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Overconfident Chiefs and six other reasons to like the Titans chances in the AFC Championship

As usual, nobody is giving the Titans a chance to win this game. Here’s a few reasons to think they might.

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NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

All three of the Titans opponents in these playoffs have provided the team with some billboard material ahead of the game.

First, it was Kyle Van Noy talking about the Patriots “revenge tour” and Tom Brady’s now infamous “lions and hyenas” video.

Then it was Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas talking about being able to attack Derrick Henry in “different ways he hasn’t seen all year” and “having a different mindset” about tackling the Titans star back ahead of the Ravens game.

Now it’s Tyreek Hill:

“I feel like nobody in the NFL can guard any of us, and that’s no disrespect to nobody,” receiver Tyreek Hill said Wednesday. “That’s just the confidence that I got in myself and the wideouts I’ve got around me, including the tight ends and the running backs. I feel like no DB unit, no secondary unit, no linebacker, any defense can guard any of us. So man-to-man is just easy for us to beat. If you just allow us to run through zones, it’s even easier.”

Sammy Watkins:

“We have watched a lot of film and we are on the same page... I honestly think we should be perfectly fine.”

And now, Frank Clark talking about Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leader in both yards after contact and broken tackles on run plays in 2019:

“He’s not hard to hit. He’s just a big guy. 240, 245, 250, honestly he should be running harder at his weight and at his size. I don’t see no difficulty in tackling him... he’s just easy to me up front because I don’t look at any running back like they can’t be tackled. He’s not one of the best guys at breaking tackles to me honestly.”

Whether you care about trash talk or not, it’s clear that the Titans are using this as fuel for their surprising run through the AFC. Logan Ryan called out his former teammate Van Noy after the game about his “revenge tour” comments. Mike Vrabel reportedly entered the locker room yelling “they wanted the hyenas, they got the ****ing hyenas” after the win in New England.

Derrick Henry went out of his way to chirp back at Earl Thomas postgame in Baltimore as well.

There is zero doubt that these comments are getting back to Henry and his Titans teammates. Whether that truly makes a difference or not? Who knows, but this team seems to be channeling these slights into powerful performances.

The Chiefs have every right to be confident in their own ability. They earned the second seed in the AFC by going 12-4 in the regular season and they were in the AFC Championship this time last year so there is some experience factor going for them on this stage. However, there is a fine line between psyching yourself up for a big game and making the mistake of taking your opponent too lightly. Clark’s statement on Henry certainly seems to lean towards the latter.

You’d think the Chiefs might take note of Henry turning Earl Thomas into an internet meme last weekend, but it seems Clark might have missed that memo. Here are six other reasons the Titans might feel pretty good about their chances heading into this game.

1. The Titans have kind of owned the Chiefs and Andy Reid over the years.

Listen, I don’t put a lot of stock in things like this personally, but if the Titans had to hear about their history against the Colts for a decade, then the Chiefs have to hear about these streaks.

Tennessee has won the last four meetings with Kansas City, including a playoff win in Arrowhead in 2017 and the regular season win earlier this season. The Titans have also won six of their last eight meetings going back to 2007.

Andy Reid is also 1-8 against Tennessee in his head coaching career. The sole win for the veteran coach came in 2013 when his Chiefs beat the Ryan Fitzpatrick led Titans in Nashville.

While I don’t buy the idea that one team can have some sort of voodoo over another team that spans across multiple rosters and coaching staffs, I will say that the Chiefs had to answer questions about this topic all week and it is fresh in their minds whether they want to admit it or not. If things go sideways for them early, will their minds go back to their ability to overcome adversity last week or will they start to think about the boogeyman (Derrick Henry and the Titans)?

On the flip side, we know this Titans team will not be intimidated by the uniforms or the Chiefs hype coming into this game. This is a team they’ve already beaten once this year, withstanding haymakers from Patrick Mahomes for 60 minutes and still coming out on top.

2. The Titans are comfortable on the road.

Tennessee finished the regular season as one of just eleven teams with a road record above .500 and have gone on to win in New England and Baltimore in the first two rounds of the playoffs, bringing their overall road record to 7-3. The Titans have won five straight away from Nissan Stadium and have a +84 road point differential.

Additionally, there are 18 players on the Titans current active roster that got snaps in Arrowhead during the Titans road playoff win two years ago, including half of the current starters. This is an environment that most of this roster is familiar with and after road wins in hostile stadiums the last two weeks, it’s hard to imagine this team being rattled by the atmosphere.

3. Cold weather favors Tennessee’s preferred style of play.

The forecast is calling for a kickoff temperature in Kansas City of just 19 degrees. Common sense would tell you that kind of weather favors the bigger, more physical team and the numbers back that up. Research shows that extreme cold temperatures (define as below 30 degrees here) reduce completion percentage by 3.1% and yards per attempt by 0.19 in the passing game. The same study found that yards per carry increased by 0.26 yards per carry in low temps.

The Chiefs are the NFL’s most pass happy team in game situations where the score is within 7 points, choosing to put the ball in Patrick Mahomes’ hands on 65% of snaps per Sharp Football Stats. Meanwhile, the Titans ran the ball more than all but two NFL teams in the same game situation during the 2019 regular season.

Cold hands and cold footballs make gripping the ball tougher for quarterbacks and catching passes tougher for receivers. Mahomes has played three games in his young career in games that kicked off with temperatures below freezing. He’s 2-1 in those games, completing 78 of 118 attempts (66.1%) for 924 yards (7.8 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Not bad numbers, but not quite as strong as his overall career marks in most of those categories. The only game he’s played under 20 degrees was last season’s AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

In all fairness, Henry has had some struggles in cold weather in the past. He’s got three career games that were below freezing and two of them were among the worst in his career — a 28-carry, 51-yard game against Jacksonville in 2017 to clinch a playoff spot and a 12-carry, 28-yard showing against the Patriots to end that playoff run — however his first multiple touchdown game of his career came in a 9-carry, 56-yard, 2-touchdown performance in Arrowhead back in 2016 that kicked off at a temperature of 1 degree. All those games came before Henry became HENRY though.

With 1,273 yards rushing in the last 8 games — the highest total for any player in NFL history over any 8 game stretch — trying to tackle the current version of Henry in 19 degree weather is going to be like trying to catch a meat freezer that’s falling down a flight of stairs. Good luck, Frank.

4. ALL the pressure is on the Chiefs.

The Titans weren’t supposed to be here. Nobody thought they’d be here when they were 2-4. Nobody thought they’d be here when they were 4-5. Nobody thought they’d be here when they headed to Foxborough. And noooooooobody thought they’d be here when they went to Baltimore last week.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, were +600 to win the Super Bowl during the preseason, trailing just the Patriots at +400 as Vegas’ most likely teams to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Miami. They were always supposed to be here. In a sense, their entire season up to this point was little more than a prelude to the question that Chiefs fans finally want answered: can Andy Reid take this franchise to their first Super Bowl in 50 years?

Reid has been remarkably successful as a head coach. He’s been in charge of either the Eagles (1999-2012) or Chiefs (2013-Present) for 21 seasons of NFL football and has gotten his team to the playoffs in 15 of those seasons while posting a robust 207-128-1 regular season record.

However, Reid has struggled in the postseason. He’s just 13-14 in the playoffs — 3-5 since he took over the Chiefs — and has never won a Super Bowl. Reid is the winningest coach in NFL history not to have a ring and that’s due, in large part, to his failures in conference championship games. He’s a combined 1-5 in the NFL’s semifinals over the course of his career, with the latest heartbreak coming at the hands of the Patriots 364 days ago.

Boasting the reigning MVP and an uber-talented offense, this was always supposed to be the year for the Chiefs. The Titans being the opponent just puts more pressure on Kansas City to get over the hump. Their fans would have understood a road loss to Lamar Jackson and the 14-2 Ravens, but a home loss to Ryan Tannehill and the 9-7 Hyenas? That would ring alarm bells throughout the Chiefs Kingdom... and Reid and his team know it.

The Titans have no such pressure. They were buried and left for dead back in October. Even if the players don’t look at it this way, the team is playing with house money at this point. They’ve proven they belong among the top of the AFC and they’ve stirred the soul of the two tone blue faithful over the past two weeks. They have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.

Andy Reid has never been known as the best game management coach in the league... could he try to grip the wheel too tight as he feels the magnitude of this moment? Will his team be able to overcome their past playoff history?

5. You can count on Mike Vrabel and his staff to have this team prepared.

It’s hard to imagine a better playoff coaching debut than the one Mike Vrabel is having right now. In his first playoff game as a head coach, he out-maneuvered his former boss and the greatest football coach of all time, Bill Belichick. He followed that up by beating the regular season’s best team, led by a coach that ranks fourth among active head coaches in playoff wins.

Not only were the results impressive, but the way the Titans won those games reflected very well on their gameplan and preparation. The Chiefs present yet another completely distinct set of problems compared to the Patriots and Ravens, but I’m past the point of ruling out the idea that Mike Vrabel, Arthur Smith, and Dean Pees could find a solution.

The Titans will show up ready to play physical football and force the Chiefs to earn every inch on the football field in this game. The coaching staff won’t panic if Mahomes lands some early haymakers either. This team has erased multiple score deficits several times this season and they do it by remaining balanced and not allowing game script to scare them away from using Derrick Henry.

Few teams have been more battle tested than the Titans over the last couple months. Since Week 10, Tennessee has gone 7-2 while facing a schedule that featured six games against playoff teams and a combined opponent record of 91-53 (0.632). That stretch includes a 5-0 mark on the road with margins of victory of 14, 21, 21, 7, and 16. The two losses — at home against the Texans and Saints in Week 15 and Week 16 — were games that Derrick Henry was either severely limited in (Houston) or held out of altogether (New Orleans) as he dealt with a hamstring injury suffered in Week 12 (and both those games were very much in doubt during the fourth quarter).

The Titans may not end up winning this game. After all, this is an outstanding Chiefs team led by the best quarterback on the planet right now. However, I will be extremely surprised if the Titans don’t turn this into a four quarter fight for Kansas City.

6. Team of... destiny?

Alright... let’s get weird.

  • The Super Bowl is going to be played in Miami and Ryan Tannehill returning to play for a championship with another team while the Dolphins are still paying most of his salary is just too storybook not to play out, right?
  • The Super Bowl will be played on February 2nd, 2020... 2/2... 22... Derrick Henry was meant to play in this game.
  • The Titans had gone 8-8 for three straight years heading into the 1999 season and finished just one yard short of potentially winning a Super Bowl. Exactly 20 years later, they had gone 9-7 for three straight years heading into 2019. Could they get that extra yard this time?
  • Mike Vrabel’s first year in New England was 2001. It was Bill Belichick’s second season as head coach, the Patriots started the season 3-4, had a midseason quarterback change... and went on to go win the Super Bowl. Sounds pretty familiar.

It would be silly to guarantee a Titans victory today. There are so many little things in football that can swing a game one way or another in a heartbeat, especially when there are two good teams on the field. However, I will say that the Titans have some reasons to feel confident and so do their fans. Besides, as Tom Brady’s hype video said, “it’s too late to be scared.”