AFC Championship Preview
Had you told others that you were betting on the Titans and the Chiefs to play for the AFC title at the start of the season, you probably would’ve dealt with a swift open palm against your cheek. Well, maybe half of one. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see the Chiefs hosting the AFC title game for the second straight year, the notion that the Titans would be the team that would be playing is nothing short of, well, miraculous. After taking out the third seeded Patriots in the Wild Card round, and essentially embarrassing the top seeded Ravens in the Divisional round, the Titans now get visit the number two seed with a chance to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are all too familiar with the taste of defeat when you’re one game away from the “Ultimate Bowl Game,” and now they have the chance to write over those memories with a trip to Miami.
I could really sum this up with two words, one name: Derrick Henry. Henry is averaging 5.9 yards per rushing attempt this postseason, along with 2 rushing TDs, and even a passing (yes, passing) TD for extra credit. With 188.5 rushing yards per game, Henry is a man who cannot be stopped this postseason. Fun fact on this, as that he’s posted these numbers against defenses who ranked 5th and 6th against the run by the end of the regular season. This is all icing on the cake, considering he now gets to go up against the 26th ranked rush defense that the Chiefs play on the field. Oh, and he’s already torched them this season when he ran for (guess what?!) 188 yards and 2 rushing TDs against the Chiefs back in Nashville during Week 10 of the regular season. The change of scenery shouldn’t matter, and Henry should continue to see a large workload in the conference title game.
The Titans aren’t fully one-dimensional in this aspect either. They know that the Chiefs are going to aim at limiting Henry by stacking the box every time that he’s on the field. This presents man coverage to the Titans WRs, and something that QB Ryan Tannehill and the rest of the team will attempt to exploit. Tannehill threw for 181 yards and 2 TDs back in Week 10, off of 13 completions on 19 attempts. Those numbers aren’t crazy to expect going into this next matchup, though it should also be noted that Tannehill has yet to throw for over 100 yards during the postseason. I’d expect to see him crack it during this matchup, and in all honestly, he will have to, along with at least 2 passing TDs, in order for the Titans to essentially keep pace with the “score at will” style that is the Chiefs’ offense.
In the first quarter of the divisional round matchup against the Texans, Chiefs’ receivers were able to drop four passes that were thrown to them by Mahomes. We’re not talking passes that were behind the receiver, or near the ground either. No, we’re talking passes that were catchable by most definitions. This was a major surprise, as was most of the first quarter, considering that the Chiefs’ receivers only dropped four passes over the last six regular season games. Against the Titans, this is obviously something that can NOT repeat itself. Granted, the Chiefs offense were able to correct these mistakes from the second quarter on.
Remember when I called them a “score at will” style offense? After falling behind to the Texans 24-0 early in the second quarter, the Chiefs then went off for seven straight touchdown drives on offense. Their longest possession during these seven drives lasted three minutes and fifty-five seconds, four of the six ending in scores in under two minutes. QB Patrick Mahomes, who is (arguably) the best QB in the NFL today, has always been capable enough of sustaining drives. He’s well known for being able to pick a zone defense apart to its core, and he showed against the Texans that he can also get the job done with his feet when facing man coverage.
TE Travis Kelce is also key, and word from Coach Andy Reid is that he’s healthier this week than he was prior to the Divisional Round. Even if Kelce can be kept under wraps, WRs Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, and rookie Mercole Hardman, should find some open space against a Titans’ pass defense that ranked 24th at the end of the regular season, and after two playoff games, now sit at 25th. The Chiefs love to utilize the speed aspect of their receivers, matching them up with Mahomes cannon for an arm. Look for the Chiefs’ offense to keep up their “score at will” style this week.
In Week 10, the Titans’ pass defense showed the world what they could do against QB Patrick Mahomes. Interestingly enough, it was a result that most would expect against Mahomes, as he threw for 446 yards and 3 TDs. The Chiefs lack of a true running game has always been apparent, but meaningless in the grand aspect during their games. CBs Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson will be busy all game long and will be challenged against a Chiefs WR core that is built on speed. S Kenny Vaccaro will be essential in keeping the long passes that Mahomes loves to throw, in check, while LBs Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry III could be utilized in multiple blitz packages as they try to keep Mahomes honest.
Over two postseason games, the Titans have managed 4 sacks, and 11.5 tackles for loss. Increasing both of these numbers against this Chiefs’ offense is priority number one. Mahomes is the key for the Chiefs offense and ensuring that he’s pushed out of his comfort zone is a great start to limiting the Chiefs offense. Mahomes finished the regular season with the third lowest aggressiveness percentage in the league for QBs. This indicates that Mahomes prefers to look past tight coverage, playing more into the safer options. Forcing him to make throws that he’s not comfortable with by keeping his read times in the pocket to a minimum will be the main task for this game, and the most difficult task that the Titans’ defense has had thus far in the playoffs.
Well, the Chiefs sport the now 26th ranked rush defense in the NFL, which doesn’t bode well at all for how much damage RB Derrick Henry could put on them. The biggest question at this point will be the status of DT Chris Jones for this game. Listed as questionable for a calf injury that kept him out of the divisional round matchup with the Texans, having Jones help to plug holes along the line of scrimmage will be huge in order to help contain Henry. If Jones does miss this game, then expect Henry’s rushing yards to get near the 180 range yet again.
Not only will Jones’ presence be key, but so will the Chiefs’ ability to keep man coverage on the Titans’ WR as tight as possible. Stacking the box, which is what should be expected by the Chiefs, to limit the run puts pressure on the CBs and the rest of the secondary to limit the WRs abilities to find open space. This has been the case for most teams that the Titans have played against at the end of the regular season, and through the playoffs, and Henry has still found the way to gain the needed yards. At the end of the day, the pressure falls on limiting Ryan Tannehill’s passing attempts, which could end up as the difference for this game.
The 3 Keys to the Game for Each Team
1. Let Derrick Henry be himself. If Chris Jones doesn’t suit up, then run the ball down the throat of the Chiefs defense. Make them have to force you to rely on the passing game.
2. Keep Mahomes busy and limit the easy targets that the Chiefs love to utilize. Mahomes has excelled at finding the mismatch between a receiver and defender over the course of his career and ensuring that he’s limited in doing so is essential.
3. Ryan Tannehill revived his career with the Titans. His ability to make key throws and take some pressure off of Henry is a must. If this turns into nothing but Derrick Henry, then the Titans will be limited in their scoring chances.
1. Holding Henry to under 100 yards is probably unrealistic, but holding him to under 150, while ensuring that he never crosses the goal line, is possible. Let him run up and down the field, just not into the end zone. At the end of the day, the yardage won’t count to your final point total.
2. Keep the Titans defense guessing with offensive packages that find key mismatches with varying personnel.
3. Don’t fall into another hole like you did with the Texans. Coming back from 24-0 makes for great drama, but it’s not a trend that you want to keep up with. Identifying the issues that plagued them in the 1st quarter against the Texans and ensuring that they don’t repeat will be of essence.
The Final Thought:
This run by the Titans has been amazing to watch, and while it’s possible that they find a way to sneak past the Chiefs and into the Super Bowl, it’s just not probable. The Chiefs showed last week that just because you beat them in the regular season, it means nothing in the playoffs. Coach Andy Reid and company know how to adjust as needed, and while they may not keep Henry contained, the Titans’ defense just doesn’t match up with the Chiefs’ offense. The Titans could keep this close, but expect the Chiefs, and owner Clark Hunt, to finally take claim to the trophy that was named after his father, Lamar.
Chiefs 34 – Titans 24