Jan. 17, 2020
Divergent Paths: 2019 AFC Championship Game Preview
With a place in history on the line, two teams took two radically different journeys to get here.
When the Tennessee Titans visit the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, it will be a clash of two diametrically different franchises in nearly every single way. But in some regards, they are keenly similar.
For the Chiefs, it is no surprise they find themselves on this stage once again. After losing a heartbreaker to the New England Patriots one year ago in the same venue, Arrowhead Stadium, they return to the proverbial scene of the crime to correct an injustice that was perpetrated on Chiefs Kingdom. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes continued his brilliant play from his MVP season last year, but lost two games due to a kneecap dislocation. But even with their shooting star convalescing, their offensive weapons took center stage. Statistically, they may not jump off the page, but no one questions the talent and skill of such Chief luminaries as TE Travis Kelce, WR's Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, and RB's Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy. But despite the marquee value of the offense, the big questions entering 2019 surrounded the defense. Ending 2018, the D was 24th in the league in points allowed, 31st in yards surrendered, and the Achilles heel that snuffed out the Chiefs Super Bowl aspirations. In 2019, the defense has improved to 7th in points & 17th in yardage. With all the offensive star power and a rebuilt defense, Kansas City would post a 12-4 record, win the AFC West, and earn the 2 seed in the junior conference. And in their divisional playoff game last week, the Chiefs looked to be in dire straits after the Houston Texans scored three touchdowns virtually at will. But after a field goal to make the Chiefs deficit 24, Mahomes and the offense would take ten minutes in game time to recover, putting up the fourth biggest postseason comeback in NFL history. After taking the lead by the end of the first half, KC would continue to pour it on to ultimately defeat the Texans by 20. Your humble scribe cannot imagine anyone who does not think the Chiefs are ready for this game, at this moment.
The Titans, however, are about the last team anyone was anticipating to be playing for a Super Bowl berth, especially how the season started. Entering Week 6, the Titans were 2-3, trying to stay alive in the AFC South race, and playing a struggling Denver Broncos team. Tennessee would be humiliated 16-0, with the offense gaining all of 204 total yards while committing 3 turnovers. Head coach Mike Vrabel had seen enough. He opted to change quarterbacks, putting the starter Marcus Mariota on the bench and giving the ball to veteran backup Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill would lead the Titans to six wins in seven games to set up a Week 15 showdown against the Houston Texans essentially for the division crown. The Texans would be victorious on that day, but Tennessee would win the Week 17 rematch to pick up a wild card berth, landing the 6 seed, often the hardest path to the Lamar Hunt Trophy. The Titans would play the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, a very difficult place to play in January. But the Titans, fueled by running back Derrick Henry, would stun the football world by being the first team in a decade to beat the Patriots at home in the playoffs. Next up was the AFC's top team in the Baltimore Ravens, led by consensus NFL MVP pick in QB Lamar Jackson and their record setting run offense. The offensive player who made the headlines was Henry, whose 195 yards on 30 carries set the tone on that night in the Charmed City, as the Titans looked the part of a conference power and the Ravens played like the fringe postseason entrant as Tennessee dropped Baltimore 28-12 to play in their first AFC Championship Game since 2002.
For those who believe the Volunteer State brigade doesn't stand a chance against the Chiefs, keep in mind that as Henry has been on a historic tear through this postseason, the Chiefs surrendered 4.9 yards per carry on run defense. Plus, the Titans were not supposed to be here. As a result, they're playing with everything to win and nothing to lose. Because of the strengths each team possesses, they could dovetail one another and make this game an instant classic. But regardless of who wins, one of them will reach the Super Bowl for the first time in the 21st century. It's just a matter of who can play best on that big national television stage.