4:25 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Chiefs -9, Over/Under: 44
With the Regular Season finally in the rearview mirror, the Playoffs are upon us, with the opening salvo taking place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, as the Chiefs host the Tennessee Titans in the first of four matchups of Wild Card Weekend. For the first time since 2008, the Titans (9-7, 2nd in AFC South) are back in the Postseason, though there is admittedly very little momentum surrounding this team, who for all intents and purposes have backed into this position, losing three out of their past four outings, including three in a row before escaping the Finale against Jacksonville. Simply put, it was a Win and You’re In scenario for Mike Mularkey’s charges, who had been fading considerably down the stretch, so much so that the veteran Head Coach’s job security was very much in question, with reports out of Nashville intimating that he would be fired if they failed to reach the Playoffs. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, as Tennessee went on to sweep their season series with the Jaguars, outlasting the AFC South Champions in a 15-10 defensive slugfest, which featured both teams being relegated below 300 Yards of Total Offense. After a scoreless First Quarter, the home side drew first blood on the strength of Derrick Henry’s (176 CAR, 744 YDS, 5 TD) 66-Yard Touchdown Run, which turned out to be the only Offensive Touchdown between both teams that afternoon, with a triumvirate of Ryan Succop Field Goals booking their passage to the Postseason. Ultimately, Four Jacksonville Turnovers decided the affair, for apart from that huge run from Henry, the hosts couldn’t get much of anything going offensively, amassing just 232 Total Yards on Eleven First Downs, while converting on a miserable 3-of-16 Third Downs against one of the nastiest Defenses in the league. However, this has been an issue for much of the season, with the Offense in general struggling to meet the lofty expectations built upon the rapid development of Third-Year Quarterback Marcus Mariota (62.0%, 3,232 YDS, 6.37 NY/A, 13 TD, 15 INT), who endured a very uneven campaign, in which he regressed as a passer (particularly from the Pocket), while sustaining a number of injuries. Efficiency was a major reason for the hype surrounding the former No. 2 Overall Pick, after a sophomore term in which he tossed Twenty-Six Touchdowns in comparison to Nine Interceptions. This past December was especially tough for Mariota, who completed just 59.7% of his Attempts for 191.8 Yards per Game on 6.5 Yards per Attempt, with Four Touchdowns and Three Interceptions, while taking Ten Sacks in five games. For the Titans, success is predicated on running the football, which they surprisingly struggled to do with much consistency in 2017; after ranking Third and Fourth in the NFL in Rushing Yards (136.7 Y/G) and Yards per Carry (4.6 Y/C) a year ago, Tennessee fell back to the rest of the pack, ranking a middling Fifteenth in both categories this year, averaging 114.6 Yards on 4.1 Yards per Carry. Furthermore, as is the case with most great rushing teams, these guys excelled at moving the chains, converting on a mighty healthy 46.1% of their Third Downs (3rd Overall), with that number slumping to 35.1% (25th Overall) in 2017. And then there is the matter of Red Zone Offense, which Mularkey’s troops were more effective at than anyone else in the league in 2016, scoring a Touchdown on a ridiculous 72.0% of their opportunities. Again, they’ve regressed significantly here as well, breaching the End Zone on 52.5% of their trips this season (19th Overall). So how did this all come to be, you ask? In just a year’s time, they’ve gone from ranking Fourth in Rushing Attempts (476) to Fourteenth (443), though that hasn’t necessarily transitioned to more passing opportunities, for the Titans have actually thrown less passes this year (496) than they did a year ago (504). The big problem has been Turnover Differential, which checks in at a disappointing Minus-4 after ending the previous campaign with an Even Differential. Needless to say, this is by no means a team that can afford to throw away possessions, for they simply aren’t built to compensate for it. This is certainly something that they’re going to need to clean up against the Chiefs, who have proven in recent years to be ruthlessly adept at exploiting their opponent’s mistakes. In fact, when these teams met back in 2016, Tennessee went into Arrowhead and escaped with a 19-17 victory, rallying back from an early 14-0 deficit, despite overcoming Three Turnovers. The Running Game was paramount to their success, rushing for 148 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns on Twenty-Nine Carries, with the dynamic duo of DeMarco Murray (184 CAR, 659 YDS, 6 TD) and the aforementioned Henry racking up Eighty-Nine and Fifty-Eight Yards respectively. With that said, Murray’s outlook for today’s meeting with the Chiefs is in doubt, after the veteran Tailback missed the Finale with a Grade Three MCL Tear that he suffered in the previous week against the Los Angeles Rams, in all likelihood robbing this team of a major component of their attack.
Meanwhile, while their opponent today has backed their way into the Playoffs, the Chiefs (10-6, 1st in AFC West) enter the Postseason on fire, winning four consecutive outings, recapturing the magic they possessed in their blistering 5-0 start, Indeed, it’s been an odd year for Kansas City, who saw a disappointing 1-6 stretch bookeneded by 5-Game and 4-Game Winning Streaks. With that said, Andy Reid’s charges have nonetheless returned to the Playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years, while securing their second straight AFC West Title, which believe it or not, marks the first time in Franchise History they’ve managed to do so. So how did these guys manage to turn things around, you ask? By getting back to the basics. Despite Reid’s considerable acumen as a Play-Caller, a successful Gameplan for this team continues to be predicated on a consistent Running Game. In his previous four years on the job, Kansas City has ranked Tenth, Tenth, Sixth, and Sixteenth in Rushing Offense, and this year they’ve managed to charge back into the Top Ten, averaging 118.9 Yards per Game (9th Overall) on a league-best 4.7 Yards per Carry (1st Overall). Balance is needed for this unit to flourish, which is no more evident than in the disparity on the ground between their wins and losses; in their ten victories, they’ve rushed for a staggering 141.2 Yards in comparison to a meager 81.8 Yards in their six losses. The explanation for this stunning difference is none other than Rookie Tailback Kareem Hunt (272, 1,327 YDS, 8 TD), who took the league by storm, serving as the engine behind their torrid start to the season. During the initial 5-Game Winning Streak, the unheralded Third Round Pick out of Toledo racked up a whopping 121.8 Rushing Yards with Four Touchdowns, only to slow down considerably over the following seven contests, posting a dismal 45.9 Yards per Contest. Fatigue was likely an issue for the Rookie, but Chiefs’ Fans will be happy to know that he’s apparently found his second wind, accumulating 99.3 Yards per Game over the final four outings. The NFL’s leading Rusher, Hunt has also factored heavily into the Passing Game, hauling in Fifty-Three Receptions on Sixty-Three Targets for 455 Yards and another Three Scores, adding another facet to a suddenly diverse Offense featuring the likes of Pro Bowl Tight End Travis Kelce (83 REC, 1,038 YDS, 8 TD), and speed demon Tyreek Hill (75 REC, 1,183 YDS, 7 TD). Of course, the man pulling the strings is Alex Smith (67.5%, 4,042 YDS, 7.10 NY/A, 26 TD, 5 INT), who at 33-Years of Age enjoyed his finest season as a professional Quarterback. The Twelfth-Year Veteran, who has been derided and criticized for years due to his conservative approach to the position earning him the moniker as the league’s foremost Game Manager, has absolutely flourished is this more wide-open Offense, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including Passing Yards (4,042), Passing Touchdowns (26), Interception Percentage (1.0%), Yards per Attempt (8.0), Yards per Completion (11.9), and Net Yards per Attempt (7.10), all the while leading the NFL in Passer Rating (104.7). Furthermore, he’s become an even greater component of their Rushing Attack, racking up another 355 Yards and a Touchdown on Sixty Carries. Now, it’ll be up to one of the league’s most successful Regular Season Signal-Callers (69-31 since 2011, .690 Win Percentage) to improve upon his Playoff Portfolio, where things have been decisively different for the former No. One Overall Pick. In six Postseason Starts, Smith is 2-4, completing just 60.0% of his Attempts for an average of 246.8 Yards per Game on 5.93 Net Yards per Attempt, while tossing Twelve Touchdowns opposed to just a pair of Interceptions, with a Passer Rating of 94.5. As always, health at this time of year is a prime key to success, and the Chiefs are going to have to hope that they don’t lose too many more bodies, particularly on Defense where there are a number of players on the mend, prompting Reid to sit a number of his charges in the Season Finale against Denver. So let’s take a moment to run down the list, shall we? Kansas City could be without a number of contributors on this side of the ball, with Defensive Linemen Tamba Hali (Knee), Rakeem Nunez-Roches (Foot), and Bennie Logan (Knee), along with Cornerback Phillip Gaines (Elbow) and Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (Shoulder) all listed as Questionable, adding to a heap of Defenders already on Injured Reserve, featuring the likes of All-Pro Safety Eric Berry (Achilles) and Edge-Rusher Dee Ford (Back). As a result, this unit has been gashed for a wealth of Yards, giving up the fifth-most in the league (365.1 Y/G), but have nonetheless compensated for it with Twenty-Six Takeaways (7th Overall), which coupled with their always-cautious Offense (an NFL-low Eleven Turnovers) has led to a mighty healthy Plus-15 Turnover Differential. As we stated earlier, the Titans have had trouble taking care of the football all year long, and the Chiefs look primed to exploit their mistakes, particularly after forcing a dozen in their last four contests alone.