Tennessee Titans (9-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET on ESPN
TITANS AT A GLANCE
Key player: Heading into his third season, it seemed like Marcus Mariota had a predictable floor. We could argue if Mariota was capable of becoming a true star, but he was a steady quarterback. Mariota’s numbers in each of his first two seasons were nearly identical. Then the floor got a lot lower. Mariota’s numbers took a significant drop across the board, but no statistic sums up his struggles more than his touchdown-to-interception ratio: 13 touchdowns, 15 interceptions. Mariota threw 19 interceptions his first two seasons combined. He looked more like a rookie than he did his actual rookie season. The Titans aren’t going to win on the road in the playoffs if Mariota doesn’t turn it around.
Why they’ll win: If there’s a true strength to the Titans, it’s their run defense. They allowed five rushing touchdowns, which led the NFL, and 3.6 yards per carry, which ranked fourth. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard had a fantastic season, finishing 11th in the NFL with 124 tackles. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey also had another strong season. The Titans are good up the middle, and the Chiefs like to run the ball with Kareem Hunt, the 2017 NFL rushing champ. If you’re going to make an argument for the Titans, it’s that they can take away the Chiefs’ strength.
Why they’ll lose: The Titans weren’t very good this season. The Week 17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars was their first quality win in many weeks. They had a frustrating habit of struggling against bad teams and then barely pulling out a win — it’s a team that needed overtime to beat the 0-16 Cleveland Browns. This was supposed to be a team that ran the ball very well and got a few plays from its young quarterback on the rise, and it hasn’t happened that way. Other than run defense, the Titans don’t do anything particularly well.
Keep in mind: Running back DeMarco Murray struggled all season before tearing an MCL. He might not play this week, and the injury might be a blessing because it forces a stubborn coaching staff to feature Derrick Henry. The Titans were supposed to be a good running team, but Murray looked like the heavy career workload caught up to him and the coaches couldn’t figure out they’d be better off diminishing his role. Henry hasn’t been great this season either but he gives the Titans a better shot than Murray would. The Jaguars bottled Henry up in the running game last week, but Henry’s 66-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass was the key play of the game. You can’t rule out Henry having an enormous game, especially against a Chiefs defense that isn’t great against the run. However, if Murray somehow plays, the staff will probably make the wrong decision on who to play.
CHIEFS AT A GLANCE
Key player: Tyreek Hill has the rare ability to make opponents look slow. He has incredible speed, and can turn a game with one play. The Titans do a pretty good job limiting big pass plays — they allowed just seven 40-yard pass plays all season, and only nine teams allowed fewer. The Chiefs rely on Kareem Hunt’s running, Travis Kelce’s unique ability at tight end to move the chains, and then deep shot plays to Hill. Hill’s ability to hit a long play or two could determine if the Chiefs advance.
Why they’ll win: The Chiefs went through a miserable midseason slump, but that appears to be over. They’ve won their last four games (though Week 17 was played mostly with backups). The Chiefs looked like a Super Bowl favorite early in the season, then fell off the radar a bit before a strong finish. When the Chiefs are right, they are a balanced and complete offense that can run the ball and throw it too. Consider that Kareem Hunt won the rushing title and Alex Smith led the NFL with a 104.7 passer rating.
Why they’ll lose: The Chiefs have been accused of being too conservative and risk averse in the Andy Reid-Alex Smith era. That hasn’t always been a fair criticism, but we’re all waiting for it to happen in the playoffs. If the Chiefs turn this into a grind-it-out game, keep in mind that the Titans have a good run defense, and the Chiefs’ run defense ranked dead last in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The Chiefs might need to be dynamic to win this game, and any subsequent games in the playoffs, and that’s not what we expect from them.
Keep in mind: The Chiefs’ playoff history might not factor into Saturday’s result, but it’s tough to ignore. Since a divisional round win on Jan. 16, 1994, with Joe Montana at quarterback against a Buddy Ryan-led Houston Oilers defense in the Astrodome (if you really want to date it), the Chiefs are 1-10 in the playoffs. The lone win came at the Houston Texans two seasons ago. Five of those losses came at Arrowhead Stadium, including last season’s 18-16 disappointment to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Losing at home to John Elway in January of 1998, for example, doesn’t have anything to do with this week. But know that the franchise and its fan base brings a lot of baggage into these playoffs.
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