Entering December, the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs were a pair of AFC teams heading in different directions. The Titans at 8-4 looked poised to win their first AFC South title in a decade, while the Chiefs were trying to snap a four-game skid, fighting for their playoff hopes.
The Titans proceeded to lose three straight games, kissing their division hopes goodbye, and pushed their playoff chances to the brink before beating Jacksonville last week at home to ensure their postseason berth — but it wasn’t pretty. The Chiefs got hot at the perfect time, rattling off four straight wins after losing six of their last seven, winning the AFC West and getting back to looking like the team that started the season 5-0.
There will be plenty of playoff demons to exorcise for both teams in the frigid air of Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday as postseason success has eluded both of these teams for quite some time. This is the first playoff game for Tennessee since 2008, while Kansas City is just 1-9 over its last 10 postseason contests dating back to 1994.
AFC Wild Card: No. 5 Tennessee (9-7) at No. 4 Kansas City (10-6)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 6 at 4:20 p.m.ET
TV Channels: ESPN/ABC
Spread: Kansas City -9
Three Things to Watch
1. A tale of two quarterbacks
Keep the “game manager” hooey to yourself. On Saturday, Alex Smith, the NFL’s leader in passer rating (104.7), will take the field to help his Chiefs win their first home playoff game in 24 years — or, for reference, since Mariah Carey’s “Hero” was topping the Billboard Hot 100 and Marcus Mariota was a two-month old baby.
Smith has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this year, just completing his first 4,000-yard season to go along with 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions — all while averaging eight yards per pass attempt, second to only Drew Brees (8.1). Smith also ranks in the top 10 among his peers in completions, yards, TDs, yards per game and yards per completion.
So you can save your “Captain Checkdown” jokes. They’re old. With Smith and his primary weapons well rested, the Titans are going to need a brilliant defensive effort to stop one of the league’s most efficient offenses — something they’ve struggled with this season, mightily.
For Tennessee, this wasn’t the breakout year that many expected from third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota (above, right). In fact, he’s regressed, throwing more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13). It certainly didn’t help that Mariota missed the entire offseason after breaking his leg in December 2016, forfeiting valuable time with new receivers, whom by the look of their play, probably needed the reps with their quarterback.
Mix in an underperforming offensive line, a flawed offensive scheme, and a declining starting running back in DeMarco Murray and there is only so much that Mariota can control. But on Saturday afternoon the excuses won’t cut it, Mariota is going to have to find a way to do something he’s struggled to do consistently this season — make winning plays.
Like the one he made with his legs and instinct to send the Titans to the playoffs – escaping a collapsing pocket, giving Jacksonville’s Barry Church a cold stiff-arm, and sliding for a first down with two minutes left while nursing a five-point lead last week. Mariota should have plenty of opportunities to make plays against a banged-up Kansas City defense that finished the regular season 28th in yards allowed (365.1 ypg) and lacks a true pass-rushing threat outside of linebacker Justin Houston.
2. Derrick Henry
Mariota isn’t the only young offensive player that the Titans need to get it in gear. With DeMarco Murray ruled out because of a torn MCL in his right knee, the rushing workload will once again fall heavy upon Henry (right).
The hulking (6-3, 247) second-year running back from Alabama has started just two games this season, including last week’s self-described “soft” performance that featured 1.8 yards per attempt and only 51 rushing yards on 28 carries.
Alongside Murray, Henry is supposed to be one-half of head coach Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” rushing attack, which has been far more marginal than exotic this season. Where Murray is a more dynamic weapon able to catch passes out of the backfield and protect Mariota in pass protection, Henry is the steamroller of the backs but struggles with the more finesse aspects of the position. Although he did have a huge 66-yard catch-and-run for the game’s first touchdown last week against Jacksonville.
Last season against the Chiefs, Henry scored two touchdowns on only nine carries in his backup role. This weekend, the former Heisman Trophy winner can expect upwards of 30 carries as Mularkey will look to establish the run against a Chiefs defense that has given up 118.1 yards per game on the ground this season (25th). The Titans will need a lot more from Henry than they got a week ago if they hope to upset Kansas City in Arrowhead.
3. Being honest about the Titans' D
Let’s give credit where credit is due to Tennessee’s defense. Typically, winning a home game against a Blake Bortles-led offense isn’t too much to brag about. But holding any NFL offense without a touchdown for an entire game is quite the feat, no matter who the opposing team’s quarterback is, and especially when your playoffs hopes are on the line.
But a quick look at the Titans’ schedule reveals a significant, perhaps fatal flaw. Simply put, the Titans lose to teams with any semblance of above-average quarterbacking, something that is sparse to begin with in the modern NFL.
The Titans picked up five wins against AFC South quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett (Colts), Blake Bortles (Jags) and Tom Savage (Texans). Four of those five wins came against Brissett and Bortles. Tennessee also beat the likes of Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer. Not exactly a list of Canton-worthy candidates.
To further prove my point, the Titans have only beaten two teams with winning records, the Seahawks and Jaguars (twice), only one of whom is playoff-bound in Jacksonville.
Tennessee has struggled greatly against even the most decent of offenses, let alone teams that have elite quarterbacks like the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (40-17 loss in Week 11). Even quarterbacks who we think could be elite at some point like Derek Carr, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jared Goff all handed the Titans losses this season, combining for 1,227 passing yards and 11 touchdowns in four games.
(Not mentioned: losses to the Jay Cutler-led Dolphins and the Blaine Gabbert-piloted Cardinals.)
So how does a defense that flounders so noticeably against reputable offenses hope to contain a 4,000-yard passer that doesn’t turn the ball over in Smith, two 1000-yard pass catchers in WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce, and receivers in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and the NFL’s leading rusher in Kareem Hunt?
While both teams employ bend-don’t-break defenses, the Chiefs simply have too much offensive firepower that should be well rested after most starters were held out, or at least limited, in last week’s regular season finale against Denver. Tennessee’s run defense has been rather stout all season long, so stopping Kareem Hunt isn’t out of the question. But asking the Titans’ 25th-ranked pass defense, a unit that has given up 12 TD passes in the fourth quarter alone this season, to slow down Alex Smith, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, may be too arduous of a task on the road.
Prediction: Chiefs 21, Titans 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.