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Championship Sunday: Analyzing the Key Matchups in the Titans-Chiefs AFC Showdown

By: Taylor Bechtold

When Championship Sunday gets underway, the Tennessee Titans will be looking to pull off a couple of rare feats on the road against the heavily favored Kansas City Chiefs.

Not only are they trying to beat the top three seeds in the AFC in as many weeks, but only two other No. 6 seeds – the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and the ’10 Green Bay Packers – have reached the Super Bowl since the NFL changed playoff formats in 1990. Both those teams went on to win it all.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, hope to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since losing to the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV in 1969. They also have a chance to end coach Andy Reid’s run of disappointment in the postseason.

Despite leading 10 division champs into the postseason and having an overall regular-season winning percentage of .618, Reid is just 13-14 in the playoffs and has only reached the Super Bowl once – a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots following the 2004 season.

The Titans may have the momentum and the seemingly unstoppable Derrick Henry, but they’ll have to find a way to slow Kansas City’s prolific offense that put up 51 points in last week’s divisional round win over the Houston Texans.

The Chiefs have had almost the opposite approach to the Titans offensively, ranking 27th in the NFL with just 23.3 rushing attempts per game this season – including the postseason. It makes sense when you have two of the league’s best players at quarterback and tight end.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the Houston Texans, in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020.

Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes is coming off one of his best performances, completing 23 of 35 passes for 321 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions as Kansas City rallied from a 24-point deficit in a 51-31 home win over Houston. He was not sacked against the Texans and was sacked twice while going 36 of 50 for 446 yards and three scores without a pick against Tennessee in November.

The Titans face an uphill battle should they try to put pressure on Mahomes. They don’t have a very strong pass rush and Mahomes ranked third in the league with a 127.4 passer rating and had seven touchdowns without an interception when facing a blitz during the regular season.

Five-time Pro Bowler Travis Kelce was Mahomes’ primary target against the Texans, racking up 10 catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns. He also had seven receptions for 75 yards and a score in the Week 10 meeting with Tennessee, which ranks as one of the league’s worst teams when it comes to covering opposing tight ends.

Stats Perform uses various factors to measure a team’s pass coverage through its Burn Rating metric. And the Titans’ 28.11 Burn Rating versus tight ends means they’re 28 points worse than the league average. Though the Titans are typically zone-heavy defensively, much of the coverage responsibility on Kelce figures to fall on Kevin Byard. The safety has been a force for the team’s pass defense of late as he’s only been beaten three times in 33 matchups over the past four games.

Tennessee QB Ryan Tannehill has been a game manager of sorts in the postseason, completing a combined 15 of 29 passes for just 160 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. According to Stats Perform’s award-winning research team, it’s the fewest total yards thrown by a starting quarterback in consecutive playoff wins since Bob Griese of the Miami Dolphins had 107 in 1973-74.  

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs past Baltimore Ravens strong safety Chuck Clark (36) during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Baltimore.

Instead, expect the Titans to stick with what has got them here: a steady diet of Henry. The bruising running back has totaled 588 yards and four touchdowns on 96 carries over his last three games dating to a 211-yard, three-score performance in a must-win situation against the Texans in Week 17. He also led the league during the regular season in Stats Perform’s Yards After Contact with 759.

Henry had his way with the Kansas City defense in Week 10, finishing with 188 yards and two touchdowns on 23 rushes in a 35-32 home win. This time, Chris Jones figures to play a key role in the Chiefs’ plan to slow Henry if he’s able to return after missing the divisional round with a calf injury.

Jones, who is questionable for Sunday’s showdown, is one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL in Stats Perform’s Run Disruption rate at 20.68%. A run disruption is considered to be any action that causes a run play to be stopped or re-directed.

Since allowing Henry’s big game in Week 10, Kansas City has been much improved against run, ranking fifth in the league with just 95 yards allowed per game on the ground over the past six weeks – including the playoffs. The Chiefs will have to continue that effort if they hope to keep the Titans at bay.

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads