios and suffering through a historic collapse. He's just 1-8 against the Titans all-time, including losing the last postseason game against them despite taking a 21-3 lead into halftime. Who was the star of that show? Derrick Henry. He averaged nearly seven yards per carry (6.8) on his way to putting up 156 rushing yards and a touchdown to lead the Titans to a 22-21 come-from-behind victory. Think of how much he's improved since then.
Now, if the Chiefs' defense shows up and stops Henry? The offense has shown it can score at will. I think an early lead from the Chiefs should force you to think carefully about betting on them in the second half. It could get ugly.
However, a second straight first-quarter collapse, giving the Titans an early lead, will allow them to control the game on the ground. If so, Reid and company will find themselves wondering what might have been... and Henry will write his own chapter in the NFL record books.
Prediction: Titans 27, Chiefs 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.