AFC Championship Game: Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs
After 19 weeks of football the opportunity to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl comes down to the final two teams. The Tennessee Titans have upset the odds to beat the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs recovered from a 24-point deficit last week. In a weird twist of fate this game should have been played in the first round of the playoffs had it of not been for Ryan Fitzpatrick producing miracles in Foxborough in Week 17. Instead these two teams face off in the AFC Championship game with a trip to Super Bowl LIV the prize for the winner.
Sunday 19th January. 20:05 (GMT)
The Bruising Offense
Before we go into the specifics of this match-up, a word on Titans GM Jon Robinson, three years ago he saw the trend of teams getting smaller and faster on defense, linebackers were valued more for their sideline-to-sideline speed rather than their build and more safeties were playing as cerebral centre-fielders than hard-hitting tacklers in the box. Robinson saw this trend and the Titans team-building did a proverbial U-turn and they decided to build a big, powerful bully, and it is certainly paying dividends.
Drafting Jack Conklin to pair with Taylor Lewan gave them two bruising tackles, they used free agency to supplement the interior of their line and that has set up Derrick Henry for the success he’s having. In a league flush with small but fast linebackers and safeties, Henry looks like a man amongst boys. Still, even if you do sit in a heavier 3-4 base front, Henry leads the league in yards after contact so short of getting ‘every man to the ball’, good luck slowing down the Titans running game.
The Titans beat the Chiefs in Week 10, with Henry leading the way, and that will be the Titans formula once again. Kansas City are better defensively than when these two teams last met, but the numbers still aren’t in the Chiefs favour. They’re the 26th ranked rushing defense in the NFL and the Titans pride themselves on establishing the run, bullying opposing front sevens and using sheer force to dominate short-yardage situations on both sides of the ball (they were 4/4 in stopping the Ravens on Fourth Down last week).
A Different Challenge Awaits the Defense
In the post-season, the Titans defense has forced both the Patriots and the Ravens away from their usual style-of-play. The Ravens couldn’t run the ball efficiently with Ingram and Edwards, and they bottled up the rest of Baltimore’s ground game enough that Lamar Jackson was forced to throw the ball more than he usually would and a couple of mistakes and errant throws allowed Tennessee to force turnovers and control the pace of the game.
This week, they need to slow-down a Chiefs offense that had an unstoppable succession of scoring drives against the Texans last week. Short of tying Patrick Mahomes’ hands behind his back, the Titans defense will have to be mindful of two key areas. Tennessee struggles against tight ends, they performed well against Mark Andrews and co. last week, but ranking 26th in yards allowed to TEs over the course of the season, they now need to shut-down Travis Kelce. It’s no secret that the Titans like to stay in a base defense where they can, which would leave Kelce matched up against a linebacker. If Tennessee wants to takeaway one of Mahomes’ favourite targets, look for one of the Titans safeties to offer support.
That brings us to our second key to victory for this Tennessee defense. If you are schematically able to take Kelce away, you will leave areas to exploit elsewhere. Andy Reid might just be the best in-game offensive mind in the NFL right now, give him two drives to understand what you’re doing defensively, and he’ll adjust then likely torch you for multiple TD drives in a row. If he sees how you are taking away Kelce, he’ll look for where the space is being left open and Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman will exploit it.
This Titans secondary gave up over 440 yards to Mahomes in Week 10, 157 of those went to Hill. If this defense has a weakness, it is in matching up to explosive receivers, Marquise Brown impressed against them last week and now they face a passing attack with multiple deep-threats and speed across the entire receiving core. Be it luck or incredible individual plays, the Titans secondary will need to force turnovers again to keep the scoreboard respectable and allow them to play their brand of ‘bully-ball’.
Kansas City Chiefs
Keep it Rolling on Offense
Take a lead, build that lead, hold that lead. Simple right? As mentioned in last week’s preview, if Kansas City can get you into a shootout and force you to go toe-to-toe with their dynamic offence, you’re in trouble. Once Reid and Mahomes adjusted and got into a rhythm last week, the Chiefs scored so many Touchdowns that Arrowhead Stadium ran out of fireworks…
This offense comes into this game with so much momentum and despite losing to the Titans a few months ago, the offense wasn’t an issue, so they have no reason not to be confident about their chances of another high-scoring performance. Even in victory last week, the Titans defense gave up over 500 yards of total offence. The one area of note offensively is the Titans have the 8th best defense in the league on third and fourth down, so to avoid having to ask Mahomes to make too many magical throws, the Chiefs need to stay ahead of the chains. With all that being said, for me, the Chiefs’ keys to victory lie on the other side of the ball…
Standing Strong Against the Run Game
As I mentioned last week, their defense is improving and Tyrann Mathieu is on a fantastic run of form, playing some of the best football of his pro career. It’s the run defense that remains the issue. Chris Jones is ‘day-to-day’ with his injury and he is such a huge presence (literally 6ft5, 310 lbs) on that defensive line. If Jones is healthy and available to play, he will be the Chiefs lead line of defense against the bullies on the Titans offensive line. Jones, alongside Frank Clark, also offers a pass-rush threat, so when they can force the Titans into third-and-long, the Chiefs (who racked up 45 sacks this year, 11th best in the league) should be able to pressure Ryan Tannehill, While the Titans OL may be dominant in the run-game, just two teams allowed more sacks than them this year.
The Titans aren’t just run, run, run. They offer a legitimate threat with the deep-ball. The metrics here suggest the Chiefs have a shot to shut this down. They were tied for 8th in the league at defending 20+ yard throws, and in the top-five when it comes to QB rating allowed.
All of the above leads me to repeat exactly what I said last week, just replace Texans for Titans and look forward to another fun match-up: “the Chiefs should have the upper-hand and will be able to force the Texans Titans to move away from their run-heavy game-plan and potentially drag them into a shootout. If it becomes a high-scoring affair with each team trading touchdowns, I’d favour the Chiefs to win-out in the end but I’d expect it to be appointment television for the neutral.”
DESPITE BEING AN NFL FAN FOR 10 YEARS, YET TO FALL IN LOVE WITH ONE PARTICULAR TEAM, APPLICATIONS REMAIN OPEN… SUCKER FOR A SAFETY, SO NATURALLY PARTIAL TO TYRANN MATHIEU, DERWIN JAMES AND JAMAL ADAMS.
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Image credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports, Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports