Anyone who watched the Tennessee Titans in their first two playoff games knew how good they can be when they have the lead.
Likewise, anyone who saw the Kansas City Chiefs in their divisional round victory over the Houston Texans knew a 10-point lead was not enough. Yet that was as far ahead as the Titans got in Sunday’s AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium.
As they did a week earlier, when they rallied from a 24-point deficit, the Chiefs got rolling in the second quarter and never looked back. Tennessee’s early advantage vanished in a rush of 28 straight Kansas City points and with it went the style of play that had been so effective through the first two weeks of the postseason. Running back Derrick Henry was reduced to little more than a spectator after halftime and the Titans will have to watch Super Bowl LIV on television after their 35-24 defeat.
“Honestly, I’m kind of in shock a little bit,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “You don’t prepare yourself for this outcome. Everything in your preparation, in your mind is, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ You don’t really even think of the other side. So, when it hits, it hits hard.”"
Things could not have gone better at the start. The Titans led 17-7 after they scored on their first three possessions capped by Dennis Kelly’s one-yard touchdown reception on a tackle-eligible play with 6:39 to play in the first half. Up to that point, they had run the ball effectively (Henry had 61 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries) and had controlled the clock (they had the ball for 16:45 of the first 23:21).
Kansas City, the NFL’s best second quarter team during the regular season, responded with a pair of touchdowns in the final 4:03 of the half and went ahead to stay when quarterback Patrick Mahomes went around and through the defense on a 27-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds to go before the break.
“I felt like we got off to the start that we wanted, in all three phases,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “But, when you play teams like this – teams that are as good as the Chiefs, as explosive as they are – you kind of knew that they were going to make a run. … I felt like we still battled and competed.”
Neither team scored in the third quarter, but the Chiefs had the ball for 10:57 and outgained the Titans 107-21, which set the stage for what was to come. Two more touchdowns in the first half of the fourth quarter forced the Titans into a desperate situation and took the ball out of Henry’s hands for good. The NFL’s leading rusher during the regular season carried just three times for seven yards in the final two quarters.
When all was said and done, Kansas City outrushed Tennessee 112-85 and nearly balanced the time of possession. Tennessee’s final advantage was 20 seconds.
“I just wish we could have done things better to help us win, but they’re a great team,” Henry said. “You give them opportunities to score and they’re going to take advantage of it. They did a great job on defense.”
The Titans got to this point with playoff victories over New England and Baltimore, which had the league’s best defense and offense, respectively, following a run of seven victories in their final 10 regular season contests. Along the way, Henry established himself as one of the game’s difference-makers and Tannehill, who became the starting quarterback in Week 7, resurrected his career.
People will talk about the future and what is possible in the coming seasons. Players and coaches, though, first will have to work through the disappointment of coming so far and getting so close.
“It hurts,” Tannehill said. “You feel the pain across the locker room. You think of how far we’ve come and then to come up short of what our end goal was, it hurts. It’s sudden. It hurts. It’s going to take a while to get over.”