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Titans, Chiefs Collide With Super Bowl Appearance in Sight

Tennessee shocked Kansas City in Week 10 as Ryan Tannehill began to solidify himself as the Titans' starting QB. Can they duplicate that success on Sunday and ride their playoff momentum to Miami?

On the doorstep of the Super Bowl, there is little teams can do now to change what they do or who they are—especially if said teams have been grinding since the wild-card round like the Tennessee Titans. So, in Sunday’s opening slate (3:05 p.m. ET, Arrowhead Stadium) many of the questions we’ve had about both teams heading into the playoffs still apply.

The Titans won their regular-season matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-32, back on Nov. 10 to even their record at 5-5. At the time, Kansas City was without starting offensive linemen Eric Fisher and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, while Tennessee was without Jurrell Casey and Corey Davis. It was a turning point of sorts for the aggressively middling Titans, who went on to win three more games in a row—a cushion that they utilized to back their way into the playoffs. One could say the same thing about the Chiefs, who have not lost once since that early November game against the Titans.

So, how will this Sunday’s rematch play out? Here’s what we’re wondering ahead of the AFC Championship game:

1. Can the Titans’ offensive line continue its miraculous run, and will a game-time decision made by defensive tackle Chris Jones dramatically affect their game plan?

The Titans like to stretch the field with their running game, which allows a whip-smart Derrick Henry to see the field the way he’s comfortable, power up to full speed before he reaches defenders and keep the defense on its toes, since a lot of their wide-zone plays aren’t targeted at specific gaps. The only problem? Upfield pressure causes issues, and Jones, when healthy, is a force in the backfield against the run. Frank Clark is one of the league’s tackle-for-loss leaders this season, and it’s safe to say Terrell Suggs, if used properly in the right situations, can have an accelerated Dwight-Freeney-Falcons type presence. Will that be enough to plug up an offense that gouged the Chiefs regularly back on Nov. 10, and not just on their designed outside runs?

Henry makes this all difficult, of course, because he doesn’t seem phased by defenses that are specifically stacked to slow him down. Next Gen Stats’ eight-man box percentage shows that Henry faces more “loaded” fronts than just about any running back in football and still manages a remarkable efficiency. I’m not lazy enough to say that the Titans need Henry in order to set up Ryan Tannehill for success—they could probably still win even if Henry had a mediocre game—but Tannehill is a tremendous play-action passer and much of Tennessee’s strength is derived from causing defenses to commit a significant number of bodies toward run fakes, which carves out space for a few of its tremendously athletic pass catchers.

2. What will Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs have learned about Ryan Tannehill since their last matchup?

Having a broader perspective on a player is always good intel. Tannehill was only four games into his tenure as the Titans' starting quarterback in November and has grown far more comfortable in the offense since then. Henry, too, started his historic end-of-season tear around that time, making the Titans look much different than they did back in early November.

I think the biggest factor here might be Tyrann Mathieu, who, when paired with a defensive coordinator like Spagnuolo, is given the ability to play the position in a way that baits quarterbacks into bad throws. Tannehill hasn’t looked like the quarterback of old mostly because of his efficiency and ball control. He has not had a disastrous three-interception game, but he has also not been challenged by a player who can freelance in the secondary and cause him to do so.

3. Can the Chiefs limit Patrick Mahomes’s functional mobility (as well as a few gouging runs?)

One of the Chiefs’ biggest plays against Houston last week during their historic comeback was a 21-yard scramble by Mahomes that set up a touchdown. Mahomes led the Chiefs with 54 rushing yards which, while not spectacular by modern quarterback standards, was one of the best rushing games of his career.

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Mahomes is a player without flaws. He is a great tight-window thrower. He is great at hitting targets with a ton of separation. He is great with time. He is great without time. He consistently gets rid of the ball quickly, but some of his best moments come when he’s able to buy himself a few more seconds of a clean pocket to allow his cadre of playmakers to separate (it’s probably also why his snap to throw time isn’t one of the quickest in the NFL, since those other plays bog down his average).

It will be interesting to see what the Titans prioritize defensively. More than the Chiefs’ previous opponent, they have the ability to at least hang with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, though after a few milliseconds even the best effort is futile. What aspect of Mahomes are they most comfortable allowing him to flex?

4. Could this really happen again?

I think it’s dumb to look at the Titans in the context of the entire season since they’ve gotten so much better over the course of the year. And so maybe what we’re really thinking about is a team that was good enough to win its division under different circumstances.

Football Outsiders’ weighted offensive efficiency stats are a good measure of that and put Tennessee behind only Baltimore and New Orleans this year, while its defense has sort of receded to the middle.

If you think about it that way—maybe the way opponents thought of the 2011 New York Giants after they had stumbled through the regular season and started eviscerating offensive lines in the playoffs, it doesn’t seem so weird that they could reach the Super Bowl. Only two six seeds have ever made the championship game since reformatting, and both of those teams had exceptional, in-prime players peaking at an ideal moment. How different are the Titans?

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