It will have been 364 days since the loss in the 2018-19 AFC championship by the time the 2019-20 AFC championship kicks off.
Kansas City Chiefs fans, players, coaches and anyone with ties to the organization have been waiting for the chance to get back to this point and finish the job. Before last year’s failures, those same individuals had to wait 25 years for another opportunity. Now, all that stands in the way of the Chiefs’ first-ever AFC title is the red hot Tennessee Titans. The No. 6 seed hasn’t reached a Super Bowl in nine seasons.
In what should be an entertaining contest, I have five things to watch:
1. Jumping out to an early lead
The Chiefs easily overcame a 24-0 second-quarter deficit in their Divisional round victory over the Houston Texans, but they cannot afford to get off to a slow start this week against the Titans.
Tennessee’s offense is far more equipped to maintain that lead than the Texans were. Their highly-effective rushing attack is led by NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry — who is coming in as hot as any running back has ever been in league history. In their last three games, Henry is averaging 206 total yards on 33 touches a game. The biggest reason why he has been able to reach those totals is the amount of time the Titans had the lead the past three weeks: Out of the 180 minutes of game-time, the Titans only trailed for 23:09.
If the Chiefs can score on early offensive possessions, the Titans rushing attack will become insignificant, and the offense could become one-dimensional. This allows the pass rushers to worry about getting after Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He has been efficient playing off of the Henry’s running, but he has been susceptible to sacks this season when game scripts dictate that they have to throw. 31% of pressures on Tannehill result in sacks — the highest rate among the league’s starters.
We’ve seen this team get off to a fast start against the Titans before. The Chiefs scored on their first two possessions in the first matchup — but sloppy play prevented them from taking advantage of the hot start. Watch to see if they ride this momentum they seem to have right out of the gates. The significance of an early lead cannot be undersold.
2. Limiting Tennessee’s success on play-action
If the Chiefs are not able to get to a quick lead, the Titans run game will be very prevalent and difficult to stop. Still, the most significant result of the run game won’t be counted by rushing yards.
The Titans offense has succeeded with Tannehill’s effectiveness using play action. In their Divisional round win, Tannehill completed 5 of 5 on play action passing plays with 67 yards and a 46-yard bomb to extend the lead in the second quarter. He had the highest yards-per-attempt rate and the highest passer rating among NFL starting quarterbacks in play action situations since Week 10. Week 10 was their win over the Chiefs — and it may have been Tannehill’s coming out party.
His heroic comeback was sparked by Henry’s effect on the ground. Tannehill utilized play action to the tune of 13.5 yards per attempt and a perfect passer rating. On the second-to-last Titans touchdown drive that got them within a field goal, the drive consisted of nine runs and two throwing attempts. Both attempts were off of play-action.
Look to see how effective the Titans pass game is out of play-action. If the Chiefs defense can cover well in those scenarios, Henry’s performance becomes less impactful.
3. Continuing the impressive pass protection
With so many exciting things happening on the Chiefs offense in their explosive Divisional round win, a performance that flew under-the-radar came from the five big men up front.
The Chiefs offensive line was very sound in their protection of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The gunslinger was only hit twice and sacked once — which aided him in his obliteration of the Texans’ defense. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz rendered Houston defensive end J.J. Watt ineffective while the interior of the line sealed the front of the pocket well. It may be a tougher challenge in the AFC championship.
The Titans pass rush is strong overall — but it starts on the interior. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey had six pressures and two sacks against the Ravens last week. He is paired with the explosive first-round rookie Jeffery Simmons and veteran DaQuan Jones — who had four pressures in the Divisional round. Edge rusher Harold Landry had the second-most pressures of his season against Baltimore with six — including a sack.
The Chiefs protected Mahomes well in the Week 10 game. They only allowed eight total pressures with starting left tackle Eric Fisher still yet to return at that point. With the offensive line at full health, there’s reason to believe the Chiefs pass protection can continue to be good.
4. Avoiding crucial mistakes
The Chiefs’ string of success towards the end of 2019 has masked the incredible amount of costly turnovers and dumb mistakes this team made throughout this season. We finally saw it pop up again at the beginning of the Divisional round game.
The dropped passes, the special teams miscues, a blocked kick. The Texans game had these all — and so did the Week 10 game against Tennessee. It was such an important part of the game that it inspired me to write an article detailing the failure of executing the little things.
It was the main reason they lost then — and it was the reason they were down 24-0 to an inferior opponent last week. The Chiefs must eliminate dropped passes on offense in a game where each possession will be important. That also goes for fumbles: the Chiefs cannot afford to kill momentum on a potential scoring drive with a turnover. In Week 10, a Damien Williams fumble was returned for a touchdown and gave the Titans a 14-10 first half lead. The Chiefs looked to be on their way to making it 17-7 on that possession.
If the Chiefs are able to win the turnover battle, it’s safe to assume they’ll win the game as well.
5. A strong individual receiving performance
This Chiefs team has seemingly rotated who has the best day out of the group each week all year. Last game, it was tight end Travis Kelce with three touchdowns. In Week 10 against the Titans, it was wide receiver Tyreek Hill that had eleven catches and 157 yards. With the offense needing to be at its peak for this game, a big individual day from one of the receivers should be expected.
The Titans have struggled to defend elite receiving weapons. The last time they saw one was in Week 16 against the New Orleans Saints. Wide receiver Michael Thomas finished with 136 yards on 12 catches and a score. The week before, Tennessee allowed Texans’ Deandre Hopkins to rack up 119 yards on six receptions. The back half of their schedule did not feature many elite passing offenses — but they lost in the two matchups where they faced one after the Chiefs.
The Chiefs offense has two elite receivers — and an elite quarterback throwing them the ball. Watch to see which individual matchup the Chiefs take advantage of through the air. Hill and Kelce are strong candidates — but don’t count out a big day from a receiver like Sammy Watkins or Mecole Hardman.