Titans' Last Playoff Game at Kansas City A Coming Attraction
NASHVILLE – The last time Kevin Byard traveled to Kansas City for a playoff contest, he felt as if he was starring in a movie.
No, not one of the great underdog epics like Rudy or Rocky. Not a tale a perseverance such as The Natural. It wasn’t even the emotional pull of camaraderie as told in Brian’s Song or Varsity Blues that flashed through his mind on Jan. 5, 2018.
“I just remember getting off the plane and it was snowing when we got there,” the Tennessee Titans safety said. “It looked like The Day After Tomorrow or something like that when we got there. It was snowing hard. There was ice all on the steps getting off the plane. I was just thinking, like, ‘I can’t believe we’re about to play a game tomorrow.’
“… That was the coldest game I’ve ever been a part of in my life. Ever.”
It may have seemed like an end-of-the-world saga, but in a real way the Titans’ 22-21 wild card victory was a fresh start for a franchise that two years later has come in from the proverbial cold with its current playoff run. Following victories at New England and Baltimore, they are in the AFC Championship for the first time since the 2002 season and are headed back to Kansas City, this time with a spot in Super Bowl LIV at stake.
That triumph two years ago was Tennessee’s first in the postseason in 14 years and it foreshadowed running back Derrick Henry as a terror at this time of year. Henry, then in his second season, rushed for a then-career-high 156 yards and scored a fourth-quarter touchdown on a 35-yard run.
It also made the Titans the third team in NFL history to win a playoff game on the road after having trailed by 18 points or more. In their case, they were down 21-3 more than halfway through the third quarter before quarterback Marcus Mariota started the comeback with a six-yard touchdown pass to himself. Mariota caught a pass that was inadvertently batted back toward him by Chiefs cornerback Darrell Revis and ran it in for the touchdown, which made him the first ever to throw a touchdown pass to himself a playoff game. Mariota eventually connected with Eric Decker for the game-winning touchdown (pictured) with 6:06 to play.
“That’s our team,” wide receiver Corey Davis, a rookie in 2017, said. “We’re resilient. We’re relentless. You know, you’re never out of it. We understand that playing ball in January, little things matter. It’s always like that, but it’s heightened ever more so now.
“We’ve got some dogs in this locker room and we’re ready for this game.”
Only 23 players on the current Tennessee roster remain from the team that ended Kansas City’s season two years ago, Mariota is now the backup to Ryan Tannehill and Mike Mularkey is no longer the coach (he was fired two weeks later). Yet the current group, under second-year head coach Mike Vrabel, stuck together this season after a 2-4 start and won seven of its final 10 to reach the postseason.
The Titans unleashed Henry in earnest beginning with the final week of the regular season, when he rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns in a wild-card-clinching victory at Houston. Since, he ran for 182 yards and one touchdown at New England and 195 yards (plus he threw a touchdown pass) at Baltimore, which made him the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 180 yards in three straight games. Those last two combined with his last appearance at Arrowhead Stadium make him only player to rush for at least 150 yards in a playoff game the last three years – and he has done it three times.
“Every year is different,” offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said. “Every game is different. That team was very different from our current team. I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the last two weeks, for sure. Certainly, there are guys here who have played in Arrowhead so they’re familiar with the stadium.
“But this is a different team. So, we expect a different experience.”
The Chiefs are different, too, with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. Alex Smith was the starter two years ago.
If nothing else, the weather will be similar. Two years ago, the temperature at kickoff (3:35 p.m. local time) was 33 degrees with a 10 mile-per-hour wind that made it feel like 25 degrees. It only got colder as much of the contest was played after sunset.
Sunday’s forecast for Kansas City calls for a high of 22 degrees with the temperature starting to fall shortly after the 2:05 p.m. (CST) kickoff. Rain and/or snow is possible but is not expected to move into the area until after the completion of the contest.
“I’m expecting it to be cold, man, but at the end of the day, it’s the AFC Championship game,” Byard said. “I ain’t worried about the cold. I’m worried about Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes and those guys.”