The stage for Week 20 is officially set. The Tennessee Titans take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the first of two conference championship games.
This is the second ever AFC/AFL Championship game hosted by the Chiefs, the first of which happened just last year in a devastating OT loss to the Patriots. The Chiefs and the Titans both had to fight hard to get to the game that will determine the first AFC quarterback since the 2002 season not named Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, or Flacco to go to the Super Bowl.
The Titans undoubtedly had the toughest road of any remaining team to get to their respective conference championship. Coming into the season, there was not much respect around the NFL for Tennessee.
Taylor Lewan, their starting offensive tackle and the second-highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history (In terms of Average Annual Value), was hit with a 4-game suspension for testing positive for PEDs. “Experts” such as NFL Network TV personality Adam Rank predicted the Titans to finish 3-13. Rank also infamously picked the 49ers to have a 3-13 record this season.
Things were trending negatively at the start of the year when the Titans opened the season with a 2-4 record. But after benching quarterback Marcus Mariota in a loss to the Broncos, they would make the switch to Ryan Tannehill, whom they acquired for essentially a fourth round pick.
Tannehill would go on to post a 7-3 record as the starter while leading the league in passer rating and yards per attempt. He was also third in the league in completion percentage and posted career highs in TD-Int ratio as well as all categories formerly mentioned. The Titans finished the season 9-7 for the fourth straight year.
Another, possibly more important factor was the emergence of Derrick Henry in his contract year. Through the first 8 games, Henry was sitting at a mere 581 rushing yards and averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt. To finish the season, Henry exploded for 959 yards in just 7 games (Henry was inactive week 16 against the Saints) and averaged 6.3 yards per attempt on his way to winning the rushing title.
The Titans were 6-0 in regular season games when Henry rushed for over 100 yards. The former Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama is set to earn a payday as an impending unrestricted free agent.
In the playoffs, Tennessee had to slay the defending Super Bowl champions as well as the team with the best record in the NFL to be one game away from their first Super Bowl appearance in 20 years.
In the Wild Card round, they traveled to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots. Tennessee’s defense held the Patriots to 307 yards and 13 points, even scoreng on a pick-six while Derrick Henry ran wild for 182 yards and a touchdown.
Despite a solid win on the road, they were still counted out against the 14-2 Ravens and soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson. Despite allowing 530 total yards and 29 first downs, the Titans defense again stepped up, forcing 3 turnovers and holding the NFL’s number one scoring offense to just 12 points.
Ryan Tannehill joined Terry Bradshaw in being the only players to win two consecutive playoff games with at least one touchdown and less than 100 yards in each game. Derrick Henry also became the first player to rush for 180+ yards in two consecutive postseason contests.
On the other side of the trenches is the Kansas City Chiefs. After opening the season with 8-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, second behind the Patriots, Kansas City cruised to a 4-0 start to open the season. The Chiefs fell to 5-3 after reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes suffered ankle and knee injuries.
After Mahomes returned, the Chiefs were sitting at 6-3 and still had strong playoff aspirations with little competition for the AFC West title. But a 35-32 loss to the Titans, in which the Titans blocked two field goals, including the possible game-tying one, they fell to 6-4 and only led the Raiders by ½ a game for the division crown.
Over the 6-game stretch to close out the season the Chiefs averaged 27.8 points per game and held opponents to just 11.5 points per game. A decisive 40-9 week 13 win over the Raiders gave Kansas City a 2-game division lead and the Chiefs never looked back as they finished 12-4.
However, the main headline out of Kansas City isn’t about the defense that has stepped up this year under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, or the offense nicknamed the Legion of Zoom due to the countless amount of speedsters at skill positions.
The big story is about Andy Reid and the Chiefs possibly returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years. Since his head coaching career started in 1999, Reid is an abysmal 1-8 when facing the Titans.
The man known as Big Red will coach his sixth conference championship game on Sunday, but he is just 1-4 in such games and 0-1 with the Chiefs. A second appearance in the Super Bowl and a Super Bowl win would cement Reid’s status as a Hall of Fame coach.
Chiefs fans have undoubtedly been deprived of success for many years. In the pre-Patrick Mahomes era, Kansas City made it to just one AFC Championship (In the 1993 season) and won their first and only Super Bowl ring when well over half of the US population wasn’t alive, before the AFL and NFL had merged.
They will certainly be looking to avenge a devastating loss to the Titans in the Wild Card round two years ago, in which Kansas City blew a 21-3 lead at home and got ran over by Derrick Henry. That game was Alex Smith’s final start as a Chief.
As you have most likely heard by now, the Chiefs had no easy path to defeat the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional. The Texans’ win probability peaked at 93.9% before kicking a field goal to go up 24-0. Then a long kick return by second-team All-Pro returner Mecole Hardman gave some momentum to the Chiefs and the rest is history.
They vanquished their 24-point deficit in less than 10 minutes of the game and went on to win 51-31 after scoring 41 unanswered, and became the first team to win a playoff game by 20 points after trailing by 20 points.
Despite the Titans’ giant-slaying Cinderella run, I find it hard to envision a scenario in which the Chiefs don’t score 30 or more points and win. If the Titans can get Derrick Henry going against the 26th ranked run defense, they will have a chance to compete, but Ryan Tannehill will undoubtedly be forced to throw the ball at least twenty times as Kansas City will likely stack the box to take away the threat of Henry.
The Titans defense will have trouble covering all of the Chiefs’ offensive weapons and will come out in lots of nickel and dime packages. KC wins 37-26 after leading for most of the game, but the Titans make it interesting down the stretch.