Those that were hoping for chaos in the AFC Wild Card race were probably wearing blue and red, and they got what they wanted, but so did the fans of the Tennessee Titans. Facing a “win and get in” proposition, the Titans topped the Jacksonville Jaguars and avoided a rematch the following week because the Baltimore Ravens lost and the Buffalo Bills won. With that, the Titans hit the road to take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium as the NFL playoffs get underway with the first of four games set for this weekend. The Chiefs are favored by a touchdown with extra juice at some books and by 7.5 at others for Saturday afternoon’s postseason opener.
The Titans wrapped up a 9-7 season and had a similar record ATS, depending on your closing number when Baltimore came in the backdoor on November 5. For many, that game was graded as a loss, which would make Tennessee 8-8 ATS. Some pushed, so the Titans were 8-7-1 for those folks. The Titans have been kind to bettors down the stretch with five covers in the last six games. The Chiefs seem to be back. Even with the first-stringers mostly on the sidelines, Kansas City knocked off Denver in Week 17 to win and cover for the fourth straight game. The Chiefs are 10-6 straight up and ATS going into the postseason. After a 5-0 start, finishing strong was a must for a team that fell to 6-6 on December 3.
Even though Tennessee went 9-7 and Kansas City went 10-6, there is more than a one-game disparity between the teams statistically. Tennessee managed 5.2 yards per play and allowed 5.0 yards per play. Kansas City had 6.1 yards per play and allowed 5.6 yards per play. The Titans were outscored by 22 points and the Chiefs were 76 points on the plus side.
The Titans don’t have a very impressive resume on offense. They haven’t topped 400 yards since Week 10 and have only topped 350 yards once since then. Tennessee’s unimaginative play calling with head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie has been a hindrance this season and for quarterback Marcus Mariota overall. Mariota wrapped up the regular season with a 13/15 TD/INT ratio and a 62 percent completion rate. He missed one start due to injury and Matt Cassel had a 1/2 TD/INT ratio, so Tennessee enters the playoffs as the only team with a negative TD/INT ratio and as one of just three teams in the NFL with that statistic. The running game wasn’t even great for the Titans with 4.1 yards per carry, which ranked tied for 14th. The status of DeMarco Murray is still up in the air for this week, but Murray only had 3.6 yards per carry to the 4.2 yards per carry that “backup” Derrick Henry amassed. Henry only had eight fewer carries than Murray and was the more effective back, so the injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Titans do have a nice edge in this game with tight end Delanie Walker and some slower coverage linebackers for the Chiefs. Walker led the Titans with 74 grabs on 111 targets. He had 807 yards. Tennessee only had 14 passing touchdowns and Walker only caught three of them.
The Titans defense is pretty tough to evaluate. The zone-blitzing scheme of Dick LeBeau is mostly an antique in today’s NFL that emphasizes man-to-man coverage and speed from sideline to sideline. However, when all was said and done for the regular season, the Titans ranked tied for sixth in yards per play allowed. Tennessee only allowed 3.6 yards per carry, which ranked fourth, and nobody allowed fewer than the five touchdowns that the Titans allowed on the ground. Tennessee also made big strides against the pass and ranked in the middle of the pack in adjusted net yards per pass attempt. The development of rookie Adoree’ Jackson and second-year free safety Kevin Byard was the best storyline for the Titans this season. One of the most important stats for the Titans was that they ranked eighth in third-down conversion rate against, so they were able to keep the defense off the field as much as possible and keep it from being exposed. Will that be a luxury afforded to them in the Wild Card Weekend?
Good teams never panic. When the Kansas City Chiefs went from 5-0 to 6-6 on December 3, nobody panicked and things eventually got back on track. This Chiefs team is riding high with four straight wins and covers and those struggles in the middle of the season are long forgotten. Teams that avoid beating themselves can have a lot of success. That is the Chiefs. They only turned the football over 11 times this season and wound up +15 in turnover margin. The Chiefs scored at least 26 points in each of their last five games. Alex Smith finished the regular season with a 67.5 percent completion rate and a 26/5 TD/INT ratio. Kareem Hunt won the rushing title with 1,327 yards. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce proved to be matchup nightmares. Kelce is really going to test Kevin Byard and the Hill vs. Jackson matchup should be isolated by a picture-in-picture camera. Those are your big storylines going into this game. Can the two best players on the Titans defense hold up against a very efficient offense?
Because the Chiefs defense has a hard time holding up against anybody. Kansas City’s defense allowed 5.6 yards per play this season. That is easily the worst mark of any playoff team. Carolina allowed 5.3 yards per play to rank 19th and New Orleans allowed 5.4 yards per play to rank 23rd. The Chiefs ranked 27th. A lack of team speed certainly doesn’t help and the loss of Eric Berry was a big blow emotionally and physically. Finding safety and linebacker help to keep Delanie Walker under wraps will be the primary job for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton this week. The Chiefs were tied for 23rd in yards per carry against, so stopping the run will also be a point of emphasis, especially against a Tennessee team that wants to run the rock and keep the ball away from Alex Smith.
Free NFL Pick: Kansas City Chiefs -7
For being a run-first team, Tennessee’s inconsistency running the football has been maddening. The Titans have games with 198, 195, 180, 179, and 168 yards. They are 5-0 in those games and 6-0 when they get over 100 yards on the ground. Unfortunately, in 10 games, they failed to do that. In seven of their eight road games, for whatever reason, the Titans failed to cross the century mark. Marcus Mariota won’t get short fields here against a disciplined Chiefs offense and that will make his job very hard. The under also makes some sense here with a Chiefs team that ranked 29th in red zone efficiency against a Titans defense that ranked 10th.