Tennessee Titans (11-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
Like the NFC Championship between the 49ers and the Packers, the AFC Championship is also a rematch of a regular season game, with the Titans and Chiefs meeting in Tennessee back in week 10. Few expected the Titans to win that game, as they were 6-point home underdogs, and even fewer expected that the Titans would go on to meet the Chiefs in a rematch in the AFC Championship. Even after their surprise win over the Chiefs, the Titans sat at just 5-5 and needed to win 4 of their next 6 games to qualify for the post-season as the 6th seed at 9-7. Overall, a Titans team that started the season 2-4 has won 9 of past 12 games, including huge upsets over the Patriots and the Ravens in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The offense has led the way for the Titans, as their defense has actually fallen from a 30.93% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season, 4th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 36.90% first down rate allowed over the past 12 games, 3rd worst among playoff qualifiers, primarily due to injury absences by players like linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (4 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (9 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (9 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). On offense, the Titans have gone from a 32.69% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, 26th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 41.44% first down rate in the past 12 games, 2nd among playoff qualifiers over that stretch.
The turnaround coinciding with quarterback Marcus Mariota being benched for Ryan Tannehill is obvious, but running back Derrick Henry of course deserves a lot of credit as well. Tannehill’s play hasn’t been quite as good in the post-season thus far and it’s reasonable to expect that Tannehill, who led the league with a 117.5 QB rating in his 8th season in the league after previously maxing out with a 93.5 QB rating in 2016, will continue to fall back to earth a little bit going forward, but the way Henry is running right now is making up for it. Henry might not be quite as good going forward due solely to regression to the mean, but defenses are tired at this point in the season and Henry, who is very physical and tough to tackle, is taking advantage of it for the second season in a row.
The Chiefs have also had a strong second half of the season, in fact not losing once in the 7 games since their week 10 loss in Tennessee. That loss was quarterback Pat Mahomes’ first game back from missing two and a half games with a knee injury and, even if he might not have been 100%, he was far from the reason for their loss, as the Chiefs had a 39.74% first down rate, but a 46.94% first down rate allowed. On the season, the Chiefs have a 43.41% first down rate with Mahomes on the field, including a 63.16% first down rate against the Texans last week that was the highest in the NFL for any team in a game this season. The Chiefs scored 51 despite converting just 2 third downs all game, which is just ridiculous.
Last week’s strong performance, which came after a week off for Mahomes and company, was part of a larger trend for the Chiefs offense, who rank first among playoff qualifiers with a 44.57% first down rate since their week 12 bye. Dealing with a variety of injuries, Mahomes hasn’t been at 100% even when on the field for most of the season, but he’s still become a more efficient quarterback in terms of ball security this season compared to his MVP season last year and he is arguably playing the best football of his career right now, looking very healthy after the Chiefs’ first round bye. He also has all of his weapons healthy around him, which hasn’t been the case for most of the season.
The Chiefs’ defense struggled in the first matchup, but that was an exception to the recent trend for their defense, which has allowed a 33.29% first down rate since week 7, 3rd among playoff qualifiers. That’s a massive shift for a team that allowed a league worst 42.20% first down rate last season and a 29th ranked 40.91% first down rate through the first 6 games of this season. Outside of the Tennessee game, the Chiefs defense has played consistently strong defense for several months.
The Titans could have a good offense performance again this week in Kansas City though. They have a lot of offensive firepower and I don’t fully trust that the Chiefs defense has suddenly become a consistently strong unit. That’s especially true with the Chiefs defense not at full strength, missing safety Juan Thornhill and possibly defensive tackle Chris Jones. However, as good as those two players are, the Chiefs’ defense still performed well in their first game without them last week, allowing the Texans to move the chains at just a 33.33% first down rate, after finishing the regular season 8th with a 38.35% first down rate, so I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have as much offensive success in this matchup as they did in the first matchup even if Jones doesn’t play.
Speaking of Jones, he’s one of a few key players that are uncertain to play in this game, along with Titans linebacker Jayon Brown and Titans right tackle Jack Conklin. The uncertainty of that trio makes this game tough to pick, with the Chiefs currently favored by 7.5 points at home. Brown missed the first matchup and if he plays, their defense will be healthier than it’s been since their strong start to the season, which would go a long way towards their chances of slowing down Mahomes and company and keeping this game within a touchdown, but if Conklin were to miss this game it would be a huge blow to a Titans offensive line that has very healthy this season. Jones, meanwhile, is arguably the Chiefs’ best defensive player and has been a huge part of the Chiefs’ late season defensive turnaround. I’m tentatively taking the Chiefs, but for a no confidence pick. I’ll likely have an update when inactives are released and may actually end up betting on either side depending on injuries and line movement.
Final Update: Conklin, Brown, and Jones are all active, though Jones could be very limited after barely practicing over the past couple weeks. This line has fallen to 7, perhaps due to Jones’ injury uncertainty, so I still like the Chiefs for a no confidence pick even if Jones might not be 100%.
Kansas City Chiefs 31 Tennessee Titans 23
Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7