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The Titans weren’t supposed to be here.
That’s the story most people, likely including the Titans themselves, will tell you. They weren’t supposed to take down the mighty New England Patriots on Wild Card Weekend, and if they managed to pull off the upset, they definitely weren’t supposed to take down the powerhouse Ravens in Baltimore.
They’ve accomplished both tasks, though, and they’re off to Kansas City for their third-straight road game and a chance to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1999 season.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, were supposed to be here.
Look no further than last week’s seven-straight-touchdown performance for a reason. Kansas City is as explosive as they come, and with the reigning MVP at quarterback, they’ve been considered a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl for over a calendar year.
After falling short last season, they’re faced with another opportunity to right 2018’s wrong and reach the game’s biggest stage.
When they met during the regular season, it was a tale of two vastly different squads. The Chiefs arrived in Nashville sporting a 6-3 record earned while surviving a frightening knee injury to quarterback Patrick Mahomes, while the Titans took the field looking very much like a forgettable, middle-of-the-pack AFC South team destined for a near-.500 finish and January vacations — not playoff games.
The football world was surprised by the Sunday afternoon outcome, a shootout of sorts along the Cumberland River. Mahomes lit up Tennessee’s defense to the tune of 446 yards and three touchdowns, but it was a late rally by Ryan Tannehill‘s Titans and a blocked Harrison Butker field goal attempt that propelled Tennessee to the upset win.
At the time, most likely considered the result a fluke, perhaps a product of the Chiefs reaching Week 10 without their focus fully on the game. After all, a meeting with the division rival Chargers awaited them in Week 11 before their Week 12 bye.
We all know better now. Derrick Henry‘s 188-yard, two-touchdown performance was no fluke, but an indicator of things to come for these upstart Titans, who rode their new momentum to four wins in their final six games and the final wild-card berth.
Revenge is certainly on the menu for the Chiefs, who want to exact it for their regular-season loss, as well as their overtime defeat suffered at the hands of the since-eliminated Patriots back in 2018. And for the Titans, there’s nothing else to prove but how wrong doubters continue to be.
Titans secondary: The
Titans don’t exactly blanket opposing receivers, allowing the second-highest open-target percentage (48.7) and average target separation (3.6 yards) in the NFL this season, per Next Gen Stats. They’ve played tighter coverage in the postseason, improving to 40.6 percent in open-target percentage, partially as a result of man coverage, which generally produces tighter throwing windows and less target separation.
Why does this matter? Because of their opponent, and because of what Tyreek Hill said this week.
“I feel like nobody in the NFL can guard any of us, and that’s no disrespect to nobody,” Hill said Wednesday. “That’s just the confidence that I got in myself and the wideouts I’ve got around me, including the tight ends and the running backs. I feel like no DB unit, no secondary unit, no linebacker, any defense can guard any of us. So man-to-man is just easy for us to beat. If you just allow us to run through zones, it’s even easier.”
The Next Gen Stats bear out what Hill is claiming. Mahomes leads the NFL in average target separation (3.8 yards) and open throw percentage (targets to receivers with 3-plus yards of separation) at 51.8 percent, tossing 15 touchdowns and posting a 123.1 passer rating on such attempts.
When considering these numbers, one might see the solution as obvious: rely on man coverage. Tennessee used man coverage at the 10th-highest rate in the NFL this season, producing an average target separation of 2.3 yards and open throw percentage of 29.5. This should keep things tighter in the secondary, right?
Mahomes averages an open throw per target, as illustrated above, and that includes when facing statistically tighter man coverage. The quarterback averages 3.1 yards of target separation (0.3 more yards than any other NFL QB) and an open throw percentage of 42.2 when facing man coverage, both the highest in the league. Statistically, man coverage doesn’t fare much better against Mahomes.
It’s on the Titans, then, to step up their coverage to better match their 18-game man coverage numbers against a team that routinely shatters them. Tennessee will have to take it upon itself to prove Hill wrong, or else suffer a fate similar to that of the other AFC contenders unfortunate to find themselves pitted against the Chiefs.
Chiefs front seven: Why? Henry. We won’t end it there (even if we could), but the advanced numbers support this pressure-packed challenge. Henry is effective in part because of his rare combination of size, power and speed. The hulking, 247-pound running back has reached 20-plus miles per hour on six plays this season, tied for second-most in the NFL. Only one running back within 15 pounds of Henry has posted a higher max speed than Henry’s 21.27 mph: Giants tailback Saquon Barkley.
Tennessee isn’t afraid to feed King Henry, rushing champion of the NFL. These Chiefs have a physical freak to attempt to tackle likely 25-35 times Sunday.
While it will be on Kansas City’s defensive front to plug gaps, it’ll be even more important for Chiefs linebackers to tackle effectively. Henry excels outside the tackles, averaging 6 yards per rush and racking up 1,330 yards (both first in the NFL), scoring 10 touchdowns and gaining 10-plus yards on 17.9 percent of such attempts. He has more rushing yards after contact (1,567) than any other player has total rushing yards this season, per Pro Football Focus. Henry is also the only player with 100-plus rushes to average 4-plus yards after contact per rush (4.3) in 2019. He’s also forced 70 missed tackles in 2019, including the playoffs.
Simply: Stopping Henry is unlike any other ground-based task. We’ll see if the Chiefs are up to the challenge.
Matchup to Watch
Titans interior OL vs. Chris Jones: Rodger Saffold has unsurprisingly been an excellent addition to Tennessee’s interior line, and rookie guard Nate Davis has played well, too. With no discredit to Henry’s ability, thanks to these additions, it shouldn’t be all that surprising Henry has had this type of season. They’d be facing a great challenge this week in the form of Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones — if he were fully healthy.
Jones is not healthy, though, missing the Divisional Round win over Baltimore due to a calf issue. Jones hasn’t participated in practice through Thursday, but is still hoping to go Sunday in the Chiefs‘ most important game of the season.
Kansas City ranked 26th in the NFL against the run and gave up 188 yards and two scores to Henry in their Week 10 meeting. Jones played in 13 of those regular-season contests, which saw the Chiefs improve from their sieve-like defense of 2018 but still trail the league leaders on that side of the ball by a significant margin.
Without Jones, the Chiefs are walking into a 30-plus-carry outing from Henry with a gaudy rushing total. That is, unless Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme finds a way to limit the runner. The onus shifts onto the front seven to stop Henry and force the Titans to turn to Ryan Tannehill to throw them to an AFC crown. He did pretty well in their regular-season meeting, but that was Week 10. That doesn’t match the pressure Sunday will bring.
Derrick Henry gets his fair share yet again, but the Titans can’t stop the Chiefs‘ offense enough to be able to rely on the running game. Ryan Tannehill plays admirably, but ultimately Kansas City is too much to overcome. The Chiefs matriculate the ball down the field and earn their first Super Bowl berth since the days of Hank Stram.
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