Coming into the season, a large group of people probably would not have predicted that the Kansas City Chiefs' game against the Tennessee Titans this Sunday in Nashville would be a critical game for Kansas City — but that's the way it has played out.
The Chiefs' 3-3 record puts them one game behind both the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders in the AFC West race — and their losses to the Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills are likely to become critical tiebreakers for postseason seeding. That adds up to Kansas City being able to afford very few losses — that is, if the team wants to enter the postseason in a favorable position.
It reminds Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the last time his team played against the Titans in the regular season. Also played in Nashville, that game ended as a bitter 35-32 Chiefs defeat during the 2019 season.
"It was kind of like this year," Mahomes recalled on Wednesday. "We kind of had our backs against the wall — had to kind of start winning games at that point... It was kind of a close division race — we wanted to win the AFC West, first off — and it's a similar situation now. We're going in there knowing that it's a tight race — [for] the whole AFC, not just the AFC West — and the Titans are coming off a big win."
While Tennessee's 34-31 win over the Buffalo Bills on Monday night will undoubtedly help fuel the 4-2 Titans on Sunday, it also helped the Chiefs in two ways: by giving the Bills a much-desired defeat — and giving Tennessee a short week to prepare for the game.
But at One Arrowhead Drive, no one thinks that will make any difference to the Titans' top offensive weapon: running back Derrick Henry, who now leads the NFL in rushes, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
"I think he presents a challenge for everybody," said Mahomes of Henry. "He's one of the best running backs — to me — of all time. I mean, the way he's able to run the football — to get 20, 30, 40 carries, whatever it is — and come back the next week and it seems like he's just as fresh as the week before? He's a special talent who works his tail off to be who he is."
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is just as impressed with the running back.
"To think that he's carried the ball as much as he [has] in year after year and putting up these numbers, it's crazy," he told reporters on Wednesday. "Are you going to hold him? No. That's not going to happen. He's going to get his yards; you just have to limit it the best you can."
Kansas City defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton said that the team's film study has shown that the key to stopping Henry is to avoid giving him room to get up to speed.
"I mean, when you watch him, as he builds up speed [is] when he really gets dangerous at that second level," said the second-year player — who has yet to face Henry. "So coming in, [we'll be] trying to stop him at the line of scrimmage and hold him there."
But lacking that, Wharton said the team would have to focus on getting him to the ground.
"We always say, 'Kill the engine,'" he noted. "He's a big guy, so you've got to take his legs out — that's how you kill the engine on him — and all 11 'hats' to the ball."
"Listen, a lot of these guys have been in the league long enough," Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said on Thursday. "They get it. They understand that this is the guy that makes it go; this has got to be the main focus: population to the football."
Spagnuolo also said that the team has focused on Tennessee's run blockers.
"One of the things I think will be really key — we talked about it yesterday — was [that] their receivers are good run blockers. For obvious reasons: they know what they've got behind them.' We've got to get off blocks before [Henry] arrives,' is what we said — because if you've got a wide receiver in between you and number 22, you've got no chance; all you're doing is reaching."
During Kansas City's 2019 defeat in Nashville — the last loss the team suffered before their Super Bowl LIV victory — Henry rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 8.2 yards a carry. But things were much different in their next meeting in the AFC championship. Henry was held to just 3.6 yards per carry — and just 69 yards total — in Kansas City's 35-24 victory.
So the Chiefs know they can not only limit Henry — but also keep him from being the centerpiece of the Tennessee offense.
"They've got a good offense," observed Reid. "They base it around [him], so they have a great play-action game that comes off of action to him. So we've got to be ready for all of that."
Reid said that one of the main challenges would be to find a way to identify those play-action snaps.
"You've got to study the tape and see if you can't come up with some kind of indicator; they do a great job of it," he said. "You've got to be able to pure read it — and then get yourself back in a position where they're not attacking them middle of the field because you're not there... you've got to be disciplined with it — and you've got to study."
And the Chiefs recognize that Sunday's game will not only be challenging — but also important.
"The Titans are obviously a really good football team — I think everybody knows that — [and] we've had some history playing against them," said Mahomes. "They beat us, and we beat them. So we know that they're going to come in and battle."
"Every game, you've got to treat it like it's 'The Game,' right?" said Reid. "That's just how it is in today's football. You lose a few games and you're playing catch-up... Every game becomes important — [and] every game should be important.
"I mean," he said with a smile, "it's hard for me to stand up here and say, 'Yeah, this one's not so important.'"