3:05 PM EST, CBS – Line: Chiefs -7.5, Over/Under: 52
The penultimate weekend of the NFL Playoffs begins in the Midwest as the Kansas City Chiefs play host to the upstart Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship Game from Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. At this point, if there is one team left in the Postseason that has already well exceeded expectations, it’s hands down the Titans (9-7, 2nd in AFC South), who are competing in their first AFC Championship since 2002. In all honesty, they very nearly missed the Playoffs altogether, losing consecutive contests before prevailing in the Season Finale where they were handed a boost from their opponent, the Houston Texans, who sat many of their Starters due to already clinching the Division. Tennessee went on to win that affair 35-14, booking passage to the Playoffs for the second time in three years as the final Wild Card, which as they proved back in 2017, was a gross underestimation of their capabilities as a team. Three years ago they shocked the Chiefs, overcoming an early 0-14 deficit and escaping Arrowhead with a 22-21 upset. This season, their early fortunes played out identically, as Mike Vrabel’s charges stormed into Gillette Stadium and eliminated the reigning Super Bowl Champions in a 20-13 slugfest. The visiting side pummeled the Patriots, rushing for 201 Yards on Forty Carries, with Rushing Champion, Derrick Henry (303 CAR, 1,540 YDS, 5.1 Y/C, 16 TD), leading the way with 182 Yards and a Touchdown on Thirty-Four Attempts, while the Defense confounded Tom Brady & Co. throughout the night, relegating the hosts to a mere 307 Total Yards and forcing a pair of Turnovers. As impressive as that showing was, nobody gave them much of a chance in pulling the same trick twice, as top-seeded Baltimore awaited them fresh off a franchise-best 14-2 campaign. Two years ago, the Titans followed their upset of the Chiefs by getting embarrassed in a 14-35 defeat at New England, in which Henry was a proverbial ghost, managing a scant Twenty-Eight Yards on just Twelve Carries. Needless to say, the 25-Year Old Tailback wasn’t about to let history repeat itself, as he and his teammates rolled into M&T Bank Stadium and dominated the Ravens in an eye-opening 28-12 victory. Yes, Baltimore posted 530 Total Yards, with presumed MVP, Lamar Jackson, accounting for a ridiculous 508 Yards by himself, but that production never quite translated to points for the home side, who committed Three Turnovers and failed to convert on not one, not two, not three, but FOUR Fourth Downs. Empty Drives was the theme of the night for the Ravens, with Jackson completing just Thirty-One of a career-high Fifty-Nine Attempts, throwing a pair of Interceptions and suffering Four Sacks, losing a Fumble in the process. In turn, Henry ran wild, thundering through the Defense to the tune of 195 Yards, a career-high in the Playoffs, breaking the home side’s will on a 66-Yard sprint midway through the Third Quarter. As a team, Tennessee only amassed 300 Total Yards on Fifteen First Downs, with 217 Yards coming via the Run, ultimately succeeding in making the most of their time in possession; the Titans posted Ten Drives, scoring Touchdowns on four of them (40.0%) and punting on each of the other six, while the Ravens were inexplicably wasteful, scoring on a miserable three of their Twelve Drives (25.0%) and turning it over on a whopping eight of them. Safeties, Kevin Byard (79 TKL, 2 TFL, 5 INT, 9 PD) and Kenny Vaccaro (79 TKL, 3 TFL, 6 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 5 PD), were excellent, combining for Sixteen Tackles and a pair of Interceptions, while veteran Defensive Tackle, Jurrell Casey (44 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR), was a force in the trenches with Four Tackles, One for Loss, Two Quarterback Hits, a pair of Sacks, and a Forced Fumble. In the two victories over the Patriots and Ravens, the Titans dominated by employing that trusted equation for success in the Playoffs: run the ball and play great defense. Tennessee rushed for an average of 209.0 Yards on 5.4 Yards per Carry, while limiting their opposition to only 12.5 Points per Game and forcing Five Turnovers.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why we haven’t made mention of the Titans’ Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill (70.3%, 2,742 YDS, 7.98 NY/A, 22 TD, 7 INT, 65.4 QBR), and that’s because he wasn’t asked to do very much in either of his team’s two previous triumphs. Indeed, Tennessee managed to win both outings despite totaling Seventy-One and Eighty-Three Passing Yards respectively. In these Playoffs, the 31-Year Old has completed just 51.7% of his Passes for a Net Average of 4.74 Yards per Attempt, which are really rather pedestrian when you think about it. However, he’s only thrown Twenty-Nine Passes between the two contests, which is due to the Gameplan being enforced by the Coaching Staff, and in the end, when you’ve got a weapon like the aforementioned Henry residing in the Backfield, why not use him as much as possible? Though the statistics have certainly been meager thus far, that’s not to say that Tannehill hasn’t been effective when called upon; the veteran Signal-Caller has thrown Three Touchdowns in comparison to One Interception, translating to a healthy Touchdown Percentage of 10.3%, while also rushing for another score to boot. Case in point: after seven consecutive Run Plays inside Baltimore’s 35-Yard Line, Tannehill dropped a dime to Tight End, Jonnu Smith (35 REC, 439 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 5 TD), who reeled in a highlight-stealing, one-handed Touchdown Reception to open his side’s account. Then, immediately after regaining possession following a failed attempt on Fourth Down, Tannehill launches a 45-Yard strike to unheralded Receiver, Kalif Raymond (9 REC, 170 YDS, 18.9 Y/R, 1 TD), to extend their early lead to 14-0. At that point, he had a pair of Touchdowns on just Four Passing Attempts. Furthermore, later in the affair he called his own number at the Goal Line, barreling into the End Zone on a Third & Goal to put the game out of reach. We’ve talked at length in this column before about how much this team has changed since he took over for the injured and ineffective Marcus Mariota (59.4%, 1,203 YDS, 5.63 NY/A, 7 TD, 2 INT, 31.4 QBR), serving as the driving force for the club’s return to the Postseason. Of course, Mariota, the former No. 2 Overall Pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, has struggled throughout most of his tenure with the club thanks to a revolving door of Offensive Coordinators with different ideas and an injury history has caused him to miss nine games over the past five years, further stunting his development. As many predicted, he stumbled out of the gate in 2019, completing just 59.1% of his Attempts for an average of 196.5 Yards on 6.39 Net Yards per Attempt, with Seven Touchdowns and Two Interceptions through the first Six Games, in which the Titans went 2-4. After going 7-of-18 with Sixty-Three Yards and a pair of Interceptions in a 0-16 shutout at the Denver Broncos, he was benched in favor of Tannehill, who became a revelation for the franchise; since becoming the Starter back on October 20th, he guided them to a 7-3 finish down the stretch, completing 70.3% of his Passes for an average of 228.5 Yards per Game and a league-best 7.98 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Two Touchdowns in comparison to just Six Interceptions. His inclusion has unlocked the Passing Game for Tennessee, with young playmakers such as Rookie Receiver, A.J. Brown (52 REC, 1,051 YDS, 202 Y/R, 8 TD), and the aforementioned Smith rising to the forefront, particularly the former who put together five 100-Yard Games this season. A win today will send the Titans to their second Super Bowl in franchise history, with their only other appearance being a memorable one; in a thrilling matchup with the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, they came up short by the most narrow of margins, stopped at the 1-Yard Line as time expired.
Meanwhile, these Playoffs are certainly setting up in favor of the Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, 1st in AFC West), who have not only successfully avoided the likes of both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, but will enjoy the luxury of hosting the AFC Championship Game for a second consecutive season. Of course, they’ll be hoping that this second chance has a better ending than the one that preceded it. Last year’s epic, 31-37 defeat to the Patriots would leave the bitterest of tastes in their collective mouths, as Andy Reid’s charges spent the majority of the contest reacting to a masterful Gameplan from the visiting side; the Pats possessed the football for a staggering 43:59, amassing Thirty-Six First Downs and 524 Total Yards, converting a ridiculous 13-of-19 Third Downs, along with one very crucial Fourth Down. New England manufactured five different Drives of Sixty-Five Yards or more, with their first and last encompassing Fifteen and Thirteen Plays respectively, the latter of which ended the affair in walk-off fashion in the first (and only) possession of Overtime. There were numerous instances in that matchup in which the hosts simply couldn’t get off the field no matter the circumstance, which ultimately served as the inspiration for Reid’s complete overhaul of the Defense, which after a slow start has certainly paid off. During the Offseason, Reid brought in his old chum from Philadelphia, Steve Spagnuolo, the architect of the New York Giants’ stunning upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, to set things right, with the veteran Defensive Coordinator’s message eventually beginning to hit home over the final third of the term; over the last six games heading into the Playoffs, the Chiefs have relegated opponents to an average of just 11.5 Points on 298.5 Total Yards, limiting each of their final four foes below 300 Yards, while altogether owning a Plus-6 Turnover Differential. Oh, and their record during this stretch? An unbeaten 6-0, which is why so many are tabbing this team to represent the AFC at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami in two weeks time. This unit finished the season in very respectable fashion, ranking Seventh Overall in Points Allowed (19.3), Eighth in Passing Defense (221.4) and Passing Touchdowns Allowed (21), Fifth in both Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (5.7) and Interceptions (16), Tenth in Takeaways (23), and Ninth in Red Zone Defense (50.9%), which are all significant improvements over last season. Indeed, new additions such as Pro Bowlers, Frank Clark (37 TKL, 12 TFL, 13 QBH, 8.0 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 4 PD) and Tyrann Mathieu (75 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 2.0 SK, 4 INT, 12 PD), have made a wealth of difference, bringing speed and athleticism to a unit that had sorely lacked it in 2018, while also adding a heavy dose of ruthlessness in the process. In last weekend’s entertaining 51-31 victory over the Houston Texans in the Division Round of the Playoffs, the hosts weathered an early storm to completely nullify the visiting side in the Second Quarter and long stretches of the Second Half. The Chiefs held them scoreless on all but one of their final Eight Drives of the game, stopping the Texans on Fourth Down on four occasions. The Defense amassed Five Sacks, three which came courtesy of Clark, while limiting a team that had previously rushed for 192 Yards against them to a much more palatable Ninety-Four Yards on Twenty-One Carries. However, as we’ll get into shortly, this particular contest was notable not because of the play of the Defense, but the exploits of the other two phases of the game…
If you happened to miss Sunday’s affair at Arrowhead, you missed out on a wild affair, ladies and gentlemen, for this one was really one of the most entertaining games in recent memory. Houston, who bested Kansas City 31-24 back in Mid-October opened up their account with Twenty-Four Unanswered Points, driving Seventy-Five Yards downfield to take an early 7-0 lead, followed by a Blocked Punt which was promptly returned for a Touchdown, and would add another Seven Points to the scoreboard before kicking a 31-Yard Field Goal to take a commanding 24-0 advantage just under four minutes into the Second Quarter. While most teams would roll over and simply die under these circumstances, the Chiefs proved to be a different breed altogether, running off a ridiculous FORTY-ONE Unanswered Points of their own, as they exploded for Four Touchdowns in the Second Quarter, which is remarkably the second time that they’ve managed that feat this season. This is were this team is so dangerous, as reigning MVP Quarterback, Patrick Mahomes (65.9%, 4,031 YDS, 7.79 NY/A, 26 TD, 5 INT, 78.0 QBR), reminded us all as to why he’s a truly special talent, throwing for 121 Yards and all four scores, three of which went to All-Pro Tight End, Travis Kelce (97 REC, 1,229 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 5 TD), who would prove to be a bonafide mismatch for the Texans’ beleaguered Secondary throughout the day. The most insane thing about this stretch is how quickly that Kansas City managed to manufacture so many points; yes they were aided by some huge plays on Special Teams, such as Pro-Bowl Rookie, Mecole Hardman (26 REC, 538 YDS, 20.7 Y/R, 6 TD), returning a Kickoff for Fifty-Eight Yards to set up their first score, while a opportunistic Darwin Thompson recovered a Fumble on the Kickoff Return immediately following their second score, setting up their third from the visitor’s 6-Yard Line, but all in all, they needed just Eighteen Plays to score Twenty-Four Points. In fact, on the day Reid’s charges had Five Drives traveling Forty-Two Yards or more, and three of them required Four Plays or fewer to breach the End Zone. The hosts continued to pour it on the AFC South Champions, scoring two more Touchdowns to open the second Half, at which point their opponent was utterly shell-shocked. In the end, the onslaught netted Fifty-One Points on 434 Total Yards and Twenty-Nine First Downs, despite only possessing the football for a scant 25:25, completely flipping the script after the Texans defeated them largely by controlling the clock (39:48) in their previous meeting. Mahomes was legendary with 321 Yards and Five Touchdowns on 23-of-35 Passing, while Kelce hauled in Ten Receptions on Twelve Targets for 134 Yards and three scores, with Tailback, Damien Williams (111 CAR, 498 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 5 TD), rushing for Forty-Seven Yards and a pair of Touchdowns and reeling in another score on Two Receptions for Twenty-One Yards. Now all that is standing between them and their first trip to the Super Bowl since hoisting their one and only Lombardi Trophy back in 1969 is the Titans, who shocked them in an eventful contest back in early November. In a game that featured six lead changes, Tennessee overcame a 20-29 Fourth Quarter Deficit, which featured the hosts taking a 35-32 lead with just twenty-nine seconds left in the affair, as Ryan Tannehill found Adam Humphries Twenty-Three Yards down the deep middle of the field for a Touchdown, followed by the veteran Quarterback diving into the End Zone for the Two-Point Conversion. The Chiefs would progress in short order to Tennessee’s 34-Yard Line where they would attempt a 52-Yard Field Goal, only for it to be blocked by Joshua Kalu to seal the upset. For all intents and purposes, Kansas City dominated the game, totaling a whopping 530 Yards of Offense and Twenty-Eight First Downs, while possessing the football for 37:52, but were trampled on the ground where they yielded 225 Yards, 188 of which came courtesy of Derrick Henry. Mahomes was as prolific as ever, completing 36-of-50 Passes for a staggering 446 Yards and Three Touchdowns, with Pro-Bowl Receiver, Tyreek Hill (58 REC, 860 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 7 TD), catching Eleven Passes on Nineteen Targets for 157 Yards and a Touchdown.