(CBS Denver/CBS Local) — The Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs exited last week’s action as surprise winners, albeit for different reasons. The underdog Titans contained Lamar Jackson and the heavily favored Baltimore Ravens enough to advance, while the electrifying Chiefs overcame a 24-point first-half deficit to route the Houston Texans. The six and two seeds will face off in Kansas City for the AFC Championship, with a trip to Miami and Super Bowl LIV on the line.
The Titans were 10-point underdogs to the already-anointed Baltimore Ravens in their divisional matchup. Their surprising run was supposed to come to an unceremonious end at the feet of likely NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. And while Jackson did what Jackson does — pile up 143 rushing yards on 20 carries and 365 passing yards on 31-59 attempts — the Ravens struggled to convert that production into points. They found the end zone once late but otherwise settled for two first-half field goals. The atypically inefficient Ravens ended multiple drives on downs or with turnovers.
Some credit goes to a Titans defense that limited the Ravens’ trio of talented tight ends, favorite targets of Jackson. More credit goes to Derrick Henry, who rumbled for 195 rushing yards in his third straight 180-plus-yard game. Henry averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry on 30 attempts against a stout Ravens defensive line that knew what was coming and couldn’t do anything about it. As NFL On CBS analyst Jay Feely notes, “with Derrick Henry, you have a guy that’s almost 6’5″ 250 pounds, runs a 4.4 40 but has lateral quickness and the ability and explosiveness when he makes that lateral move, that’s really tough to stop.”
Ryan Tannehill completed only seven of his 14 passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns, as the Titans won, 28-12.
The Titans’ offensive approach couldn’t differ more from the Chiefs’, which relies on Patrick Mahomes’ play-making ability in the passing game. Their divisional-round win over the Texans may have been the most startling display yet of what this offense can do. After sleepwalking through the first quarter and finding themselves down by 24 points early in the second quarter, Mahomes and company woke up. They reeled off seven touchdowns on their next seven possessions. Five of those came from the arm of Mahomes, who tallied 321 yards through the air and 53 more on the ground. Damien Williams ran for the other two. While Deshaun Watson punched in a Texans touchdown late in the third quarter, it wouldn’t be enough to matter. The Chiefs rolled to a 51-31 win.
Forgotten about in the Chiefs’ exciting win, however, was a defense that still struggles at times. During the regular season, it climbed into the top 10 against the pass, allowing 6.7 yards per catch and 221.4 yards per game. They should be able to limit the Titans’ Tannehill, who doesn’t pose the same threat as the Texans’ Watson.
However, Tannehill isn’t the focus of the Titans’ offense, Henry is. And the monstrous 247-pound back, who led the NFL in rushing yards this season with 1,540 yards, is another story. He may be in for another big day against one of the NFL’s worst run-stopping units, which gave up 4.9 yards per carry and 128.2 yards per game this season. The last time these teams met — a 35-32 Titans win in Week 10 of the regular season — Henry pounded them for 188 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
In that game, the last time the Chiefs lost, Mahomes threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns while coming off a dislocated kneecap. The Titans defense probably won’t have an easier time with him this time around either. The NFL Today and Inside The NFL analyst Phil Simms called him “best quarterback in football,” and he’s showed it much of the season, piling up 26 touchdown passes against just five interceptions, while averaging 287.9 yards passing per game and 8.3 yards per pass play. All of those stats put him among the league’s best.
Mahomes has a full arsenal of weapons available to him in the passing game. The speedy Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins remain healthy (both missed time earlier in the season) and producing. Travis Kelce, who led all tight ends with 97 receptions during the regular season, fought through hamstring problems against the Texans and still hauled in 10 catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns.
“There are so many weapons [on the Chiefs offense],” Feely points out. “They get those crossers going, and if you play man-to-man, they’re going to exploit Travis Kelce. If you play zone, they have the speed to run through the zones, and Patrick Mahomes has the arm strength to be able to zip it in there before you can adjust when you’re playing zone. That is the quandary that any defense is in going up against this Chiefs team. And, there’s really not a lot of answers.”
How the Titans pass defense accounts for all these receivers will help determine the game. The bottom-10 unit doesn’t have a great track record to date, giving up 255 yards passing per game in the regular season and more in the playoffs (though admittedly against two of the NFL’s better passing offenses). But even some of the better defenses have struggled against the Chiefs at times. “There are not a lot of things where you can say, ‘okay, here’s what you should do against that offense.'” Feely points out. “It’s really hope to make turnovers, hope to slow them down, hope to not give up the big play and make them beat you methodically down the field.
Then again, the best defense of all may be to just keep Mahomes and his receivers off the field entirely. That means running the ball and controlling the clock. Who better to employ in this capacity than Derrick Henry? This is essentially their strategy already; the Titans handed the ball to Henry 30 times against the Ravens, 34 times against the New England Patriots in their Wild Card game and 32 times against the Texans in Week 17. According to Feely, “if you’re Tennessee, you’re hoping to possess the ball and not allow that offense of the Chiefs on the field as much as possible.”
While the Titans ultimately only won the time-of-possession battle against the Patriots, they did win all of the games. At the very least, a run-heavy approach, if the Titans continue to move the ball and pick up first downs, will limit opportunities for the Chiefs offense to do damage.
The Titans play the Chiefs Sunday @ 3:05 ET on CBS.