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Sport Chief reasons why Tennessee or Kansas City will win AFC title game

14:10  17 january  2020
14:10  17 january  2020 Source:   yardbarker.com

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Yardbarker NFL writers Michael Tunison and Chris Mueller address some of the hottest issues in the league. This week's topic: Who has the edge in the AFC Championship Game?

Tunison: Having dispatched No. 3 seed and defending AFC champ New England and No. 1 seed Baltimore on the road, the Titans are enjoying the kind of momentum that suggests they're going to upset the Chiefs in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game. All the narrative hooks are there: sixth-seeded Tennessee spectacularly ending the recent drought of wild-card teams making the Super Bowl by beating the top three seeds in the conference and Titans QB Ryan Tannehill returning to South Florida to flout his status as a dismissed washout with the Dolphins. 

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And why not?  What's one more road win at this point, no less against a Chiefs franchise that is known for choking in these situations, with a head coach in Andy Reid who has always let the big one elude him?

One big reason why not is that the third-seeded Chiefs showed remarkable resilience in their divisional-round win against the Texans. Much lesser teams would have folded facing the early 24-0 deficit that Kansas City did. The Chiefs' offense found a way to start clicking and then went into overdrive, churning out 51 points in three quarters. Tennessee's defense is better than Houston's, so I wouldn't try to repeat that feat on consecutive weekends. But the Chiefs should feel confident that they won't go into panic mode if things don't go their way immediately out of the gate.

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The Titans won the regular-season meeting between these teams, a 35-32 shootout in Tennessee capped by a Tannehill winning touchdown pass in the final 30 seconds. Despite that loss, the Chiefs can feel encouraged that the rematch of a close result is in Arrowhead this time around and that Patrick Mahomes had a stellar outing against Tennessee (36-for-50 for 446 yards and three touchdowns) in what was his first game returning from a back injury, when he was still not quite at full strength. 

If Mahomes can have similar success, it will force the Titans to go away from Derrick Henry, who was a problem for the Chiefs' poor run defense in Week 10 (188 yards, 23 carries) and will be Sunday. Mahomes could force Tannehill into something more than Trent Dilfer mode -- you remember the caretaker QB of the 2000 Ravens, right?

No sixth seed has played in a conference title game since the 2010 Packers, who defeated the Bears to win the NFC and went on to beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl. It's a hard, hard road. Historical note: Four other sixth seeds besides Green Bay have played in the conference championship game: the 2005 Steelers, who went on to win Super Bowl, and 2008 Ravens, 2008 Eagles and 2010 Jets, all of whom lost in the conference title game.

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a group of baseball players standing on top of a grass covered field: Titans rookie receiver A.J. Brown and head coach Mike Vrabel. © Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports Titans rookie receiver A.J. Brown and head coach Mike Vrabel.

Mueller: I love this matchup for the Titans, and while the comparisons to Giants-49ers games in the 1980s feel a little lazy (running game, defense vs. Joe Montana-led aerial attack), that makes them no less true. Tennessee wants to hold onto the ball, dominate physically, and do enough defensively to occasionally stop Mahomes, or at least hold the Chiefs to field goals. I think the Titans can do that, and I think they’re going to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. It isn’t just Henry’s brilliance, either.

Tennessee’s defense is much better than Houston’s; the Texans are putrid on that side of the ball, ranking 25th in net yards per pass attempt allowed and 27th in yards per carry allowed. (Tennessee is 19th and seventh, respectively.) The Titans should be able to make the Chiefs one-dimensional. Now Mahomes and that passing attack are a pretty great dimension, but they’re not the completely unstoppable juggernaut they appeared to be against Houston.

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Trailing 24-0 and then outscoring the opposition 51-7 the rest of the way is a completely aberrant way to win. It won’t work against the Titans. A steady dose of Henry -- who has rushed for at least 182 yards in his past three games -- would kill clock and Kansas City’s spirit. What’s more, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel won't panic, throw away the lead, and butcher every conceivable scenario if his team grabs a big early lead. That’s the other, less-discussed story of the Chiefs’ win over Houston. 

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien delivered it to them on a silver platter. His fake punt, while gutsy, was greedy in the moment, and if he really wanted to go for the first down in that setting, he should have put the ball in Deshaun Watson's hands. That came on the heels of a field goal attempt on fourth and short deep in K.C. territory that, while successful, came under fire for being too conservative. 

O’Brien isn’t a good coach, and he proved it against the Chiefs. His team got a big lead, then he coached desperate and scared, and his team reflected that. Vrabel, on the other hand, seems like a man relishing Tennessee’s moment, and he's pushing all the right buttons to help it along. 

If the Titans weren’t cowed by going on the road to face the defending champions, or the No. 1 seed -- a team with an offense very different but equally as dynamic as Kansas City’s -- why would this game make them jittery? Oh, and the Pats and Ravens boasted the league’s best and fourth-best defenses in terms of yards allowed. New England was tops in scoring defense, and Baltimore was third. Kansas City might be seventh in points allowed, but it was just 17th in yards allowed. 

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Mark my words: The Titans will move the ball, and move it well. 

a group of people watching a football ball on a field: Titans QB Ryan Tannehill has not attempted more than 20 passes in a game in a month. © Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports Titans QB Ryan Tannehill has not attempted more than 20 passes in a game in a month.

Tunison: No doubt that Kansas City can't afford to fall behind 24-0 to Tennessee, and I don't believe that's liable to happen. In the divisional round, you can write off that kind of first quarter as bye- week rustiness. Tannehill has had a fine season, but he hasn't been called on to do much in the postseason. 

It's paramount for the Chiefs to get a lead early, so the best way to press the issue is to load up against the run early and force Tennessee's quarterback, who has thrown for a combined 160 yards in two postseason wins, to produce. Including a Week 17 win over Houston, Tannehill hasn't thrown more than 20 passes in a game in a month.

You might argue that K.C. aiming to put the ball in the hands of highest-rated quarterback in the league sounds foolish, yet the Titans were just 1-2 this season in games in which Tannehill attempted more than 30 passes. Selling out against the run is a risk, and possibly leaves the Chiefs open to screens, so they'll have to be disciplined. But Kansas CIty simply can't allow Henry to dictate the pace.

Tennessee is certainly up to the moment, but I have to imagine the Chiefs focusing on this game for the last year will have them ready to storm to an early lead.

Vrabel's coolness will be an asset, but it's one thing to bully a Patriots team that was aware of its wavering state and a Baltimore team that fell in love with the out-of-nowhere nature of this season's success. The Chiefs have had a full year to fixate on clearing this next hurdle. Kansas City may very well come up short again, but I can't see the Titans dominating the Chiefs as they did the Patriots and Ravens.

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a baseball player holding a bat: Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu  © Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu

Mueller: I’m glad you brought up Tannehill. He and Henry were force multipliers for each other. The Titans’ record isn’t good when Tannehill has to fill the air with footballs, but the reason that he was so good all season was because he was accurate enough (70.3 % completion percentage) to keep defenses honest and can run (185 yards rushing, 4 TDs) to extend and make plays.

Tannehill led the NFL in yards per attempt (9.6), a yard better than second-place Matthew Stafford of the Lions, and nearly a yard and a half better than Mahomes. It’s easy to put up big numbers without attempting many passes when you’re always completing them. 

Kansas City’s pass defense is a strength, and safety Tyrann Mathieu is a wild card, but I get the sense that Tannehill is going to be a major factor in this game, and a positive one. Nothing he did during the regular season seemed fluky. He was third in the league in intended air yards, per NFL Next Gen Stats, behind Stafford and Jameis Winston of the Bucs. The Titans weren’t a catch-and-run outfit; Tannehill was taking chunks of yardage, and often. 

The New England game was always going to be a slugfest, and the matchup with Baltimore was always going to be a physical battle, where an early lead could result in a game of keep-away. Kansas City is a different animal, and while Vrabel & Co. would doubtless love to grab an early lead and sit on it, my expectation is that the Titans must score a lot to win. Their quarterback, who, like his team is playing with house money, will rise to the occasion.

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