It doesn't make sense — at least it shouldn't make sense — that the Kansas City Chiefs are 10-3 and sitting atop the AFC West, not when they rank 24th in total offense and 27th in total defense. Yet, here are Andy Reid’s Chiefs, winners of three in a row and tied for the second-best record in the NFL, welcoming the Tennessee Titans to Arrowhead Stadium, one of the toughest places to play in all of football.
After winning just five games the last two seasons, the Titans (7-6) are one of the surprise stories of 2016. Currently the Titans are tied for the top spot in the AFC South with the Texans, although Houston controls the tiebreakers. With three games remaining, Tennessee can’t afford to lose in order to keep pace. A win against the Chiefs on Sunday before playing the Jaguars next week could potentially set up a winner-take-all scenario at home against the Texans in Week 17.
Tennessee at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday Dec. 18 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Kansas City -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mariota’s Bounce-Back
Going into last Sunday’s home matchup against Denver, Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota had been on fire, with at least two touchdown passes in eight straight games. But against the Broncos’ vaunted defense, Mariota came crashing back down to earth, completing just six of his 20 passes for 88 yards, no touchdowns, and one lost fumble. The Titans were able to hang on for the upset, winning 13-10 in ugly fashion. But a win is a win nonetheless.
If Tennessee is going to stay in the playoff picture it’s going to be because of Mariota with help from the Titans’ running game. The Chiefs, Jaguars or Texans don’t appear to have the type of dominant defense that can do what the Broncos did to the Titans’ offense, as long as Mariota returns to form. Kansas City is ranked 27th in the NFL in total defense, but that lone statistic can be misleading, as the Chiefs are eighth in scoring defense (19.6 ppg) and tied for first in turnovers forced (25). As long as Mariota protects the football, Tennessee should be able to move the ball against Kansas City’s defense, but the Titans have to make the most of their possessions if they want to pull off the upset on the road.
2. Stopping the Titan Running Attack
Despite Mariota’s rough game against the Broncos, the Titans were able to pull off the win because of hard-nosed defense and their running game. Tennessee ran the ball 44 times for 180 yards against Denver, which is why the Titans won the time of possession battle (32:27). It wasn’t always pretty, but Tennessee got the job done.
Similar to the Broncos, the Chiefs have had trouble stopping the run, ranking 27th in the league. Kansas City has given up 130 rushing yards per game over the last seven and will be without linebacker and leading tackler Derrick Johnson for the rest of the season. The Chiefs will likely try and stack the box in hopes of limiting the damage done by DeMarco Murray, the league’s second-leading rusher, and putting more of the burden on Mariota.
3. Top Tight Ends
If you think tight ends are an under-appreciated demographic of football — this game is for you. Two of the NFL’s very best will be showcased this week in Tennessee’s Delanie Walker and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce. Even before Mariota arrived in Nashville two seasons ago, Walker was one of the game’s best, and most over-looked, offensive players. Currently, Walker is tied for the lead at his position with six touchdown catches. He has just five receptions period in his last two games, but look for that to change against the Chiefs’ depleted linebacker corps.
Despite his ridiculous reality TV dating show, awful dance moves, and childish mocking of opponents, Travis Kelce is a force on the football field — and the Chiefs have been under-utilizing him. Kelce leads all tight ends in receptions (70) and yards (916), but only has three touchdown catches and hasn’t scored since Oct. 30 against the Colts. He has put up four straight 100-yard games, but has been targeted just 24 times on third down and has only seven catches in the red zone (three of those going for touchdowns). If the Chiefs want to be a legitimate threat in the postseason they will need to utilize Kelce in all aspects of their passing game.
It’s hard to imagine Marcus Mariota laying two eggs in a row, especially against a Kansas City defense that is missing one of its best players and banged up at other positions. With a running attack that grinds down defenses and chews up clock, Tennessee has a great shot of upsetting the Chiefs in their home stadium in what is likely to be a low-scoring affair.
Prediction: Titans 20, Chiefs 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.