Chiefs vs. Titans: Five Things to Watch

Here are some storylines to keep in mind as the Chiefs host the Titans on Sunday

The Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) have won 20 of their last 23 regular-season games, and even though their goals are much bigger than just simply making the playoffs—which they can do with a win on Sunday—a division title, a first-round bye and home playoff game are all realistic expectations right now for a team that currently controls their own destiny in this regard. 

The fact that they're a win away from punching their ticket to the playoffs for the third time in four years under Andy Reid shouldn't be underappreciated or overlooked.

With the expectations being as high as they've been in a while around Kansas City right now, perspective is important, as it wasn't that long ago when Week 15 had little playoff meaning for the Chiefs, let alone a chance to secure a spot with two more games remaining on the schedule.

The Chiefs are currently 41-20 over the past four years in the regular season under Andy Reid. In the previous seven years combined before Reid and company arrived in 2013, the team had just 38 wins total.

The Chiefs will look for that 42nd win on Sunday under Reid, as they face a Tennessee Titans (7-6) team that has won three of their last four games, and they're led by an offense that's scored the third-most points in the league since Week 5 (28.8 ppg).

The Titans are tied with the Houston Texans (7-6) atop the AFC South division, which means Sunday's game has playoff implications for both teams.

Here are five things to watch during Sunday's game:

  1. Can the Chiefs slow the Titans rushing attack without Derrick Johnson?

It's the most obvious storyline heading into Sunday's game.

The Chiefs just lost the franchise's all-time leading tackler, Derrick Johnson, to a season-ending Achilles injury he suffered last week against the Oakland Raiders.

Johnson leads the team with 90 tackles this year, and while he'll still be around mentoring the younger players, the Chiefs have the daunting task of trying to move forward without one of the best linebackers in franchise history on Sunday as they face one of the NFL's best rushing attacks.

As a team, the Titans rank third in the NFL by averaging 144.5 yards rushing per game.

Titans running back DeMarco Murray ranks second in the league with more than 1,100 yards rushing on 250 carries with nine touchdowns. Rookie running back Derrick Henry (82 ATT, 354 YDS, 2 TDS) and quarterback Marcus Mariota (57 ATT, 348 YDS, 2 TDS) are in the mix as well.

The Dallas Cowboys are the only team in the league who runs the ball more than the Titans, so the Chiefs know they're in for a tough task on Sunday with an impressive offensive line and running game coming downhill.

"They're a real challenge," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained of Murray and the Titans rushing attack. "They do a really good job at finishing runs – what we say – coming out the back end. Maybe, hit them for three, and they end up with five.

"That's credit to them – the way they play, their talent level. It's going to be a big challenge for our defense."

Through 13 games this season, the Chiefs defense has allowed an average of 122.9 yards rushing per game, which ranks 27th in the NFL. 

They haven't publicly named Johnson's replacement heading into Sunday's game, but D.J. Alexander, Frank Zombo and Terrance Smith are all options on the roster right now.

In Johnson's absence, everyone will need to step up, but there may be more put on the plate of the other starter at inside linebacker, second-year player Ramik Wilson, who has played well since being brought up off the practice squad earlier this season.

  1. Will Alex Smith and the Chiefs passing game find chunk plays?

If the top story of the game is the Titans rushing attack, then on the flip side of the ball, it's quarterback Alex Smith and the Chiefs passing game against this Titans pass defense, which has struggled this season.  

The Titans have allowed an average of 275 yards passing to opposing quarterbacks this season, which is second most in the league. They have also allowed 55 plays of at least 20 yards this season, which is more than all but three other NFL teams.

For the Chiefs on the outside, tight end Travis Kelce looks to break a franchise record on Sunday, as he's currently tied with future Hall of Famer and former Chiefs great Tony Gonzalez, with four straight 100-yard receiving games.

Kelce could actually become the first tight end in NFL history to have five straight 100-yard receiving games.

Over the past four weeks, Kelce leads the NFL with 450 yards receiving on 28 receptions. He also has five receptions of at least 25 yards, which is tied with Washington's Jamison Crowder for the most in the league over that span. 

Alex Smith has completed 69 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and just six interceptions in his time with the Chiefs during the month of December. He has a quarterback rating of 104.4 and has won nine of the 13 games he's played in December, including a current streak of six straight.

  1. Can Tyreek Hill do it again?

Over the past three games, rookie fifth-round pick Tyreek Hill has taken two kicks back for touchdowns and caught 20 passes for 171 yards with two touchdowns in the passing game.

He won both the AFC Offensive Player of the Week as well as the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week over the past three weeks, which makes him the first rookie since Reggie Bush back in 2006 to win both of those awards in the same season. 

He has been a catalyst for the team here late in the season.

On Sunday, Hill will go up against a Titans team that has given up more miscellaneous touchdowns than any other team in the league this season with seven (three fumble returns, two interception returns, two punt returns).

The Titans punt coverage unit, which ranks 28th in the league by allowing more than 11 yards per return, has allowed two touchdown returns this season.

At some point, opposing teams might stop giving Hill opportunties.

We'll see if that's the case on Sunday.

  1. The red zone will be the difference

The Titans offense is the best in the NFL at converting trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns, finding the end zone 71.4 percent of the time.

This is something that obviously has the attention of Sutton, who spoke earlier this week about what stands out to him on film when the Titans are in the red zone.  

"They're very efficient," Sutton explained. "They don't change a lot. They run the ball, have a mobile quarterback, which causes you issues down there and they have a very good tight end, which is always a problem in the red zone. Those three things are going to allow you to be pretty good in really any area of the field because I think over the last five weeks, statistically, they're close to the top of our league in yards and points."

The tight end Sutton referred to is former University of Central Missouri standout Delanie Walker, who has 687 yards receiving with six touchdowns this year. He also leads team in targets (79) and receptions (51).

Quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has legitimate 4.4 speed at quarterback, is averaging 6.1 yards per rush and has 348 yards rushing this season, which ranks third among NFL quarterbacks.

"He can extend plays down there," Sutton added of Mariota in the red zone. "They're a big-time challenge, there's no question, playing really good football."

Defensively, the Chiefs are among the best in the league inside the red zone, allowing touchdowns just 46.7 percent of the time, which ranks fifth in the NFL. They also have a league-leading seven takeaways inside the red zone.

With the Chiefs rush defense facing a daunting task without Johnson and going up against a Titans offense that's playing well right now, the key to this game could be as simple as the Chiefs defense forcing field goals and not giving up touchdowns in the red zone.

Over the past two games against two of the league's most potent offenses, the Raiders and Falcons, the Chiefs allowed just 4 of 10 red zone trips to result in touchdowns.

They will need that kind of effort again on Sunday against the Titans. 

  1. A fast start is always ideal, but fits well for several reasons on Sunday

In his career, Reid is 108-34 when scoring first, and 137-27 when leading at halftime.

Those numbers are staggering, and outside of the obvious, there are a couple of reasons why a fast start on Sunday would be good for the Chiefs.

First, get the crowd involved

The temperature is going to be in the single digits, and there's nothing that keeps people at Arrowhead Stadium into the game and being loud like a fast start.

Also, the Titans are one of the best rushing teams in the league, and long, drawn-out drives can not only wear down a defense, but they can also wear down and silence a crowd pretty easily.

If the Chiefs can get off to a fast start, the ability of the Titans to stick to the run may not be as easy.


Second, try to make the Titans one-dimensional **

Mariota is one of the league's elite up-and-coming young quarterbacks, but he has struggled this season when he's been under pressure. Mariota is completing just 48.3 percent of his passes when he's under pressure, which ranks 26th in the league according to Pro Football Focus' premium stats.

While down and distance makes a huge difference in whether or not the Chiefs defensive players can pin their ears back and get after Mariota, the obvious passing situations don't necessarily mean the Chiefs will have an easy time getting after him.

According to PFF, the Titans have the No. 2 pass-blocking offensive line in the league.

If the Chiefs *can *get pressure, the opportunity to make the kind of game-changing plays that have come to define this team are much more possible.

While Mariota has only thrown eight interceptions this season, the Titans are 2-4 in games in which he does throw an interception. Six of his eight interceptions have come when the Titans have been trailing in the game.

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