There’s an old sports betting axiom that ‘no team is as good as they look at their best or as bad as they look at their worst’. The underlying meaning is that a handicapper shouldn’t overreact to impressive performances nor should they prematurely dismiss a team based on a single bad performance. This entire concept is a valid one but that makes the AFC Championship game between the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs all the more difficult to assess.
The reason? Both teams are coming off equally impressive performances, though for different reasons. The Titans have completely upset the power hierarchy in the AFC playoffs by upsetting the #3 seeded New England Patriots 20-13 as +6.5 point underdogs at Gillette Stadium in the wild card game. As impressive as that was, it was nothing compared to their 28-12 road beatdown of the AFC #1 seed and presumptive Super Bowl favorite Baltimore Ravens. The Titans entered the game as a +10 point underdog but completely dominated play and the outcome was never in doubt. Tennessee led 14-6 at the half and would build that lead to 28-6 before the Ravens scored a meaningless touchdown to conclude the game.
The Kansas City Chiefs advanced to the AFC Championship game with a 51-31 bludgeoning of the Houston Texans but that only tells part of the story. The Chiefs fell behind 24-0 early in the second quarter before their offense unleashed unholy vengeance on Houston by scoring four touchdowns in ten minutes and taking a 28-24 lead into the locker room. Ultimately, the Chiefs would reel off six unanswered touchdowns and from the point they trailed 24-0 they outscored Houston 51-7 the rest of the way.
The kneejerk reaction is that the Chiefs will likely be ‘too much’ for the Titans and that could very well be the case. The Titans can’t fall behind for one thing. Tennessee is on a 15-1 SU run when tied or leading at halftime under head coach Mike Vrabel including 9-1 this season. They need to have a lead and with that they can keep the clock running. Tennessee has the best running back in the NFL in Derrick Henry, the human battering ram that rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns in Tennessee’s Week 10 home victory over KC. Henry has rushed for over 1200 yards in his last eight games but to be most effective the Titans need to play from the lead.
Tennessee’s defense is down from last year’s squad and that’s definitely a concern against the Chiefs. Even the best defenses are challenged by KC’s Patrick Maholmes who has thrown for over 9000 yards in the past two seasons with 76 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions. If there were any questions about his poise and ability to hang tough when things aren’t going well they were answered and then some last week. Anyone who watched last week’s KC onslaught understands the risk of backing the Titans here–Tennessee has the offensive personnel to beat the Chiefs but do they have enough of a defense to keep Maholmes off the field?
Doubtful. No disrespect to the Titans’ defense but that side of the ball is a ‘work in progress’ for Tennessee. They’re young up front and lack depth in the secondary. Mike Vrabel is a better play caller than Bill O’Brien by default but not sure that he’s good enough for the challenge he faces here. One big edge for Kansas City is somewhat ‘under the radar’–they’ve got one of the best place kickers in the league in Harrison Butker. The Titans’ kicking game has been a grease fire for most of the season. Current kicker Greg Joseph is PK #4 for Tennessee this year and he’s yet to attempt a FG in the postseason. As impressive as Tennessee has been and as tempting as it is to take the points we just can’t trust them to stop the Chiefs’ offensive juggernaut.