NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Chiefs on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
Here's a look at six things to watch in the contest:
Can the Titans jump on running back Derrick Henry's back once again? Henry has averaged an NFL-high 23.7 carries per game with 107.9 rushing yards per game this season, and he's posted four-straight 100-yard games, including a 219-yard performance last week in Houston. The calendar has flipped since then, and it's Henry's favorite time of the year – he's averaging 151.2 rush yards per game on the road in November or later since 2019, which is over 55 more yards per game than the next closest player. In five career games vs the Chiefs, Henry has 603 scrimmage yards (120.6 per game) with six career rushing touchdowns. The Titans need to get Henry cranked up again on Sunday night, but it won't be easy – this year's Chiefs defense is allowing the third-fewest rush yards per game (92.0) in the NFL, and just 4.15 yards per carry (7th in NFL).
I'm prepared to keep diving back in to edit this category leading up to the game, because there's nothing certain about the Titans QB situation at the moment. This much we know: Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed Sunday's game at Houston, and he was limited in Friday's practice after missing practice on Thursday with the right ankle injury. The Titans listed Tannehill as questionable on Friday's Injury Report, and head coach Mike Vrabel indicated he'd be a game-time decision. Tannehill traveled with the team to Kansas City. Back-up quarterback Malik Willis, meanwhile, has gotten more reps and is preparing to make his second career start. Willis played well enough for the Titans to win in Houston, but if he ends up being the guy this Sunday, chances are he's going to have to do more. Time will tell how this category plays out leading up to game day. On Saturday, the Titans made QB Logan Woodside a gameday elevation so he's now in a position to be in uniform. Check back here to see if there's an updated "QB Situation."
Contain Patrick Mahomes
There's no mystery surrounding Kansas City's QB spot, although the Chiefs do have a magician of sorts in Patrick Mahomes. The ridiculously talented Mahomes throws it deep, he throws is on the run, and he throws it sidearm with all kinds of crazy angles. Heck, Mahomes has already thrown for 2,159 yards and 20 touchdowns this year for the NFL's highest scoring team. Mahomes can also tuck it and run, something a lot of Titans found out at the end of the first half of the AFC Championship Game a year ago. The Titans are going to need to contain him, and keep him in check, which won't be easy because of receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman, and the recently acquired Kadarius Toney, along with a tight end I'm devoting an entire section to next. Looking at the past, there is at least hope – Mahomes is 0-2 vs the Titans in the regular season (1-0 in the playoffs), and in Week 7 of 2021 the Chiefs scored the fewest points by a Mahomes-led team in a 27-3 loss. Mahomes had a passer rating of just 62.3 on that day, as the Chiefs were 0-3 in the red zone and 4-11 on third down. The Titans would gladly take those numbers again, but that's easier said than done.
The Travis Kelce Problem
At 6-5, 250 pounds, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is a unique weapon. He's a big target who can run, and he can catch the ball in traffic. He's a real threat in the red zone, where he goes up and gets the football with the best of them. Kelce leads the NFL with seven TD receptions, and as mentioned previously, he's especially good near the end zone – 6 of his 7 touchdown receptions have been caught inside the 10-yard line in 2022. Kelce needs just three more receiving touchdowns of fewer than 10 yards to tie Bubba Franks (Packers, 2001) for the most by a tight end in an entire season in NFL history. On the season, Kelce has 47 catches for 553 yards, with the seven scores. A year ago, the Titans matched safety Dane Cruikshank on Kelce, and he helped limit his effectiveness in the game (7 catches, 65 yards, no TDs) at Nissan Stadium. So, how will the Titans defend Kelce on Sunday night? It'll be worth watching.
Overall Defense – Hold the Chiefs to FGs
I'm not expecting the Titans to get into a shootout with the Chiefs. Heck, the Titans haven't scored more than 24 points in a game this season. Through seven games, the Chiefs have scored 223 points, compared to just 132 for the Titans. So, how can the Titans win it? Well, they're going to need to run the ball well, avoid making mistakes, and they're going to need to play bend-but-don't break defense. I mentioned how important it will be to keep Mahomes in check. Well, the Titans are going to need to stop the run to put some extra stress on him. If Kansas City's backs have success on early downs, and put the Chiefs in short down-and-distance situations, well, Mahomes will make the Titans pay. The Titans need to generate some pressure on Mahomes in longer down-and-distance situations – Mahomes has just a 73.8 passer rating when he's been under pressure this season. Perhaps the biggest key: Holding the Chiefs to field goals in the red zone.
Against the Odds?
The Titans are decided underdogs heading into Sunday night's game. If you're wondering about the point spread, well, it's double-digits. These playoff percentages with a win, or loss, remain interesting to me, so I'm rolling it out yet again. A win on Sunday would improve Tennessee's record to 6-2, and since 1990, teams with a 6-2 mark after eight games have made the playoffs 82.1% of the time, they've won their division 54.5% of the time, and they've won the Super Bowl 9.0% of the time. Meanwhile, teams that have started 5-3 have made the playoffs 63.7% of the time, they've won their division 30.2% of the time, and they've won the Super Bowl just 1.7% of the time. The Titans, well, you can bet your bottom dollar they're just worried about finding a way to win this week.