8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Chiefs -12.5, Over/Under: 46.5
Week Nine reaches its penultimate matchup with what has certainly become a familiar one, as the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs once again cross paths, this time from GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. After sitting atop the AFC South in each of the previous two campaigns, there was a sense of pessimism in the Titans (5-2, 1st in AFC South) obtaining a third consecutive division crown, which was only magnified following their disappointing 0-2 start. Indeed, there were plenty of things working against Tennessee coming into this season, what with the club parting ways with a number of playmakers, most notably (Pro-Bowl Receiver) A.J. Brown, and selecting the eventual replacements for the aging tandem of Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill in last Spring’s NFL Draft. And it’s with that said that they came out of the opening gates slower than the rest, with a mistake-prone Offense paired with a Defense that was shipping big plays through the air and on the ground; (Head Coach) Mike Vrabel’s troops shipped 238 rushing yards to the Giants in the season opener (20-21), before getting torched for 401 total yards and racking up four turnovers at the Bills (7-41). However, while it would have been too easy to hit the panic button, Vrabel & Co just stayed the course, and have thus been rewarded for their patience, winning five consecutive games and racing out to a two-game lead in the division at the midway point of the campaign. So, what has changed for the Titans, you ask? Well, it’s certainly helped that they’ve gotten back to doing what they do best, which is RUNNING THE FOOTBALL. After churning out just 86.5 yards per game over the first two outings, they’ve improved considerably in this regard, trampling the opposition to the tune of 158.6 yards per game, with that number reaching 226.0 yards on 5.7 yards per carry in their two games since enjoying an early bye three weeks ago. Of course, pounding the rock with such success helps alleviate turnovers, with Tennessee committing just four during this win streak, which when coupled with the nine that they’ve forced on Defense parlays into a healthy plus-five differential. As you all can imagine, Henry has played no small role in the proceedings, rushing for 129.6 yards on 4.9 yards per carry during this stretch, including a staggering 219 against the Texans in last weekend’s 17-10 victory. Now, there are guys who enjoy seeing a particular opponent, and then there is King Henry (pictured below), who has absolutely ANNIHILATED Houston of late, who has erupted for at least 200 yards in four consecutive meetings with his division rival. There was talk of the two-time NFL Rushing Champion slowing down as he nears that dreaded 30-year threshold, but anyone who has watched him run over the last six weeks will tell you that he hasn’t lost his trademark explosion or physicality, which makes this team far more dangerous than what we saw back in early September. His presence also affords Vrabel the luxury of sitting Tannehill for a few weeks, with an ailing ankle providing (Rookie Quarterback) Malik Willis with an opportunity to show the franchise what he’s capable of. Selected eighty-sixth overall last April, Willis was viewed as a curious prospect coming out of Liberty, but really captured the attention of scouts back at the Senior Bowl and throughout the league’s annual Scouting Combine. Sporting a big arm and solid mobility, there were many similarities between Willis and Tannehill, with the former expected to benefit from his time serving largely as an understudy this season. However, the 23-year-old received his first start in that encounter with the Texans, and performed how you would have expected him to, completing 6-of-10 passes for just fifty-five yards and an interception, while rushing for another twelve yards on five carries with three sacks.
When we last saw the Titans, handled the Texans with relative ease in that 17-10 win that wasn’t as close as the final score would lead you to believe. Apart from a 90-yard touchdown drive inside of the final four minutes of play, the hosts marshalled a mere three points, seventy-one total yards, seven first downs, and 0-of-12 on third down in what can only be described as a very forgettable afternoon. On the flipside, Tennessee stormed into their old stomping grounds of South Texas with the gameplan that you would have imagined them to, conservatively keeping things grounded with a rookie Quarterback making the first start of his career. As such, the visitors totaled 354 yards with all but forty yards coming via the run, which allowed them to dominate time of possession for a commanding 34:48 of game time. Henry poured in that aforementioned 219 yards, while also making a bit of history along the way, passing Eddie George for the franchise record in rushing touchdowns (99). (Backup Tailback) Dontrell Hilliard made an impact too, with eighty-three yards and a touchdown of his own on just eight carries. Defensively, (young Cornerback) Kristian Fulton picked off Davis Mills on the home side’s first possession of the game, while Bud Dupree, Jeffery Simmons, and DeMarcus Walker each logged a sack of the Sophomore Quarterback. Moving on to tonight’s matchup with the Chiefs, this will mark their fifth meeting in as many years, with the Titans winning each of the previous three regular season encounters, covering each as an underdog. With that said, the lone loss was the biggest, a 35-24 defeat at Arrowhead in the 2020 AFC Championship Game. Traditionally, Tennessee has matched up well with Kansas City simply because of their ability to control the game via the ground game spearheaded by Henry, which has coincidentally created the blueprint for beating the high-powered Chiefs. Over the course of his career, Henry has faced off against them three times in the regular season, churning out 110.7 yards per game and four touchdowns, and in a pair of postseason battles has added another 229 yards and two scores. As a team, Vrabel’s troops are 7-3 straight-up and 6-4 against the spread in their last ten games away from home, and 7-3 in their last ten outings as an underdog. Furthermore, they’ve covered seven of their last ten matchups with Kansas City, including five of their last eight as an underdog in this series. With that said, something has to give as the Titans have covered five straight games against the spread but have failed to do so in each of their last five in which they’re branded as underdogs of more than 10.5 points, which is the case here. On the injury front, it remains to be seen if we’ll see Willis in this one, as Tannehill is listed as day-to-day with that aforementioned ankle, while (Defensive Back) Amani Hooker and (Edge-Rusher) Rashad Weaver are also in the same boat with various bumps and bruises.
Meanwhile, though their respective division was forecasted to be arguably the toughest in NFL history, the Chiefs (5-2, 1st in AFC West) are once again proving to be the class of the AFC West, as fears of regression following an offseason full of turnover has amounted to much ado about nothing. Indeed, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same for Kansas City, who are looking to secure their SEVENTH consecutive division crown, and their first since parting ways with the NFL’s premier vertical threat, (All-Pro Receiver) Tyreek Hill. Indeed, the Cheetah has been balling out down on South Beach, but (All-Pro Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes & Co have been as formidable as ever without him. (Head Coach) Andy Reid’s troops have been the highest-scoring side through seven games (31.9), while ranking second overall in total offense (415.7), with 308.4 of that figure coming through the air (2nd Overall). Furthermore, no team has been better on third down (51.9%) or within the red zone (76.7%). Mahomes (pictured below) has adapted well enough, sharing the wealth with six different players logging at least ten receptions, bringing a balance and unpredictability to the passing game that has been perhaps missing in the past, when defenses knew that their first priority was game planning against Hill. Still just 27-years old, Mahomes is operating with an efficiency reminiscent of his MVP campaign of 2018, leading the league with TWENTY passing touchdowns opposed to just five interceptions, sporting a touchdown percentage of 7.6%, which is his highest since that magical season. Of course, it’s not as if there’s a dearth of talent around him, for Reid and (General Manager) Brett Veach have done a great job of filling the void left by Hill with capable targets; Marquez Valdes-Scantling is growing into that vacant vertical role within the Offense, while JuJu Smith-Schuster has really come on in the last two games, reeling in 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns on twelve catches. Oh, and having (All-Pro Tight End) Travis Kelce hasn’t hurt their prospects either, with the 33-year-old hauling in a league-high seven touchdown receptions, while pacing the team in catches (47) and yards (553) despite opponents focusing on him more than ever. With that said, as impressive as the attack has looked throughout the first seven games, the Defense has been a different story altogether, particularly of late; on the season, the Chiefs are yielding 24.6 points per game (23rd Overall) on 369.0 total yards (26th Overall), including a whopping 277.0 through the air (30th Overall). Indeed, no team has defended the pass more frequently than them, ranking last in the NFL in passes attempted against (41.5) and touchdowns relinquished through the air (17). Furthermore, they’ve forced just eight turnovers (three of which came last week), and they’ve had a hard time getting off the field on third down (41.1%), while capitulating far too often within the red zone (68.0%). Granted, part of that is due to Mahomes & Co jumping out to sizable early leads, but it shouldn’t be overlooked how (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s outfit has struggled thus far. Over the last three games, they’ve allowed 25.3 points on a shocking 421.7 total yards, with each of their last two opponents hitting them up for over 440 yards of offense, including 300+ via the pass. We’ll be interested to see if this Defense doesn’t start picking it up here soon, for during his stint in Kansas City, Spagnuolo’s units typically grow throughout the course of the season, which was certainly the case last year and when they last tasted Super Bowl glory back in 2019.
When we last saw the Chiefs, they traveled westward to Santa Clara for a Super Bowl LIV rematch with the 49ers, which apart from all the hype, turned into what appeared to be a relatively comfortable 44-23 victory for the visitors at Levi’s Stadium. This affair served as a microcosm of their season thus far, with the Offense tormenting their opponent with 529 total yards on twenty-four first downs, despite possessing the football for a mere 26:15. Simply put, nobody strikes quicker than Kansas City, who faced just nine third downs on the evening, converting six of them, with Mahomes completing 25-of-34 passes for 423 yards three touchdowns and an interception. The tandem of Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling combined for 235 yards and a score on ten receptions, while Kelce hauled in six catches on eight targets for ninety-eight yards. The Niners did manage to rack up 444 total yards of offense, including 369 through the air, but the difference between the two sides came with the pressure that Spagnuolo’s charges put on Jimmy Garoppolo, who was made to pay for every pass he completed, with five sacks, eight hits, and ten pressures. He was also responsible for two of San Francisco’s three turnovers, as (Rookie Cornerback) Joshua Williams picked him off in the end zone with the Chiefs leading 14-13, while (Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle) Chris Jones strip sacked him late in the fourth quarter, with (veteran Defensive End) Frank Clark also sacked him in the end zone for a safety earlier in that period. Looking to tonight’s encounter with the Titans, Reid’s charges are just 1-4 against the spread in their last five home games, and 2-5 against the spread in their last ten hosting Tennessee. Kansas City has also failed to cover the spread in five consecutive matchups with AFC opponents. With that said, it happens to be that particular time of the year where we get to ride one of the surest things in the sport, which is Andy Reid’s record after a bye week. Simply put, Big Red has been MONEY when his boys get a week off, posting a stellar 20-3 record straight-up (.869) and a 15-8 mark against the spread following the bye (.652), which is the case tonight. As for Mahomes, he is a perfect 4-0 straight-up coming off a bye week, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 251.7 yards with seven touchdowns and a pair of interceptions along with two more rushing scores (though three of those games have coincidentally been against the Raiders). When it comes to the Titans, he is 1-2 in three career meetings completing 65.8% of his attempts for 315.3 yards with six touchdowns opposed to one interception, with another rushing touchdown to boot, which could mean fireworks against the twenty-fourth-ranked pass defense in the league (254.7). On the injury front, this is a relatively healthy team, with (Rookie Cornerback) Trent McDuffie having recently been activated off Injured Reserve with a nagging hamstring, while Clark, whom we referenced earlier, will be suspended until Week Eleven for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Kansas City was also active at Tuesday’s Trade Deadline, acquiring the services of (Sophomore Receiver) Kadarious Toney, who just last year was the twentieth overall pick for the New York Giants. All it cost was third and sixth round picks in next year’s NFL Draft, and it will be interesting to see if Reid can get something out of this kid, who hasn’t seen the field since early in Week Two.